Thursday, December 30, 2010

Of Ricky Ponting

It would be a travesty if Australia’s crushing loss to England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is to mark the end of Ricky Ponting’s Test Match career. Having been ruled out by injury, for the final Ashes game at Sydney, and with Australia playing their next Test Match only in August, we may have to wait for a while to get a semblance of clarity on the situation, but the sense that one gets is that the end may be nigh for Ponting.

For the best part of his career, Sachin Tendulkar notwithstanding, Ponting has been a batsman of unrivalled distinction – between January 1999 and December 2009, Ponting averaged a colossal 58.75 at a strike-rate of 61.31, while Tendulkar averaged 54.78 at a strike-rate of 54.62, scoring ten centuries fewer than the Australian. It is trite, no doubt, to say that Ponting’s job was made easier by the quality of the team that he played in, epitomized no more than by the openers that preceded him, for most of the time, Mathew Hayden and Justin Langer. Yet, there were numerous occasions when Ponting went into the middle, with the ball and bowlers, new and fresh, and batted with magisterial splendour. Never one to shy away from the pull and the hook or on-the-up drives through the covers, Ponting’s batting has always been a thrilling spectacle. Lunging nervously forward, with the highest of back-lifts, one could be forgiven for thinking, just for a moment, of the lumbering technical deficiencies in Ponting’s batting, but when he flashes the blade to make contact with the ball, rarely is the result anything but of resounding primacy.

Statistics, as always, are only partially helpful in expounding on Ponting’s virtues. His contribution as a batsman to the Australian cause for well over a decade has been exemplary. Knocks of utmost quality in the most trying circumstances, turning potentially perilous situations into ones of authority, has been a hallmark of his batting. Nonetheless in recent times, Ponting has been pedestrian, struggling on tour to India – his record in the country will remain a blotch on his illustrious career – and at home against England. Sensing technical faults in his batting, teams have bowled to him with acuity, often getting him early on the hook or the pull – strokes which Ponting has doggedly refused to sway away from – and with the moving ball, to which he has been strangely vulnerable.

But most batsmen, however great they may be, go through the phases of inquests, where their methods are tested to the hilt. Rahul Dravid, a batsman universally renowned as one of the most technically perfect, has been found wanting against left arm seamers off late. Tendulkar, not too long ago, was considered by some to be over the hill, to have lost his imperious aura – he scored just one century at an average of 44 in ten Test Matches between Novembers, 2004 and 2007 – yet he has ascended great heights in recent times, notching up seven centuries in 2010 alone. What sets the great batsmen apart is their ability to iron out flaws and regain an air of invincibility. In Tendulkar’s case, his poor run of form was, perhaps, a product of a glut of injuries – primarily to his elbow and back – which he has overcome to return to his magnificent best. Ponting, though, is a player of supreme physical fitness – even now he remains one of the best outfielders in the world – but the rigours of captaincy and the prospect of another Ashes loss are sure to have weighed on his batting.

His captaincy record – in spite of him being the most successful captain in Australian history – will forever be stained by the three Ashes defeats. His team’s enormous slide in recent times means that he must necessarily face the axe as captain. There is a need for a fresh start, perhaps with an unsullied leader, but a year fraught with numerous struggles aside, Ponting still has much to offer as a batsman. If released from the shackles of skippering the side, Ponting could well enjoy a new lease as a batsman. But Australia aren’t in the habit of retaining sacked captains in their side, and Ponting’s self-esteem may suffer a dent by playing as a mere member of a team that he has captained for over seven years. An exception, though, must be made by all parties.

In their darkest phase since the days of Kim Hughes’s pains, Australia could do with Ponting’s batting nous to guide them through what is likely to be a tricky and turbulent time. The case for him to drop down the order is well argued – Ponting is no stranger to a lower middle order position, having played at No. 6 in the early stages of his career, and Usman Khawaja, who is set to make his debut in Sydney should be given a chance to make the No. 3 position his own. But to relegate Ponting completely to the wilderness would not only be crude justice to one of the great batsmen of all time, but would be ill-advised considering the pitiful state of Australian cricket.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It's Barcelona's Year

[Also posted at]

2010 glitters with several displays of sporting excellence. Some ventured into territories previously considered inaccessible – Sachin Tendulkar, alone gathered two such records with his seventh Test Match century of the year making him the first in history to compile fifty centuries, having in February become the first man to score a One-Day-International double-century, while John Isner and Nicolas Mahut competed in the longest match ever, at Wimbledon, with Isner winning the fifth and final set, 70-68.

Some took transcendental steps towards greatness – including Rafael Nadal whose triumph at three of tennis’ four Grand Slams were each achieved on a different surface; Spain’s national football team, who won the World Cup by adhering to an eye-pleasing pass and move style of football; and Kobe Bryant whose second consecutive NBA Finals MVP, helped the Los Angeles Lakers capture their 17th title. Some exhibited nerves of steel when lesser mortals would have crumbled – Graeme McDowell’s intrepid putt to secure victory for Europe in the Ryder Cup; Sebastian Vettel’s start-to-finish triumph at the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to clinch the Formula One title; tiny Serbia’s Davis Cup victory in front of a raucous crowd at Belgrade were all displays of guts and courage. But part of the problem when you write on, and watch more than one sport, as Simon Barnes helpfully points out in his book – A Meaning of Sport – is to find a formula for answering the question: which sport do you like best? Thankfully for me, ever since football captured my imagination, I haven’t had to look beyond it for the answer.

Yet, it wasn’t Spain and their World Cup victory that provided the greatest pleasure, but rather the cream of Spanish clubs, F.C. Barcelona, who have made this a year to prize, by playing the most beautiful and most merciless football, with scarily metronomic regularity. Their 5-0 trouncing of arch-rivals Real Madrid at the Camp Nou on November 29 represents without a flicker of a doubt the definitively brilliant moment of 2010. It isn’t often that one has the privilege of watching such a perfect amalgam of beauty and efficiency on the football pitch, but Barcelona’s performance on that night was all that and more – indisputably the best I’ve ever seen.

In a season marred by the ignominies of FIFA’s award of the rights to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup Finals to Russia and Qatar respectively, amid allegations of corruption against several of its prominent members, Barcelona’s triumph in the Classico served to remind us of why we continue to show interest in this blemished sport. Beautiful football and effective football do not always coincide – one only needs to look at Arsenal who have been sublime at times over the past few seasons, but are trophy-less since 2005. Barcelona on the other hand, not only play gloriously, but also win gloriously. Since Pep Guardiola, the midfield pivot in Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team of the 1990s, took over as the club’s manager in 2008, they have won one Champions League, two Spanish La-Liga titles, one UEFA Super Cup, one FIFA World Club Cup, one Copa Del Ray and two Spanish Super Cups – that’s eight pieces of silverware in the last two years – all achieved by playing in an outrageously gorgeous manner.

But back to their victory over Madrid, it wasn’t expected to be anything near as easy as it turned out to be. After all, Jose Mourinho who had masterminded Inter Milan’s win over Barcelona in the semi-finals of the Champions League in April was at Madrid’s helm. Under Mourinho, Real had made an excellent start to the season, looking imperious at times and giving the impression that they could match Barcelona for style and substance, but how wrong we all were. With Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta conducting the orchestra, Lionel Messi, playing centrally as a false nine and David Villa and Pedro cutting in from the wings, Barcelona weaved a string of mesmeric passes throughout the course of the game. Madrid positioned onto the carousel within minutes of the start, were forced into enduring ninety minutes of giddily fluid passing and movement from Barcelona.

Any doubts of Barcelona’s pedigree were put to rest within the early exchanges of the game. Even before they took the lead in the 10th minute, Messi had struck the upright with a wonderfully lobbed effort that had left Iker Casillas spellbound and stranded – a clear sign of things to come. The opening goal that soon followed was one of ingenious mastery. Iniesta, having taken control of a perfectly weighted ball from Messi in an inside-left position, jinked through a mass of Madrid players before playing an intricate pass into an area opened-up by Villa’s movement to the left. This allowed Xavi, who had made a late run – shrewd as ever – free to finish from within six yards. In many ways the goal epitomised Barcelona’s philosophy – quick, sharp, incisive passing and a spare man available at every juncture.

Dizzying to watch, one can only imagine the pain that the Madrid players had to suffer. The second goal was again a product of the epoch-marking football that was showcased earlier at the global stage by Spain’s World Cup winning squad – Villa picked out on the left by Xavi’s ball, crossed for Pedro to finish from close-range. The third and the fourth goals, both created by Messi’s cunning and finished clinically by Villa were again treats for the connoisseur. Four-nil up, with half an hour still to go, Barcelona kept hold of the ball for what seemed an eternity, lacing one geometric pattern after another. In stoppage time, substitute Jeffren Suarez netted, helping his club complete the 5-0 rout – a manita, a little hand, a goal for each finger.

Of course, Barcelona have defeated Madrid by margins of great decisiveness on past occasions too, not least the 6-2 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu in the 2008-09 season. But this was Mourinho’s Real side – the Portuguese’s teams have never lost by greater than a three goal margin in the past, which disgrace itself he had suffered only thrice before. Lining up Real in much the same manner as he did Inter Milan in the Champions League semi-final may have been a mistake, but it’s likely that Barcelona in the form that they were in, would have defeated Madrid, and trounced them at that, irrespective of any of Mourinho’s tactical scheming.

Messi, in the eyes of most, the best player in the world didn’t score for the first time in ten games, but his influence was palpable. Constantly dropping into midfield and combining with Xavi and Iniesta, the Argentine showed that any suggestions that he wasn’t as complete a player as Cristiano Ronaldo, was far from the truth – if anything Messi is the more absolute package.

The mark of Barcelona’s superiority is particularly evinced by the passing statistics. They completed a whopping 636 passes to Madrid’s 279 on the night with Xavi alone effecting 114 out of his 117 attempted passes – each one of them hit with purpose and precision. For all of Messi’s and Iniesta’s brilliance – the other nominees for the FIFA Ballon d’Or award – it is hard to look beyond Xavi, who has been in almost otherworldly form, as the best player of the year.

At the core of Barcelona’s success is Cruyff’s ideology – pass, pass and pass to death – tweaked to suit modern day requirements. Cruyff during his time as Barcelona’s coach had ingrained in the club an ethos for developing players of a certain ilk, ones to whom the collective constitutes the ultimate. No one typifies this better than Sergio Busquets, the often underrated midfield anchor. Busquets’s ability to read the game and let it flow with simple, yet perceptive passes is a crucial ingredient in Barcelona’s system. He frequently drops into defence as a third centre-back of sorts to allow Dani Alves and Maxwell or Eric Abidal, as the case may be, to bomb simultaneously from full back, creating in effect a 3-3-1-3 shape. The tiki-taka system as Barcelona’s possession style of play has now come to be known is as much a defensive scheme as it is an offensive one – after all, a team must have possession of the ball to score a goal.

But the tactical aspects of their game only tell a part of the story. Eight of their eleven starters on that night – all bar Villa, Abidal and Alves – are graduates of the famed La Masia youth academy, nurtured to uphold Cruyff’s tenets. Cruyff as manager of Barcelona had no doubt had the benefit of an ensemble of star footballers that saw the club win four consecutive La-Liga titles between 1991 and 1994, but the Dutch, himself a product of the famed Ajax Academy was quick to endorse a school of similar virtues at Barcelona, the fruits of which have been splendidly laid bare in recent times.

The present lot are perhaps the cream of the crop, the ultimate oeuvre of Catalonia, a team that rivals the late 1950s Madrid side of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, the celebrated ‘total football’ playing Ajax team of the early 1970s, the Manchester United team of the mid to late 1960s that contained the Holy Trinity – Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best – and Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side of the late 1980s. They are, though, only two points ahead of Madrid, and come the end of the season may not even be crowned Champions, but the victory at Camp Nou on November 29 has left an ineffaceable impression that will reverberate through history – a mark indeed of true greatness.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Of Kagawa, Sahin and Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund fit the modern-day prototype with panache. Tuned to a 4-2-3-1, the Borussians play with a high defensive line, press from the top and look to pass and move the ball with extraordinary pace, which when executed to perfection is a thrilling sight to behold. A team brimming with youth – their usual starting line-up averages just over 23 years in age – Dortmund are eleven points clear at the top of the Bundesliga with only sixteen games having been played. Yesterday, at their home ground, the Signal Iduna Park (formerly the Westfalenstadion), a goal each from both their shining starlets, Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa ensured that they overcame Werder Bremen, 2-0, in a performance that even if not packed with their customary spark, showcased a champion’s tenacity. Sahin scored inside the first ten minutes of the game with a sumptuously struck left-footed free-kick, while Kagawa’s goal – a fine finish from a tight angle – in the closing twenty minutes sealed the game in Dortmund’s favour.

Not since 2001-02 has Dortmund won the Bundesliga, struggling in fact to qualify for Europe in recent seasons. But in Jurgen Klopp, the club finally looks to have found the right man to take them back to their glory days that saw them lift the Champions League in 1997. Klopp who had enjoyed a modest playing career with FSV Mainz coached the same team successfully, helping them retain Bundesliga status by playing “concept football” – a system that involves collective rhythmic movement at a high tempo. The term, “concept football”, was made popular under Volker Finke’s phenomenally successful tenure as coach of SC Freiburg. Finke led the club of paltry resources to the top flight for the first time in their history in 1993-94, before helping them to a third place finish within a season’s time. The side from the Breisgau region, came to be known as the “Breisgau Brazilians”, for their wonderfully pleasing and technically superior style of football that saw them pass the ball both artfully and precisely. “It's boring to switch flanks and knock the ball from one wing to the other. We build through the middle, where there is little space,” Finke is quoted to have said.

Dortmund are by no means a club of insignificant resources – the Signal Iduna Park regularly sees more than 80,000 crammed into the stands – but their style of football seems intrinsically linked to Finke’s methods. Klopp is an intelligent reader of the game and is uninhibited in his tactical thinking. Against Mainz, last month, in what was then a top of the table clash, Klopp moved from his customary 4-2-3-1 to a Christmas Tree shape – the 4-3-2-1 – with a view to pack the midfield even further, not compromising though on his side’s devotion to a high tempo pressing game. The move paid rich dividends with Mario Götze – the club’s precocious eighteen-year-old winger – and Lucas Barrios scoring the goals in a 2-0 victory. Earlier, Dortmund had created a dent on reigning champions, Bayern Munich’s title bid with another 2-0 victory. Bayern have failed to recover since then, currently in fifth place, seventeen points behind Dortmund.

It’s difficult to earmark a single player responsible for Dortmund’s feats this season, but at the side’s nucleus are the two goal-scorers against Werder Bremen, Sahin and Kagawa. Sahin, still only 22, seemed destined for success right since he broke through as a teenager in 2005. He still holds the record for the being the youngest player to score in the Bundesliga – a goal against Nuremburg in November, 2005 gave him the honour. Since then, even though he was lent briefly to Feyenoord, Klopp was quick to recognise his value, starting him in 33 of the club’s 34 league games last season. Sahin, a product of the contemporary, multi-ethnic Germany, that has seen the rise of the likes of Mesut Ozil, Jerome Boateng and Sami Khedira, three of Germany’s top performers in the World Cup Finals at South Africa, was born and bred in Dortmund, although he represents Turkey, his country of origin. Blessed with a magnificent left foot, his command over the centre of midfield belies his age. His ability to pick the right pass and keep things simple without losing, though, the vision to play the Hollywood pass when necessary, sets him apart as a potential world-class talent. But, Shinji Kagawa, the twenty-one-year-old Japanese playmaker, is the jewel in Dortmund’s crown, in the words of Raphael Honigstein of the Guardian newspaper.

Signed in the summer, for a mere 350,000 Euros from Japanese club, Cereza Osaka, Kagawa has adapted to the Bundesliga with rare aplomb. A modern-day playmaker, Kagawa is just as comfortable operating in the hole behind the striker, as he is cutting in from the wings. Possessed of dazzling footwork, and a sharp change of pace, Kagawa has already lit up the Bundesliga with several performances of majestic beauty. He also seems to have a unique knack of finding himself in the right-place-at-the-right-time, exemplified by his eight goals in the league this season.

Kagawa and Sahin are no doubt at the heart of much of Dortmund’s excellence this season, but it is a collective will to play to a certain method that has seen the team reap not only rich rewards but also ensure a visually pleasing spectacle. Götze, Kevin Großkreutz and Jakub Blaszczykowski alternate on the wings, with Sven Bedner holding in midfield, and Barrios leading the line up top. The phenomenal aspect of this composition is that barring Barrios – who is twenty-six-years-old, Großkreutz, born in July, 1988, is the oldest of the front six. One wouldn’t have imagined Dortmund topping the table at any point this season, let alone leading the league by eleven points with sixteen games played, but such has been the brilliance of both the youthful squad and the methods of Jurgen Klopp, to whom much of the success must be credited. Stranger things have happened in football, but barring a miracle of inconceivable proportions, Dortmund should lift their fourth Bundesliga title weeks before they kick off their final game against Eintract Frankfurt at home on May 14.

Monday, December 6, 2010

It's Serbia's Cup

[Also posted at:]

Every now and then, sport provides the most compelling mixture of elation and agony. Yesterday was one such occasion. In one corner, Michael Llodra, surrounded by his French teammates and captain, Guy Forget, was forlorn and almost inconsolable in grief. In another was Serbia’s Viktor Troicki, ecstatic with joy and basking in the glory of a wonderful triumph. Troicki, ranked twenty-eighth in the world had just defeated Llodra, ranked twenty-third, in straight sets – 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 – in the deciding rubber of the Davis Cup Final, played before an intensely partisan crowd in Belgrade. Serbia, ravaged by war and rife with endless hostility had won the Davis Cup for the first time and it deserved to celebrate in as extravagant a manner as it pleased. Yet, one couldn’t but feel for Llodra – an old-school serve and volleyer – who had come on by leaps and bounds as a singles player this season only to succumb to nerves and to let greatness slip from within his grasp.

Just a day earlier, Llodra together with Arnaud Clement had come back from two sets to love down to overcome Troicki and Nenad Zimonjic in the doubles rubber to give France a crucial 2-1 lead. And then to have to yield to the demands of a decider and play a form of tennis that was a far-cry from the exquisiteness that he has exhibited in the past was indeed a pity. Some may argue that the Davis Cup is a tournament of progressively diminishing significance and to say that Llodra had greatness within his grasp is to overstate the matter. But a glimpse of the scenes in Belgrade which greeted Serbia’s feat would have done enough to negate any such thoughts. This was indeed a battle for greatness, and Troicki in leading his country to a victory against the mighty French achieved sporting immortality, at least within the confines of his Balkan state. Serbia has a population, one-ninth the size of France, and its tennis federation operates on a shoestring budget that is a mere one-hundredth of the French tennis federation’s resources, so this victory is certainly one of enormous proportions.

Earlier, World Number 3 Novak Djokovic, looking visibly inspired by the atmosphere, produced some dazzling tennis to thump Gael Monfils, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4, to keep Serbia in the tie. Monfils, a player of astounding athleticism continues to struggle for consistency, utterly brilliant one moment and miserably mediocre, another. Djokovic who has maintained throughout the year that the Davis Cup remains his primary target, said after the victory: “It is historic. This is our biggest success as individuals, as a team, as a country.”

Growing up in a country wrecked by war, and practicing in conditions scarcely suitable for any level of tennis competition – Janko Tipsarevic, the star of Serbia’s earlier tie against Czech Republic, and Ana Ivanovic, formerly Women’s World Number 1, for instance, had both practiced in a court converted form a swimming pool – the success that the Serbians have achieved in tennis is quite astonishing. The importance of the Davis Cup must not be discounted merely because of the struggles of some of the traditional powerhouses. This is a remarkable triumph by a small, beleaguered nation that deserves the highest of accolades.