Monday, May 31, 2010

The Briliant Tamim Iqbal

Tamim Iqbal had his name engraved on the Honours Board at Lords yesterday, following a fearless display of batting, which saw him notch-up his third test match century. After Bangladesh were forced to follow on, Tamim displayed the class of a good test match batsman in keeping his wicket intact until the luncheon interval, before cutting loose in the second session with strokes of astounding audacity.

Balls off a good length or longer were thrillingly driven and anything short was pulled, mostly in front of square, with disdain. Tamim’s one-legged pull shots were in Michael Atherton’s words, reminiscent of Gordon Greenidge, of whose intrepid batting style, I have heard enough about, if not witnessed, to recognise the high praise in the former English captain’s remarks. Not to be left behind, the drives on the offside were also executed in a distinctly stylish manner. Tamim has a tendency to stand tall and punch the ball through the covers as opposed to leaning into his drives, which may not be textbook perfect, but are certainly eye-catching.

After having seen off the seamers with unwavering ease, Tamim met England’s spinner, Greame Swann, with particular derision. Swann’s first over after lunch featured two slog sweeps, hit against the turn, over the midwicket boundary for a six each and a fierce cover drive for four. Medium pacer, Tim Bresnan, who had come under the cosh from Tamim in the first innings, when the latter had compiled a fine half-century, was once again the victim of a brutal assault. The 35th over of the Bangladeshi innings, bowled by Bresnan, saw Tamim go from 87 to 101 in the space of the first four deliveries. Drives to the cover and mid-off boundaries were followed by a couple to midwicket and a bold stroke over mid-on that brought up his century off only 94 balls, the fastest at Lords since Mohammad Azharuddin blazed to an 87 ball ton in 1990.

The celebration upon reaching the century wasn’t bad either. A signal to the dressing room, indicating that his name will be up on the Honours Board, may have smacked of arrogance for some, but it clearly showed the young man’s delight at reaching the landmark. Bangladesh haven’t yet done enough to suggest that they deserve the test status that was bestowed upon them a decade ago, but they do possess a group of talented youngsters, led by the enterprising Tamim Iqbal, who could well, be on their way to stardom.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

World Cup 2010: A few first thoughts

1. Who are the seven players that should miss out on Fabio Capello’s final England squad? I’d leave out Stephen Warnock, Mathew Upson, Tom Huddlestone (unless Gareth Barry fails to prove his fitness), Scott Parker, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Adam Johnson and Emile Heskey.

2. Michael Essien’s troublesome knee has caused him to be ruled out of Ghana’s squad. Such a pity, for with Essien, I thought Ghana were near certainties to make it through to the knockout round.

3. Diego Maradona has picked only a single player capable of playing at full-back, Gabriel Heinze, in his Argentina squad. It’s simply unfathomable, how Javier Zanetti, who has been exceptional for Internazionale in their treble winning campaign, could have been overlooked.

4. Spain, in the eyes of most, are favourites for the World Cup. I would however pick Brazil as the team most likely to lift the trophy. The squad may lack some of the celebrated flair of the great Brazilian teams of days gone by, but Dunga’s set-up is as fluid as it is solid.

5. The Netherlands, as always possess a formidable attacking force and if Robben, Sneijder and van Persie are in their elements, they are capable of beating the best. But, devoid of a sufficiently strong backline, the Dutch are likely to be found wanting at the latter stages of the tournament.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Murray outlives sublime Gasquet

Andy Murray came back from two sets to love down to overcome Richard Gasquet in the first round of the French Open yesterday. No doubt, Murray as is the norm in such triumphs, showcased incredible pluck and stamina in conjuring a remarkable comeback, but the manner of Gasquet’s capitulation was chiefly a product of the Frenchman’s steadily deteriorating fitness.

A captivating first two sets saw Gasquet outdo Murray with strokes executed with a rare combination of power and style, with the finesse on his backhand, particularly impressive. His single-handed backhand is so powerfully hit that it is almost embarrassing to call the shot pretty, but the splendour with which the shot is performed, certainly makes it one of the grandest sights in men’s tennis. His knack of producing prodigious top spin coupled with his ability to hit flatly and accurately on the up, make his backhand his strong-suit, a rarity in the modern game. This though should not take anything away from an effective, if not entirely imposing forehand, a serve on which he is capable of pairing power with precision and the dexterousness of his volleying.

After breaking Murray’s serve at 4-5 to take the first set, Gasquet carried his exquisite stroke-making to the second set, although signs of fatigue slowly began to emerge. With neither player managing to break the other’s serve, the second set was settled in favour of the Frenchman only by way of a narrow tie-breaker. Although seemingly exhausted, at the end of the second set, Gasquet was able to break Murray’s serve and take a 3-2 lead, in the third set, only to see the Scot fight back with typical resolve. In moving Gasquet to different corners of the court, Murray showcased all his spirit and nous, taking the third set 6-4, at which point as ludicrous as it may sound, the Scot already seemed destined to triumph.

Possessing an almost innate understanding of the geometry of a tennis court and with Gasquet visibly fatigued, Murray invented strokes of remarkable angular precision. Shattered, Gasquet was reduced to hitting in hope, a strategy which Murray thwarted by continuing to move Gasquet to all parts of the court. Several astute lobs and drop-shots later, Murray wrapped up the final two sets with relative ease; 6-2 and 6-1.

Murray’s defensively modelled game though, while ultimately proving successful may well have brought about his downfall, had Gasquet not fatigued. As he advances through the rounds, Murray may not come across players as sublimely skilful as Gasquet, but they are likely to be fitter and tougher competitors. Murray certainly seems to own an ability to win a grand slam tournament, but he needs to find a way to make shorter work of the early rounds, if he is to have a chance of achieving the final goal.

For Gasquet, a failure to win a contest which he should have bagged with ease will be painful. But having endured an ultimately overturned drug ban, the talented Frenchman can take a lot of positives from the clay court season. A tournament victory in the ATP Tour after a gap of three years, achieved at Nice barely two days before the start of the French Open and a hard fought loss, in which for large parts he outshone Murray are sure to stand him in good stead in the days to come. A shift in focus to the grass courts, a surface not so demanding on his fragile body and more suited to his style of play is also certain to help. Tennis needs its stylists and one can only hope that Gasquet can endure the roughness of the tour and challenge for the top honours, which his game richly deserves.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Britain's New Government and the Spirit of Democracy

I have blogged for the first time on an issue outside the world of sport. In order to ensure that this blog remains unaffected, the post is contained here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Fulham and Hodgson's Run

In the end the story didn’t unfold in the manner in which the English media would have hoped it did, as Roy Hodgson’s Fulham FC crashed out in the finals of the Europa League. But it must be said that the journey has been wonderful; as romantic as any in recent memory. For a club whose most memorable achievement in their 131 year old history was an appearance in the finals of the 1975 F.A. Cup, which they lost to West Ham United, reaching the finals of the Europa League signifies an outstanding accomplishment.

Participating in a European competition, let alone reaching the finals of one, albeit a second tier competition wouldn’t have been in the wildest dreams of Fulham’s fans, even as Mohamad Al-Fayed took control of the club in 1997. But, the passage has mostly been filled with joy as the club secured promotion to the First Division in 1999 and then to the Premier League in 2001. Having endured a couple of tumultuous campaigns in the Premier League, struggling to stay up, including the first season under Hodgson in 2007-08, when the club survived only thanks to a final day victory against Portsmouth, Fulham have now attained greater stability.

Hodgson’s mantra in moulding his team is outwardly quite simplistic. By getting his team to adhere to a system that incorporates two flat banks of four behind a front two and by ensuring that they maintain their shape and are aware of their defensive responsibilities, the sexagenarian has made Fulham a very difficult side to beat. But the most heartening element in Hodgson’s management is his ability to rejuvenate players who were believed to be past their best.

While, Damien Duff has produced some of his best form since his days as a Blackburn Rovers player, Danny Murphy, who had struggled to recapture his old form at both Charlton Athletic and Tottenham Hotspur since being discarded hurriedly by Liverpool, has kept Fulham ticking with his metronomic and at times ingenious distribution. Bobby Zamora, always considered a talent, although one never seemed to know why, has been excellent at the top, holding up the ball with panache and scoring some eye-catching goals that would have found him a place in England’s World Cup squad if not for his troublesome Achilles tendon.

Fulham’s run though has had its pitfalls. The rigours of modern day football mean that unless a club possesses a deep squad, it is almost impossible to sustain a challenge in both the domestic league as well as in Europe as both this season’s finalists have found out. While, Fulham has finished the campaign in 12th position in the Premier League, Atletico Madrid, Fulham’s conquerors in the finals, are incapable of finishing any higher than ninth in the Spanish La Liga. This means that in spite of Fulham’s magnificent run in Europe, they will not be participating in a continental competition next season. A pity some may say, but such is the nature of today’s football.

Fulham will have to deepen their squad without compromising on the quality of the players, if they are to qualify for Europe next season and sustain their success in the years to come. Al-Fayed may put some of the money that he has received from the recent sale of Harrods into his football club, but retaining Roy Hodgson who is certain to have suitors from across Europe and probably even an offer to coach England's national team at the end of this summer’s World Cup, holds the key to Fulham nourishing their recent success.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Of Chelsea and the rest of the top ten: A review of the 2009-10 Barclays Premier League season

The 2009-10 season of the Barclays Premier League has come to an end and Chelsea have wrapped up the title thrillingly, with a swashbuckling 8-0 victory, against Wigan at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the season. Here are my thoughts about the performance of teams that finished in the top half of the table this season, starting with the Champions.

Chelsea: Roman Abramovich’s mandate to Carlo Ancelotti, when hiring the Italian, was to deliver success with style. Chelsea have had their share of ups and downs this season, but this title, the third under Abramovich’s ownership has inarguably been the most exhilarating. Scoring a remarkable 103 goals in a 38 goal campaign, Chelsea have shattered all records, netting 7 goals in a game three times, apart from the final day extravaganza. A loss to Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale in the round of 16 of the Champions League would have been hurtful, but in reigning the Championship back from Manchester United, after a gap of three seasons, Mourinho’s time at Chelsea may well be consigned to the shadows.

Player of the season: Frank Lampard: Scoring an impressive 32 goals in all competitions, Lampard was irrepressible as ever throughout the campaign.

Manchester United: Finishing only a point behind Chelsea, Manchester United would feel that they have only narrowly missed out on a record fourth title in a row, which would have also seen them skip past Liverpool with 19 league championships, especially considering that they went into the campaign bereft of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. But, in the end, United were perhaps undone by an overdependence on Wayne Rooney and the failure of Dimitar Berbatov to live up to his lofty price tag. Sir Alex Ferguson says that “how you view the season depends on whether you focus on the low moments or look at the positives. It is the old conundrum as to whether you see the glass as half empty or half full”. Much of which way the content of the glass is heading though will depend on whether United can add some lustre to the squad in the summer.

Player of the season: Wayne Rooney: The departure of Ronaldo saw Rooney take centre-stage, singlehandedly carrying United through the season.

Arsenal: Another season of disappointments for Arsenal who promised much and typically failed to deliver. At their best, Arsenal are a breathtaking sight to behold, but for all their goalkeeping mishaps, a failure to sign a centre-forward in January is what cost Arsenal the most. Well aware of Robin van Persie’s injury, Eduardo’s lack of form and the profligacy of Nicklas Bentdner, Arsenal should have at the very least endeavoured to sign a centre-forward in January, but Wenger’s obstinacy meant that his team soldiered on with they had. With both Chelsea and United struggling for consistency, Arsenal may consider this a wasted opportunity, but another season in the Champions League achieved with little outlay of funds should be viewed as a success for Arsenal. With Marouane Chamakh set to arrive from Bordeaux, if they retain Fabregas and van Persie and sign a goalkeeper and add a bit of steel to their squad, Arsenal will certainly remain amongst the title-contenders next season.

Player of the season: Thomas Vermaelen: Signed from Ajax in the summer, Vermaelen has added reliability at the back for Arsenal and has even managed to score the odd sublime goal.

Tottenham Hotspur: Having inherited a team rooted to the bottom of the table after 8 games last season, Harry Redknapp has masterminded a remarkable transformation that has seen Spurs break the cartel of the big four. Characteristically shrewd in the transfer market, Redknapp has fortified Tottenham’s flair with dependability. Back to back victories over Arsenal and Chelsea towards the back end of the season and the triumph over Manchester City in the penultimate game of the campaign that helped Spurs’ clinch fourth spot exemplified their newfound commitment to defensive solidity without compromising on their attacking panache. Still devoid of potency in certain areas of the pitch, Spurs will have to strengthen in the summer to ensure a respectable performance in Europe.

Player of the season: Heurelho Gomes: Although he continues to remain slightly suspect in the air, Gomes pulled off some astounding saves to help Tottenham claim fourth spot.

Manchester City: Missing out on fourth spot, may cost Arab fuelled Manchester City some marquee summer signings, but the riches that are in store, are certain to attract enough top-quality players to take them at the least into the Champions League next season. Roberto Mancini has had only a few months at the helm, but even in his short stint, City have improved at the back. Majority of their problems over the course of the season has been in defense, where the likes of Kolo Toure, Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott and Wayne Bridge have not exactly basked themselves in glory. But, barring Tevez’s goals, the glittering form of Adam Johnson and the occasionally brilliant escapades of Craig Bellamy, City have also been lacking in attacking firepower, an aspect which they are certain to correct over the summer.

Player of the season: Carlos Tevez: A superb first season at City has seen Tevez notch up 29 goals, a fair few of them vastly significant. Tevez though seems unhappy under Mancini, an issue which definitely requires to be addressed.

Aston Villa: Aston Villa may have looked good as an outside bet for the fourth spot, but in the end, a second sixth place finish in consecutive seasons is in keeping with the squad that Villa possess. The Villains don’t play the most aesthetically pleasing football, but in remaining solid at the back and in maintaining good shape, they ensured that they aren’t the easiest to beat, barring a horrendous hammering suffered against Chelsea. There has been a lot of speculation surrounding O’Neill’s future, with the focus primarily on how much money owner Randy Lerner is willing to expend this summer, with the latter keen on first realising returns for the investments made thus far. Retaining James Milner, who has been a revelation this season is going to have its own complications, but O’Neill would need to infuse a bit of creative spark in his team, if he is to keep them in contention for European spots.

Player of the season: James Milner: Richard Dunne, who has been excellent at the back for Villa, may be one of the signings of the season, but Milner has been the real star. Scoring and creating goals from the middle of midfield and converting penalties with poise, Milner has come on by leaps and bounds this season.

Liverpool: The underachievers of the season, Liverpool who finished runners-up last season were many people’s pick for champions. With off-the-field problems intensifying by the minute, Liverpool have been driven into the abyss, both due to the poor decision making of Rafael Benitez as well as the abysmal control exercised by the American owners. Failing to qualify for the Champions League could prove devastating, with the club certain to receive huge bids for Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, a prospect which could prove highly appealing to the owners. The loss of the influential Xabi Alonso last summer has proved especially costly for the club, with his replacement Alberto Aquilani perennially weighed down by injuries. A revamp of gargantuan proportions is required at the club, starting right from the owners to the playing staff, if they are to be back amongst the Champions League candidates next season.

Player of the season: A catastrophic campaign may have even seen Liverpool miss out on a Europa League spot, if not for the form of Pepe Reina, whose goalkeeping has been immaculate throughout the season.

Everton: The season didn’t start on the right note for Everton who were plagued by injuries and it looked like they may well be condemned to the lower realms of the league. But buoyed by the goal scoring exploits of Louis Saha and the creative influence of Steven Pienaar, Everton ensured a top half finish, ending up a mere two points behind Liverpool at the end of the campaign. As always, David Moyes will have precious little to spend in the summer, but as he has shown in the past, he is exceptional at securing players on the bargain and getting the best out of a limited squad.

Player of the season: Steven Pienaar: With Mikel Arteta out injured for most of the campaign, Pienaar stepped up brilliantly to the plate, conjuring up some magical moments, including a delightful finish against Arsenal.

Birmingham City: Reckoned by many to be certainties for the drop, a ninth place finish is an outstanding accomplishment. Much of Birmingham’s success this season has been built upon a solid backline aided by the safe hands of Joe Hart, signed astutely on loan from Manchester City. Lee Bowyer’s resurgence as a player has been another sign of encouragement to come out of St. Andrews, with the form of Sebastian Larsson, Barry Ferguson and Cameron Jerome, equally impressive. With new owners at the helm, Alex McLeish would certainly have the funds to replenish his squad, with the focus on signing a striker, a goalkeeper to replace Hart, who is likely to return to Man City, as well as a creative midfielder, likely to be on the top of the Scotsman's mind.

Player of the season: Richard Johnson: Johnson has been a rock at the back for City, leading the line faultlessly and remaining commanding both in the air and on the tackle.

Blackburn Rovers: Sam Allardyce has his critics, but he has a knack of getting the best out of a limited bunch of players, as he showed time and again during his time at Bolton Wanderers. Struggling in the early parts of the season, Rovers fought their way out of trouble in a robust manner, typical of Allardyce’s sides. The heady days of challenging for the title are gone, with surviving in the league, Blackburn’s priority, a task, which was comfortably achieved with plenty of games to spare.

Player of the season: Steven N'Zonzi: Signed from Amiens in the summer, N'Zonzi has enjoyed an excellent first season at the club, showcasing tremendous verve and skill in anchoring the midfield.