How to deal with defeat

The England cricket team’s depressingly meek submission to Australia has made me face up to the realities of defeat.  Now, being a lifelong Liverpool fan I am certainly no stranger to this.  But to be mauled down-under in such comprehensive fashion is an extremely bitter pill to swallow.  Obviously I still love the game of cricket and still love England, but a certain part of me also doesn’t want to experience in the intense pain of watching my team get completely outclassed by their closest rivals.  I ashamed to say, that to deal with such a situation, I start caring less.

            Human beings react to disappointment in different ways.  Some vent their frustrations through anger and violence.  Others prefer to internalise their discontent and I definitely fall into the latter category.  No-one likes to lose, but supporters of sporting teams have the worst of it because they do not have any direct effect on the outcome of the contest, yet they care as much as (in some cases, more) than the competitors.  For example, I could want Woking to beat Dartford in the Skrill Premier League more than anything in the world (and I do), yet I’m not directly involved in the contest so no matter how much I will them to win, they might lose.  Equally I could be (and am) extraordinarily ambivalent towards the result of Burton v Newport but I will have as much influence on that result as Woking’s.

Herein lies the curse of the supporter.  In any normal walk of life, if a human desires something, he/she will go to any lengths to get it.  I desperately wish Liverpool would win the Premier League, but however hard I fervently crave this, there is no certainty it will happen.  In fact (and this is the worst part) the more I care about Liverpool, the more painful each defeat feels.  There is a certain helpless vulnerability which is almost unique to the sporting fan.  Now I really like football, but I refuse to have my weekend defined by whether my team does well or not.  That is a ridiculous way to live one’s life (especially if you are a supporter of a shit team, like Stoke or West Ham).  Therefore my solution is to make myself care less about the results of my team and to temper my expectations (admittedly very difficult after Liverpool’s highly impressive start to the season).  Granted, the high I experience after a victory will not be as intense given that I have made myself less emotional involved in the whole process, but more importantly, if (usually when) Liverpool suffer defeat, I do not go into a spiral of depression, lock myself in my room and cry for hours on end.  My Spurs-supporting housemate recently returned home a couple of Sundays ago to find me grinning ear to ear, quizzing him incessantly on the 5-0 drubbing his team had received at the hands of the mighty Reds.  He still hasn’t watched the highlights because if he doesn’t, it’s almost as if it didn’t really happen – therefore the defeat becomes less painful.

I have successfully used this tactic for Liverpool since their decline in season 2009/10.  Instead of constantly checking my phone every 5 minutes for score updates, I would wait until I got home before finding out to whom the latest embarrassing defeat was.  The key is to be in control of your football addiction.  Let it control you and you are toast; quietly but firmly tell it who’s boss – and you will have a fruitful and happy relationship.  This is how I am going to experience the rest of the Ashes series.

I started following the current series in such a manic, compulsive way, that people start to question your sanity (even more than they currently do).  A friend and I watched the whole first day’s play (00:00-07:30 GMT) at Brisbane live on TV in the Lords Museum courtesy of winning a competition (if you go onto my twitter account there’s a particularly fetching picture of me celebrating a wicket and generally looking like a complete goon).  That’s the sort of intense support that can, and eventually did lead to a rather sombre moment of reflection in my life where I sat myself down to consider what is really important.  I decided that despite the comprehensive Brisbane defeat, England couldn’t possibly play as badly at Adelaide, and like the obedient puppy that I am, I duly tuned in to Test Match Special at midnight to follow England’s progress.  When it became apparent that this performance was possibly worse than the Brisbane debacle, a deep cloud hung over me.  I had sacrificed a considerable amount of my time (and sleep) to support my team, yet I was receiving absolutely no reward.  I then had an Epiphany.  Why should I continue to suffer the pain of listening to England be ritually humiliated when I could be living in the glorious bliss of ignorance?  I could go to bed not listening to the cricket, wake up in the morning having slept soundly and check the score.  Oh look, we’re still being tonked around Perth.  Yes, I’m a little narked off but I’ve become more emotionally detached from the cricket so the pain of defeat is that much more bearable.  I can breakfast in relative serenity.  This is my secret to being an enduring sports fan: to deal with defeat with humour and apathy, not with anger and resentment.

I know deep down that I still care about the England cricket team and the results of Liverpool Football Club.  I have supported them all my life and will continue to until the day I die.  However, I have to convince myself that it is not one of the defining features of my life.  For example, when meeting someone for the first time, I do not tend to introduce myself as “David de Winter; die-hard England cricket fan.”  Most people would claim to have left the iron on/have a bus to catch/have a recently deceased relative and make a very speedy exit.  Yes, I am a huge fan of cricket and regularly attend matches but if Surrey or England are losing, I still enjoy the spectacle.  Its intrinsic beauty is the reason I love the sport.  This does not stop because the result is contrary to my preference.  Sport, when it comes down to it, is just a game.  In the grand scheme of things, it does not matter.  Life still goes on.  I understand that what makes sport so great is the fact that it matters so much to so many people.  That is what makes it such compelling viewing and why millions of people flock to stadia all around the world – to watch great contests between athletes at the peak of their powers.  That is the beauty of sport.

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The Southern-Hemisphere Jinx

The recent autumn internationals revealed some harsh truths for the northern-hemisphere teams.  Basking in a post-Lions glow, the expectation was that they would more than match their opponents from the other side of the globe.  The reality was a marked contrast.  Only England provided a glimmer of hope with an unconvincing 20-13 victory over a very under-par Australia.  Wales, Scotland and Ireland all lost to the big three of South Africa, the Wallabies and New Zealand.  Wales talked a good game, yet couldn’t quite walk the walk and whilst Ireland’s defeat to the Kiwis was heart-breaking, it was just so inevitable.  What can the 6 Nations teams (especially Wales, Ireland and Scotland) do to break the monopoly the southern-hemisphere currently has on the game of rugby?

            Firstly, the Lions: I am of the opinion that the Lions played almost to their top potential this summer (particularly in the finale in Sydney) whilst Australia underperformed considerably given the plethora of talent at their disposal.  The home nations assumed that they were going to steam-roller the Aussies (who have played 15 matches this year) just as they had done on that glorious July day.  Not so.  A variety of factors, the main one being off-load king Quade Cooper’s sublime form in the past two tests but also a renewed steel in the forwards (Michael Hooper take a bow) and some clinical finishing has led to a resurgence in the Australian team characterised by some thrilling running rugby.

There is a reason why Wales can’t beat any of the big three, and Wallaby fly-half Cooper displayed it swathes: talent.  Man for man, Wales simply aren’t as talented as Australia.  No amount of defensive drills, set-piece practice and teamwork can make up for that fact.  Over an 80 minute match, at one or two crucial points, this imbalance will manifest itself in an unstoppable attacking move – witness Christian Leialiifano’s try on Saturday.  The key thing here is ability.  Wales played supremely well on Saturday – probably the best they could have played – yet still they lost.  Wales don’t have someone like Will Genia, Quade Cooper or Israel Folau – someone who has that X-factor, who can produce the unexpected – a maverick if you will (well they do – James Hook – but he was playing for Perpignan instead).  They have a number of very good players, but no-one who can instinctively create something from nothing.  You get the feeling with Wales that they are just a battering ram, and a very good one at that, but they never really seem to search out the gaps – instead they seem to relish contact which I find bizarre.  Their players are wonderful physical specimens, but instinctive rugby footballers they are not.  Australia matched Wales’ physicality and their superior natural talent was the very fine difference between the teams on Saturday and this will continue until Wales can somehow conjure up a Shane Williams/Gavin Henson clone.

Speaking of Henson, I must state how Cooper’s performance on Saturday reminded me of the once great Wales centre.  During his prime (2004-08), Henson played as if he was having a Sunday afternoon stroll.  When he got the ball it was as if time stood still and no-one could touch him.  He made the game look easy whilst all around him players were straining every sinew to match his outrageous talent.  The same is true of Cooper.  In setting up the Wallabies’ opening try, under pressure from two defenders he nonchalantly flicked an offload to the waiting Joe Tomane who set up Lealiifano to score.  The genius of this was that he drew George North in from the wing to create space for the waiting Tomane.  Few players in the world game have that sort of vision, particularly in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a Test match.  Henson was similar in that defenders were drawn to him because they knew that he could create something in the blink of an eye.  Once the defence was concentrated on him, he had the ability to create space for other runners around him and, crucially, deliver a pass from which they could take advantage.  George North is a player who attracts defenders simply because of his immense physical strength, yet rarely does he use this to pass to a teammate in space.  Instead he goes into contact and, because of his upright body position, often gets turned over.  It is not enough to have a game-plan based around brute force.  International defences are so good these days that teams need a touch of ingenuity to breach the try-line.  Cooper was the difference between the two teams on Saturday and exemplified the importance of a running fly-half (step forward James Hook).

Ireland’s loss to New Zealand (it has to be described like that) was a bitter pill to swallow.  In all honesty they should have never been beaten after leading 22-7 at half-time but, like Wales, Ireland don’t have that winning habit over the Southern Hemisphere.  It must be said that to be leading by 15 points against the World Champions at the break is a herculean effort and they should be commended for putting up such a committed performance.  New Zealand however, are a relentless juggernaut that play at 100% intensity for the full 80 minutes (82 in this case).  Ireland showed a little naivety in not seeing out the match by playing territory and trying drop-goals but against the All Blacks (this year’s vintage are one of the greatest teams to ever play the game), they can be forgiven.  The issue is that was Ireland’s best chance to beat New Zealand, and probably will be for the foreseeable future.  It is telling that at the weekend, even when playing at almost 100%, the Northern Hemisphere teams still can’t beat the Southern Hemisphere when they’re not on top form.  I don’t know whether it is better coaching, more commitment, better quality of opposition, physical strength, stronger mental strength that is the difference between the sides (probably a combination of everything), but one thing is for sure; they are more talented.  Until this imbalance is rectified, the dominance of the Southern-Hemisphere over the rugby world looks set to continue.

England face crunch Ashes fortnight

The next two test matches in Adelaide and Perth will decide the fate of the Ashes urn.  If England can make it to Melbourne on Boxing Day level pegging then there is all to play for.  If Australia can win either test then they trophy will more than likely be staying down-under for the next couple of years.  After the aberration in Brisbane, England need to bounce back and fast.  They were out-gunned and meek in the face of an hostile and, at times, overly aggressive Australian team.  The Jonathan Trott issue has also been an unwelcome distraction.  These coming weeks will show what this England team is truly made of.

            The first test was a bit of a disaster on all fronts.  England’s bowlers did brilliantly to reduce Australia to 100-5 in the first innings but then they allowed them to reach 295, with the last four wickets putting on over 150.  Conversely, England were 82-2, yet Michael Clarke went for the jugular and with the help of some surprisingly accurate bowling from Mitchell Johnson (surely he can’t keep it up), bowled them out for 136.  This is where the contrast between Alastair Cook’s more measured captaincy approach and Clarke’s gung-ho attitude is most apparent.  If Cook had really gone for it, England could have bowled the Aussies out for under 200 and been in the game.  As it was, he let the game drift and gambled on waiting for the new ball before making more inroads.  It was not unreasonable for him to expect the batsmen to post a respectable first-innings score (which they most certainly didn’t) but Cook’s leadership was reactive rather than proactive.  A great captain takes the game by the scruff of the neck and imposes his game-plan on the situation.  Cook doesn’t take too many risks and while that has served England well during his tenure, when chances arrive, he must take them immediately.  Failure to do so results in catch-up cricket and thus, the kind of insipid performances witnessed in Brisbane.

            Part of England’s problem in the first test was the back-up bowling to Anderson and Broad.  Tremlett (as I predicted in this blog, not two months previous) is not the bowler he was three years ago.  His pace has dropped and he doesn’t have the zip and troublesome bounce which was so effective on the previous tour in 2010/11.  When Broad and Anderson were taken out of the attack you could see the pressure lift because while Tremlett was not necessarily overly expensive, he rarely bowled the sort of probing, wicket-taking deliveries for which he is renowned.  Swann was uncharacteristically out of sorts too.  He failed to create pressure by sealing up an end, instead being the brunt of many a Mitchell Johnson biff in the first innings.  In the second innings he went for more than five an over which, from 27 overs, is embarrassing.  If England are to have any success in the coming fortnight he needs to get his mojo back fairly pronto.

            So the England selectors face a bit of a headache.  Who is going to replace Trott?  And something clearly needs to change in the bowling department.  I personally would go for Gary Balance to bat at number 6.  He hasn’t exactly set the tour alight with runs yet but he has a very solid technique and he doesn’t seem to have a weakness against the short ball (unlike Johnny Bairstow) and he had an impressive end to the county season.  Ben Stokes is not quite ready for this level and with the form that Prior is currently in, the batting needs as much depth as possible.  There has been talk of pushing Ian Bell up the order but why?  He has been England’s form batsman this year at No. 5.  The old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage springs to mind.  Joe Root should move up the order to 3.  He has experience as a Test opener and has scored runs there so shouldn’t be fazed.

For the bowlers, I would pick Tim Bresnan.  He is a big gamble, especially as he is returning from injury and only has one two-day match under his belt.  However he lengthens the tail and brings a measure of control to the bowling attack.  He is an impressive exponent of the art of reverse swing but can also play a bit of chin music if required.  If Bresnan isn’t fit then Steven Finn has to come into the team.  Yes he leaks runs like a tap but he also has a knack of taking regular wickets (often with abysmal deliveries).  Tremlett simply isn’t an international-class bowler anymore and Boyd Rankin is too inconsistent with his length.  Why he was picked ahead of Graham Onions I will never fathom.  England are crying out for someone with Onions’ potency with ball in hand.  There seems to be this idea that because Australian pitches are bouncy, England must play their tallest fast bowlers.  Bollocks.  At the risk of sounding like Sir Geoffrey, you don’t take many wickets with bouncers, even in Australia.  It is still the corridor of uncertainty which is the key to bowling success, whatever the conditions.  Yes it’s a good surprise tactic to set up a batsman but if it’s a stock strategy then batsmen just sit on the back foot and pick off the short balls.  Onions has the speed to throw in the odd bouncer but is an awkward customer because he is a very skiddy bowler, complementing both Broad and Anderson.  I think he is still on stand-by somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa maybe) and England should send out an SOS call to him sooner rather than later.  If they wait any longer the Ashes may already be gone.  There are rumours abound that Monty Panesar is under serious consideration for Adelaide.  Panesar is an effective bowler and it would not be a bad option if England played two spinners but then that leaves a heavy workload on Anderson and Broad without any other seam-bowling options in the team.  He may still be in line for a recall if England continue their worrying slide towards ignominy.

            I will still pop on the old TMS at midnight tonight but it will be with the unfamiliar feeling (or familiar to those who remember the dark days of the 90’s and early 00’s) of trepidation.  England’s sudden ability to collapse at the slightest tremor and their inability to reach a total of 400 in their first innings does not fill me with any assurance.  Part of me thinks England can’t be as bad as in Brisbane and Australia won’t be as good.  Part of me expects that Mitchell Johnson will revert back to his old erratic self again.  Part of me hopes that Ryan Harris’ dodgy hamstring delivers a timely return.  But the current England team does not exactly breed confidence, so when I turn on the radio tonight to listen to Aggers’ dulcet tones, it will in hope rather than expectation.