20 June 2007

3-0 - so what?

England wrapped up the 4th and final Test against the West Indies yesterday afternoon with a 7-wicket victory. The record books will reflect a 3-0 series win - but I found it hard to get excited about an England team who repeatedly made hard work of besting a team which, with the honourable exception of new captain Shivnarine Chanderpaul, lacks players of the highest class.

3-0 suggests a near-total dominance on England's part, but the reality was anything but. Sure, there were some fantastic individual performances - Monty Panesar's 10-wicket match performance at Old Trafford (and 23 overall), Alastair Cook's two centuries, Kevin Pietersen's powerful double hundred at Headingley - and there were genuine purple patches of play by the team as a whole. But for every great session where England put their foot firmly on the Windies' jugular, there was another where they let a distinctly average opponent get back onto their feet.

Let's look at the evidence.

1st Test (match drawn): England open up the series with a pile-driving 553 for 5 declared. But, having taken the first five West Indies wickets for 187, they allowed the last five to add a further 250, crucially eating into both England's lead and their time - the latter being crucial on a final day on which rain and bad light allowed only 20 overs to be bowled.

2nd Test (England won by an innings and 283 runs): A crushing victory; England's one truly overwhelming performance of the series, with Pietersen's double hundred fuelling another 500-plus declaration, with the Windies being skittled out for less than 150 in both innings. This was the one match where it all came together consistently for England and demonstrated just how good this team can be, but it's also frustrating to see how far short of this potential the team fell during the rest of the series.

3rd Test (England won by 60 runs): England at their most frustrating, in full 'rollercoaster' mode. Several times in this match they built strong positions, only to concede ground almost immediately. First up, they converted a precarious 166 for 5 into a decent first-innings total of 370. Then they skittled out the Windies' tail - the last six wickets for just 13 runs - to build a handy 141-run lead which served as a springboard to setting up a target of 455 runs. To then watch as England's bowlers laboured to deliver the seemingly inevitable was painful in the extreme. At one stage, with the West Indies still with five wickets intact and closing to within 150 runs of what had initially seemed a purely academic target, it even looked like England might just conspire to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But, thankfully - belatedly - they arose from their slumber, and Panesar, aided and abetted by Steve Harmison, returned to finish the job and complete a 60-run victory which was far more nail-biting than it should ever have been.

4th Test (England won by 7 wickets): This was better by England, and ultimately this was a comfortable victory, but it was not without its alarms. England scored a round 400 in response to the West Indies' 287, but it was built on a 169-run, seventh-wicket stand between Paul Collingwood and wicketkeeper Matt Prior which compensated for failures higher up the order. At the point at which the pair first came together, England had limped to 165 for 6 - what eventually became a 100-plus lead could easily have been a similar-sized deficit. And this time, the bowlers were efficient enough in bowling out a by now dispirited Windies side, with only the partnership of Chanderpaul (who else?) and Dwayne Bravo showing any significant resistance.

So, I guess the end analysis is this. Three wins - one supremely dominant, one ultimately comfortable after a faltering start, and one which should have been routine but wasn't - against a distinctly average and rebuilding side. Sure, we can point at Flintoff's injury and some fine individual performances. And definitely, England did generally show the killer instinct when it really mattered. But I can't help but feel there is a lack of cohesion in this team - is the team less than the sum of its parts? - and for all the talk about the great spirit in the side, it is clear we are still a long way from repeating that glorious Ashes summer of 2005. And yet we have seen all too brief glimpses of it over the past few weeks of this series - the ability and the potential are there, if we can just tap into it often enough and eradicate the "one good session, one bad session" inconsistency that seems to be part of this team's psyche.

This side genuinely could be world-beaters (at least in the Test match format), but they don't do it consistently enough. And it's that which annoys me more than if this was just a middling side struggling to get by. For me, unfulfilled potential is more of a crime than no potential at all.

15 June 2007

As one season ends ...

... So another begins.

The draft football fixtures for next season were published yesterday, with my club, Arsenal, kicking off at home to Fulham on Saturday 11th August.

It seems like only a few weeks ago that we were just catching our breath at the end of a long season ... probably because it WAS only a few weeks ago that we were watching the snore-a-thon that was the FA Cup Final, and even more recently the Champions League final and the Football League playoffs, which concluded less than three weeks ago.

And it's not as if the football world has gone quiet in the short space of time since then, what with hirings and firings, transfers both real and rumoured, allegations and denials, all the usual stuff. And to think that in Spain they haven't even finished their domestic season yet, with any of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla all capable of claiming the La Liga title this weekend.

Whatever happened to the good old days when players and fans alike could actually enjoy a summer break free from football all over the back (and occasionally front) pages? Ah, when I was a lad ...

And, obviously, it is only a "draft" schedule at this stage. Probably more than one-third of the Premiership fixtures will be subject to change, what with the demands of Sky coverage, flexing around the European matches of the Champions League and UEFA Cup teams, and so on.
Saturday 3pm kick-offs? As Ricky Gervais's sitcom character in Extras would say, "Are you having a laff?"

The saddest thing of all? After a gruelling nine-plus month season coming off the back of a World Cup year, you'd think I'd have had enough of football for a while. But the reality is: I can't wait. Roll on mid-August ...

12 June 2007


As is so often the case at Montreal, Sunday’s Canadian grand prix was … eventful, to say the least.

I won’t spend lots of time here eulogising Lewis Hamilton, as others have already done so more eloquently than I possibly could. But suffice to say there is no question that here we have an extraordinary talent. In terms of making such an immediate impact on the sport, we have not seen anything like this since we first saw a young German driver making his debut for Jordan at Spa in 1991. That driver – do I really need to name him? – did alright for himself, to put it mildly.

What I will say is this. Montreal has always had a reputation for being a car-breaker. In the case of BMW’s Robert Kubica on Sunday, literally so. You will have seen the footage of the crash: Kubica clips the rear of Jarno Trulli’s Toyota at around 180mph, launching his own car into the air and into the barrier beside the track. From there on, he is a passenger on the most sickening of rollercoaster rides as the car flips, bounces upside-down across the track, before finally crashing – airborne, and at a still-alarming speed – into the barrier on the opposite side. In the process, most of the car has disintegrated around him – as it is supposed to do in order to dissipate energy away from the driver – but, crucially, the main tub and the roll-hoop have remained largely intact. Certainly, if the roll-hoop behind the driver’s head had crumpled as the car had bounced upside-down on the track, Kubica would have instantly suffered fatal skull and spinal injuries as his head was crushed against the tarmac.

It was a salutary reminder. Despite all the safety advances which have been introduced into F1, particularly since Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994, the sport remains hugely dangerous, even if the processional nature of many races may lull us into thinking otherwise.

Even ten years ago, it is highly likely Kubica’s accident would have been a fatal one. Thirty years ago it would certainly have been.

As it was, examinations at the hospital revealed no more than a slight concussion and a sprained ankle. This from a 180mph crash which involved three huge impacts, one of them upside-down.

The best part of the story, as ever, is its ending. When he was discharged from the hospital, what does Kubica do? He drives himself away from the hospital. David Beckham may be Goldenballs, but Kubica has balls of steel.

Formula 1 drivers – indeed, competition drivers at all levels – are heroes one and all. And while I raised a glass on Sunday to Lewis Hamilton, it is Kubica I am most happy for.

5 June 2007

Across the pond

I've just returned from a week's holiday in the US, so here are ten observations on how sport is different (and in some cases not so different) across the pond.

1. Sport benefits/suffers from (delete as you see fit) saturation TV coverage every bit as much as it does in the UK. While we were there, it was wall-to-wall baseball (regular season) and basketball (playoffs). And then there's college baseball, the women's college softball finals series, lacrosse, Arena football (think of it as an indoor NFL which bears a passing resemblance to 5-a-side football) ... I could go on ...

2. Most Americans - particularly those in areas with big football (by which I mean NFL), baseball, basketball or hockey teams (i.e. most cities) - don't really seem even remotely bothered about soccer. Incidentally, David Beckham has a lot of work to do - as of last week, the LA Galaxy were one off the bottom of their division. (Good job they don't have relegation in US sports!)

3. Similarly, despite whatever the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone might claim, F1 also has a pretty low profile. OK, it was the Indy 500 last week, which skews things, but to put it into context, the Monaco GP got much less airtime than NASCAR - I waited for ages for ESPN to tell me something, and then blinked and almost missed the result flashing past on their on-screen ticker.

4. Unless you're a fan of the San Francisco Giants, everyone REALLY dislikes Barry Bonds. He is a tantalising nine home runs short of the most sacred of records, Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs, and is consistently booed every time he sets foot on the field. It seems like everyone - fans and media alike - use the word "tarnished" in every sentence, and are either clamouring for him to voluntarily retire before he reaches the record (like that will happen) or for the powers-that-be to strip him of the record (only marginally less unlikely). Now I'm a great believer in innocent-until-proven-guilty, but the circumstantial evidence against Bonds is pretty compelling. At an age when his performances should long since have deteriorated, his scoring rate has as good as doubled. And while it's understandable that a player's chest, neck and other measurements might grow with age as a result of legal means, what conclusion are you supposed to draw about a player whose shoes have increased by three sizes since he first turned pro? The man is tainted, and so will the record be. Very sad, for baseball and for all sports in general.

5. Does the baseball season really have to go on for 160-odd games? I've grown to like baseball over the years, but if I were to watch every minute of every one of my favourite team's games over the course of a season (and every game is televised on either a mainstream or MLB subscription channel), I would be watching over 500 hours a year even before the playoffs have started - that's 24/7 for three WEEKS!

6. West Ham, Craig Bellamy and football teams and players in general really do get off lightly for their transgressions. Two NFL players have recently been banned for repeated bad/criminal behaviour, with the negative impact it has on the image of a league which wants to promote its players as role models cited as a key factor. The length of their bans? Half a season. And a full season. Ouch.

7. NFL players - particularly offensive linemen - have always been large, but surely it's getting a bit silly these days when you start referring to a player who tips the scales in the region of 300 pounds (21-and-a-half stones) as being "under-sized". You would be amazed at just how athletic many of these guys are, but even so, that really can't be healthy.

8. You think our footballers are too often guilty of unsportsmanlike behaviour? How about Alex Rodriguez, star of the New York Yankees? While running the bases, he shouted in the ear of an opposing fielder to put him off, resulting in a dropped catch. Maybe he saw the video of Bolton's Stelios Giannakopoulos stamping on a balloon as Kevin Doyle was taking a penalty a few weeks ago. Oh, hang on, it was a soccer match - of course he won't have seen it!

9. Basketball can be a great sport played by incredibly talented (and unfeasibly tall) athletes, but it's hard to get excited when scores are pinging in left, right and centre and tension never builds until deep into the fourth quarter when the scores are tied at 90-90 ... and then the final minutes are strung out over an interminable period of time-outs, fouls and other stoppages. Why not just play it over one quarter's length and just cut straight to the exciting bit?

10. I've always known about the huge popularity of college sports in the US (you get 100,000-plus people regularly turning up to University of Michigan football games, for instance), but it still amazes me. Whether it's college football, baseball, basketball or even women's softball (which I can say from personal experience is strangely compelling), it receives prominent TV and press coverage not far short of what the pros get. Can you imagine the Times covering, say, Bournemouth University's football games?!?