Friday, June 30, 2006

US U-15 and U-13 National Tournament

With a World Cup, Wimbledon and plenty of other sporting contests occupying the public imagination, not many would have spared a thought for the first ever US National Junior (U-15 and U-13) Cricket Tournament that was held last weekend in Northern California. For budding young cricketers across the nation however, there was only one thing on their mind. To take full advantage of this phenomenal experience and opportunity.

Or at least that's how it should have played out. But as we all know, in this country, cricket goes hand-in-hand with politics, and sure enough, thanks to the political machinations of has-beens and never-weres across the country, multitudes of 12 and 14 year olds were denied the opportunity to participate in what could, and should have been a grand event.

That aside, I was fortunate enough to be able to witness at close quarters a smattering of the talent that may be available to the USA in coming years.

In the Under-13 category, just three teams came to the party, and two of them were from the host region - Northern California. The California Cricket Academy Pros walked away with the title, beating the California Cricket League (also Northern CA) and the SouthWest Mustangs (from Los Angeles) twice each in the group stages, and handing a veritable thrashing to the CCL youngsters in the final.

Despite the one-sided nature of the games, there was certainly some raw talent on display. Pros thirteen year old captain Pranay Suri dominated the statistics, scoring more runs, taking more wickets and holding more catches than anyone else in the competition. His side played intelligent and aggressive cricket, and along with Arsh Buch, an all-rounder who models himself on Irfan Pathan, Suri could be a name to watch for the future.

The Under-15s provided a lot more excitement than their younger counterparts. The Central East Region were the one national region that managed to organize itself into a squad for this tournament, and their relative quality showed as they crushed New Jersey, the SouthWest Cougars and the NorthWest Gold on their march to the final.

The real competition for CER came from the NorthWest Centurions (yes, two teams from the region once again). In the final round-robin game, the two teams met in what proved to be a dress-rehearsal for the final.

A very tight game, marked by some quality batsmanship on both sides, came down to the wire, with the Centurions needing 2 to win and 1 to tie off the last ball of the game. A tie would indeed have been the appropriate result, but in the mayhem that ensued as the Centurions scrambled for that single, the umpire failed to notice that the CER bowler had dislodged the bails with his leg, and gave a run out that never should have been, leaving the CER to claim a controversial 1-run victory.

That set the stage for the final, in which the bowlers on both sides showcased their talents, before the Centurions pulled off a tight victory with just an over to spare.

More interesting than the details of the game were the cricketers on view. In particular, the two captains - 14 year old Akash Jagannathan and Abhijit Joshi - had 'cricketer' stamped all over them. I've been fortunate enough to see and play in top quality youth cricket around the world, and these two youngsters could hold their own anywhere.

Jagannathan bats with a wonderfully compact and orthodox technique, reminiscent, dare I say it, of Sunil Gavaskar. He bowls some tidy off-spin, with a mastery of flight beyond his years, has a good arm and pair of hands in the field, and just for good measure, in the final he took the gloves for a couple of overs and pulled off a pair of top-notch stumpings.

Joshi was the pick of the medium pacers on display at the tournament, bowling with a yard more pace than anyone else. His batting technique was not quite so orthodox, but he is temperamentally sound. He was also far and away the standout fielder of the week, but going beyond that it was his leadership that impressed - most notably his reading of the batsmen's strengths and weaknesses, and his willingness to go against the advice his coach.

Okay, so that last comment is an interesting one to make, no doubt. It's something I'm sensitive about, dating back to a game many years ago. We were defending 125 in 50 overs against a Sri Lankan line-up that included Kumara Sangakkara, Hemantha Boteju, Shanta Kalavitigoda and several others who went on to play Test and ODI cricket. You would think the only hope we had, faint as it was, would be to get them all out. But no, our coach, a native Sri Lankan, and quite ridiculously wearing his Sri Lanka team shirt on the day, ordered us to set a defensive field and try and contain them. I wasn't having it, bowled for wickets, and we took a few to give them a bit of a scare. We lost in the end, and I was chewed out by my coach for not listening to him, but I stand by my actions to this day.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Thierry Henry

No, I won't bother to pass judgement on the theatrical face-clutching (also referred to as cheating) that earned France a free-kick and knocked Spain out of the World Cup. After all, as much as I will be pilloried for suggesting it, the man's arrogance knows no bounds, as he displayed after the Champions League Final. He's a great footballer, sure, but he's an even greater dramatist, and his strongest skill is his ability to manipulate the media.

However, you can't fool those commentators at ESPN and ABC. No sirree. They've seen through it all, and have figured out that Henry is in fact not a defensive midfielder.

  • "That's Henry's 13th offside of the tournament. That statistic shows us that he is really more of an attacking minded player, like a striker"
There were of course, a couple of other choice quotes yesterday, as well as the continued repetition of all the old goodies:

  • "A great bicycle kick effort on that play"
  • "That's sent long by Kingston" - a reference to a great Hail Mary pass by the Ghana quarterback, Richard Kingston
  • "The best players read the game well... on the breakaways"
There were a few more, but I stopped taking notes at some point!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Australia vs Italy - World Cup Special

Italy vs Ukraine is about as unremarkable a quarter-final as anyone could have hoped for, with neither time displaying much ability to create and accept opportunities to score. Fortunately though, we will always have the ABC/ESPN commentary team to keep us entertained.

Some specials from today's 2nd round match:

  • "That's why you gotta play the ball in the air and give him a chance to jump over him" - an explanation of how Italy should tactically leverage the height of their strikers
  • "So much of the roster of Australia are top notch players"
  • "They're trying to get a huge offensive thrust with all those men at the striker position" - I think this was intended to imply that Italy were looking to attack
  • "Tim Cahill was subbed in and scored" - actually, maybe this one's not as bad as it sounded
  • "He plays in Crystal City in England" - I can only assume that he thought that Crystal Palace was home to the soveriegn ruler of Crystal City?
  • "Italy forcing the turnover" - erm, there we go with the cross-sport references. Keep your gridiron to yourself, please!
  • "Italy, on the foot of Gilardino, couldn't connect for the score" - indeed, they couldn't.
  • "That's what Italy have to do, they have to sell all the fouls to see if they can get one of the Australians thrown out" - more tremendous tactical advice
You can't help but enjoy it, in a pathetically twisted sort of way.

Laxman strikes back

It's as if he read my post wondering whether his career was about to end. I mentioned in that post that it was just 6 months ago that he won India a Test match against Sri Lanka with a century. Yesterday he saved India from ignominous defeat with a remarkably atypical effort. 100 of the most valuable runs he has scored - after all, to spare your team from going down at the hands of "a better playing team" (Brian Lara's words, not mine) is quite an achievement.

So now who makes way for Tendulkar?

Friday, June 23, 2006

The hits keep on coming!

A few more specials from our buddies at ESPN
  • "They're not as good on D-fence"
  • "Kaka will get it at the end line"
  • "Nice combination play" - it's called a one-two!!
  • "Lampard is going to be wide with the head-flick"
  • "... the big forward in the key" - erm, wrong sport!!
  • "and the save on Boronin (sic)!! That's the best play of the game there"
  • "it felt like a spring training split squad game" - err, what?
I have to confess, my old mates at Yahoo! are not doing much better either with their official FIFA site for the world cup. They continue to persist with the misguided American desire to produce baseball style boxscores for every sport in the world, hence the analysis of GGAs and GAAs and so on. Their fantasy game is a bit of a joke as well - the leading squads are run by those who cottoned on to the fact that Yahoo! believes that keepers, defenders and defensive or holding midfielders are worthless, and that SOGs, Gs and PKGs are the only things that count.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The ESPN specials continue

Highlights of today:

  • "Taken out of bounds on the slip by Darijo Srna"
  • "He puts it right there, but Dida's right there" - only the shot being described was actually well wide of goal
  • "It's okay for forwards to make mistakes because they've got the midfielders, and it's okay for defenders to make mistakes because they've got the goalkeeper behind them" - perhaps this explains why the USA are unlikely to win a World Cup anytime soon
  • "Kaka with the head ball there"
If it wasn't for the entertainment value, I'd be watching Univision by now.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

More great American commentary

The highlight of the day, of course, was the unbelievably partisan commentary on the USA-Italy battle. The game featured three red cards, and each one of them was completely justified, and in keeping with the directives handed down to referees for the tournament. However, to hear Marcela Balboa, Eric Wynalda (who himself has been red carded at a World Cup) and co. speak, the referee had an anti-US nightmare. Perhaps they mistook him for the fellow Dubya has been searching for since 2001.

When Pablo Mastroeni launched a two footed, studs showing lunge on Andrea Pirlo, and was dismissed, Balboa explained that this was just a normal tackle that was mistimed, and should have received a talking-to, or a yellow at best.

When Eddie Pope, already on a yellow, chopped down Gilardino from behind, or perhaps the side, Balboa suggested that a good referee would have not shown the second yellow, because he knew the player already had a yellow card. That is to say, a foul is only a foul if you have not previously committed a foul. Imagine that - once you're on a yellow card, you get a free vicious foul before you get a second yellow. Only an American commentator could think that one up.

Some other great comments from today's round of games:

  • "Appiah had a big play on the goal!" - a reference to Appiah's contribution to the move that led to Ghana's first goal
  • "Jankulovsky on the shot that's blocked!"
  • "When you get scored on early, it's difficult to get your bearings straight" - a reference to the USA's struggle to recover after going 1-0 down inside 5 minutes against the Czech Republic
  • "Teams who get the first score are 27-2-2 at this World Cup" - says ESPN at the start of the 25th match of the tournament. Think about those numbers for a second.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

It's Michael Spice on the PK into the Onion Bag!

I watch Manchester United because I love the team and the club. I watch the World Cup because I enjoy watching good football. The problem I'm really having this year is that I'm struggling to cope with listening to the World Cup on ESPN and ABC.

This doesn't surprise me, of course, but the fact that it was expected does not make it any better. How hard would it be, do you think, for Disney to go out and hire a couple of pundits who actually understand the sport, and speak the lingo. If nothing else, they could simply purchase foreign feeds with quality commentators describing the action.

But no. Instead, we have to settle for Marcela Balboa, Dave O'Brien, Tommy Smyth, Shep Messing, JP Dellacamera and co. When Tommy Smyth is the best of the bunch, you know you're stuck in the ninth circle of hell. Amusingly enough, the only person on the team who seems to have a grasp of the game, the players, and what the World Cup even is, is Julie Foudy in the studios. Unfortunately, the half-time analysis during each match is usually limited to a summary of the day's basketball scores, and a deep throught from each analyst on the state of the US team.

Oh, for some insight, dry English wit, and a commentator who is actually familiar with the players. I've had enough of:

  • ".. and he puts a bulge in the old onion bag" - a Tommy Smyth special
  • ".. oh that's gotta be a PK! Sure PK!"
  • ".. Michael [sic] Beckham gets the score on the head ball!" - yes, one of them called him Michael Beckham
  • ".. and the coach must be thinking about taking out Crouch and bringing in a Rooney or a Wilcox [sic]" - this morning's buffoon speculates on Sven-Goran Eriksson's plans to assassinate his only fit striker
  • ".. and they win it one to nothing on the score from Neuville"
  • ... ad infinitum
The BBC may have gone over the top a bit, but their tongue-in-cheek article on how an American sportswriter would report on the World Cup back in 2002 hammered home the point in a decidedly unsubtle and un-British manner.

As far as I can tell, Disney prepared their team by having them watch Bend it Like Beckham half a dozen times, follwed by a quick viewing of the Spice Girls movie. It's no wonder the sport is struggling to take root in this country.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Identity Crisis and Oestrogen Overload

For many years, I was the son of my mother. For a while, I was also the boyfriend of my girlfriend. I then became the husband of my wife, and a few weeks ago I graduated to being the father of my daughter.

As I sit here working late into the night, struggling to get done what I should be getting done, I find myself wondering exactly when I get to be me?

Monday, June 12, 2006

End of the road for Laxman?

With Mohammad Kaif scoring an excellent unbeaten century against the West Indies yesterday, one can't help but wonder if this isn't the end of the road for VVS Laxman. India have a couple of tough decisions to make after this series, and Laxman is going to be squarely in the centre of them.

Sehwag and Jaffer will be opening the batting for the foreseeable future, and Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar when he returns, will take the #3 and #4 spots. With the 5-bowler strategy also in the mix, there is really only room for 2 middle order batsmen, and a backup. The four players in contention at the moment are Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, Kaif and Suresh Raina.

You have to believe that Kaif is going to get a run in the side now, and with VVS failing so far on this tour, it's hard to see how he will be picked ahead of Yuvraj when Tendulkar makes his return. Age and value in the field are both clearly going to work against him. Personally I have my own misgivnigs about Yuvraj's true utility with the bat, but he is a fighter, and his pugnacious approach to the game is both refreshing, and requisite.

At that point, Laxman finds himself fighting for a reserve batsman spot, and that's a position that he's not likely to fill ahead of Raina. The man who played perhaps the defining innings of his generation may be about to exit stage left, with no more than a small whimper.

If it does turn out that way, we will all be left to wonder what could have been. An average of 43 after 75 Tests is not to be scoffed at. Critics will suggest that his recent form has been poor, and a couple of fifties against Pakistan, and a 140 in Zimbabwe has not been a great return since the 2003/04 Australian tour. However, it was only 6 months ago that he produced a top class match-winning century against Sri Lanka at Ahmedabad.

A confidence and touch player, it wasn't until his Kolkata masterclass that he really cemented his place in the side, and even then, the one role he has been allowed to consistently fulfil is that of #1 scapegoat. Sometimes deservedly so, other times not. At the end of the day, I will thank him for the great moments and the entertainment, and consider myself fortunate to have seen some of his great knocks in person.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Brian Lara - a gallant sportsman

Or so he would have us believe. It all started several years ago, on a tour to India, when he was feted far and wide for walking after edging a catch to the keeper. One would have thought at the time that no batsman in the history of the game had walked. With that single action, Lara established himself as the paragon of honesty and virtue in the gentleman's game. Nobody would ever dare question his sportsmanship again.

Which is why we find ourselves where we are today. Virender Sehwag is fined 20% of his match fee for daring to celebrate a wicket without first looking at the umpire. Brian Lara, on the other hand, wags a finger at an umpire, snatches a ball out of his hand, delays a game for 15 minutes with his childish protests, demands that the batsman accept his word over the umpire's, and then concludes it all by having the temerity to question the conduct of everyone else, suggesting that the spirit of the game was endangered by their actions.

He may have scored 375, 400, and 501, performances that can never be detracted from, no matter how benign the opposition or placid the pitches. But no man can be bigger than the game, and apparently this one believes that he is. Whether that is sadder for him, or for the rest of us, I don't know.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The key to World Cup success

There's a lot of talk about Wayne Rooney as England build up to the World Cup, but while he may be England's talisman and key weapon, Sven-Goran Eriksson has another ace up his sleeve.

The keys to England's success arrived in Baden Baden yesterday aboard a (French) airbus chartered from British Airways. But I'm not talking about Theo Walcott, nor am I referring to the impact that Peter Crouch's robot dance is certain to have on unsuspecting opponents.

Indeed, the hopes of an entire nation have been pinned on two crates. One filled with Jaffa Cakes, and the other stocked with Ribena.

Both are, of course, national treasures, and delights that I both remember fondly, and devour with relish when the opportunity arises.

Something like four million Jaffa Cakes are produced every day in Manchester, each one of them a delightful combination of orange, chocolate coating, and sponge cake. And they absolutely are cakes, and not biscuits, a contention that McVities had to justify to avoid the treats being subject to VAT back in the early 90's.

For those who are concerned about the impact of a Jaffa Cake on a footballer's closely monitored diet, fear not. A single cake contains just 46 calories, and 1g of fat. Rio Ferdinand easily burns off the pack he so fashionably consumes on-field these days.

Of course, I can't say the same about Ribena, but if it is going to be the libation of choice, then at least we all know that young Mr Walcott is going to be well looked after.