Sunday, December 30, 2012

Obituary: Remembering Tony Greig

Few players have impacted the worldwide direction of cricket.  Or, to put it another way, while many cricketers turn a game by dint of skill or attitude, precious few shape cricket's big picture. 

For all his talent, memories of the great Sachin Tendulkar will highlight his nonpareil ability with the willow.  However, the One Day revolution occurred during his peak and he did not compel it, but merely embraced theis new style of batsmanship.  This revolution was authored primarily by a tiny, almost forgotten wicketkeeper from a sleepy island and his tactically aggressive captain.

In contrast, Anthony William Greig was a man who changed the way we regard the game –a South African who wanted to play Test cricket during the apartheid years and did so.  Then, he led England and finally took on the role as perhaps the first truly modern professional cricket player in the world.   

Tony Greig was the ultimate pragmatist.

Pragmatism requires clarity of vision and of thought: it is a process of identifying problems and solving them simply and brutally.  With Greig, this manifested in his combative and versatile approach to the game.  This attitude saw him graduate from Western Province to Sussex, England and then the captaincy of his (first) adopted country.

Another of the traits of the results-focused is strength of will.  Hewas the first to challenge Lillee and Thomson during their Ashes campaign of 1974-75; two years later, his grit – and big ton at Kolkata – and subsequently led the first victorious MCC squad to India since his hero, Douglas Jardine.  His leadership style was so obviously influenced by Jardine’s that he may as well have worn the Harlequin cap: calculating and yet noble as defined by his own distinct moral code.

His captaincy was astute and forthright.  He deployed a thirtysomething David Steele at the top of the order and coaxed Boycott from his self-imposed exile, while focusing England first on making England  difficult to beat.  His final act as a recognised player was signing with Packer and World Series Cricket, a significant coup for the nascent league.  Leaving the establishment for the betterment of cricket players' collective financial future and serving as Packer's chief overseas recruiter made him a cricket figure of the utmost importance.

The utilitarian is always questioned both aesthetically and morally.  Greig’s reasons weren’t necessarily always the most wholesome – let’s not beat about that fact – but he bore the ultimate mark of the pragmatist: coming out on top more often than not.  Tony Greig made effective decisions that led to his benefit and that of others – and what more could one ask from a leader?

Greig did not go quietly into the night.  Six months – almost to the day – before his death, he delivered a stirring – if controversial – Cowdrey Lecture on the Spirit of Cricket.  In the eyes of some, he implored India to take spiritual leadership of a game it practically leases to the rest of the world; others saw his presentation as further patriarchalism from a constant critic.

It would hardly have been Tony Greig if he didn’t address issues directly.

He will be remembered.  He will be missed.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bowler's preview: MCG

While the first day of the Second Test between Sri Lanka and Australia at the MCG provided us with thirteen wickets for approximately 300 runs, this is no real surprise considering the way the pitch has played over the course of the past half-decade, and indeed this season.

The average first innings in Tests at the ‘G over the past five years has been slightly over 324 runs per innings, with the highest total recorded in 2009-10 when Australia recorded 4/454 against the touring Pakistanis.  Of the past nineteen innings at the G, that contest was the equal-fewest wickets lost by any one team throughout that period (11).  That several of those Pakistanis have now subsequently been sanctioned for spot-or-match fixing in no way minimises this achievement.

At Test level, the pitch has responded far better to pace than to spin.  This is probably due to a dearth of quality spin played at the MCG over the past five years: there have only been a total of 76 overs of legspin bowled at the ground at that time, of which eighteen were delivered by don’t-wannabe spinner Steve Smith – unsurprisingly for the relatively poor economy rate (E/R) of 4.11.  In fact, between Smith and Anil Kumble, leg-spinners accounted for the highest E/R for any bowling style at the ‘G as they gave up 3.8 runs per over.  That they average 20.6 in the first innings at Melbourne is purely down to Kumble’s 5/108 in 2007-08.

The same lack of leg-spinners in Shield cricket this year means that only 18 overs have been delivered in such style this season for no positive result (cumulative figures 0/66).  It’s telling that the most gifted Australian leg-spinner of his generation, Cameron White, now basically ignores his bowling to concentrate on his cavalier batting.  The pitch this season, has responded best to pace bowling: only eight wickets today have been lost to spin (all off-spin, and mostly to Glenn Maxwell), while the immortal Gary Putland has the best (two) innings match figures at the ground with 7/64 and 5/28.  This results in Shield season-best figures of 12/94.

Off-spinners are both cheaper at the ground in Tests and First Class cricket: they average a cumulative 48.63 over Test matches at the MCG and 43.13 at Shield level, while costing 2.9 and 3.6 respectively.  However, during the fourth innings of Test matches, the tweakers come into their own.  The table below shows their average strike rate (S/R) and average decrease markedly at cost to their economy:

Bowling type performance by Test Innings, MCG

Innings 1
Innings 2
Innings 3
Innings 4

Fast bowling average
Legspin average


Offspin average
Chinaman average



Fast bowling E/R
Legspin E/R

Offspin E/R
Chinaman E/R



Fast bowling S/R
Legspin S/R

Offspin S/R
Chinaman S/R



From the table above, we can surmise that the pitch at Melbourne does exactly what the classical Test pitch should– offer something for fast bowlers on a good batting track day one, before becoming a very good deck for hitters on days two and three before degenerating into a tricky wicket on the final two days.

Has this trend been constant?  Actually, batsmanship has become much harder over the past two MCG Tests.  This is in part to a Hilfenhaus-led Indian collapse last season and a horrible Australian batting performance the year before.   Test averages have declined from a high of 41.4 to last year’s 25.6.  Sri Lanka’s ... intriguing ... batting choices yesterday are only liable to contribute further to this decline.

This is the second in our series of bowler’s previews, which should give an insight into how the pitch will play – and thoroughly dependent on the whims of selectors.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Man United v Real Madrid steeped in history

The “storied” clubs in European football history spring to mind with the merest effort. There are only a few clubs whose dominance has spanned the decades of memory: a few clubs each from England, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.

So when two of these clubs with rich histories face each other, it's only natural that these encounters become keenly anticipated. Column inches and bandwidth are consumed voraciously. This week, an unexceptional matchup in a mediocre competition earned more press than warranted only because the protagonists had a history; in this case, Chelsea and Leeds meeting in a Cup tie retrieved foggy but extremely pleasant memories of the early 1970s, Don Revie and The Damned United. The juxtaposition of nor'n White and southern Blue achieved more notoriety than either team – or the game itself – deserved because of the rose-coloured cellophane taped to the lenses of commentators' binoculars.

Today's Champions League draw has gifted us with another opportunity for nostalgia and romance: in the next round of the Champions League, Real Madrid and Manchester United will compete for a place in the Champions League quarter finals. The tie has all a writer could hope for: reputation, individual and collective histories and opportunities for speculation on managerial unemployment.

However, despite their comparative starry reputations, most objective discussion surrounding this pair of old romantics suggest that they have underperformed during 2012-13. United features a pyramid resting unsteadily on backfield foundations constructed apparently from papier-mâché, while Real Madrid appear finally to have submitted to the second law of Thermodynamics and fallen victim to all-consuming entropy developing from within.

Despite both clubs being far inferior iterations than those to which their supporters may be accustomed, enough quality remains – usually forward of the centre – for them to maintain their birthright usual position at the pointy end of their respective table. However, perhaps more in commentary as to the lack of parity across the footballing class divides, neither squad passes the “eye test”; United lack the resoluteness of Nemanja Vidic's pomp, while Los Merengues lack their devastating fluency of 2011-12.

But in truth, the sheer volume of verbiage is almost entirely justified (well, unless you happen to read Mike Calvin's columns on Life's a Pitch). These two teams are replete with history and what is history but a collection of stories? Aside from being written by the winners, history is malleable, almost completely subjective and born of advent. It's also much more powerful when repeated orally; stories and deeds are magnified, sometimes losing precision but gaining narrative. That we have limited access to (and, thankfully, analysis of) matches past is why rivalries like that of Chelsea-Leeds maintains much of its currency after forty-one-plus years. Stories are what make football – and sport, in general – powerful, not the statistical impact of Robin van Persie on his new club.

This makes rose-coloured glasses a thoroughly acceptable, if not necessarily accurate, method of evaluating the past and predicting the future. It's almost certainly a far more fun and optimistic way of watching our football.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bowler's Preview: the case for/against Nathan Lyon

Over the past five years, Test scores at Bellerive have steadily declined.  The last time scores of real significance were made at Hobart was during the Sri Lankans' last visit (2007/08), where Kumar Sanggakara made a chanceless 192; this followed on from forgotten man Phil Jaques' Test-best 150.  In fact, while each dismissal in 2007-08 cost 52.4 runs, this average has declined over the five-year span to it's probable nadir (18.6) during last summer's low-scoring Australian loss to New Zealand.

This reflects an increasing trend at Bellerive for encounters dominated by the flingers.  First Class matches in Hobart have been a bowler's dream this season: the last two (of three) Shield matches have ended in Innings defeats.  In both cases the losing cause failed to break 100 in their first innings.  This is reflected in the poor dismissal averages which rank amongst the worst best lowest in Australian First Class cricket this season.

Average runs per dismissal, Bellerive

Five-year Test
2012-13 First Class

When deciding at the toss whether to bat or field, the captains will take into account several factors: the pitch, the weather (probable showers), their relative strengths and whether the pitch will take spin.  Over the course of past five years' Test cricket, the evidence suggests that spin bowling isn't particularly effective for tweakers.  In fact, the best innings figures belong to Nathan Lyon who took 3/25 in seven overs against New Zealand last season; the only other figures of note are those of Simon Katich, whose chinamen captured 3/34 against Pakistan in 2009.  Indeed, spin has been responsible for only 22% of all Test wickets over the past three Bellerive Tests.

Bowling style
Total Innings
Total analysis
Off spin
Leg spin
*Total Innings ncludes the number of bowlers – ie. Should Lyon and Michael Clarke bowl in the first innings against Sri Lanka, it would count as two.  Should only Lyon bowl (last over before lunch, as is Clarke’s wont), then the figure is only 1.

The debate over whether Australia should include four fast bowlers has some merit in Hobart, but - though this was in some ways a default option given Josh "brown paper bag" Hazelwood's inexperience and Australian bowlers' propensity for injury - considering the selectors opted to play Lyon in Western Australia, he is likely to play in Tasmania.

Lyon hasn't had much experience on the Bellerive pitch; in South Australia's only First-Class game there this season he delivered only four overs for ten runs and had certified non-spinner Johan Botha preferred to him.  Although he's unquestionably Australia's best offie since Tim May, it may be that this disturbing lack of structural integrity in Australian fast men that most contributes to Lyon retaining his Test spot until retirement.

However, considering how well Tasmanian climes have responded fast bowling over this season, there is a solid argument that four fast bowlers (well, unless they're Sri Lankan quicks) could be well suited to most efficiently capture the 20 wickets required for a win.  Unfortunately in the table below we couldn't afford a separate category for straight-breakers (ie. Johan Botha), so he's lumped in with off-spinners.

Bowling style
Innings used
Total analysis
Off spin
  What can we draw from the information above (apart from the fact that a similar analysis for the MCG will be a bastard)?  Simply, Lyon's quote-unquote intangibles earn him a place for Australia - especially with his small sample size providing no conclusive proof that actual finger-spinners flourish or die on a relatively small ground.  However, with the combination of the low cloud that's often brought along with showers suggest that a potent pace attack is going to contribute most to success.

Why a bowler's preview?  Simple - when did you hear of a batsman being dropped because of the weather or the pitch?  Not since the days of Andrew Hilditch, which are hopefully receding into the distance.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Yet more miscellany

Apologies for the lack of recent posts - it's finals week for a hideous quarter of neurophysiology, limbs anatomy and functional skills.  Hence ... a dearth of time for writing.  Hopefully I'm back up and running in a week.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

UEFA to force-feed the Golden Goose

The President of UEFA, Michel Platini, has hinted that the confederation is considering dropping the Europa League competition altogether in favour of an expanded Champions League. The move, mooted for some time between 2015 and 2018, would see the unpopular continental second-tier system removed as and football's big money spinner double in size to 64 teams.

Platini has proved somewhat of an egalitarian leader: throughout his presidency, he has championed the expansion of the UEFA European Championships (the Euros) to 32 teams – or over 60 percent of the continent represented. Should the Europa League actually be canned, the Golden Goose Champions League credibility will be damaged: removing exclusivity from anything makes it far more commonplace.

The simple laws of physics state that increasing an object's size doesn't necessarily increase its impact – in fact, often it has the opposite effect.

That's not to say that the Europa League is great, because it really isn't. One of the principal failings of the Europa League has simply been the effort it demands, especially when players must front up in local leagues two days after lengthy trips abroad. Bigger clubs – especially in fixture-full England – have been known to simply send reserve sides overseas, sacrificing the competition for the sake of league position.

Rather than removing the Europa League or expanding the Champions League (which can't possibly hope to bring in more money now that ostensible top clubs are admitted almost by default), a better solution may be to simply resurrect the old UEFA Cup – a true home-and-away cup competition requiring less travel, less meaningless Thursday night encounters and each club having a true puncher's chance of advancing to the next round.

Think about it: Armenian champions Neftchi Baku look set to complete their Europa League experience this season with two points from a possible eighteen, both from draws with Serbian side Partizan Belgrade. The highlight of their continental football this season will almost certainly be a trip to the San Siro to play Inter Milan – in a reinstated UEFA Cup, the players retain their highlight and even have a chance at pulling off the unbelieveable.

A return to a continental cup competition is unlikely to proceed – the extra home dates afforded by a mini-league are simply too valuable for administrators and owners to give up. However, the romance afforded by smaller clubs taking on big money earners would certainly be hard to ignore. It's these realities which make a return to a Cup competition unlikely at best. But we can still hope.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Fernando Torres is not a time-traveller

I don't read much baseball - the odd seminal work like Moneyball, usually - but I make a habit of reading Lookout Landing, the SB Nation coverage for my local major league team, the Seattle Mariners.  Check it out - it's intelligent and funny stuff.

Hot on the topic of now ex-Mariner Chone Figgins trending on Twitter last week (after rumours of his long-impending demise proved true), the Landing's lead blogger Jeff Sullivan came up with the following statement to describe the serial underperformer:

I don't think 2009 Chone Figgins is ever coming back, because 2009 is one way in time and we go the other way and things that happened before often don't happen again. In sports, anyway. 

Does this remind you of anyone? It certainly did for me - so much so that even the dates match.

2009 harkens back to Fernando Torres' last season in his pomp at Liverpool and given the current state of affairs at Chelsea, Sullivan has once again proved remarkably prescient. Whether Roman Abramovich employed Rafa Benitez with the primary aim of helping Torres rediscover his form or simply because there are no more "names" available to him matters little; as Sullivan so rightly described  Figgins, Torres has been so out of form for so long that any last semblance the Fernando Torres of 2004-2009 has become only the fodder for pleasant Kop memories.

The player who once was Fernando Torres - the only man in England to give Nemanja Vidic nightmares - just doesn't exist any more.  He is an echo to a bygone age.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Abramovich, Benitez and Guardiola: bizarre love triangle

In 2007, Michael Voss, a former Brownlow medallist, inspirational club captain and widely-touted Premiership coach in waiting, had announced he wanted a head-coaching gig for the following season.  In quick response, three AFL clubs fired incumbent coaches to obtain the hottest leadership property available in years.  

When fallen league heavyweights Carlton effectively vacated their coaching staff only days after arch-rivals Essendon dispatched their coach of twenty-seven years, Essendon officials were overheard leaving Pagan’s final exit interview saying “They want the same guy we want”.  No-one had to clarify who that guy was.  Perhaps unwittingly – but probably not – Voss had cast a shadow over the entire league landscape that eventually cost three coaches their jobs.

Neither team succeeded in employing Voss, who went on to take over his former club, the Brisbane Lions.  This is perhaps to their benefit, as Voss’ five-year coaching record stands at 32 wins, 53 losses and a tie.
Once in a while, a coaching property so desirable enters the marketplace and every club with delusions of grandeur fall over themselves to acquire him.  Proverbial dead men walking walk no longer.  The spectre of the available coach stalks the landscape until he commits to a contract – usually at the club of his choice.  His resume is so powerful, so compelling that any destination club hedges their personnel bets ... just in case they get a chance to employ that one mystical, alchemical coach.

No, that coach is not Harry Redknapp – no matter how much he’d like it to be.

It’s Pep Guardiola.  Despite currently “on sabbatical” in New York, his avatar haunts the high-paid underperformers.  This week, interim Chelsea boss (come on, admit it – was he really anything else?) Roberto Di Matteo was dismissed only months after leading Chelsea to their first Champions League title.  While his team had underperformed in November, the phenomenon is hardly unusual.  Where Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was in love with Mourinho, fascinated by Andre Villas-Boas and is infatuated by Guardiola, he barely even liked Di Matteo.

The new Chelsea manager is Rafael Benitez, a former Champions League winner himself, who agreed to coach the Blues only until the end of this season; in so doing, he has embraced his destiny as Abramovich’s rebound fling while the oligarch continues his unrequited love affair with the former Barcelona manager.

It’s not just the Blues of London who find themselves sweaty with anticipation of a glance from Pep: Roberto Mancini should probably look upon Txiki Begiristain’s appointment as Man City football director with dismay, Guardiola’s “philosophy” apparently mirrors that of Arsene Wenger, while Sir Alex Ferguson is thought to prefer Guardiola as his successor at Old Trafford.  Quiet overtures have been received from the Milan twins, AC and Inter and reports have emerged today that Brazil kind of fancy a dapper bald guy to succeed Mano Menezes.

Guardiola has unconsciously cast an enormous shadow over the entire coaching landscape that won’t be dismissed until he signs a contract.  And for this reason, the likes of Andre Villas-Boas, Di Matteo, Benitez – or indeed anyone managing a club with money – will find themselves victim to the whims of chairmen everywhere.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

International break? Give me a break!

It’s international week again and, for the fourth time in as many months since the Euros, the football world lets out a collective “meh”.

Today’s friendlies mean nothing to anyone.  Except apparently FIFA, who decided to schedule a round of non-competition internationals to fuel their dual fantasy that International friendlies are as important to crowds as the local stuff.

It’s not that friendlies aren’t important, but poorly timed.  English Premier League clubs have managed eleven league matches each since the season began in August.  By today’s end, we will have seen seven international matches.   Joe Hart, the England goalkeeper, has already played 26 matches since June.
In November, you can be certain of three things: that some domestic seasons are just getting interesting (like the English Premiership or the A-League, where league saviour Alessandro Del Piero’s coach has just resigned), that playoffs are in full swing (as with the Asian Champions League and MLS) and that Chelsea  have begun their annual holiday.

In arranging this new slate of games, FIFA’s reasoning is almost sound.  They finds themselves trapped in a corner of a world demanding constant attention: with a six month break between matches, the administrators risk the International game being even further overshadowed by local affairs.   It’s not too long a bow to draw to suggest a random football fan from Jamaica, Uzbekistan or Egypt knows more about this year’s UEFA Champions League machinations than their home nation’s last friendly result.  Their half-baked solution?  More international football.

The fact is that the marketplace is flooded with football.  You’d think the market is so large that flooding it would be something of a logical impossibility, but you’d be wrong.  Almost without exception, every domestic league in the world has operated within the past month; not only were the European Championships this summer, but also the Olympics and the annual Carlos Tevez transfer saga. 

Football fans have had no respite from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sasa Ognenovski and Ashley Cole’s Twitter account for over a year.

International football is, simply, a wonderful product.  The World Cup is a celebration of football the Champions League Final can never replicate.  Almost every major International tournament comes with a wholesome quality lacking when players are bought or sold for exorbitant sums.  You can think of International football as Organic football, taking time and care to mature.

Those who control future international fixturing now face a decision.  When controlling such a unique (organic) product, you can approach the market in one of two ways: make your offering boutique and desirable, or compete against products which are different/plastic/a billionaire’s playground (delete as appropriate)

International football should always be relevant; however, competing with a glitzier – but not necessarily better – product, it has fallen into byline territory.  It’s time for football federations the world over to market International football as what it is: a boutique product that offers much that the domestic game cannot.