27 April 2010

Shane Warne’s ‘ball of the century’

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...

Sport’s superstars often arrive on the scene in a blaze of youthful glory, producing outstanding debut games or seasons. Football has given us teenage sensations such as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi, cricket the likes of Sachin Tendulkar (Test debut at 16, a centurion at 17, captain at 23), and women’s tennis a production line of prodigies from Tracy Austin to the Williams sisters.

Some, like Austin, have departed almost before they have arrived, but many have gone on to be dominant figures in their sport for many years.

The sporting annals are littered with examples of great debuts. Few, however, can claim to have had such a profound impact - not just on a match, but on his entire sport - as the showman fittingly nicknamed ‘Hollywood’.

England v Australia, 1st Ashes Test, Old Trafford, June 1993

MW Gatting b SK Warne 4

These are the bare facts as recorded by the match scorecard. In cricketing circles, though, it is referred to in hushed tones as “the ball of the century”. No other ball is as well remembered as Shane Warne’s first ever delivery in an Ashes Test match.

It’s the second day of the first Test. England have started well in their attempt to regain the Ashes – 80 for 1 in response to Australia’s modest 289. The blond-haired wrist spinner is brought into the attack for the first time. Warne measures out his run-up for his debut over against England and measures up the opposing batsman.

The pugnacious, bulldog-like face of Mike Gatting stares back at him. The former England captain is an excellent player of spin bowling and is hugely experienced. This is his 73rd Test, two days short of his 36th birthday, and he has seen pretty much everything there is to see in cricket.

But he has never seen anything like this. Warne’s first ball pitches well outside leg stump, then darts sharply back like a spherical stump-seeking missile to clip the outside of off stump. Bowled!

Gatting stands aghast, unwilling to believe the evidence of his own eyes, before finally acknowledging the umpire’s signal and trudging off the pitch, still shaking his head in bewilderment.

Just in case there are any thoughts that the ‘Gatting ball’ is a one-in-a-million fluke, Warne wastes little time in proving otherwise. The first ball of his second over is a carbon copy. Robin Smith misjudges the ball and edges to slip. Seven balls, two wickets! In the space of less than ten minutes, Shane Warne has set the tone for the match, indeed for the entire series. England’s batsmen will never really get to grips with his magician’s tricks throughout the summer, and the Ashes are as good as lost already.

Warne finishes the match with eight wickets, and goes on to claim a total of 34 victims and the Man of the Series award as Australia romp away with the series.

Ashes Tests are supposed to be intimidating affairs for the uninitiated; after all, this is one of the oldest and most intense of all sporting rivalries, dating back to 1877. An Ashes debutant isn’t supposed to march brashly in and destroy the opposition on their home turf. But that’s exactly what Shane Warne did in 1993, and it all started with one ball.

Not bad for a beginner.

Warne’s legacy

It’s all too easy to attach clichéd labels to Shane Warne such as ‘prodigious’, ‘phenomenon’ and ‘reinventing the art of spin bowling’, but then to look at Warne is to see something of a cliché anyway. He resembles not so much a modern, professional cricketer as a stereotypical Aussie who has wandered into the SCG after catching the morning surf at Bondi, with his burly frame, bottle-blond hair and macho, fun-loving brashness. So let’s work with the clichés.

In all honesty, there are few words that describe Warne’s ability to spin the ball so extravagantly as well as ‘prodigious’. He produced the equivalent of the ‘Gatting ball’ – no more than an extreme version of his standard leg break - repeatedly in his career. Warne frequently left batsmen bamboozled, groping futilely at thin air as the ball spun past the bat. What was particularly impressive was his ability to bowl long, tiring spells with sustained control, accuracy and aggression.

Was he a phenomenon? Unquestionably. To announce your arrival on the Ashes stage in the way that Warne did at Old Trafford and sustain that level of success for more than a decade showed that he is no flash in the pan. He stands second on the all-time wicket takers list (708 in 145 Tests), was voted fourth in Wisden’s Player of the 20th Century poll (being both the highest placed bowler and contemporary player), and has been described by no less an authority than Richie Benaud as “the best leg spinner I’ve ever seen”. Glowing praise, indeed.

Did he reinvent the art of spin bowling? Perhaps not, but he certainly changed people’s perceptions of it. Prior to his arrival, spin was becoming an increasingly rare and largely defensive art outside of the Asian nations. Warne turned that on its head by presenting spin bowling as a genuinely attacking – and, in cricketing terms, positively sexy - option. You need only look now – virtually every leading Test nation has a spin bowler who is single-handedly capable of turning (if you will forgive the pun) a match. Shane Warne’s legacy extends far beyond the Australian coastline or the time defined by the length of his career.

I was fortunate enough to see the 1993 Old Trafford Test live on television, and I can vividly remember my reaction to the moment Warne delivered that ball. I empathised with Gatting’s disbelief, then, watching the replay, I found myself quietly applauding in the solitude of my own living room as it began to dawn on me that I had just witnessed something truly special. It didn’t matter that it had cost my side a key wicket; such moments of sporting genius transcend something as petty as mere competition. I just knew that I had witnessed, as it happened, one of those precious moments that people would talk about for years to come.

19 April 2010

Arsenal and Vettel show leading doesn't equate to winning

This Premier League season has had almost as many twists and turns as Shanghai's Formula 1 circuit, but within the space of twelve hours yesterday we were given two clear demonstrations that being faster or better or simply ahead of your opponents is not an automatic ticket to victory.

Some of the greatest individuals and teams in sport dominate their events from start to finish (for instance, Michael Schumacher or the current Barcelona football team). Others save their best for last, building momentum at the perfect moment down the home straight. Football's most famous example of this is the Manchester United team of 1995/96, which bridged a seemingly unassailable 12-point gap to claim the Premier League title.

There are plenty of similar instances elsewhere in the sporting universe too: Dennis Taylor recovering from 8-0 down to win the 1985 World Snooker Championship; Greg LeMond overcoming a 50 second deficit in the final time trial stage to win the 1989 Tour de France by eight seconds; Nick Faldo coming from six shots back after three rounds to triumph at the 1996 US Masters.

Equally, for every great comeback, there is a contrasting example of the team or individual who put themselves in a commanding position, only to throw it all away. Call it a lack of belief or mental strength, or just plain 'choking', but their number is legion. For Man U, read Newcastle; for Taylor, LeMond and Faldo, read Steve Davis, Laurent Fignon and Greg Norman.

And, for the 2009/10 Premier League season, read Arsenal.

Wigan 3 Arsenal 2

Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal have become specialists in late-season runs to overhaul the league leaders, putting together irresistible winning sequences en route to their 1998 and 2002 titles. However, they are also notably uncomfortable when they themselves are front-runners, twice wasting five-point leads late in the 2003 and 2007 seasons to concede the title to Man U. While neither of these concessions was of the magnitude of the one which cost Devon Loch, who literally stumbled within sight of the finish while leading the 1956 Grand National, it is a clear indication that the club prefers the role of greyhound rather than hare. 

The 2003 run-in was notorious for a crucial 2-2 draw at Bolton in which Arsenal frittered away a two goal lead in the last 20 minutes; this season we have seen an identical scenario play out at West Ham. At times this year, this team has shown great heart and fighting spirit when cast in the role of underdog. However, the old frailties of being unable to cope with the glare of the spotlight have surfaced repeatedly. And while the damage done by home-and-away defeats to both Chelsea and Man U was largely repaired, the ignominy of a first league defeat to Spurs in nearly 11 years last Wednesday merely reopened the wounds.

Yesterday, however, the team plumbed new depths. After Chelsea's defeat on Saturday, the players knew the importance of securing a victory which would have moved them back within three points of the summit. But having secured a spluttering two goal advantage at the DW Stadium - and having wasted several chances to bolster the potentially critical goal difference - Arsenal somehow contrived to concede three goals in the last ten minutes to extinguish their fading title aspirations.

The worst thing was you could see it coming. After Mikael Silvestre scored the second goal early in the second half, there was a visible drop-off in effort as a fog of complacency descended over the team. Chances went begging, and opponents' runs went untracked (Ben Watson's 80th minute effort that made it 2-1 came as a result of Abou Diaby's casual, half-hearted effort to fulfil his defensive duties). The manner of the capitulation may have been shocking, but the warning signs were clearly there - and totally ignored.

Now I don't mind being beaten by the better team, as happened recently when Barcelona knocked Arsenal out of this season's Champions League. But with the greatest of respect to Roberto Martinez's side, Wigan are not a better team than Arsenal. There is a reason why they have been flirting with relegation all season. However, they battled hard throughout yesterday and stood toe-to-toe with a side they knew was technically superior, and who switched off the moment they went 2-0 up, assuming the job was done.

Being better on paper - or for 80 minutes - does not confer an automatic right to victory. I have no complaints. Wigan got everything they deserved yesterday. So, too, did Arsenal.

Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai

There is no question that Sebastian Vettel is an extremely quick and talented driver. Three poles and one win from the first four races of the 2010 season are testament to his speed and consistency when he gets himself into race-winning positions.

However, if there is one question mark hanging over him, it is his ability to drive through the field when fate deals him a mediocre hand. Having squandered pole position with a poor start yesterday, he lost further places in the tactical scramble which ensued when a combination of light rain and a safety car randomised the pack. With McLaren's Lewis Hamilton in close attendance, there was a clear contrast between the incision and aggression with which the Briton carved his way through the field and Vettel's more hesitant approach, most obviously when Vettel fumbled an overtaking attempt on Adrian Sutil at the end of the back straight, allowing Hamilton to dive past them both in a flash.

Hamilton is at his best chasing, when required to drive on instinct and emotion and not over-think; he is not the type to relentlessly crush his opposition with effortless lights-to-flag victories. Vettel seems to be the opposite: when he is out in front he is untouchable; when asked to charge through the midfield, less so. That's not necessarily a fatal flaw - in my lifetime, only Schumacher and Ayrton Senna have been routinely capable of winning a grand prix through both relentless dominance and stirring charges. (For prime examples of the latter, think of Schumacher's win from 16th on the grid at Spa in 1995, or Senna dancing his McLaren through the intermittent storms at Donington in 1993.)

There is no question that Vettel is one of the fastest men of the grid. Hamilton too. But neither won yesterday's race. While speed is critical in F1, it is not the only thing. Jenson Button won his second race of the season with the brave decision to stay on slicks when most others were switching to intermediates, and now leads the championship by ten points, confounding the pundits who insisted he would be blown into the weeds by Hamilton. Both his wins this season have come as a result of making the right split-second call on tyres, demonstrating a tactical intelligence (and a modicum of good fortune) which is currently keeping him ahead of the acknowledged speed merchants.

Many have already drawn the comparison of Hamilton and Button with the Senna/Alain Prost era at McLaren: fire and ice, the hot-blooded Latin who would just out-drive everyone else and the cool Frenchman who would out-think everyone. It's not a bad comparison. It doesn't matter how fast Hamilton is, how many times he outqualifies his teammate or how many laps he leads; in changeable conditions which push tactical nous to the fore, Button is finding a way to ensure he leads in the only place that matters: the final lap.

As the F1 circus moves back towards Europe and into the summer months, Button will be less likely to benefit from the wild card effect of changeable weather. Vettel and Hamilton will undoubtedly take their share of victories and podiums. (So too Fernando Alonso and the consistent if unspectacular Nico Rosberg.) But with the final third of the season featuring races in Belgium, Japan and Brazil - each with notoriously unpredictable conditions - only a fool would discount Button's chances if he remains in contention down the stretch.

Ultimately it doesn't really matter whether you prefer to win from the front or with a well-timed attack from behind - the greatest champions simply find a way to win, no matter what. And that is what separates the likes of Man U and Barcelona from Arsenal, and that means that Vettel will not have things all his own way.

Painful though that simple fact was from an Arsenal perspective yesterday, I wouldn't have it any other way. The right to be called 'champion' has to be earned; it is not simply conferred. That is why it means so much.

15 April 2010

Van Persie and Campbell show the way forward for Arsenal

Tottenham 2 Arsenal 1

On a night on which Spurs took all three points from them for the first time in nearly 11 years, it was Arsenal’s oldest and most injured players – respectively, Sol Campbell and Robin van Persie – who provided the potential blueprint for future success for a club now destined to go trophy-less for the fifth consecutive season.

Campbell, 35, made his 20th appearance of the season for Arsenal last night, having been signed as something of an afterthought in January, and was outstanding throughout despite the incessant barrage of abuse he received from the home fans. Even though he has clearly lost a yard of pace over the years, he remains a redoubtable physical presence whose intelligence and anticipation remain undiminished, and he is a far more reliable proposition than Mikael Silvestre, three years his junior. Arsene Wenger will undoubtedly plunge into the transfer market this summer; his first move should be to offer a new one-year contract to Sol. Certainly Wenger acknowledged Campbell’s influence in his post-match interview, saying “He has shown the way to some players. What a winner he is. He showed what you need if you want to win titles.”

The oft-injured Van Persie was making his comeback after torn ankle ligaments had sidelined him for five months. By rights, he should have been rusty and off the pace. Instead, his 68th minute arrival transformed the match, providing a cutting edge to the Arsenal attack and demonstrating to Nicklas Bendtner that, for all that the young Dane has contributed to the scoresheet (nine goals in his last 11 games), there is a massive gulf separating him from the tag of ‘world-class striker’ he believes he deserves.

For nearly 70 minutes Tottenham keeper Heurelho Gomes had been a virtual spectator, with Arsenal’s only attempt on target being a bundled effort from – of all people – Campbell as early as the second minute. But, as Spurs began to tire after their Wembley exertions 72 hours previously, van Persie launched what seemed at times to be a one-man assault on the Brazilian’s goal, most notably a sumptuous effort in which, with his back to goal, he chested the ball down, swivelled and fired a fierce volley in one fluid movement which a diving Gomes did well to turn away.

Ultimately, it was too little too late, with Bendtner’s late tap-in – inevitably, van Persie was at the heart of the move – no more than a consolation.

The game had been lost long before van Persie’s arrival, though. On his league debut, 19-year-old Danny Rose had opened the scoring with a rasping 30-yard volley – truly, a candidate for goal of the season – after Manuel Almunia’s punch fell straight to him. And the second half had barely started when Gareth Bale raced clear of a shambolically invisible backline – how often have we said that about Arsenal this season? – to clip home the second, his first league goal in two and a half seasons, his previous one having also come against Arsenal.

On the night, it was clear to see how much Arsenal missed Cesc Fabregas, Andrey Arshavin, Alex Song, William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen (who limped off with a calf strain after 20 minutes), not to mention Aaron Ramsey and Johan Djourou, who would have provided reinforcements from the bench. But that’s neither a complaint nor an excuse. Arsenal fans will have rightly expected greater leadership from senior campaigners such as Tomas Rosicky and Emmanuel Eboue and for younger (but hardly inexperienced) players like Denilson, Abou Diaby and Samir Nasri to step up to the plate. In reality, only Nasri and to a lesser extent Eboue have done so in recent weeks. It is a distinct weakness in a squad which is over-reliant on youthful potential and lacks consistency.

Which is exactly why Wenger needs to add more players like Campbell to his squad. His team is too dependent on Fabregas and, to a lesser extent, the likes of van Persie and Vermaelen to take games by the scruff of the neck. Too often there is a lack of purpose up front and a sense of barely-controlled panic at the back. One or two more experienced heads – as opposed to yet another promising teenager – could make all the difference in that respect.

The other key is keeping van Persie fit. It is no coincidence that, before last night, Arsenal had averaged 3.3 goals in games in which he had played, compared to 1.8 without him. It is futile to speculate on what might have been had the Dutchman played more this season, but suffice to say he has been sorely missed. Fabregas, Arshavin and Nasri provide the creativity from deeper positions, but he is the only one of the club’s batch of centre forwards who can truly turn a match with a moment of individual skill. Regardless of what his shirt says, Bendtner is an old-fashioned number nine who lacks pace and guile. Theo Walcott has pace to burn, but lacks physicality and aggression. Eduardo is no longer the player he was before his injury; he seems to actively avoid any potential 50:50 challenge. And Carlos Vela looks lost whenever he is asked to play in anything other than the Carling Cup (it’s no wonder he misplaced his passport and missed last week’s Camp Nou trip).

Summer signings

So what should be top of Arsenal’s shopping list this summer?

Firstly, a good luck charm for van Persie, who has missed a significant chunk of every season he has spent at the club through injury. But given that he is never likely to be a 50 game a year player, a quality lead-the-line striker is a must. If the rumours about the impending arrival of Bordeaux’s Marouane Chamakh are true, consider that box ticked.

Even if Campbell stays, the increasingly injury-prone Gallas and the ever-inept Silvestre are also out of contract this summer, and Philippe Senderos will undoubtedly be sold. Djourou’s return will help, but there is a clear need for another central defender, possibly two.

To strengthen the porous defence, I would target a new goalkeeper – I’m a fan of Lyon and France stopper Hugo Lloris – and another defensive midfielder who can partner Alex Song. I know Denilson has his supporters, but to my eyes he is too much of a bits-and-pieces player – decent at most things, but not exceptional at anything – and a liability defensively. And although Diaby is often compared to Patrick Vieira physically, the resemblance ends there; he is a good option going forward, but poor defensively. For me, Diaby is a great option from the bench; Denilson should be offloaded. And I would look for someone like Brazil’s Felipe Melo, who has struggled to settle at Juventus.

So, that would be four (five at most) new bodies in – targeting where possible players in their mid to late-twenties – with Campbell and hopefully Gallas re-signed, counterbalanced by the release of Silvestre and the sale of Senderos, Denilson and possibly Rosicky, with Jack Wilshere returning from his loan spell at Bolton to take his place.

To my eyes, there’s not a big gulf between this year’s squad which has challenged for honours, and one next year which could actually win them. A touch more experience and fewer injuries to key players could transform this team, and the last 20 minutes of a depressing defeat to the annoying neighbours showed me enough to suggest that a line-up like this would enhance Arsenal's prospects for a successful 2010/11 season.


Sagna – Vermaelen – Gallas – Clichy

Song – Melo


Walcott - Van Persie – Nasri

Well, I can hope, can’t I?

7 April 2010

Arsenal’s Champions League bid comes to a Messi end

Lionel Messi scored his fourth hat-trick of the season as he single-handedly reduced Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations to dust last night. No reflection on current and former Man U forwards Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo – world-class players both – but there can be little doubt he is currently the best footballer in the world. By a distance.

If last week’s game at the Emirates was akin to the Blitz as Barcelona peppered Manuel Almunia’s goal with shot after shot, then the return leg was more a succession of surgical strikes. Messi’s goals aside, Almunia had a surprisingly untroubled game – although not as much as Victor Valdes, whose only meaningful participation all night was to pick the ball out of his net after Nicklas Bendtner’s opening goal. Messi equalised within two minutes with a thunderous strike from 20 yards, and it was all downhill from there as he delivered a masterclass in the art of centre forward play. (Although – and this should take nothing away from the little Argentinian’s performance - it must be said Arsenal’s defending was, at times, extremely accommodating.)

In his post-match interviews, Arsene Wenger was more downcast than I have ever heard him, showering praise on Messi and acknowledging that his side simply weren’t good enough in the face of markedly superior opposition. For perhaps the first time, he is now talking openly about the need to strengthen a young squad which – Sol Campbell aside – was not added to during the January transfer window. There is a clear need for one (probably two) centre backs (Campbell, William Gallas and Mikael Silvestre are all out of contract this summer, and the out-of-favour Philippe Senderos is likely to be sold), goalkeeper, holding midfielder (as backup to Alex Song) and centre forward (although this already appears likely in the form of Bordeaux’s Marouane Chamakh).

Having said all that, the state of the current squad – which, let’s remember, is just three points off the top of the Premier League – is hardly shambolic, just a fraction short of that combination of quality and depth you need to be there rather than thereabouts. Some of the fans who phoned in to 5 Live after the game last night were well wide the mark in making such ludicrous suggestions as the squad needing a complete overhaul, or that it is time for Wenger to leave the club. A sense of perspective is important here. An Arsenal XI in which injury and suspension robbed Wenger of half his preferred starting line-up – captain Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Gallas, Song and Andrey Arshavin – as well as a number who would probably have travelled as part of the squad (Aaron Ramsey, Campbell, Johan Djourou, Kieran Gibbs) – was beaten by the Spanish, European and World club champions. There is no shame in that.

If any criticism is to be levelled at manager or team, it should be directed at the tactics employed when Arsenal did have the ball. Too frequently Theo Walcott was stranded out on the right touchline when perhaps he could have ventured inside; not often enough were quick, speculative balls played over the top behind the Barca defence for him to exploit with his pace. Bendtner’s control let him down on occasion. Almunia’s kicking was, as usual, woeful.

But it is easy to be too harsh. Arsenal found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being starved of possession and having to chase shadows, and over both legs consequently played like a team who don’t know how to hassle and harry effectively as a collective unit. It was a tough lesson, one of a number which hopefully will be absorbed by all at Arsenal. When we look back, the shame will not be in the fact of the defeat, nor even the manner of it – it will be if there is no learning or development resulting from it. We may all be surprised how a little wisdom and a little reinforcement (and some better luck with injuries) may be all that is required to turn this Arsenal side into one which can stand toe-to-toe with the very best England and Europe have to offer.

2 April 2010

Review: 'Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force'

Now updated to include a new chapter covering Lance Armstrong's return to the Tour de France in 2009, Daniel Coyle's account of the American's build-up to the 2004 race which saw him claim his record-breaking sixth win focuses more on the day-to-day life of a top professional road cyclist than it does on the racing itself.

In so doing Coyle, who gained unprecedented access to Armstrong and his US Postal Service team throughout the season, provides many fascinating insights into a peculiar world whose inhabitants fear infection and watch their weight as obsessively as the most anorexic hypochondriac. It is a world in which its occupants push lift buttons with their elbows to avoid infections spreading via their fingers, and for whom every handshake is a potential hotbed of germs. It is a world of masochistic training rides and of lung-bursting tests to assess performance and condition, where the only things that matter are the numbers. And it is a world of cloak and dagger, where every rider is constantly assessing their rivals’ form and physical condition, and full of intra- and inter-team political intrigue.

Above all, this book is as close as any writer has ever been allowed to get to the man behind the façade of Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France champion. In so far that any book authorised and signed off by the man himself can be, this is an honest appraisal of what makes Armstrong tick, from his single-minded focus on hitting peak physical condition in the month of July to his overwhelming need to not just beat but destroy anyone who stands in his way, whether they are wielding a bike or a keyboard.

The book also touches upon the racing year through the eyes of Phonak’s Tyler Hamilton (a former US Postal teammate), and Floyd Landis (a Postie in 2004, but one who would leave for Phonak in 2005 to escape Armstrong’s long shadow). It even tackles the multiple accusations and litigations being aimed at Armstrong at that time, including the infamous book L.A. Confidentiel by Irish journalist David Walsh, and while the examination of these carries a hint of red-white-and-blue tinted spectacles, it is largely handled in an even-handed way; it is not simply an extension of the Armstrong PR machine.

For anyone who is interested in an external portrait of Lance Armstrong, or in the fine detail behind the broad brush-strokes which comprise the annual spectacle which is the Tour de France, this is one to add to the collection. It’s not necessarily a book for the cycling ingénue, but it is a richly rewarding read nonetheless.

5 stars (out of 5) 

Lance Armstrong: Tour De ForceAvailable at amazon.co.uk here and at amazon.com here