Sunday, August 29, 2010

Spot-Fixing at Lords

(Also posted at http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/spot-fixing-at-lords)

A week after having waxed lyrical about the precocity of Mohammad Amir’s talents, it is utterly depressing to report on the spot-fixing claims surrounding the eighteen-year-old and his new ball partner, Mohammad Asif. For the sake of the game that I dearly love, I do hope that these allegations are untrue, but the evidence may well be too damning.

Yesterday, the British tabloid, the News of the World (NOTW) released a report, which stated that London based Mazher Majeed had accepted £150,000 to help uncover an alleged ring of spot-fixing. In video footage posted on the NOTW website, Majeed can be seen taking cash in return for predicting the precise deliveries in which the Pakistani pacers, Amir and Asif, would bowl no-balls in the ongoing Test Match between England and Pakistan at Lords. True to plan, the bowlers overstepped the popping crease on the deliveries as foretold.

I remember thinking to myself even as these no-balls were bowled, that there was something terribly iffy about them. Had it been Umar Gul overstepping the mark, it is quite conceivable that I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but Amir and Asif, rarely – if ever – overstep the popping crease. Even more astonishing was the extent by which they overstepped the mark, particularly Amir.

Some element of fixing is, perhaps, prevalent in every sport, but to think that it happens at the highest level of cricket is greatly disenchanting. We’d have been foolish to believe that fixing had been wholly eradicated following the unravelling of the scandals surrounding Hansie Cronje, Mohammad Azharuddin, Salim Malik, and several other less prominent figures. But with the International Cricket Council (ICC) having established an Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU), one would have thought that greater checks would have been placed to prevent the occurrence of such incidents at least at the highest level.

The NOTW report though, and the subsequent arrest of Majeed come as an excruciating blow to the ICC and its ACSU. Although players who were found guilty were accorded varying degrees of suspensions, including life-bans, there is a thought that the ICC failed to act satisfactorily in responding to earlier claims of match-fixing. The present controversy however, presents the ICC with a fresh opportunity to act decisively in ridding the game of its evils.

Majeed’s claims that apart from Asif and Amir, the Pakistani captain Salman Butt and vice-captain Kamran Akmal (no stranger to allegations of fixing) are also involved must be thoroughly investigated. The results of such an investigation ought to be openly presented to the public and those found guilty should be dealt with in a strict and unsympathetic manner. It would undoubtedly be a crying shame if Amir and Asif – both phenomenal talents – are banned from the sport that they practice with such panache, but eradicating the game of its ills should be of predominant importance.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Prodigious Mohammad Amir

(Also posted at http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/the-prodigious-mohammad-amir)

Watching Mohammad Amir bowl in Pakistan’s recent test series’ against Australia and England has been a supreme delight. So much so that it has evoked memories of the great Wasim Akram – an astonishing feat for there have been few, if any, grander sights in cricket than Akram steaming in to release deliveries of vicious swing.

Boasting a vibrant run-up and a whippy high arm action, Amir, only 18 years of age, already possesses the ability to swing both the new and the old ball, in our out – a characteristic that set Akram apart from the rest. Yet, for all the precocity of his obvious talents, it is his ability to outfox batsmen, both by cleverly manipulating his use of the crease and by varying his line and length that stands out as a distinguishing feature.

Even if embroiled in a perennial state of turmoil, Pakistan, it appears can always take solace from the strength of its quick bowling department. In Amir and Mohammad Asif, it has perhaps the most proficient new ball pairing in world cricket. While, Asif – blessed with the supplest of wrists – relies on his guile and his consistency in line and length, Amir provides the more eye-catching entertainment with his prodigious ability to get nip off the pitch and to swing the ball at pace.

Owning the skill to manoeuvre the ball in whichever direction he pleases it to bend, Amir in his fledgling career has showcased irrefutable genius. Yesterday, he displayed a snippet of his class by turning the tide of his team’s third test match against England in its favour through a remarkable display of reverse-swing bowling that saw him amass four wickets for 51 runs, at the Oval. The delivery that dismissed Mathew Prior (caught behind nervously by Kamral Akmal) was, in particular, one to behold. The wicketkeeper – who had made a fine half-century in the first innings – was prised open, from around the wicket, with a ball that angled in, before veering away to take the outside edge of the bat.

Having, it seems, mastered the finer nuances of swing bowling at such a young age, one may argue that Amir’s success is all but assured. It must however, be remembered that there have been far too many instances where the most promising of youngsters have faded into oblivion. Bowling as majestically as Amir has done in England is unquestionably noteworthy, but it is essential that he carries this form and performs consistently in less helpful conditions to fulfil his rich promise.

This video offers a glimpse of Amir’s ability to reverse-swing the ball at pace.

Dutch Devolution

(Also posted at http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/the-dutch-devolution)

There is something utterly alluring about the Dutch and its football that has attracted me to it over the years. Maybe, it has to do with the fact that my initiation to the game coincided with the flowering of a ridiculously talented group of players trained at the Ajax academy (the class of Bergkamp, Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids and the De Boer twins). Or maybe, it’s the mythical resonance of ‘total football’ that had enraptured watchers of its time, leaving behind an indelible mark on the game. Or maybe, the reasons are more superficial; I vaguely remember answering, ‘orange’, when asked as a kid what my favourite colour was.

Being so, the World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain left me with a strong sense of disappointment, not so much a result of the outcome (Spain was unquestionably a worthy winner) but the roguish style that was employed by the Dutch. In adopting a tactic that was designed to thuggishly intimidate and destroy Spain’s football, the Dutch not only betrayed the stupendous talent at its disposal, but also desecrated some of the celebrated grandiose of its former teams.

The Dutch game over the years has been characterised by its unique perception of space and resultantly an ability to construct moves of artistic splendour. The beauty of its football has been a product of creative thinking and an ability to do things differently, as opposed to an adherence to the predominant tactics of the times.

In his book, ‘The Brilliant Orange’, David Winner draws intriguing links between Dutch architecture and art and its football and in doing so, conceptualises the role played by the understanding of ‘space’ in its football. He argues, that to understand the idea of Dutch football, it is necessary to look beyond the game as played on the pitch and to analyse the ethos of the Dutch people and its approach to other streams of life. Dutch space, he evocatively asserts is different. He says ‘other nations and football culture may have produced greater goal-scorers, more dazzling individual ball artists and more dependable and efficient tournament winning teams. But no one has ever imagined or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch.’

Of course, the Dutch game took its time to reach a level of tactical sophistication. In fact, professionalism in football wasn’t prevalent in the Netherlands until the mid nineteen-fifties, a time at which it was one of the most backward states in Europe. But flanking a socio-cultural rebellion that has seen the Netherlands become one of the most progressive nations in the world was a revolution on the pitch that ultimately placed its football on the highest of plinths.

Ajax, first under the coaching of Rinus Michels and then under Stefan Kovacs, completed a unique feat of winning the European Cup in three consecutive seasons from 1971-1973, by playing a system that is now renowned as ‘total football’. The style involved astonishing fluidity of movement with players rapidly interchanging their positions; defenders turning into attackers, central midfielders moving into full-back and so on. That they performed their tasks to perfection was no doubt an upshot of having played together for years, but at the heart of their artistry laid an innate understanding of space.

Michels, moved on to coach Barcelona, joined soon by Johan Cruyff, and established the foundation for a bright future, which has culminated in the club’s and Spain’s recent success. But I must add that although Spain’s and Barcelona’s style is built on the bedrock of fluidity in movement, it is vastly different from the methods employed by Ajax and the Netherlands in the late nineteen-sixties, and nineteen-seventies.

Sjaak Swart who won eight league championships with Ajax states in Winner’s book that position-switching developed naturally and that for all the artistry, its football was direct. “In four passes we would be in front of goal. Nowadays they take twenty passes – backwards, sideways, backwards. We didn’t play like that. We went for the goal. We could play sixty minutes of pressing… I’ve never seen any other club anywhere who could do that.”

Spain’s football on the other hand is built on an ability to maintain possession of the ball and thereby wearing the opponents to submission. I say this to merely remove any misconception that Spain’s football is akin to that of the great Dutch teams of the years gone by and not to demean its football, which has been wondrous in its own way.

The Dutch on the other hand, as I said have always had an ability to think innovatively, especially about space which can so often be the decisive factor in football games. At the core of the analysis on the Dutch game of the past lies a premise that its football has an orientation garnered towards creation and not destruction. Against Spain however, the team seemed more intent on spoiling rather than inventing, a tactic that ran entirely counter to the cultural pedigree of its football.

It is no doubt unrealistic to expect a team to adhere to a system that was gloriously, if not entirely successfully, employed three-four decades ago as Rafael Honigstein points out. Tactics have evolved over a course of time and a side can ill-afford to compromise on defensive responsibilities for the sake of pure attacking beauty. Theoretically, Honigstein’s stance is sound, but the suggestion that this Dutch team was no more defensive than its predecessors is fallacious. Yes, the article was written before the final, at a time when the Dutch style hadn’t regressed as much as it had by the time they played Spain, but to imply that its football failed to thrill because the opposition was defensive is wholly off beam.

Perhaps in the years gone by, teams were tactically more na├»ve and weren’t astute enough to counter the attacking brilliance of the Dutch. But it wasn’t quite as easy as it’s sometimes made to seem. The beauty of the Dutch was not merely a consequence of the opposition allowing it space to operate, but on the contrary was founded on its own ability to manufacture and construct space.

In addition to Honigstein’s view, it must also be said that that total-football, as is understood in some circles, was not an entirely attacking strategy. The system was about controlling space; compressing it when without the ball and expanding it when in possession of the ball. Consequently, it worked wonderfully from a holistically strategic standpoint and not purely from an attacking perspective. The swift interchanging of positions by the players and a multifarious approach to the game was never a compromise on defensive duties, so to understand the tactic as simply an offensive ploy is erroneous.

My intention is not to deny the necessity for pragmatism. In a brief piece that I had earlier, I had argued that good football and beautiful football do not necessarily correlate and I am not loath to adding that the former is mostly a product of ‘pragmatism’, a word which, especially in footballing parlance, is grossly misunderstood. To be pragmatic is to be practical and regardless of its lack of aesthetic appeal, I believe, the tactics employed by the Dutch in the final were predominantly unworkable. No doubt, its decision to tackle with vigour helped stifle Spain for large parts of the game, but eventually it was bound to cost it dear.

It would have certainly been imprudent for the Dutch to attack unbothered by Spain’s reputation, but greater thoughtfulness was required to counter the opposition than merely following a herd of teams that have tried defying such a brand of football with vicious tackling. In recent times, any analysis concerning Barcelona or Spain sees a reference to Internazionale’s victory over the Catalan club in the Champions League semi-final. It must, though, be borne in mind that the second leg performance of the Italians, hailed as one of the greatest defensive performances of recent times, saw it play for the majority of the game with ten men. Undoubtedly following the sending off, Inter maintained shape immaculately and defended with aplomb, but it is important to note that this was achieved without resorting to excessively robust or brutal means.

One may also point to the fact that Spain’s goal came late in extra-time and that the fact that if not for its profligacy in front of goal, the Dutch may well have emerged successful. However, it’s significant to note that with a different referee, it may well have been a man-down minutes into the game. Some argue that the Dutch were entitled in endeavouring to win ugly, considering the failures of the past, which off-set some of its brilliant artistry. But to see the Dutch reduced to measures that are the norm for lesser teams was both impractical and a perfidy of its magnificent footballing history. With no sign of Bert van Marvijk, the present coach of the Netherlands, being replaced, it’s difficult to imagine a radical amendment in the existing system, which is not only tragic but also grossly obtuse.