Friday, July 21, 2006

Sachin vs. Sanjay

So Sachin Tendulkar and Sanjay Manjrekar are having a little tiff. In and of itself, nothing surprising there. It's neither the first nor the last time that an active sportsman will fall out with a former team mate who has
moved into the cushy critics' armchair. The spat is also probably not quite what it's being made out to be.

But for me, there's something a little different about this one. I've seen them together, off the field, and it's hard to imagine two cricketers being closer friends. Manjrekar, for all intents and purposes, appeared to play the elder brother role, but absent any overbearing didacticism. Watching them take throw-downs from each other on a tiled bathroom floor, and hearing of and observing the things they used to do together, one would
never have imagined a public feud of any sort, however minor.

I was going to say that it just goes to show, but I'm not entirely certain what it is that is illustrated. When the best of friendships can go sour, as I'm sure most of us have felt at some points in our lives, it does make you think about all the openly frosty dressing room relationships that exist. Little wonder that on occasion, some teams have real trouble performing as a cohesive unit.

Ultimately, I guess it's all part of growing up. When I first encountered the pair, Sachin looked a little more like this picture below, and grandmothers all over England were going ga-ga over him.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Punishment fits the crime?

Score a big one to Zinedine Zidane and his pathetic victimisation routine. Unbelievable that physical assault warrants a 3-match ban (which has no impact on a retired player), and a few verbals, which pointedly were not of a racial or religious nature, merit a 2-match ban for Marco Materazzi.

FIFA have engaged in a wonderful act of defenstration, tossing out all the norms of both amateur and professional sport. If sportsmen around the globe are no longer permitted to engage in verbals of any sort, then what could possibly remain for some of them? Will every player who mouths off at a fellow professional in the coming football season be banned for two games?

Just imagine if this ridiculous standard was applied to cricket. Would Australia still be the team to beat? Their second XI would certainly gain a lot of experience, that's for sure. And I shudder to think what would happen out here in Northern California. After all, it's currently acceptable to hit players with a cricket bat, so to suddenly raise the bar for behavioural standards is well nigh unthinkable. An entire league structure could collapse.

Okay, so I'm exaggerating the point, but I am stunned at the decision. Of course, I suppose that FIFA couldn't have their golden ball winner be tainted, not least because that indelible stain would be cast upon the entire tournament. So what better way to resolve the situation than imply that the provocateur was in fact the villain of the piece.

A sad day for football.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Inzamam puts Bradman in perspective

As it turns out, the Pakistan 2nd XI (with Shoaib Akhtar, Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan, Mohammad Asif and Rana Naved absent injured) comfortably played out a draw with the England 2nd XI (with Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan, Simon Jones, Ashley Giles absent injured and Mark Ramprakash not selected).

The surprise to all observers would no doubt have been Inzamam ul Haq's unbeaten half-century, his 9th in successive innings (two of them centuries, and a 97 for good measure) against England. His record against England is in fact quite stunning overall. His first tour, in '92, was a disaster, as he amassed just 66 runs in seven languid efforts at the crease.

Since then, in 21 innings, he has scored 1411 runs at an average of nearly 75. That spans tours to England in '96, '01 and now '06, and home series in '00 and '05. No wonder then, that the media wax lyrical about his performance, and the accolades are undoubtedly merited.

What all of this really serves to do, however, is give us an idea of just how good The Don really must have been. After all, England were his bogey team - he only averaged 90 against them, a full 10% off from his overall numbers.

And as far as stunning sequences go, have a look at this one.

270, 26, 212, 169, 51, 144*, 18, 102*, 103, 16, 187, 234, 79, 49, 56*

That's not a bad 15 inning run to begin with. Now throw in the fact that between the 16 and the 187, there was the trifling matter of a World War, which meant that Bradman hardly picked up a bat in the intervening 8 year period before resuming his Test career at the age of 38. Then add to that the small matter of his poor health, which had been bad enough on a prior tour of England that his wife was informed that he had passed away. And then consider that an entire nation expected, nay, demanded, that he lead his country out of wartime.

We shall never truly understand just how good he really was.

Friday, July 14, 2006

BBC Interview with Ganguly

I quite enjoyed this little BBC interview with Sourav Ganguly the other day. The one thing even I, a known detractor, have always given the man credit for, is his sheer bloody-minded determination. And this interview displays plenty of it. Certainly he exudes nervousness when quizzed persistently about the Chappell relationship, and some of his tics and gestures even hint at dishonesty. Yet you can't help but admire his dogged belief that he can get back into the Indian setup, and what's more, that he is fully worthy of a place in the line up. Would that all cricketers had that sort of self-belief.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A fun WC comes to an end

So it's all over, and in a twisted way, justice was done. True to form, it was a dive, this time from Malouda, that earned France their one goal. I couldn't have been happier to see Matterazzi, the guy who got sent of pretty much every game he played for Everton, get the equalizer and restore parity not soon after. When Luca Toni, who clearly prayed to the wrong Gods before this tournament, had a goal rather questionably disallowed, I began to worry. Then came Zidane's moment of madness - in '98 it was a stamp, this time a headbutt - but it appeared to be too little too late for Italy. Remember that the Italians have lost on penalties in a quarter-final, semi-final and final, so a shootout wasn't expected to be their best hope.

We all had to think again - the excution of the spot kicks was as clinical and awe-inspiring as any I have ever seen. Made England's exit look even more shambolic than it already did.

Overall, this has been one of the better World Cup's in recent memory for my money. Much will be made of the lack of goals, particularly in the point-hungry American media I'm sure, but there was plenty of quality football on display. That it didn't come from the names on everyone's lips made it all the more fascinating.

Two months ago, along with most others, I'd have been preparing to put down names like Ronaldinho and Kaka in my team of the tournament. Instead, I'm plumping for (in 4-4-2 formation, despite the 4-5-1 variations that dominated the tournament):

Sagnol Cannavaro (c) Thuram Lahm
Rodriguez Pirlo Ballack Ronaldo (Cristiano)

Torres Klose

subs: Ricardo (gk), Grosso, Marquez, Ayala, Ribery, Gattuso,
Riquelme, Ze Roberto, Vieira, Crespo, Tevez

I can safely say that from that entire list, the only players I was confident would be in contention for my squad were Buffon, Ronaldo, Ricardo, Riquelme and Gattuso.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The death of Wimbledon

Take a close look at that first photo above, from the McEnroe-Connors match in 1984. Notice the wear and tear between the service line and the net.

Now look at the two photos below, taken at the final weekend of Wimbledon 2005.

Observe the almost total absence of wear and tear in the middle of the court. As a tennis fan, I find this devastating.

There are those who believe that tennis is at it's best on the clay of Roland Garros. I am certainly not one of them. Tennis, for me, was at it's best at Wimbledon many years ago. Tennis is not just about baseline slugfests. It's potentially the most poetic of sports, and it's greats have wielded their rackets as Michaelangelo wielded his brush.

Wimbledon has caved in to populist media over the years, and slowed down it's courts and introduced heavier balls. Watching the 2006 tournament unfold, I am struck by the fact that I could really be watching the Aussie Open. And that's decidedly not what I want to see on the hallowed turf.

Serving and volleying is tennis at it's purest and most exciting. The aggressor follows his serve in, and prowls the net, while his opponent looks to create the angles for the most exquisite of passing shots. Occasionally, both find their way into the centre, and a fusillade of volleys can ensue. The entire court is the player's canvas, and the champions are those with total mastery. Witness Federer.

Pete Sampras claimed the other day to be a serve and volleyer, and that he would continue to be one until the day he died. He wasn't. McEnroe, Edberg, even Pat Rafter - those were genuine serve and volleyers. No co-incidence that they are amongst the finest artists to play the game. Roger Federer too, served and volleyed through his first Wimbledon. He's an exception of course, he can win beautifully anywhere, anytime. The likes of Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisivec, Tim Henman and others have played the game the way it was meant to be, even if they weren't all natural volleyers.

I wouldn't be surprise if grass court tennis disappears in another few years. It's already nothing more than a pretence. The game and the world will be much the poorer for it, but apparently it's only some of the players who recognize just how special Wimbledon really should be. Personally, I'd like to see a shift in the opposite direction. Extend the grass-court season, and watch the art of tennis mount a revival.

Yes, baseliners can occasionally be great to watch, when they have that something special. Martina Hingis played beautiful tennis, and Roger Federer does whether he stays back or comes in. But a Federer comes along once in a lifetime, and what the game sorely lacks are the Edbergs, Beckers, McEnroes, Navratilovas and others of their ilk.

Englishmen don't dive

Indeed, when Michael Owen belly flopped against Argentina in 2002, or when Stephen Gerrard pulled off a corker against Hungary in May this year, it was just a result of their sheer speed and skill. You see, some players can take a spectacular tumble when moving at full tilt, because of the way their momentum carries them after the slightest of mis-steps, without any contact required. Indeed, this happens to Owen, Thierry Henry and countless others, but we understand it. They aren't diving, they're just fast skilful players ensuring that they avoid injury. It's not their fault that the ref awards a penalty or a free kick for it.

James Lawton has a pretty good article in the Independent today in which he points out just how pathetic the current round of whining really is. As he says, when Gerrard or Owen take a dive, we gloss over it. We felicitate Thierry Henry as a great player, despite the fact that he took the dive of the tournament. And in the same breath, thousands of English fans could do no better than to boo the young lad who put on the best individual performance of the semi-finals. At times like this, I'm almost embarrassed by my passport.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Thierry Henry - An arrogant cheat?

Zidane pulled off perhaps the most blatant dive of the tournament, but escaped a yellow card. Thuram and Vieira should have been booked, but got away with poor fouls as well. All three should have been watching the World Cup Final from the stands, but it isn't to be.

Most galling though, is the manner in which Thierry Henry has guided his team into the finals. Gallic (sorry!) theatrics at their absolute best. First there was his face-clutching collapse against Spain, which TV replays clearly proved was as egregious an act of cheating as you will see.

This was followed by his fabulous dying swan impression against Portugal, in which he paused for a second, realised he was in the box, flung his arms out, threw himself to the ground, and then looked around to see if the referee had bought it. He had.

In both cases, Henry, who has taken many a dive in the past, ingeniously follows up with an affectation of naivety and innocence, designed to convey the message that he is just an honest man, trying his best to survive in a world of thuggery.

His arrogance has never been in doubt, now we can, sadly, add the footnote that he is an out and out cheat. A shame that France, and Zidane's, tremendous performance against Brazil will be lost against this backdrop.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Ronaldo did no wrong

So Alan Shearer's take on the Rooney sending-off went something like:
"Wayne Rooney should go back to the Manchester United training ground and stick one on Ronaldo."
I suppose I should expect nothing less from one of the dirtiest centre forwards ever to play the game. Sure, Shearer was a goalscorer supreme, but I've never seen anyone use the elbow and the knee so decisively and yet almost never be punished for it. Little wonder then, that he saw nothing wrong in Rooney's stamp on Carvalho, and feels that Ronaldo was the villain for standing up for his teammate.

Obviously as a United fan, I want the best for both Rooney and Ronaldo - the important thing being that they continue to combine effectively next season. I couldn't care less about the World Cup per se, but let's be men and call a spade a spade. Rob Smyth's blog at the Guardian
has it right.