Sunday, July 25, 2010

Of Disputed Catches and Technology

Pakistan secured its first test-match victory in fifteen years against Australia by crawling home on the fourth day at Headingly. Beginning the day, needing 40 runs with seven wickets in hand, it converted a routine chase into an agonising one that required tail-ender Umar Gul to hit the winning runs – caused by a combination of poor shot-making by the batsmen, good catching by the Australian fielders, and fine bowling, perhaps for the first time in the series, by Australia’s front-line seamers.

A narrow victory however, could have well turned into defeat had Kamral Akmal been given out with five runs still required, when an attempt at gully by Michael Hussey was adjudged to have been grassed, by the third umpire. Referring catches to the third umpire, I believe, has been one of the greatest malaises of technology; catches held low to the ground never look conclusive on television and invariably the benefit of doubt goes to the batsman. In this instance, Hussey looked to have had his palms underneath the ball, yet as T.V. replays indicated a hint of doubt, Akmal was pronounced not-out.

Unquestionably, technology has been excellent for cricket – its seminal role in adjudicating run-outs, has been path-breaking to say the least. And it may well have a greater role to play in the future in helping settle a variety of contentious calls. With the increasing prominence of hawk-eye and hot-spot, the Umpire Decision Review System, currently being used with the consent of the competing teams, could soon become a norm.

However, it is important that the I.C.C., delineates clearly where and when technology ought to be used. The aspect of referring catches to the third umpire has been a prickly issue ever since the Indian tour of Australia in 2007-08 (more renowned for the spat between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds) – when in spite of a supposed agreement between the captains, Ricky Ponting and Anil Kumble, to go by the word of the fielder, the Indian batsmen stood their ground to dispute such catches. Whether the Australians were claiming catches that were in reality grounded was made harder to tell by T.V. replays which made them look even more dubious. As past cricketers will endorse, often catches when the fielder would have had his palms definitely underneath the ball are made to look suspicious by slow-motion replays.

In 2006, following an incident in Antigua – when M.S. Dhoni, ultimately walked off for a catch claimed at the boundary by Darren Ganga after replays were inconclusive as to whether Ganga had made contact with the boundary rope – the I.C.C. clarified that the benefit of doubt in such instances must go to the fielder. Yet, the aspect concerning to whom the benefit must be accorded when doubts arise as regards the grounding of a catch remains unclear. It is imperative that the ICC clarifies this matter, with immediate effect, by declaring that the benefit of doubt, with respect to catches disputed on the grounds of it having been grassed, be titled in favour of the fielder. Additionally, greater freedom must also be afforded to the on-field umpires who are often in a better position to judge the grounding of a catch, for technology rarely seems to provide a definitive answer.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Germany's victory exemplifies the relevance of Sacchi's methods

I have had a lot of time to dwell over Germany’s emphatic victory against Argentina and yet my amazement at the beauty of their defensive showing fails to cease. Of course they notched up four goals for the third time in the tournament and were highly enterprising going forward, but all of that was built on the bedrock of a marvellous defensive performance.

In adopting a method of zonal-marking in its most conventional form, not only did Germany’s organisation prove hugely effective, it also served as wonderful vindication of the timelessness of Ariggo Sacchi’s tactical advancements.

In the epilogue to his comprehensive and insightful book on the evolution of football tactics, Jonathan Wilson quotes Sacchi as worrying about the lack of a significant tactical development since the ones that he had masterminded during his time at AC Milan in the 1980s. The correctness of the analysis may be debatable, especially considering the increasing importance of players that look to operate between the bands of midfield and defence as previously understood, but the relevance of Sacchi's tactical thinking to modern day football is unquestionable.

Although several teams had trialled a system incorporating an element of zonal marking, the tactic found its perfect synthesis for the first time through the organisational skills of Sacchi at AC Milan. Luis Vincio at Napoli in the mid 1970s and Nils Liedholm at Roma in the early to mid 1980s had tested a system involving zonal marking, albeit with varying degrees of success, but up until the time when Sacchi took over at Milan, man to man marking with a customary libero/sweeper in place had been the preferred mode of defending for all Italian teams.

Appointed in 1986, soon after Silvio Berlusconi had acquired control of Milan, Sacchi undoubtedly had a wealth of resources at his disposal, including players of the calibre of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Roberto Donadoni, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, so much so that some sceptics believe that the team would have been successful regardless of the adopted tactics. But largely, Sacchi has been accorded universal credit for remodelling a tactical system that had embodied the ethos of Italian football culture and in the process not only setting Milan towards a path of extraordinary success, but also laying out a plan that has remained at the forefront of football till date.

Sacchi’s system essentially entailed pressing in zones and concentrating on marking space as opposed to marking in relation to the position of individual players. In many ways the structure was comparable to the ones adopted earlier by Rinus Michels at Ajax and Barcelona and by Valery Lobanovskyi at Dynamo Kyiv, but the development of the tactic in its most systemised manner was indisputably pioneered by the Italian.

In marking zones there is never an established defensive pattern. Attackers with or without the ball are passed from zone to zone and from player to player and resultantly the team without the ball is in a position to compress the space available to the attacking team.

Practically, zonal marking isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. As Alessandro Zauli emphasises in his book on Modern Tactics, it is necessary that no more than a short distance be maintained between the player who moves to mark the opponent in possession of the ball and the players in the zones closest to the area of possession. Also of primary importance is the cover that needs to be provided by the defender diagonally behind the first defender, in the event that the attacker manages to free himself from the defender in his zone. All of this requires tremendous focus and discipline, as was personified beautifully by the Germans on Saturday.

Teams generally have a tendency to assign a specific player/s to mark Lionel Messi, if not throughout the length and breadth of the entire pitch, at least in specific zones, as Mexico had done in the round of 16 where Rafael Marquez was handed the unenviable task. But Germany chose to treat Messi on par with the other Argentineans and passed him from zone to zone and from player to player. Every time Messi moved to a different zone by beating his direct marker, he was confronted by a marker in the new zone and as a result, he failed to find space regardless of how deep or how central he had drifted.

Germany also ensured that they made the pitch as narrow as possible when Argentina had the ball, thereby managing to compress space, making it more and more difficult for the South Americans to break through the bands of four that had been installed both in defence and in midfield.

It’s quite conceivable that had Argentina possessed a more penetrative passer in the middle of midfield, breaking past the German bands may have been more achievable, but as it stood, every time Germany won the ball back, either Lukas Podolski on the left wing or one of Thomas Mueller or Phillip Lahm on the other flank, made themselves available in as wide a position as possible, enabling their team to stretch the play both quickly and incisively. Consequently, not only were Germany able to maintain their organisation at the back, but were also able to forcefully attack Argentina every time an opportunity presented itself.

Germany’s disciplined adherence to shape meant that the terrifically talented Argentine front-line was rendered virtually futile, but it must be said that Spain, who they face in the semi-finals, are likely to offer a test of different class. Considering that Spain like Argentina are lacking in width, with both David Villa and Andres Iniesta tending to glide inwards, it should be predominantly unproblematic for Germany to narrow the field of play when Spain are in possession of the ball. But the fluidity and the interchanging of the Spanish forwards together with the ingenuity entrenched in their midfield make it paramount that Germany remains at their organised best, which should ensure a thoroughly fascinating contest.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Federer crashes out of Wimbledon. End of an era or a mere blip?

With the grass courts glistening in balmy sunshine and the games uninterrupted by rain throughout the tournament, it’s all been a bit different this year at the Wimbledon Championships. The most significant oddity though has been caused by Roger Federer’s loss in four sets to Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals on Wednesday, with the manner of the loss rather than the defeat by itself representing the greatest surprise.

Federer has had his struggles leading up to Wimbledon, losing in the quarterfinals of the French Open to Robin Soderling and then to Lleyton Hewitt in the grass courts at Halle, with the former ending a phenomenal streak of 23 consecutive appearances in grand slam semi-finals by the Swiss maestro. Although his travails this season, including the fact that he has failed to win a tournament since he lifted the Australian Open in January imply that the loss at Wimbledon mustn’t come as a particular surprise, the fashion of his submission told a separate tale.

Admittedly, Federer had his moments against Berdych; especially in the second set which he grabbed 6-3 by unveiling strokes of typical grace and precision. But as the game progressed, he wilted under the pressure produced by the sheer ferocity of the Czech’s ground-strokes. Berdych has for long been considered a fine talent, one who was touted to belong to a new aggregation of tennis stars alongside Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, only for his skills to be weighed down by frailties of the mind. But having reached his first grand slam semi-final earlier this year at the French Open, he seemed confident and poised, and unleashed a barrage of thunderous strokes that jolted Federer’s usually serene appearance. The Swiss’ glittering career has unquestionably had its low points, but none in recent memory have been so utterly mortifying.

After the game, Federer, ungracious in defeat, suggested that problems with his back and leg were at the centre of the troubles that he encountered. But the parallels between the loss to Berdych and the defeat at Roland Garros to Soderling were far too stark to be ignored as a simple aberration. Federer was unable to match the bold and powerful hitting of either Soderling or Berdych, causing his game to be ultimately dismantled with apparent ease.

Do these brutal defeats indicate the fading or dare I say annihilation of Federer’s aura? Perceived wisdom would suggest otherwise. It would be foolhardy to write off someone, who has sixteen grand slam titles to his name and who continues to be hailed by many as the greatest to have graced the game. However, it's indicative of certain weaknesses which have crept into Federer’s game, assuming they hadn’t existed in the first place. He seems incapable of matching the pace of hitting of the Soderling’s and Berdych’s and his backhand which had undergone a remarkable transformation from a purely defensive stroke to one of potent attacking might has regressed. Also apparent in his defeat to Berdych was a loss of timing on his famed forehand, causing him to rely on his serve, which it must be said, remains a reliable weapon.

As easy as he makes his tennis look, Federer has worked tremendously hard to attain greatness and he is unlikely to yield without a tussle. I would fully expect him to go back to the drawing board, address his flaws and come back stronger for the American season, for he surely has a few grand slam triumphs left in him. But with the task of countering the mounting injury problems as well as a new breed of fearless and talented youngsters at hand, question marks remain over whether Federer will dominate tennis as regally as he once did.