Monday, July 23, 2012

England suffer in the sun

Three days of one sided cricket have shown Thursday to have been a false dawn for England in the series opener against South Africa with the tourists dominating proceedings at the Oval.

Talk before the game (including here) was of the much vaunted pace attacks and also the possibility of the visitors being 'undercooked'. It is England however who have ended up being roasted.

South Africa's first innings card looks absurd with only two wickets falling in 189 overs. Credit first must be given to the batsmen's performances - especially Hashim Amla - but England in truth have failed to compete.

This Oval pitch appears to have foxed the England bowlers entirely and their attack was made to look one dimensional and entirely ordinary as South Africa's batsmen gorged their way to 637/2 declared.

Amla, Smith and Kallis all played superb innings, Amla's triple century was a study in concentration, technical excellence and supreme craft. Smith showed all the grit and presence that he is blessed with and Kallis was as peerless as ever as he racked up yet another huge innings. We will have to wait until the 2nd Test to find out how AB deVilliers reacts to the dual role he now occupies as he wasn't required to bat here despite three new balls.

Amla's post match comments that the pitch was simply getting easier and easier to play on made a mockery of England's 2nd innings travails, as did Steyn and his supporting cast in obtaining far more movement out of the pitch than the England attack.

England gave wickets away cheaply last night and whilst we know what we are getting with KP, some effort to bat for the team occasionally when backs are to the wall would be appreciated by all.

It would be churlish to write England off after one bad test but there appears a worrying gulf in class akin to when England hammered Australia down under 18 months ago.

England have not become the No1 team in the world by being a bad side but the reality is that test cricket does not have the depth it used to and faced with a very good team, England have fluffed their lines terribly.

England's batting looked suspect in the sub continent earlier this year but the bowling attack was felt to be robust with options a plenty. Saturday and Sunday were like the bad old days from the Nineties as England toiled horribly.

The pitch has been there for both teams to use and South Africa have extracted way more from it with both bat and ball which is concerning given that England are on home soil.

No one is suggesting that Bresnan did not merit his place but the option of Steve Finn's added pace and bounce - even on this pitch - may have given another option as Morkel showed last night given the serenity with which South Africa's batsmen were playing.

England face a battle today to even make South Africa bat again and saving the test would seem to be beyond them regardless of the bullishness of Graham Gooch. England will need to regroup quickly if they are to fight back after this stark wake up call - No Nonsense.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

KP - Bigger Than The Team?

That seems to be the accusation being thrown in the direction of Kevin Pietersen after his retirement from OD and Twenty20 internationals and then his 'flirtation' with returning to the fold.

From England's point of view it is essential that they stand firm. The difference between the success this current side is enjoying versus the relative success under Michael Vaughan (no messrs Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist et all also helps) is that they a team in the truest sense.

Players such as Flintoff and Harmison were fine ones but also divisive at many times. This England team is greater than the sum of its' parts, able to dig deep when required with even their OD travails slowly being tackled. KP after all didn't take part in the recent blowing away of Australia.

To write off KP as an arrogant, selfish, flashy and self interested is simple enough but to do so is also slightly naive. Whereas the greatest are true team players such as Dravid and Kallis, many of the world's great talents are selfish, everyone used to dance to Brian Lara's tune as an example.

Some players require indulging, to be made to feel a little special but there is a feeling here that KP is not actually asking for such.

If you read what Pietersen is saying, he is basically stating that he wants to be able to play the IPL fully whilst continuing playing for England. England players are well enough off we hear you say but who in the main does not want to maximise their earning potential, especially in such a short career?

The issue is one between the selectors and the players, in this particular case KP but the reality is that it is the ICC and the Cricket boards that are forcing players to choose, this situation is arising because of the unquenchable thirst for revenue through the saturated and dull ODI format.

England are due to play South Africa for the unofficial test championship, a mouth watering prospect yet we will only see three tests, why? Simply because the ECB chose to play 5 ODIs against Australia despite the knowledge that almost a year of unbroken Ashes cricket will follow in 2013. Is it Kevin Pietersen's fault that so many needless (and sometimes meaningless) ODIs are scheduled?

The weather in the UK is often bad enough yet tests are being pushed to May and September to accommodate more and more ODIs. This blog has been critical of India's continued commitment to test cricket but the ECB should be taken to task over where its priorities lie given that England is the last bastion of regular sell outs for test matches.

There is no doubt that KP is acting in his own self interest but his complaints have much more than just a hollow ring to them when the ECB is clearly acting in their own financial self interest. The likes of Bresnan and Swann are playing with painkilling injections and the extra ODIs are certainly not helping, there is simply too much cricket.

There can be little arguement also that the ODIs help to prepare the England side even. Seven (count them) ODIs were played at the end of the last Ashes series leaving the team tired and seemingly disinterested in the World Cup that followed. England sank without trace.

The priority after South Africa will be the ten Ashes test matches, surely two extra tests against South Africa would be better preparation (certainly in terms of finding an established No6) than the five money spinning ODIs against Australia this year?

England have said that players cannot pick and choose their matches and formats, rightly so but at the same time Andrew Strauss was excused a trip to Bangladesh to recharge his batteries so accommodations can be made.

What is wrong with KP saying that the next World Cup is a step too far but that he'd like to help England win the upcoming T20 version? England to a degree are cutting off their nose to spite their face by excluding arguably their best T20 batsman.

The IPL has been a pain in the backside for the ECB since its' inception but the reality is that unless more financial wrong doing in India is exposed it isn't going to go away. Players aren't going to not want the money or the experience of playing in India either.

The ECB can continue to force players to choose and will feel justified in doing so. The ex players will talk of the pride of playing for your country but the likes of Kerry Packer and  also rebel tours to South Africa in the past have proven that money talks.

The powers that be can simply say 'these are the rules and be damned' but in doing so they risk losing their most talented players - as those are the ones that the IPL wants - like they are doing with KP for the T20 World Cup. This is not the first time this has happened and it won't be the last - No Nonsense.

Seamer's Paradise

Such is the much mooted battle of the two best seam attacks in the world when England versus South Africa kicks off later today.

Undoubtedly there is a glittering array of bowling talent on show in particular. With England's seam friendly conditions to the fore, we should expect three - weather permitting - tests with a positive result.

For South Africa, Dale Steyn will spearhead the attack backed up by the fresh Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel. Steyn as ever will be a combination of speed, accuracy and hostility. Morkel looks a little short of form right now but no doubt more overs will improve his rhythm.

Philander is the interesting one and could be the joker in the pack for South Africa. He makes up for a lack of pace with a nagging line and length and his short test career has been exceptional so far. The first test will do much to shape how he matches up against England's batsmen.

England's seam attack is much lauded and rightly so. In recent home series they have been simply able to bully the opposition much as they did against an undercooked India last Summer. Quality and variety abounds as well as strength in depth with huge competition for places meaning that Steve Finn will be left again drumming his fingers for the first test.

The area of spin is one where England have a definite advantage with Graeme Swann lining up against the as yet unproven Imran Tahir. Even in conditions that should see seam attacks dominate, Swann's ability to hold down one end giving his quicks some respite and his knack of taking key wickets could prove decisive.

Both batting line ups contain undoubted quality with batsmen capable of dominating attacks. Much has been made of the bowling attacks but with run scoring at a premium, it may be the form of the batsmen that is key.

The likes of Smith, Duminy and Amla will have to play well with AB de Villiers being given the added workload of keeping wicket. For Smith in particular it will be a chance to prove once and for all that he is a fine South African captain, if he can lead from the front it would be a huge fillip for the tourists.

All of this and then the imperious Jacques Kallis, a man who has had far more runs and wickets to his name than column inches in such an illustrious career.

Whilst his bowling is not what it was when he was first change up to Donald and Pollock - consider just how long this man has been around - his batting has been so far impervious to time with his standing bearing comparison to the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Ponting and Lara.

Kallis does not have a great record in England (only one century) but his presence is immense. His stoic stays at the crease and his ability to act as a fourth seamer will be crucial if indeed South Africa are to push England hard.

The English press wrote much in the past about the talents of Andrew Flintoff and whilst Kallis is more a batsmen come part time bowler these days rather than an all rounder in the truest sense, he is a sensational cricketer and one of the best the world has ever seen, England beware.

England have a very settled batting line up other than No6 which has remained a problem position since Paul Collingwood retired.

Jamie Bairstow has been an unfortunate victim of rare short term thinking by the England selectors after his brief opportunity against the West Indies. Given the England selectors' general policy of continuity of selection in recent years and the importance of the series, it is hard to find too much fault with them picking the batsman they feel is best placed to score runs in the short term.

For Ravi Bopara, there is a feeling that we've been here before. He has undoubted talent but unlike the travails of Graeme Hick or Mark Ramprakash, there is a suspicion that Bopara's problems at test level are due to technique rather than pyschological ones.

If the current England test team have a problem, it is a lack of competition for batting places with no real alternative to the current established top five. For Bopara it is possibly a final chance but one that unfortunately comes against an attack tailor made for these conditions. One hopes that when Steyn is moving the ball around at pace that his gate remains firmly closed.

Given the abilities of Matt Prior as the best test wicketkeeper batsman in the world and a readily wagging tail of Broad, Swann and Bresnan, England have batting depth the current envy of the world and given the dreadful injury to Mark Boucher, that balance and depth of batting could prove the crucial factor in what will be a close fought series.

Each test should be able to provide a result and first innings scores of 350 or over should be at a premium. England have their tails up, have the West Indies series under their belts and a better balance to their team. We at this blog predict a 2-0 series win to England with one test undoubtedly falling foul of the weather - No Nonsense.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Did Scottish Football Just Get Something Right?

For the first time in many years, it appears that Scottish football has acted in a way and reached decisions that the majority of fans are actually pleased with, so what has caused this almost unique phenomenon and is it the Mayan calendar at work?

Once Rangers liquidated and the scale of their ills and wrong doings were apparent, starting all over again at the bottom was the only credible outcome. Despite that there was initially a huge suspicion that a fudge would be arranged such is the terror throughout the land at losing the Sky TV deal.

The spectre of further shenanigans regarding an SPL2 that Rangers would join remains somewhere in the background although it does now look as though Rangers will be kicking off in the bottom tier this season. What is odd however is that Scotland managed to actually do the right thing, so just how did this happen?

Little has galvanised both motivation and opinion amongst Scottish fans in many a year. There is no doubt that Rangers have probably been dealt with more harshly (although with validity) than others would have been due to the hatred that they have stirred for so many years. Their effective cheating has yet to be sanctioned by the SFA.

That being said, there is definitely a sense in the country also that there was an opportunity to force some much needed change within the game and that a fresh start was required.

The media has been quick to talk of 'financial armageddon' ad tedium with word that several other SPL clubs will go to the wall quickly once the much fabled Sky deal is off the table.

The reality is that the Sky deal offered very little to Scotland as the money it brought in was not being put to work in the right places and was simply servicing debts that should have not been there in the first place. A chance to create a smaller but debt free set up is a slightly naive one (possibly) but a very attractive one nevertheless.

The paralysis induced by the spectre of Sky merely served to maintain the awful status quo much in the way heroin keeps its' victims' issues under wraps for just a little longer before the inevitable eventually comes.

SPL clubs need to be able to process a budget and run their clubs in accordance with their incomes and not be subsidised by four Old Firm games every season that they have nothing to do with.

Whilst it is Rangers and Celtic that have formed this duopoly, it is the rest of Scotland that has accepted it. Edinburgh for instance has a large population yet is unable to produce a fan base to have a club that could truly rival either of them.

Both Aberdeen and to a lesser extent Dundee United had periods where they matched if not bettered what the Old Firm could muster. It is since the dawn of the modern TV age that the chasm has so widened so why be so terrified to let it go?

What is far more important is to have fans walking through turnstiles every week, that is the sustainable business that the country so cries out for. For all the talk of TV deals, the teams across Europe who are the biggest all have huge grounds that are full every week, they are big clubs because people pay to go and watch them first and foremost.

The reason that a common sense decision was reached on where the newco Rangers should play was because the same chairmen who are terrified of losing Sky are it appears even more terrified of losing what few fans they have.

Scottish football desperately needs to return to focusing on getting punters through the turnstiles again rather than depending on a TV deal focused around four Old Firm games a year. With a bias like that was there ever going to be any other outcome than such a ludicrously lopsided league?

Rangers' fall is undoubtedly going to be a hard pill for Scotland to swallow financially and it may well be that administration will be required for other clubs along the way. It could however be that several years of hardship could see the game rebranded and reformed into a viable product with clubs that are self sustainable.

What has also become abundantly clear is that there is no need for an SFA, an SPL and an SFL, it is an utter nonsense as not one association has made a decision on anything of any significance other than the botched attempt to invoke a transfer ban on Rangers. Every matter of substance has been voted for by the clubs, there is only a need for football body, end of story.

What happens next is far from clear and the sense of a new beginning is going to be overwhelmed by one of overriding uncertainty. Even Celtic who have stressed that they do not need Rangers to survive, undoubtedly need the television money that Rangers' existence guaranteed in order to sustain a squad that is hugely overweight for the purposes of winning the SPL now.

It is of course clear that Rangers' attendances will drop markedly now that they are on the bottom rung but what crowds can be expected at Celtic Park for the next few seasons given that they will effectively be on their victory parade and lap of honour from day one?

All of this points to a coming together of clubs into a much smaller and more competitive pot and it is there and only there that there is some hope for Scottish football. It is already TWENTY SEVEN years since a club outside of Rangers (it is possible Rangers could have some struck off) and Celtic won the league in Scotland which is a quite farcical statistic.

By way of some comparison, five different clubs have won the Eredivise since 1998. Four clubs have won the Portuguese first division in the past twelve years and since 1998, EIGHT different teams have won Ligue 1 despite Lyon winning it seven times in a row during that same period.

Whilst the Daily Record and such have enjoyed the hyperbole of words such as 'armageddon' the reality is that Scottish football has been bankrupt for some time already. Changing the name of the league does not change the product which has generally been dire since the late eighties which was the same time that meaningful competition ended.

That the bodies that run Scottish football had allowed themselves to become so beholden to Rangers and Celtic was farcical. The collapse of Rangers has had doomsayers stating it would be the death of Scottish football completely, how on earth did the SFA and co allow the game to get into such a dreadful state where one single club could bring the whole thing down?

Everyone has known for years that many clubs in Scotland are no longer viable yet nothing has been done about it despite the travails of Dundee and Motherwell as well as the breadline existence of so many others.

Rangers new life in the old fourth division and whatever punishments are still to come must not be the end of the matter but the start. Scottish football must find a way to produce a competitive and attractive product and only then can they start to negotiate television deals that will enhance the products and help it grow, not merely keep it on life support - No Nonsense.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Levy's High Stakes Gamble

Earlier this year, Harry Redknapp was being touted as some modern day managerial genius who was going to breeze into the England job once Fabio Cappello upped sticks. At the same time, Andre Villas Boas was being castigated and pilloried around the globe for his abject failure in man management of the Chelsea dressing room.

Ironically, it was AVB's dismissal that prompted the Chelsea revival that ultimately saw Redknapp kicked out of Spurs for failing to qualify for the Champions League, now he has replaced 'arry at White Hart Lane.

This blog has praised Daniel Levy many times in the past for his shrewd stewardship of Spurs and for his standing up to 'bigger' clubs who come praying on Spurs' better players, Chelsea's pursuit of Luca Modric last year being a case in point.

Redknapp whilst having done a good job at Spurs is not exactly a progressive manager and Levy, aware of Spurs' handicaps wishes to have a coach who is at the forefront of the modern game to give the club the edge it needs.

Despite all this, Levy has engaged in an incredibly high risk stratagem having just fired Spurs' most successful manager in many years and hiring a man whom it is already said is an unpopular figure with the Spurs dressing room. The highly paid pampered stars of the Premiership are a tight knit bunch and the Tottenham players do not like what they have heard from their Stamford Bridge counterparts.

AVB failed at Chelsea due to well documented problems with the senior players. Spurs do not have a dressing room anything like that at Stamford Bridge and also do not have a squad that has to be rebuilt, merely one that needs to be added to which is a much simpler task as those players will instantly be 'his'. There is no ghost of Mourinho in North London either.

There is little doubt that AVB is a considerably talented and clever man, he does however appear to care little for the 'human' side of football. Whilst he can be entertaining and intelligent to listen to, he can also become hugely brittle and defensive when dealing with the press, his star fell incredibly quickly at Chelsea and one wonders where that whole experience has left him.

One thing that does not appear to have changed is his self confidence and self belief which was reflected in his ire with Spurs' apparent courting of more than one candidate with AVB rumoured to be walking away from the talks if that situation was to continue.

It is also indicative of the view of the level of dysfunction at Chelsea that a club such as Tottenham have not been dissuaded by AVB's short and ill fated reign there.
The Spurs job is clearly an attractive one but at the same time he is joining Spurs at an incredibly tough time given their relative recent success, the expectations to finish in the top four and the lack of resources from their stadium size and lack of Champions League revenues.

Both the Manchester clubs will clearly expect to finish above Spurs, Arsenal are for once already spending money and it is hard to see Chelsea being in any way as poor as they were last season. It should also be safe to assume that Liverpool will be more competitive, all of which points to a fourth place finish for Spurs being a tall order.

It would be unfair to write off AVB because of his failing at a club as dysfunctional as Chelsea and with a squad that was clearly in decline. That being said, Levy has taken a big gamble and his status as the best Chairman in the Premiership will rest on how quickly or otherwise AVB settles in - No Nonsense.