Monday, February 27, 2006

In Ruud health!

I never thought I'd be this happy after a Milk Cup Final, and while I wasn't quite dancing on tables as happened back in 1999, I still savoured every moment of it. With the exception of the new, low quality sausages and bacon that they served at the pub.

The performances of Wes Brown, Rooney and Ronaldo were marvellous, as was the effort put in by Louis Saha, despite the fact that he scored his goal quite by accident. Naturally, the media had a tough time praising Ronaldo, which is really just sad. His skills were a delight to behold, and he repeatedly tore Wigan apart.

It was interesting that he has been castigated for his little keepy-uppy party-trick in the second half - frankly I would be thrilled to see more such sublime ball skills. Apparently it's okay to indulge in fancy skills if your name is Robinho, or Thierry Henry, but should you play for United, then you're just insulting the opposition. Of course, I wouldn't expect ABU commentators to have noticed that Ronaldo has pulled of similar stunts at 0-0. It's up to the opposition to tackle him, if they can.

Most interesting of all though, has been the reaction to Ruud's day out on the substitute's bench. It's not the first time Sir Alex has benched him, and nor will it be the last. I for one thought it was an entirely appropriate decision, and there's no question it was justified. Rooney, Ronaldo, Saha and Park were just a bit too much for Wigan's middle-aged back four.

What's more, I thought Ruud handled it superbly. He was a keen spectator throughout the game, and displayed nothing but complete support for United from the first kick to the last. Yes, he was upset to have not got a run out; and yes, he left the pitch after just one lap of honour. And what was wrong with that? For all the great things he has done for this club, it was the lads on the pitch who merited the glory on the day. I would hope that any self-respecting footballer would also be upset were they not in the playing XI for a Cup Final. Doesn't mean that they're all going to quit and move to Spain.

It's onwards and forwards now. With any luck, we'll seal 2nd place, get in a few games for Rossi, Pique, Bardsley, Eagles, Jones and a few others, and be very well positioned for a true assault on the title in 2006-07. Naturally, I'm not giving up on Chelsea dropping 5 games until it's no longer mathematically possible, but I can't claim to being too optimistic on that front.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Start of a new dynasty?

The pundits are out in full force. A last chance to salvage a modicum of respectability. The oft-ignored League Cup Final is apparently United's last hope. Times are desperate, and this trophy will make all the difference.

All true, perhaps, and yet there are some interesting historical parallels that suggest that we could be on the verge of something great, rather than struggling to avoid complete disaster.

Cast your minds back 14 years. In April 1992, United went into the League Cup Final against Nottingham Forest. Two years prior, in 1990, the FA Cup had been won, despite the fact that many were calling time on Alex Ferguson's reign at Old Trafford. The 1992 Youth Team swept all before them. And at Wembley, Choccy scored the goal that sparked the most incredible decade that football has ever known. We won the League Cup, and didn't look back.

14 years later, it is February 2006. United are going into the League Cup Final against Wigan Athletic. Two years prior, in 2004, the FA Cup was won, despite the fact that many were calling time on Sir Alex Ferguson's reign at Old Trafford. The 2006 Reserve Team is sweeping all before them, sitting pretty with 16 wins out of 20 at the top of the Reserve table. And on Sunday, we go to Cardiff.

Granted, you can draw parallels with just about anything, and I've conveniently ignored the 1991 Cup Winners Cup, but could it be that us United fans should be looking forward with hope, rather than back with despair?

In 1992, we lined up with Schmeichel, Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister; Phelan, Ince, Kanchelskis and Giggs; McClair and Hughes. That core was augmented with the youngsters from the champion youth squad, and a couple of key signings, including a young Roy Keane, and the hitherto unheralded Eric Cantona. And look what happened.

This weekend, we've got Vidic and Brown (and Rio) at the back, Park and Ronaldo on the flanks, Ruud and Rooney up front, and we have young talents such as Bardsley, Pique, Eagles, Jones and Rossi lighting up the reserves. You heard it here first - this team has a future. Top quality experience in the form of Van der Sar, Neville, Scholes and Ruud, and a great blend of young talent to work with that backbone. What's to worry about?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The jokers get it right (almost)!

As always with an Indian squad selection, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. When it was decreed that the squad be announced on the first day of the Board President's XI match, you just knew that somebody would step up and make a mockery of the selection.

Sure enough, VRV Singh delivered 9 overs for 63 runs on an alleged green-top, and was picked in the squad, whilst Munaf Patel took 5 wickets to skittle England for 238, but is nowhere to be seen.

That said, the selectors made two decisions that I had hoped for.

First, Mohammad Kaif is retained, and that has been done in preference to Sourav Ganguly, who now looks even more foolish for failing to announce his retirement prior to this. Somewhere in Calcutta he is no doubt desperately singing Bruce Springsteen's "Fade Away," but his time has clearly come. At least until the next selection committee is appointed, that is. Looks like Dylan Thomas's words failed him.

Second, the wildly talented Piyush Chawla has been drafted into the squad. We haven't even reached the early days of his career, but from the little I've seen and lot I've heard and read, this 17 year old leggie who helped UP to the Ranji title has the world at his feet.

The squad itself breaks down as follows:

  • Openers - Sehwag, Jaffer
  • Middle Order - Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Kaif, Raina
  • Keeper - Dhoni
  • Medium Pacers - Pathan, RP Singh, Sreesanth, VRV Singh
  • Spinners - Kumble, Harbhajan, Chawla

A lot of intriguing options present themselves here, but there's really only one place up for grabs. Sehwag and Jaffer will open the innings, followed by Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman. Dhoni will keep and bat #6 or #7, and Pathan, RP Singh, Kumble and Harbhajan will all play. That leaves one spot for either a 6th batsman, a 3rd paceman, or a 3rd spinner. VRV Singh probably bowled himself out of contention today, so we're looking at Chawla, Sreesanth, Kaif and Raina gunning for that opportunity.

The exciting choice would of course be Chawla, with Kaif being the balanced option. Picking Sreesanth would be a real statement of intent - take on England's 4 pacemen with 3 medium pacers of our own.

I would personally like to see India go with: Sehwag, Jaffer, Dravid, Tendulkar, Kaif, Raina, Dhoni, Pathan, Chawla, Kumble, Sreesanth. Assuming Dish Network finally picks up the series, that will truly be fun to watch, especially if England counter with: Trescothick, Strauss, Vaughan, Bell, Pietersen, Flintoff, G Jones, Blackwell, Harmison, S Jones, Panesar. Not going to happen though.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A chuck is a chuck is a chuck

I think Peter Roebuck has nailed this one right on the head. There's no doubt in my mind that Shoaib Akhtar chucks, and does so beyond the stipulated 15 degrees of tolerance. The excuse profferred is that he has a condition, that leads to hyper-extension of the elbow, and so on and so forth. I don't dispute that, and nor do I wish Shoaib, or anyone else similarly afflicted, any ill-will.

The point Roebuck makes, with which I completely concur, is that this condition should be completely irrelevant. The Laws of the game stipulate conditions and requirements, and they must be met. Failure to meet them is a contravention of the Laws, plain and simple. This is not an issue that should be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or any such international equivalent. The sport of cricket does not have to uniquely accomodate every human being on the planet.

With any sport, if you are physically unable to comply with the demands, you don't play it. Cricket should be no different. Some may say this is heartless - but it isn't.

Consider the example of an individual with a debilitating rotator cuff injury combined with bursitis (two things I know plenty about). He cannot raise his arm above his chest, and therefore cannot legally throw or bowl a ball of any sort.

Would the ICC make an exception and allow him to bowl underarm, because a natural physical ailment prevents him from complying with the Laws of the game? Hell no - such people are forced to seek careers as umpires or coaches, or simply forget about playing cricket altogether.

There is no question in my mind that the same principles need to be applied unilaterally. Either you comply with the Laws and regulations, or you don't. If you fail to do so, then that's the end of that. No special exemptions because you bring in extra television dollars. It's an insult to the game that we all love.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

"Slow Bangalore Passenger"

Stumbled across this somewhat whimsical tribute to Indian cricketers from days gone by - a fairly entertaining read. The author is clearly a very casual cricket fan, but his sense of humour is at times delectably biting, so well worth a read and a chuckle.

It's hard to be sure whether Venkatesh Prasad was overrated or underrated, but either which way, calling him "The Slow Bangalore Passenger that is currently broken down at Palakkad Station," by way of contrast to "The Rawalpindi Express" cannot fail to elicit a smile in even his most ardent fan.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Bradman of bowlers

No, I'm not going to identify the greatest bowler the world has ever seen - but apparently Richie Benaud is giving it a shot! He's developed the wonderfully named "Richie Rating" in order to properly stratify bowlers.

Now I probably have no right to question Richie Benaud, not least because he has at various times been a great bowler, all rounder, captain, selector and television commentator - and in the case of the lattermost, one of the few to really understand the art of silence. However, I am at a complete loss to comprehend why it is that a batting average (runs per dismissal) is a satisfactory way to measure batting performance, but apparently a bowling average (runs per wicket) is not.

The old argument of course, is that strike rate and other factors should be considered to more accurately gauge the worth of a bowler. Fair enough - but in that case shouldn't we do much the same for a batsman? If taking wickets quickly is to be considered along with taking plenty of them, then we must consider scoring runs quickly alongside scoring plenty of them as well.

In the timeless test scenario, the average is the single statistic that matters. If you play till both teams are all out twice, you need to score more runs per wicket than you concede. In the modern era of the 5-day Test, the speed at which you score those runs or take those wickets makes a difference as well. So it's fair to factor that in, but on both sides of the equation.

The crux of the problem is the quest to find a bowler who has the same relative standing to his peers as Bradman does. The answer which some might be overlooking is the simple one - this bowler simply does not exist. Bradman was an anomaly, in the mould of nature's great anomalies. Why must we meddle with that?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Park, Park, wherever you may be

One of the many things that makes a football match such a special experience is the wonderful and wacky assortment of chants and songs that are belted out from the terraces (well, perhaps not at Arsenal's Library). Whilst the media loves to portray football spectators as being somewhat less than erudite, they in fact display a lot more creativity and intelligence than the average Australian cricket supporter, for example.

The best we hear from the Aussies is usually something along the lines of "Andre Nel's a w**ker" or "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!"

Consider by way of contrast one of the latest, greatest songs from Old Trafford - and without a doubt my current favourite. Sung in honour of the Korean winger, Park Ji-Sung, to the tune of "Lord of the Dance":

Park, Park, wherever you may be,
You eat dogs in your home country!
It could be worse, you could be a Scouse,
Eating rats in your council house!
Now I know people will go on about how offensive, racist and scousist this is, and how it promotes stereotypes and all of that. Typical of our ultra-sensitive society these days. Whichever way you look at it, the wag who thought this one up is a creative genius in my book. I wonder if Park Ji-Sung actually understands what's being said when his name is sung (no pun intended, honest)!

That said though, I've got to confess that I do harbour some reservations about songs like this. They're creative, amusing and I personally have no problem with them - but in a sport which is fighting hard against racism in the stands all over Europe, you can't help but question whether these songs really help.

Creative genius? Racist thugs? Some combination thereof? You be the judge...

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Inzamam-ul-Haq - bad sportsmanship personified

Unbelievable. Inzamam-ul-Haq has lost a lot of respect in my book, and countless others I'm sure. Sure, I've always joked about him, but I held him in the highest regard as a batsman and perhaps more so as a leader, given the job he has done with the Pakistan side over the last year or two.

However, his whinging comments to the media regarding his comical dismissal in the 1st ODI have taken him down several pegs in my estimation. Quite simply, he has revealed himself to be at best a terribly ungracious loser, and at worst, a bare-faced liar.

The facts are plain to see - take a look for yourself and draw your own conclusions. Inzamam clearly plays a deliberate shot to hit the ball and prevent it from hitting the stumps and running him out. In fact, quite embarrassingly for an allegedly world-class cricketer, he makes no effort whatsoever to actually regain his ground - deciding instead that preventing the ball from hitting the stumps is the sportsmanlike way to go.

Inzamam accuses the Indians of "an appeal made in an unsportsmanlike manner" - a brilliant attempt to deflect attention from the fact that the single person guilty of bad sportsmanship in this incident was in fact Inzamam himself.

I laughed at him over the infamous 'Aloo' incident many years ago, and I have laughed at many comments attributed to him which I always suspected were 'lost in translation.' Now I realise that he is nothing more than a spoilt child - at least, that's what his behaviour in this incident suggests.

Will cricketers ever learn to keep their mouths shut and let their bats and balls do the talking?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Inzamam is very wide

I have to say, it was a classic back-foot off-drive, executed flawlessly and with impeccable timing. Unfortunately for Inzamam, you can't really do that when you find yourself stranded 4 yards out of your crease, and you see a throw from mid-off heading directly for the stumps.

The really sad thing though, was Inzi's subsequent reaction and comments to the media later on. He's still smarting about his Faisalabad run-out against England, and rightly so. He was wrongly given out on that occasion. Yet it seems as if nobody has made him aware of that - his attempt to argue that he shouldn't have been given out today, because he was given out in Faisalabad, was really quite pitiful. Can Test cricketers really be unfamiliar with such fundamental Laws of the game?

Speaking of reactions, Sachin Tendulkar's bat-waving on being given out was inexcusable as well. There's no doubt that it was a lousy decision from Asad Rauf - the ball had clearly gone off the glove and changed trajectory by about 70 degrees as a result. However, only backyard cricketers stand around waving their bat after an lbw appeal (yes, for those who know me, in this context North America is of course a backyard). Not what you'd expect from a man with 14,000 ODI runs.

I'm sure those who were calling for Tendulkar's career to be brought to an end are exercising a hint of self-restraint at this point. A good thing too - as Waqar Younis demonstrates on a regular basis, there's nothing uglier than a champion cricketer going for an early bath and taking up a perch in the commentary box. That said, where would we be without wonderful observations such as "Inzamam is really very wide." Yes - Waqar said that. He intended this as an explanation of why a straight drive had gone past Inzamam on it's way to the boundary, but that's not exactly how it came out.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

India Report Card

Scale Used: A = excellent, B = good, C = average, D = below average, E = bad, F = failure

Irfan Pathan: B+.
Although he made a game effort with the ball as the series progressed, and picked up the "best" hat-trick in the history of Test cricket (based on the batting averages of the victims), the yard of pace that has disappeared is very telling. I hope that his batting prowess isn't detracting from his primary purpose in the side.

Rahul Dravid: B. He scored two good hundreds under pressure and in an unfamiliar role, but he must shoulder some of the blame for being in that role in the first place. His captaincy is a notch above that of Ganguly's, but I think he could have used defensive bowling/field placing options a little more frequently.

Rudra Pratap Singh: B. One of the few marginal positives of the tour. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the pace we would all love to see, but he could easily settle into a second or third seamer role for India.

Yuvraj Singh: C. His century was a fighting one, albeit in a lost cause. It reminded me of his century at Lahore two years ago, where again he waged a lone battle. He relishes the contest, and while I am not convinced, he has done enough to warrant a run in the side. Needs to get his fielding back up to it's highest standards though.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni: C. A magnificent counter-attacking century on a featherbed does not a career make. A fluffed stumping chance that loses your country a Test series can a career destroy. Of course, he's not going anywhere, but India's keeping woes are not yet solved, and the lack of fight he showed with the bat in Karachi suggested that he needs to learn to compartmentalize the two areas of his game. Still, I think we'll be seeing more of him, and it will be positive.

Virender Sehwag: C-. He batted once in the series, and that was in his very first innings. We perhaps expect too much from him, but his failures thereafter were just all too predictable. The greatest batsmen have to learn to adjust their game to deal with different situations. That doesn't mean Sehwag shouldn't play shots, but he has to be more judicious with them at times. Greatness will forever elude him otherwise.

VVS Laxman: D. He played a good knock of 90, and perhaps deserved a century, but was made to look silly by Mohammad Asif in the third test, exposing an all too familiar flaw in his technique. Probably did just enough to retain his place, but he needs to step up.

Zaheer Khan: D. Stunning that he ended up as the leading wicket-taker on either side. I don't know that he did anything to deserve it. Looks lethargic when he bowls, is even worse in the field, and I don't see how he keeps his place after this.

Saurav Ganguly: E. For moments at Karachi he showed the grit and will to survive of old. However, despite not having to face the new ball at any time, he struggled to score, and will be wondering if he has played his last Test match. With any luck, he won't be wondering much longer.

Sachin Tendulkar: F. He played two great shots in the series - one square cut, and an on drive. Sadly his only other contribution was a couple of irrelevant catches, and several failed attempts to score a direct hit run out.

Harbhajan Singh: F. Along with Tendulkar, the biggest disaster of the tour, making a mockery of the selector's decision not to bring along another spinner in the squad. He seemed to have sorted it out, but has completely regressed once again. Don't write him off though, he's got the raw talent and attitude to bounce right back, as I am sure he will.

Ajit Agarkar: F. How does he keep getting picked?

Pakistan Report Card

Scale Used: A = excellent, B = good, C = average, D = below average, E = bad, F = failure

Kamran Akmal: A+. This boy was for my money the man of the series. Quite simply, he won the series for Pakistan. His keeping looks potentially top class, as does his batting. His temperament is already there. A long and glorious career awaits him.

Mohammad Asif: A. He could yet be another one of those one-Test wonders that litter the history books of Pakistani cricket, but he fully deserves his A for being the outstanding bowler on either side. His performance in Karachi was sensational, and the combination of off-cutter and occasional outswinger was simply too much for the Indian batsmen. I hope he gets a good run in the side - he will be an asset to world cricket.

Younis Khan: A. Led from the front, and batted with supreme confidence, as well one might when one averages well over 100 against this bowling attack. Sure, he had the best of the conditions, but boy did he take advantage.

Mohammad Yousuf: A. His conversion - from champion sledger to world class batsman - has been a revelation. Gone is the frustrating and often irritating Yousuf Youhana. Instead, we have a true leader of the middle order.

Abdul Razzaq: A. I wonder if we're seeing the re-emergence of a cricketer who once looked set to take on the world in a big way. He batted with guts and gusto, and he bowled with heart and verve, picking up key wickets. His first innings 45 and wickets in Karachi were crucial in turning the series to Pakistan. If his resurgence continues, he could comfortably have the sort of impact that more celebrated all rounders, such as Andrew Flintoff, have.

Shahid Afridi: A-. He brutalized India, plain and simple. He loses the half-grade because some of his on-field conduct was ugly and unneccessary.

Faisal Iqbal: B. He looked the part in the 2nd innings at Karachi, but you can't get an A on one performance. Pakistan have some serious and most welcome selection challenges ahead of them.

Shoaib Akhtar: C+. He didn't really do an awful lot, and I'm sorry, but his action is questionable at best. However, we shouldn't underestimate his contribution as the only bowler on either side with pace. There's no question in my mind that his presence helped earn wickets for his team, even if he did not claim those scalps himself. His batting was a revelation and a bonus and earns him the +.

Inzamam ul Haq: C. I know he scored a century, but he embarrassingly batted on and on just so that he could achieve the landmark. He is in brilliant form, and has been a great leader for Pakistan, but I just didn't feel that he had an impact on this series at all.

Imran Farhat: C. I've always liked him, and he has talent, to be sure. His half-century in the second innings in Karachi got Pakistan away, and he may just have done enough to oust Shoaib Malik from the first XI.

Salman Butt: C-. Looked good enough every time, but needs to turn that into results. His continued selection shows that while Pakistan have a surfeit of middle order batsmen, they are struggling to find someone to take on the new ball. Then again, do they care?

Shoaib Malik: D. Quite simply never quite looked the part.

Danish Kaneria: D. Another major disappointment for my money. I think the media has been a little too quick to celebrate his greatness - he has a long way to go. Certainly bowled some threatening stuff at times, and I know the pitches didn't help him, but ultimately that's no excuse. As long as Dean Jones doesn't keep confusing him with an Apple Danish, he'll be back.

Naved ul Hasan: E. He only played the one Test, but was for me the biggest disappointment of the series. Never quite got the pace or the swing right - and if and when he does, he can be devastating, as countless county batsmen found out in England last summer. Maybe he needs to learn how to bowl in unhelpful conditions.

Mohammad Sami: F. Why do Pakistan bother? I know he looks like he's a good bowler, but in 25 Tests he has 65 wickets at an average of 50. What's more, his stats are pretty much the same if you look at his last 5, 10, 15 or 20 Tests - there is simply no sign of improvement. Surely a waste of time.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Deserved victory

So Pakistan have beaten India in a Test series for the first time in 19 years. And it was thoroughly deserved. Most specifically, Kamran Akmal, Abdul Razzaq and Mohammad Asif truly deserved to emerge victorious.

Ultimately, Pakistan were better when it mattered, but Saurav Ganguly and his cohorts must shoulder some of the blame for the defeat. It was desperation to accomodate him that led to playing Rahul Dravid out of position, and that as much as anything else is why India were on the losing end. You won't see Ricky Ponting or Jacques Kallis opening the batting anytime soon, and there is a reason for that.

Look out for my assessment of the players on both sides coming shortly. I'm sure there'll be one or two talking points with the grades I plan to hand out. In the meantime, it's off to watch United-Blackburn.