Saturday, 11 February 2012

Round 2 Super League Preview

Catalan Dragons (2nd) vs Hull FC (7th): POSTPONED

Wigan Warriors (9th) vs Leeds Rhinos (3rd): Saturday 5 45 (Live on Sky Sports 1)

A repeat of last season’s Challenge Cup Final sees Wigan looking to bounce back from last week’s 20-16 home defeat against the Huddersfield Giants against reigning Super League Champions Leeds Rhinos. The Rhinos saw off Hull KR in the season’s opener last week and will be looking to get an early march on another of their Play-Off rivals.
The Warriors will be without two key players for this clash with experienced Kiwi centre George Carmont out for up to a month with a broken thumb sustained during last week’s surprise defeat to the Giants. Try scorer last week Liam Farrell picked up a one game suspension for a dangerous tackle and he will be missing for this game as well.
The Rhino’s on the other hand have an almost clean bill of health and can even again leave out Ian Kirke and Ben Jones-Bishop, both of who played in last season’s Grand Final. Ian Watkins will miss out with a wrist injury and there is a slight doubt over the match fitness of second-row powerhouse Jamie Jones-Buchanan who sat out training all week, but he has been named in the squad for the game.

Match Forecast: The corresponding fixture was one of the games of the season with Wigan holding out to win 24-22. Wigan will be smarting after last week’s defeat and will be desperate to put in a big performance, but I think this Leeds squad may have enough to sneak a narrow victory.

Best Bet: Half Time/Full Time Wigan/ Leeds (9/1 Boylesports). Neither side will run away with this so expect a nip and tuck game with the lead changing hands often.

Huddersfield Giants (6th) vs Widnes Vikings (12th): Sunday 3

Huddersfield will be looking to consolidate last week’s excellent win away at Wigan by doing a professional job over new boys Widnes.
The Giants welcome back captain Kevin Brown and Dale Ferguson who both missed the win at the DW Stadium. Two try hero of the game, second rower Larne Patrick, is fit enough to start the game this week, as he recovers from wrist surgery. However, they are still without the suspended Tony Tonks.
The Vikings game against Wakefield last week will as much be remembered for the debate over the I-pitch than any of the action on it. Many of the players complaining that the artificial surface coupled with the cold weather turned the I-pitch into concrete.  Dennis Betts’ men were comfortably brushed aside by the Wildcats on their return to the Super League. They will be without skipper Jon Clarke as well as centre Stefan Marsh with ex-Giant Simon Finnegan coming into the squad.

Match Forecast: Huddersfield surprised a lot with their victory last week over Wigan but it will mean nothing if they do not get the points here tonight. Widnes looked second best last week against a decent Wakefield side, and this Giants outfit will again be too strong.

Best Bet: In what promises to be a try-fest for the home side, Scott Grix (11/2 SkyBet) to score two tries or more looks a good bet. The utility-back, likely to be deployed at Full-Back on Sunday, loves joining the attacking line and should get on the score sheet here.

Warrington Wolves (8th) vs London Broncos (10th): Sunday 3

The Wolves had the Indian sign over the Broncos last year scored 136 points in the two games they played. This included an 82-6 win at the Halliwell Jones stadium.
Warrington, who won the regular season last year, opened up this season with a 20-20 draw against Hull FC. Ben Westwood could have won the game in the dying minutes but he missed a late conversion. Matt Cook and David Howell both return to the Giants line-up after missing last weeks draw, the players to make way being Micky Higham and Rhys Williams.
The Broncos put up a spirited display in their game against St Helens going down 34-24 in the end. Coach Rob Powell, who was in charge of the heavy defeats last season, still can’t call upon the services of Dan Sarginson and Karl Temata, who are both still injured.

Match Forecast: Warrington are red-hot favourites for this game and they will be looking to make up for the dropped point last week. The Broncos are a better side than last year, so don’t expect a cricket score, but the Wolves will have enough to win this one.

Best Bet: Warrington to win by 31-35 points (10/1 Ladbrokes). Expect the Wolves to win this one comfortably to kick start their season.

Castleford Tigers (5th) vs Bradford Bulls (13th): Sunday 3 30

The Tigers ruined Salford’s big night at their new stadium last week with a comeback win, whilst the Bulls were comprehensively beaten by the Catalan Dragons. Castleford snuck home in this fixture last season winning 34-30 thanks to two tries from Joe Arundel.
The home side will be able to hand home debuts to Josh Griffin, Lee Mitchell and Steve Nash as well as recalling Ryan Hudson and James Grehan to the 19 man squad for the game.
The Bulls only make one change for this game, following their heavy defeat at Odsal to the French outfit, with Elliot Whitehead, who has just completed a five match ban for biting, replacing the injured John Bateman.

Match Forecast: The Tigers should make it two wins from two when the sides meet at the Jungle on Sunday. They will have too much for a Bradford side who looked poor last week against the Dragons.

Best Bet: Castleford to win by 21-25 point (14/1 Stan James). The Tigers home advantage will help them, and Bradford’s slow start to the season does not give their fans much cause for optimism.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats (4th) vs Hull KR (11th): Sunday 3 30

This has all the makings for a tight-tense affair between two very evenly matched teams. Last year’s game was decided in the Wildcats favour with Kieran Hyde’s penalty after the whistle had gone giving them a 26-24 victory.
The Wildcats safely negotiated Widnes’s new I-Pitch last weekend, to come away with the victory. The home side will be without Kyle Amor, who scored in this fixture last year, who broke his hand in last week’s victory. Frankie Mariano or Kyle Trout will take Amor’s place in the squad.
Hull KR proved they will be no pushovers this season with a spirited display against reigning champions Leeds. They will still be without captain Ben Galea with Graeme Horne continuing in his absence. Sam Latus and Jason Netherton will be added to the 19 man squad for the game, but otherwise it is an unchanged Hull side.

Match Forecast: This is a tough game to call and it could well be as close as last year’s epic. Hull’s performance last week will give them heart and they would be my narrow pick for this game.

Best Bet: Hull KR to win by 6-10 points (11/2 Paddy Power) is the best value to be found in this one. 

Last Week's Predictions:

5 out of 7 Correct Results

1 Correct Best Bet

£5 stake on each Best Bet give £25 profit.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Pakistan defeat shows England are still work in progress

Having lost the first two tests against Pakistan England need to win in the final test starting on Friday in Dubai to remain world number 1 and prove that they deserve that crown.

There’s a saying that goes “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over again and expect a different result each time.” After having been dismissed time and again on the back foot by a spinner in the first test, England went and did it all again in the second test.

The sign of a good team is that they learn and adapt and come back stronger. If England are to have any pretentions of solidifying their Number One test ranking spot when they travel to India next winter they must show in this final test that they have learnt their lesson and that they came face up to a trial by spin.

So far this series has proved something that many cricket writers and fans suspected all along. At home, or on fast true wickets England are without a doubt the best side around in test cricket. However, on the sub-continent this is a different matter. England are likely to name an unchanged line-up from the one which capitulated so tamely in Abu Dhabi and it is up to those players, batsmen in particular, to stand up and re-find their killer instinct.

This is to take nothing away from a Pakistan team, who have been somewhat patronised in the media throughout this series. Pakistan are the most improved side in test cricket and have won seven and drawn three of their last 10 test matches. Despite all their off the field problems, this Pakistan team is full of heart, passion and no small amount of talent.

Ably lead by the calming influence of Misbah Ul Haq their batsman have shown an almost un-Pakistani degree of restraint during this series in grinding out totals on wickets not conducive to fast run rate. In Saeed Ajmal they have the second ranked test bowler in the world and Umar Gul is a highly skilled and canny operator. When their interim coach Mohsin Khan talks about Pakistan as being a potential World number one soon, there is a lot of substance to this belief.

Before the series the worry for England was how their bowling would stand up on these flat slow pitches. With no assistance from the pitch for the trio of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Tremlett the fear was that wickets would not arrive for Andy Flower’s men, but it has been the England batsmen who have crumbled in the sun.

The only English knocks of note have showed exactly how batsmen need to play on these slow, turning pitches. Matt Prior’s fine 70 in the first test was all played off the front foot with decisive foot movement. The same can be said of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott’s partnership in the first innings of the second test.

The rest of the English batsmen have looked all at sea so far on this trip. Eoin Morgan has well and truly been found out during this series. He looks short on confidence and this means that he is no longer batting he is surviving. A decisive confident Morgan dictates to the bowling. His unique array of shots means the bowler never knows where to bowl. At the moment Morgan is a shadow of this player, scratching around on the back foot not knowing where the next run is coming from.

Captain Andrew Strauss is in danger of becoming the modern day Mike Brearley, picked not for his batting but for his captaincy. Brearley, who masterminded the improbable 1981 Ashes victory, averaged only 23 in tests but he was a magnificent man manager and captain. Strauss has hit one test century in 30 months and as long as England keep winning his position as opener and captain will never be questioned, but should England’s form start to falter then Strauss’s form will be more and more called into question.

As for Kevin Pietersen, well, he is just being Kevin Pietersen this series. Finding ways to get out that most people wouldn’t think possible. The South African could well score a double hundred in this final test and leave the series averaging 50, making it seem as though he has had a good series. But this is the enigma that is Pietersen, his stats are still impressive but you can count on one hand the number of gritty game changing innings that he has played in test cricket.

There is talent waiting in the wings should the England hierarchy wish to change things looking ahead. Ravi Bopara is an excellent player of spin but there has always been a question mark over whether the Essex man can consistently cut it in test cricket. Further along the line there are some very exciting young county players coming through. Leicestershire’s James Taylor, Somerset’s Jos Buttler and Yorkshire’s Johnny Bairstow are all test players of the future.

But for the moment, England’s current crop needs to lay down a marker and show to the cricketing world that they are the number one team in all conditions. 

Super League 2012 Preview

Sports Gazette’s Predicted 2012 Table:

1st       Warrington Wolves
2nd       Leeds Rhinos
3rd       St. Helens
4th       Wigan Warriors
5th       Catalan Dragons
6th       Hull FC
7th       Huddersfield Giants
8th       London Broncos

9th        Bradford Bulls
10th     Castleford Tigers
11th        Hull Kingston Rovers
12th     Wakefield Trinity Wildcats
13th        Salford City Reds
14th     Widnes Vikings

Leeds Rhinos (Grand Final Winners) vs Hull Kingston Rovers (8th): Friday 8pm
(2011 Position in Brackets)

The defending Champions have been quiet over the winter but possess some of the greatest talents in the Super League. Rob Burrow’s wonder-try in the Grand Final, dubbed ‘The Greatest Grand Final Try’ showed how much creative talent that the Rhinos have. Couple this with a bruising forward pack which allows the talents of Burrow, Danny McGuire and Ryan Hall the freedom to play on the front foot, Leeds once again look a force this season.

New Hull boss Craig Sandercock could not ask for more of a baptism of fire. He has lost experience in players like Clint Newton, Mick Vella and Shaun Briscoe and he will also be without playmaker Blake Green for much of the early season after a blood clot was found in his leg. Hull will do very well to match their 8th placed finish from last year and they could not ask for a harder start.

Match Forecast: It is impossible to look past Leeds for this game which will be skipper Kevin Sinfield’s 400th game for club and country. The Rhinos will have far too much for Craig Sandercock’s men and the visitors would do well to escape back across the Pennines without too much damage to their point’s difference.

Best Bet: This fixture has seen Leeds win 42-8 and 42-12 over the past 2 seasons so a Leeds win by 31-40 points (10/1 Paddy Power) looks a good option.

Widnes Vikings (5th in Championship) vs Wakefield Trinity Wildcats (13th): Friday 8pm Live on Sky Sports 1

Widnes who were granted a Super League license last season have assembled an entirely new squad. Experience such as Willie Isa, Shaun Briscoe and Jon Clarke will help the team adjust to life amongst the elite. Points scoring may be an issue, top scorer last season Steve Tyrer has left for Halifax and the new back line will not give opposition defences nightmares. This team is very much a blend of youngsters finding their way in the game and players looking to prolong their twilight years in the Super League.

Yet for all Widnes’s struggles this season, they couldn’t ask for a more favourable opening night game. If the Celtic Crusaders hadn’t withdrawn their application Wakefield would, in all likelihood, would have lost their license. 18 new faces show the frantic efforts on the part of everybody at Belle Vue to try to improve on last year’s finish. On paper the Wildcats have made some promising signings. Ali Lauitiiti will bring power, experience and more importantly a winning mentality to the club, young Kiwi Stand Off Isaac John could prove to be a very shrewd signing and new club captain Steve Southern brings solid NRL experience.

Match Forecast: This game is tough to call. Both sides are relatively unknown due to their high turnover of players and both will be desperate to get an early win on the board, in what will be a long season for the pair. Ultimately though, home advantage should just swing it the way of the Vikings.

Best Bet: A half time/ full time bet on Wakefield/ Widnes (7/1 Ladbrokes) could be on the cards. Wakefield don’t win many games and Widnes can use home support to spur them on in the second half.

London Broncos (12th) vs St Helens (3rd): Saturday 3pm

Will a change of name mean a change of fortune for the Super League’s only southern based club?  The signs are looking good so far. Boss Rob Powell is assembling a good squad down at the Stoop. A host of quality players from the Southern hemisphere such as union convert Craig Gower, Australian international Antonio Kaufusi and 2011 NRL Grand Final winner Shane Rodney have all become Broncos. As the Harlequins, 2011 started well but things quickly went sour this 2012 crop seem to be made of sterner stuff and the playoffs are definitely in the Broncos sights.

St Helens will still be smarting from the Grand Final loss and begin the 2012 season without talismanic forward James Graham who has moved to the Canterbury Bulldogs leaving a massive hole up front. Kyle Eastmond has switched codes to join Bath and Leon Pryce has swapped Merseyside for Perpignan. These losses have been offset by the signing of New Zealand’s mercurial stand-off Lance Hohaia who joins a Saints back line filled with international quality. Saints will once again be there or there abouts this season spurred on in no small part by desire to avenge last year’s disappointment.

Match Forecast: The London Broncos will be a much tougher proposition in 2012 but they are not at the level of the Saints yet. Saints should have enough to see off the Broncos.

Best Bet: Saints to win by 11-15 points (5/1 Paddy Power) in what promises to be a high scoring game.

Salford City Reds (11th) vs Castleford Tigers (9th): Saturday 6pm Live on Sky Sports 1

Salford begin life in their new stadium looking to improve upon their 11th placed finish last year. New coach Phil Veivers will have to accomplish this task without two of last year’s lynchpins. Promising young England international Stefan Ratchford and Ray Cashmere have both jumped ship over the winter and replacements Shannan McPherson and Joel Moon will be under pressure to perform straight away. Ultimately it looks like being a tough first season for Veivers and his men but a strong performance pre-season against Wigan gives them cause for optimism.

Opponents Castleford are as near to a one man team as you can get in the Super League. 2011 Man of Steel Rangi Chase is a cut above his Tiger’s team-mates and if he plays well this season then Castleford will have an outside play-off chance. Losing Martin Aspinwall will be leave a dent in the Tigers midfield and new boss Ian Millward will have to use all his experience to avoid a disappointing season for the Tigers.

Match Forecast: Another even clash between two sides for whom sneaking into the playoffs would be a great result. Chase’s ability to create something out of nothing could well be the difference between the sides, and may well ruin Salford’s big day at their new home.

Best Bet: Salford/Castleford Half Time/Full Time (8/1 Ladbrokes) looks good odds especially as Rangi Chase can exert his influence as the game wears on against tiring defenders.

Bradford Bulls (10th) vs Catalan Dragons (6th): Sunday 3pm

Off the field life for Bradford looks much more settled. The RFL has put up money to ensure that the club can stay at iconic home Odsal, but now the focus turns back to the battle to re-install Bradford as the powerhouse that they once were. Losing Andy Lynch to Hull and Patrick Ah Van to Widnes will be big setbacks although Manase Manuokafoa, Luke Gale and Karl Pryce are all highly accomplished players who would be an asset for all playoff chasing teams.

For the Dragons last season was a breakthrough year and the French outfit has added well to that team. Leon Pryce, Louis Anderson and Julian Bousquet have given even more strength in depth to the Dragons and no team in the Super League enjoys their trip down to Perpignan. With the ageless Steve Menzies leading a pack that includes the battering ram that is David Ferriol, and with the Half Back combination of Thomas Bosc and Scott Dureau feeding a clinical backline, the Catalans tick all the boxes when it comes to genuine title contenders.

Match Forecast: The Catalans won on their last visit to Odsal and have been impressive in despatching Wakefield and the Broncos during the pre-season. Bradford have looked shaky in pre-season and you would have to fancy the Catalans repeating last year’s success at Odsal.

Best Bet: The Catalans won heavily in this fixture last year and a Catalan win by 21-30 points (Paddy Power 11/1) should not be sniffed at.

Hull FC (7th) vs Warrington Wolves (1st): Sunday 3pm

The home side have seen a lot of movement during the closed season but they appear a stronger outfit this time out. Andy Lynch, Mark O’Meley and Eamon O’Carroll are as physical as they come up front. Richard Horne and Kirk Yeaman will provide the creative spark behind the scrum. Tom Briscoe is one of the hottest prospects in the Super League and with 50 tries in 85 games it is not hard to see why. Hull FC could well be the surprise package of the season, so don’t discount them from a top 4 finish.

Changes have been kept to a minimum for the Wolves and whilst the return of Matt King to Australia is a huge loss for the team, the capture of youngster Stefan Ratchford from Salford shows that the Wolves are looking to the future as well as the present. Ratchford will be invaluable coming off the bench supporting the aging but still top-class duo of Lee Briers and Brett Hodgson. This is a team packed full of quality and they looks odds on to repeat last season’s regular season victory.

Match Forecast: This game sees some of the most physical players in the league come head to head in what could be an early season cracker. Whoever controls the battle in the forwards should come out of this with the win, and for that you would have to have the away side as your favourites.

Best Bet: Warrington to be leading at Half Time/Full Time (11/10 Ladbrokes) looks like a very solid investment.

Wigan Warriors (2nd) vs Huddersfield Giants (4th): Sunday 3pm

The home side have lost Joel Tomkins to Saracens Rugby Union and have also lost the experience of Andy Coley and Paul Deacon. New coach Shaun Wane will have very little time to bed in as the pressure will be on from day one to live up to last year’s performances. Much will depend on the form of Thomas Leuluai and skipper Sean O’Loughlin, but the supporting cast of Sam Tomkins, Pat Richards and Gareth Hock are all more than capable of winning games single-handedly.

The Giants look unlikely to repeat last season’s 4th placed finish, having a much smaller squad than last season, but what they lack in quantity they certainly have in quality. In Luke Robinson they have one of league’s top hookers and if he can feed the two ‘B’s’ in Danny Brough and Kevin Brown with good ball then the Giants will be a highly effective attacking unit. Eorl Crabtree is one of the best forward runners in the league and he is ably supported by Jason Chan, David Fa’alogo and Luke O’Donnell. The Giants will be a match for any team on their day, but the depth of the squad makes it likely that as suspensions and injuries take hold they could be left looking a little bare.

Match Forecast: The home side are odds-on favourites to win this one and look like they will have the firepower to slay the Giants.

Best Bet: Wigan to win by 21-30 points (Paddy Power 4/1) looks an interesting bet. If the Warriors get on top early then the points could well rack up in this one.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Enough was Enough

In the week when Shane Warne will take to the cricket field again in the 2011 Big Bash, and where David Haye looks increasingly likely to step back into the ring to take on Vitali Klitschko, Sports Gazette has been having a look at sportsmen who should have said enough was enough the first time.

Kevin Keegan

Kevin Keegan and his relationship with Newcastle was the stuff of many a teenage love. They were madly in love in the mid 90’s and were so good together. Playing the most attractive football that the Premier League had seen to date and being the main challengers to Manchester United, they seemed a match made in heaven. Keegan left Newcastle in 1997 saying that he felt that he had taken the club as far as he could and that it was time for somebody else to take the club on (a definite case of its not you, it’s me). Fast forward 11 years and with Keegan having been out of football for three years and Mike Ashley desperate to curry favour with the St James’ Park faithful, they decided to give it another go. But things had changed, they were different people now in a new footballing environment and what had worked before just wasn’t the same. They carried on trying to rekindle their former love but results just weren’t there. Despite a positive start to the 2008/9 season the damage had already been done, and this time it wasn’t an amicable split. Both parties blamed each other, friends took sides and an irrevocable split ensued between the club, the fans and Keegan. This time it was over for good.

Michael Schumacher

If ever a man epitomised a national stereotype it was Michael Schumacher. The German driver who won seven world titles with Benetton and Ferrari was ruthlessly efficient, driven only by success and had a certain humourless air. This was a man who dominated F1 for almost a decade through both fair means and foul. He was vilified in the British press following his crash with Damon Hill which denied Hill the 1994 title; he was then disqualified from the 1997 World Championship for deliberately crashing into his main title rival Jacques Villeneuve in an attempt to eliminate him from the title race. Following a four year retirement Schumacher returned to F1 with Mercedes and in his two seasons back in F1 he has finished a creditable 9th and 8th despite being into his 40’s. However, this return has only served to lessen the reputation (but swell the pockets) of the once irrepressible German, had he not returned he would always have been a champion, now 
he is a middle of the pack driver, who was once an unrivalled champion.

Brian Close

Brian Close is the most unfortunate man to find himself on this list. A hard as nails all-rounder during the 1960’s and 1970’s Close had the misfortune to be recalled to face the most feared fast bowling attack ever assembled, nearly 9 years after his previous test match. The 1976 West Indies bowling attack featured the likes of Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel and Andy Roberts. Playing on lively, bouncy wickets, baked by the 1976 summer (one of the hottest on record) without helmets the task for the 45 year-old Close was one of the most unenviable in cricket history. Add into the equation that the build up to the series was dominated by comments by England captain Tony Greig who wanted to make the West Indian’s “grovel” during the tour. For the South African born Greig to say something so racially pointed was mind boggling, and it fired up the West Indian bowlers no end. The 3rd test at Old Trafford saw Close and opening partner John Edrich face the most terrifying spell of fast bowling ever seen (if you have never seen it on Youtube then I suggest you take a peek: England West Indies 1976). Balls flew past Close’s head at over 90 miles an hour as the opening pair desperately tried to survive in more senses than one. Close was hit time and time again but he did last until the close of play that day. Close never played test cricket again, but in terms of comebacks this ranks as one of the most brutal and courageous ever, however nine years after his last cap it was clear that Close was by now far out of his depth at international level.

Paul Gascoigne

Paul Gascoigne had the world at his feet in the 1990’s but by the turn of the Millennium all too often he had the bottle in his hand. As this list shows there is a moment in all sports stars lives that they realise that enough is enough. There is nothing worse than seeing the once mighty trying desperately to survive in their sports long after they should have called it a day. Paul Gascoigne is a prime example of a man who failed to call prompt time on his footballing career. After signing for Middlesbrough in 1998 it was clear that the man who had won 57 caps for England, and who had carried the hopes of the nation on his shoulders in Italia 90 and Euro 96, was a shadow of his former self. However, Gazza keep trying to find his form again, he joined Everton but was subsequently loaned out to Championship side Burnley. Failing to earn a contract in England, Gascoigne was subsequently rejected by DC United following a trial, before signing for Gansu Tianma in China. His time in China never got going due to checking into a drink rehabilitation centre. In 2004 he joined League 2 Boston as a player coach, although he only made 5 appearances before leaving the club. Gazza had gone from Premier League legend to League 2 outcast in under three years.  

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Weight Goes On

Sachin Tendulkar fell in the 90’s for the second time in five test innings as his search for the record breaking 100th International hundred continued.

In front of a capacity crowd at his home stadium in Mumbai the story was written for the Little Master to complete his century having resumed overnight on 67, especially as the pitch at the Wankhede Stadium had seen over 900 runs scored in the first three days with only 14 wickets having fallen.

He seemed in little trouble early on as he unleashed some trademark straight drives before cutting Fidel Edwards for six to take him into the 90’s.

However, just as his fanatical following, who cheered every run as if it was the winning run in a World Cup Final, began to dream that they would be the ones who witnessed the greatest moment in Indian sporting history, it was all over.

Cramped by a short of a length ball from Ravi Rampaul, Tendulkar could only guide it to the West Indian captain Darren Sammy at second slip. The West Indian’s celebrated the prized wicket against a backdrop of absolute stunned silence.

Just as Tendulkar’s presence at the crease created an atmosphere at an otherwise poorly attended test match, his dismissal reduced this match to another meandering drawn test, played on the type of pitch that will kill test cricket.

These pitches, which are particularly prevalent in the sub-continent, destroy test cricket as a spectacle and turn each match into a glorified net for the batsmen. In an age where test cricket is under threat from its shorter formatted cousins it needs to produce matches which enthral and rivet rather than bore.

Tendulkar has now gone 17 innings without an international hundred, and has not scored a test match hundred since January. Despite being 38, time is still very much on his side in this quest for the hundredth hundred.

Yet the longer that this wait goes on, the more comparisons will be drawn with his other rival for the tag of the greatest batsman ever to play the game, Don Bradman, who was left with a test average of 99.94.

Every game longer that Tendulkar doesn’t reach three figures will only serve to ratchet up the pressure that is on Tendulkar’s diminutive frame. The whole of India wants him to succeed and, no matter how experienced Tendulkar is, that pressure will get to him. Every game that passes by is another game nearer to retirement the Little Master gets.

A milestone like 100 centuries needs to be reached in grandeur, bullying a century against one of the weaker test nations on a batsman paradise simply wouldn’t befit the achievement. Having missed out at Lords and on his home ground, Tendulkar has a third chance in 2011 to achieve his milestone at one of the great test arenas at the Boxing Day test in Melbourne.

After Australia, India have a home test series against Pakistan before a long test break until the end of 2012 before they face Sri Lanka.  By then Tendulkar would be almost 40.

It would be an injustice for one of the greats of the game to prolong his international career for the sake of chasing a record, Tendulkar, regardless of his century count, has to recognise when it is time to retire.

As Bradman proved in his pursuit of perfection, sometimes not quite making it is more endearing than struggling over the finishing line. 

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Amir's Redemption Could Be Cricket's Ruin

Usually at the end of a court case one side or the other can claim victory or closure in the matter. At the end of the Spot Fixing case at Southwark crown court there were no winners only losers. Cricket’s reputation has been greatly tarnished, the game has lost its brightest star for the future and Pakistan as a nation has once again had its name dragged through the mud. And the worst part for all involved is that we will all be back here again in the future.

Such is the minutiae of individual events in cricket it is impossible to convincingly say that spot betting is not still prevalent. It is undoubted that illegal bookmakers still have a powerful hold over players around the globe. In 2010 56 players reported that they were approached by ‘fixers’ looking for information about games. The illegal betting market in India, where cricket is a religion, is worth billions a year. Anyone who thinks that case is anything more than the tip of the iceberg is unfortunately deluded.

There is much about the state of Pakistan itself that can be seen in this case. Some commentators have said, somewhat harshly, that corruption is rife in Pakistani cricket because corruption is rife in Pakistan in general. Whilst there may be some truth to that, it does appear to be a slightly simplified and generalised viewpoint.
More crucially though for the case it shows the power that elder statesmen have over the young players. A lot has been made of the pressure put on young Mohammed Amir to bowl no-balls. The hierarchy of Pakistani society and the cricket team in particular places a great emphasis on looking up to and respecting the elders.
It is perhaps best to say that Mohammed Amir is the innocent party in a case that has no innocent parties. 

Being young and under the influence of peer pressure is one thing, but Amir simply cannot be naïve enough to not realise the repercussions of his actions. Especially seen as he appears over time to have become more of a driving force in the spot fixing allegations, he went from following orders at Lords to seemingly negotiating his own fix at the Oval. Once he was in it appears he too became caught up in the greed of the situation.
Amir had the potential to be a global superstar of the game. He was the great bowling hope of a game that has seen genuine fast bowling talents disappear. Financially, he could have earned millions. In twenty years’ time his name could have tripped off the tongue alongside Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis as the greatest Pakistani pace bowlers ever. Yet he threw that all away for a few thousand pounds.

And it is for these reasons why Amir’s ban will not be enough to act as a deterrent in the battle against corruption in cricket. When Amir’s ban runs out he will be 23, an age at which most people are only breaking into test cricket. If cricket is genuinely interested in sending out a message that spot fixing in cricket does not pay, Amir’s success will always fly in the face of this message.

Amir’s case is a no win situation for cricket in reality. If he is allowed back into cricket at the end of his ban then the ICC will look toothless to truly eradicate the scourge of illegal betting in cricket. Yet kicking him out of cricket all-together will deprive the game of a potential superstar.

In the end though the game has to be bigger than one potential superstar. Amir’s presence on a test pitch again in the future will be a permanent reminder of cricket’s seedy surrounds. While the ICC continues to embark down a program of rehabilitation for match fixers, which has seen convictions quashed and sentences reduced, the game’s greatest devil will continue to sit on the shoulder of players whispering poisonous thoughts into their ears.

For its own sake cricket’s administrators must start to make examples of players to act as a future deterrent. The rules themselves are clear. Youthful naivety is one thing but breaking fundamental rules of the game is quite another.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Clubs hold all the aces in Team GB row

The sight of Gareth Bale advertising the Team GB football team gave the clearest indication yet that he is set to ignore the official stance of the Welsh FA and agree to be part of Stuart Pearce’s 18 man squad for the Olympic Games next summer. Understandably this has caused anger amongst Welsh fans and administrators alike who fear that their nation’s footballing sovereignty, like that of Scotland and Northern Ireland, will be diluted by this Team GB.

Much as the home nations would want to believe otherwise, the lure of playing in a major footballing championship, will overcome any nationalistic feelings that players may have. Especially as players such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, and members of the Northern Ireland and Scotland will be kicking their heels at home while their club colleagues compete at Euro 2012.

The increased flow of players around the British Isles has also helped to break down the barriers between the contingent states. Gareth Bale joined Southampton as an eight year-old; his entire footballing career has been spent in England surrounded by English players. Aaron Ramsey, whose footballing education was in Wales with Cardiff, was heavily influenced by English and Scottish players. Ramsey played under an English manager in Dave Jones. Of Cardiff’s current squad there are twice as many English players as Welsh, and more Scottish than Welsh players. In Swansea’s team last week in the Premier League there were six English starters, compared to three Welsh players. The divide between England and Wales at club football has well and truly broken down.

As a Welsh FA spokesman said ‘We are welsh and we are British’. Welsh and British sportsmen compete with each other in every other sport. Simon Jones played a pivotal role in England’s cricketing success under Duncan Fletcher. Welsh players proudly represent the British and Irish Lions. Athletes such as Colin Jackson and Dai Greene have competed under both the Union Jack and the Welsh Dragon. It is only football where, internationally at least, there is a chasm between the home nations.

However much as these ideas of nationalism and footballing sovereignty are important to this issue, there are a group of people who are far more influential in this debate: the player’s club managers.

Club managers are the key people in this Olympic battle. It is the reason why Aaron Ramsey, who is as keen as Bale to join a GB team, may find it more difficult to be a part of the London Olympics. Managers such as Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson will not want players missing the first two weeks of the season, with the possibility of picking up an injury, especially if players such as Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly and Jack Wilshire go to the European Championship before the Olympics.

Under persuasion from Sir Alex, Ryan Giggs seemed to always pick up niggles every time an international friendly came around, and ended up retiring with only 64 caps. Nemanja Vidic has just announced his international retirement at the age of 30, and Paul Scholes also quit international football prematurely. Regardless of his national allegiances, Sir Alex will not want any of his players being involved in any more international football than is absolutely necessary.

There is no doubt that there will be players from the other home nations in the Great Britain team for the Olympics, as well there should. Granted, a guarantee from Fifa usually isn’t worth the paper it is printed on however, Fifa have no quarrel at all with the home nations and playing as Team GB will not change that. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Olympics were the first view the world got of Lionel Messi, Kaka and many other world stars. From a footballing point of view the home nations will benefit from sending players to this tournament. Any international tournament experience can do nothing but benefit young Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish stars.

Players want to play football, and any chance to win a medal in front of their ‘home’ fans will easily negate any nationalistic divisions. The men who control the fate of this team are not Football Association powerbrokers, but the managers and club chairmen who pay wages and whose pressure can easily persuade players that they do not wish to be part of a GB team. A good run as a united Great Britain team would help create Olympic fever in a way few other things could, especially if it comes in the aftermath of a poor showing at Euro 2012 by England.