Sunday, December 21, 2008

Weekend Reflections: Brilliant AB and More


1. Yesterday, South Africa completed a fantastic run chase (the second highest in history) courtesy superb contributions from almost all their batsmen. The most impressive performance of the lot though was from AB de Villiers who displayed great tenacity and focus to finish the job for the Proteas. The knock was a sort of a ‘coming of age’ innings from de Villiers who has been regarded as one for the future ever since his entry into South African cricket. As someone who was exceptionally talented in a wide variety of sports including golf, rugby and tennis, it must be said that South African cricket is the better for his decision to pursue cricket. Over the last year or so, de Villiers has moulded himself into a compact test batsman by curbing his swashbuckling natural game and by improving his powers of concentration. Each of his previous three centuries has resulted in fantastic victories for the Proteas. If his 217 at Ahmadabad against India demonstrated his supreme audacity and resilience, his 174 against England at Headingley displayed his fabulous patience and grit. At the WACA Ground though, de Villiers showed all of that and the crucially important desire to stay in the middle till the end.

2. The last few days of cricket has also seen Rahul Dravid return to form with a well constructed century against England. In the ongoing second test at Mohali, Dravid was back to his impregnable best, batting for hours together without ever looking vulnerable. India have for a long time depended on Dravid’s excellence in its own endeavour to succeed, but over the last few games it has been Dravid who has depended on the Indian cricket team to cement his own place in the eleven. Had India not won at Madras, one could have been rest assured that Dravid would have been left out of the eleven for the second test. Very often we are quick to castigate the selectors for their poor decisions, this though is an occasion where the selection committee and the team management need to be applauded for retaining faith in one of India’s greatest ever batsmen.


1. The Real Madrid versus Valencia clash on Saturday night was as open a football contest as one can hope to see. That the final score was only one nil in favour of the defending champions was more to do with the appalling finishing from both sides rather than the nature of the game. It is at times such as these that I fear for the future of English football which is becoming more and more defensive by the day. West Bromwich Albion who play some engaging attacking football are in danger of going down merely because unlike fellow relegation battlers they do not possess a couple of stoppers in the middle of midfield. I continue to stress that English football will lose its sheen if its clubs fail to modify their approach to the game.

2. Is Robbie Keane’s Liverpool future secure after his goal against Arsenal yesterday? I am not so sure. I found Keane’s signing somewhat strange at the time, especially considering the 20 million pounds that Benitez paid for him. Every time a club signs a new player, you tend to look at how the player is going to fit into the tactical system adopted by the club. With Benitez never comfortable playing Steven Gerrard in a conventional central midfield role, Keane was never going to be a certainty in the starting line-up unless an injury forced out one of Torres or Gerrard as the case was against Arsenal. Liverpool could have corrected most of their flaws by signing a quality right winger in the summer in the place of Robbie Keane who for all his intelligence as a footballer is likely to be a failure in the long run.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Of Transformations

Heurelho Gomes transformed from ‘Hapless Gomes’ to ‘Heroic Gomes’ at White Hart Lane on Saturday as he made a few breathtaking saves to keep Manchester United from scoring. It was a strangely steady performance from the Brazilian goalkeeper who parried all shots directed at him away from danger and even managed to catch most aerial crosses directed at him. Some goalkeepers, always seem to get the best out of themselves when they are playing against the top teams and Man United have had a few bogey goalkeepers of their own to contend with. Brad Friedel seems to reserve his best for the Reds, much like Jussi Jääskeläinen does against Arsenal. Jääskeläinen’s superb form against the Gunners has even prompted the press on numerous instances to speculate on a move to the North London club for the Finnish number one. I sometimes wonder on these occasions if certain goalkeepers are members of some sinister society which forces them to perform against the likes of Man United. If so, Huerelho Gomes who has been dismal for most of this season is certainly its chief campaigner.
Arsene Wenger’s achievements are quite extraordinary when you consider the transformation of Arsenal F.C. from the days of ‘Boring Boring Arsenal’ to the present day when the Gunners’ fans let go ironic cheers of ‘Boring Boring Arsenal’ once Arsenal have thumped a few past their miserable opponents. To contextualise my statements, I am currently reading Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’, in which for the most part he discusses the dreary old days when watching Arsenal play was not too much better than attending a memorial service. Wenger’s revolution can probably be best appreciated only by the fans who have gone through the agony and frustration of watching the tedious Gunners of the past and hoping from the sidelines that the final score will read an almost emblematic ‘one nil to the Arsenal’. Of course, some of Wenger’s decisions over the last few years have been questionable to say the very least, but Arsenal fans need to be grateful to him and the team built by him for producing a brand of flowing attacking football which they could have hardly dreamt of, even during the glory days under George Graham.
Blackburn Rovers are a team that are in desperate need of a transformation if they are to have any chance of surviving this season. In spite of having lost David Bentley to Spurs before the start of the season, one wouldn’t have expected Rovers to struggle this badly. Paul Ince has had a shockingly poor start to his top flight managerial career and I don’t expect to see him at the helm beyond this week. The impression that managers are hired and sacked for fun in the BPL may be legitimate to an extent, but a manager who loses six games in a row surely cannot expect any favours from the board. Relegation battles invariably come down to the transformations that teams can make post Christmas. Pompey had Harry Redknapp’s wheeling and dealing to thank for their survival three seasons back. Blackburn will need a recovery of similar proportions if they are to have any chance of playing Manchester United or Liverpool in the league next season.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Upcoming Tests

The next week or so will see the commencement of three test series’, all of them likely to be equally fascinating, albeit for different reasons. Whilst Australia take on South Africa at home in what can be termed as a top of the table clash, New Zealand entertain the West Indies in a quest to discover whether they can top their fellow Islanders when it comes to mediocrity stakes. India on the other hand will be looking to live up to their recently acclaimed top billings at the expense of a courageous yet am sure terrified England.

Before getting into cricketing details, I must mention that England’s decision to tour India in this time of turmoil is indeed commendable. I am not sure the Aussies, the Kiwis or the South Africans would have even so much as ventured anywhere near Asia, let alone the Indian subcontinent. It’s difficult from where we are to judge the state of affairs from the perspective of touring nations and I don’t think anyone could have faulted England had they refused to tour. Agreed, like Steve Waugh said, this might be the best time to tour the subcontinent considering the heightened security, but the families of the English players having watched the events of the past couple of weeks unfold on their television sets will hardly be brimming with confidence at the prospect of the players touring India. Considering the circumstances, especially the more recent threats to Indian airports, the decision of the England cricket team to go ahead with the tour is extremely admirable. I for one loved the picture of Kevin Pieterson showing the thumbs up sign with a huge smile on his face from the team bus after the squad arrived in Madras.

The terror cloud apart, the tour is still not going to be an easy one for the Three Lions, who having been beaten convincingly in the ODI series find the odds stacked up against them. Their test team though possesses a better balance and a more positive look about it. In spite of being trumped by the Proteas at home, I continue to believe that England possess a solid test team who could well give a decent fight to the Aussies for the Ashes next summer.  But playing in India is a different story all together. Having said that, if the wicket in Madras is anything like it was when the South Africans toured earlier this year, England could well head to Mohali or wherever the second test is held, with the honours still even. India for their part would be hoping that the curators at the M.A. Chidambram Stadium can conjure up a pitch that will have something in it for the bowlers right from day one. If the pitch standards are up to the mark, we might well have a fascinating contest on our hands.

Down under, world number one Australia take on world number two South Africa in what should hopefully be an enthralling series. The victory over the Kiwis by itself wouldn’t have done much to improve the confidence of the Aussies, who are still surely reeling from their loss to India. South Africa who have traditionally never done well in Australia will see this as their best chance of putting up a good challenge and perhaps even getting the better of the Australians. Although the Proteas have done fabulously in spite of Jacques Kallis’ poor form, they will be hoping that their ace all-rounder can restore normal service come December 17. In my opinion Kallis needs to perform with the bat if South Africa are to have any chance of success in the upcoming series. Both the teams possess a fair bit of bowling depth, but the series could well come down to Dale Steyn versus Brett Lee. These two are crucial to the chances of their respective teams and if one of them fails the other’s team could well taste sweet success.   

I am not going to go on in length about the other contest down under in which the disgraced Black Caps take on a beleaguered West Indies. The two of them will be fighting a relegation battle of sorts and it’s very important for the Kiwis who have slipped below the Windies in the ICC test rankings to ensure that they win at home. With a lot of players having retired in the recent past, New Zealand wear a typically insecure look and will be banking on the performance of their captain Daniel Vettori who in many ways looks to be waging a lone battle. Although the Black Caps look good to edge this series, the teams’ mediocrity could well ensure an absorbing contest.

Call me a traditionalist if you please, but I am certainly hoping that watching men attired in white clothing playing cricket in its purest form would add some of the gloss that the game has lost in this day and age of T-20.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Notes from the Big Leagues

Barclays Premier League: Howard Webb, who is supposedly England’s best referee, was terrible at the Manchester derby on Sunday. Of course, it is difficult to say that the referee was entirely wrong in brandishing Ronaldo a second yellow for what was deemed to be a deliberate hand ball. But that episode aside, the card happy referee branded needless yellow cards to Rafael Da Silva and Patrice Evra. Rafael who is all of 18 years of age was given a card for throwing the ball a few feet into the air in an effort to return it to the rightful place from where the free kick was to be taken. Evra who was booked for a tame tackle on Wright Philips which hardly befitted the whistle, let alone the card misses the game against Spurs as a result of the same. I think referees much like players and managers should be accountable for their decisions and I don’t see any reason why they cannot give a post match interview explaining their decisions on the field of play.

Spanish La Liga: Barcelona are playing a brand of fantasy football a la the great Madrid team that comprised of Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo. Unlike that Real team though, Barcelona are very strong at the back. They have a whopping goal difference of 31 from a mere 13 games and are without doubt the best team to watch in Europe at the moment. To compliment the attacking brilliance of Henry, Messi, Eto’o, Bojan, Xavi and Iniesta, Barcelona possess some solid centre backs in the form of Puyol, Marquez and Pique. I cannot imagine anyone in Spain catching up with the Catalan giants this season.

Italian Serie A: The land of strategic brilliance when it comes to football continues to churn out some of the best tactics. I recently read about and watched the most bizarre tactical ploy that has ever been deployed for an attacking free kick, courtesy the superb column that Gabrielle Marcotti writes for the Times. Catania midfielder, Gianvito Plasmati, who was stationed behind the wall, succeeded in distracting the opposition goalkeeper by dropping his shorts just as the free kick was being taken. Of course there were several observations made about the spirit of the game being damaged and so on and so forth, but that does not take away anything from what was a truly outlandish tactical ploy. (