F1 2014 Season Preview

In years gone by, the dawn of a new Formula One season used to be a time of excitement and anticipation.  The thought of great drivers going head to head in the most powerful and expensive machines on the planet brought water even to the mouths of camels.  The season’s traditional Melbourne curtain-raiser this Sunday has come in slightly under the radar however, not least because of some damaging bribery stories in the off-season concerning the world’s shortest man, Bernie Ecclestone.  Some say Formula One has become boring.  To a certain extent, I can agree. If I’m totally honest, over the past few years, I tend to watch the first few laps of a race, have a nap, then wake up in time to see Sebastian Vettel spraying champagne over scantily clad women to the music from Carmen – often the most exciting point (for me at least) of the weekend.  But this year, all is set to change with a raft of new regulations in the sport.  Pre-season testing has suggested that the dominance of Red Bull, which has brought them the driver and constructor championship double for the past four years, may well be over.

Of the many new changes introduced, there are two of great significance. Firstly, the front nose and wings have been lowered and narrowed, as has the rear wing. The exhaust now has a single, central exit point which means it cannot be used for aerodynamic advantage. These changes combine to make it harder for the teams to create downforce, and thus grip, for the cars. Red Bull have been the masters of this over the past four years.

The other significant change will be more likely heard than seen, by the viewers/listeners at least, as the high pitched wail of the V8 engines synonymous with F1 has been replaced by the low growl of a highly turbo charged hybrid V6 motor. This grumble will be punctuated by whines and whistles from the turbo and new ERS (energy recovery systems). The ERS systems utilise complicated hybrid technology to put at the disposal of the drivers large boosts of horsepower which they can unleash for large periods of each lap, a big step up from the KERS systems of last year.  Many will mourn the loss of the epic V8 sound, which certainly added to the atmosphere of F1.  But in this age of austerity and economy, F1 must retain some relevance, and development in hybrid engine technology will doubtless ripple down to the commercial vehicles of today and tomorrow.  This year’s challenges therefore will prove to be about reliability and fuel management, where last year was all about tyre wear, which are still made by Pirelli, but with stronger compounds to avoid the punctures and blow outs which at times ruined last year’s racing.

So let’s have a look at the contenders:

RED BULL: simply put, Renault, who supply their engines are extremely behind in their engine development this year, meaning Red Bull have had a torrid pre-season. They failed to complete more than 20 or so ‘hot laps’ all winter and suffered from major reliability issues. However, with their experience and money, don’t be surprised to see them come good as the season progresses, but will it be too late?  Fingers crossed then we don’t see that smug twat Vettel on the podium any time soon.

FERRARI: The team from Monza have had a quietly impressive, if not spectacular winter testing. In Fernando Alonso and the world’s coolest man – Kimi Raikkonen they have arguable the best driver combination. They look set for one of their strongest seasons for a while.

MCLAREN: After having one of, if not the worst season in their history last year, McLaren will be looking to bounce back. Powered by the formidable Mercedes engine, they have been very good in pre-season. We know all about former world champion Jensen Button’s credentials, but his new team mate, Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen has caught the eye with some serious pace.  Ron Dennis’ re-appointment as Team Principal is also a significant move.

MERCEDES: Look to be the pace setters this year and Lewis Hamilton’s eye brow raising decision to join them from McLaren is looking justified as Mercedes appear streets ahead of many teams in terms of car development. They were fastest in 11 out of 12 testing sessions this winter, and with an increasingly maturing Hamilton behind the wheel, they look to be the team to beat.

BEST OF THE REST:

F1 heavyweights WILLIAMS have not had the best of times in recent years, but have looked very sharp so far this winter, especially with the experienced Felipe Massa behind the wheel. The top teams may be seeing a lot more of them in their wing mirrors this season.

As previous years have shown, it’s difficult to predict too much from pre-season testing. But one thing seems certain: as reliability has been such an issue for every team managing these regulation changes and complex new engines, it won’t be surprising to see only half the field finish the first race this weekend in Melbourne. As far as I’m concerned, it’s about time the field was blown wide open and I’m very excited about the forthcoming season, which promises much entertainment. You never know, I may even manage to stay awake for a whole race…..

Alex Sprague (Guest blogger and part-time F1 expert)

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Is it ever morally OK to support the Aussies?

For me, it is often impossible to watch a sporting contest purely as a neutral.  As much as I may watch for the enjoyment of sport itself, at the back of the mind there is usually one team, or one individual I want to win.  This may be down to the skill of a particular performer (I always want Ronnie O’Sullivan or Roger Federer to win, as they are the most exciting players to watch, even if they are, in their own ways, arseholes); it may be down to a strange childhood obsession (I will always support Denmark at football, because of their 1986 team); it could be because of a mildly xenophobic dislike of certain countries in a sporting context (I will hardly ever root for a team or person from France, Germany, Australia or the USA); and it often stems from the peculiarly British desire to see the underdog win.  For this last reason, I despise Manchester United, the New Zealand rugby union team, and Tiger Woods.

It can happen that I care not, when following a sporting event, who wins.  This may be due to antipathy for the competitors (when Chelsea play Man United, the only real positive outcome for me would be if there were an unseemly brawl, resulting in a points deduction for both sides) or a liking for both the opponents.  For example I would have been happy for either Rafa Nadal or Stan Wawrinka to win the recent Australian Open Final, Nadal because he comes across as a lovely, humble bloke, and Wawrinka because he was the underdog and has one of the dreamiest backhands in the game.

The current Test series between South Africa and Australia is one such occasion when victory for either side would leave me content.  Like any right-minded English person, I have long held a deep-seated hatred for the Australian cricket team for many reasons: they are historically England’s cricketing rivals; I grew up watching gum-chewing, baggy cap-wearing, muscular men swatting aside the feeble challenge of some limited county pro; and their team always seemed to contain a number of highly objectionable individuals, such as Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Glenn McGrath (it has shaken my faith slightly in my judgement of character that McGrath comes across as one of the friendliest and most self-deprecating of men in the TMS commentary box.  At least Warne’s still clearly a cock).

Therefore, even against a South African team for whom I have no real affection (Graeme Smith in particular looks a self-satisfied bully), ordinarily I would be rooting wholeheartedly for the Saffers.  However, this is not necessarily the case.

Before you start accusing me here of not being a true England cricket fan, and threaten to snap my Ashes 2005 DVD before my eyes as not being deserving of it, allow me to explain.  I have not got a weird sporting version of Stockholm Syndrome and developed an affection for the Aussies.  I still despise Steve Smith’s piggy face, idiosyncratic batting technique and knack of taking vital wickets with some of the filthiest leg-spin this side of Scott Borthwick.  I can’t stand Michael Clarke’s false bravado and ridiculous captaincy decisions, mistakenly lauded in some quarters as inventiveness.  Every time David Warner flashes speculatively outside the off stump without even considering moving his feet, I want to punch him in the face, and make him say, several times, ‘it is a travesty, nay a scandal, that I have considerably more Test caps than Stuart Law.’

Instead I am searching for reassurance that England’s 5-0 mauling over the winter was not entirely down to English incompetence, but was instead thanks to an outstanding performance by a well-balanced and highly motivated team.  I am still not completely over spending most of November and December quickly checking the score at 3am before enduring several hours of introspection and gloom, interspersed with dreams about Mitchell Johnson’s moustache running off with my girlfriend, while Brad Haddin taunted England by batting with a stick of celery and wearing Boycott’s mum’s pinny.  If Australia could beat South Africa, then the memory of those disturbed nights might start to fade.

And, to be honest, it was quite fun watching a different team getting totally obliterated by Mitchell Johnson’s speed and aggression, while David Warner’s hopeful wafts kept on connecting, ruining Vernon Philander’s career figures.  But, come the second Test I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable – as much as it was satisfying to watch Graeme Smith forced into panicking his wicket away twice, it would be less fun if this was the start of another period of Australian cricket dominance.  What it needed, the right-minded amongst us felt, was a high-class fast bowler in excellent form to expose the Aussie batting line-up as the brittle fraud it is.  Thankfully Dale Steyn reminded us that he is one of the great bowlers of this or indeed any generation, and as a result we have a potentially epic decider on our hands.

As previously discussed, for me it doesn’t matter who wins – an Australian victory will in some way mitigate England’s shambolic performance, while if South Africa win, then, let’s face it, Australia will have lost, which is always enjoyable.  I’m looking forward to being able to follow some sport in an entirely non-partisan way. 

 

The NBA

I have been fortunate enough to spend the past three weeks working in New York, and whilst over there, I thought I’d see what the locals do for sporting entertainment.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t procure a ticket for the Superbowl, partly because I didn’t have a spare thousand pounds but mainly because it would be easier to locate the Holy Grail.  So the other options were to see the New York Rangers play Ice Hockey (no thanks), or the New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets play Basketball (the baseball season hasn’t started yet so I couldn’t go to the Yankees).  Now given that a) Knicks tickets cost the earth and b) I was staying about a mile away from the Nets’ impressive new stadium, I chose the latter.

            The tickets for the game against the San Antonio Spurs were advertised as $30, but I managed to get them for $26 on a legitimate touting website.  This confused me somewhat as I thought touting was a way of making money, not losing it.  Anyway some friends and I made our way to the brand new Barclays Center (sic) for our first taste of professional NBA.  Our seats weren’t exactly in prime position but we had a great view of the whole court from side-on and even though we were in the top tier, there was still plenty of atmosphere.  After the Star-Spangled Banner was belted out (why do U.S sports do this before every match?), it was time for tip-off.

            The most notable thing about professional basketball is the speed at which the players move about.  It is absolutely mind-boggling.  They seem to be strolling along at a canter, when suddenly, an injection of pace and they’ve scored a basket in the blink of an eye.  The game is also a lot more physical than I imagined.  Players are constantly jostling for position on court and for an apparently non-contact sport there is certainly plenty of touchy-feely.  The players are also ridiculously tall.  I walked past the shortest player on either side in my hotel about a week ago (Deron Williams since you ask) and at 6ft, he seemed like a pretty big chap to me (admittedly, in my world, most people seem like giants).  Yet, on court, surrounded by guys who are up to 7ft tall, he looked like a midget.

            The level of athleticism these lads have has to be seen to be believed.  They can jump ridiculously high and change direction at frightening speed.  It may not look so impressive on TV but trust me, in the flesh it is absolutely astounding.  The thing that attracts me to basketball is this combination of speed, skill, subtlety and tactics.  It is not like the NFL where more emphasis is placed on the physical aspect.  Yes, in Basketball you have to be fit and athletic, but without the technical ability to score a basket or the vision to see a pass, you are effectively obsolete.

            As always in American sports, the off-court entertainment was almost as exciting as the sport itself.  Cheerleaders, drummers, stadium announcers and a man dressed as a robot armed with a T-Shirt gun all arrived in the breaks in play to make sure the crowd didn’t get bored.  My personal favourite was the dance cam, where cameras were pointed into the crowd to find the best dancer whilst music blared out.  Yet, no matter how outrageously I jived to Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’, the camera just wouldn’t focus on me.

            What about the match?  The Nets won quite comfortably in the end, beating the Spurs 103-89.  My new best friend Deron Williams ran the show, providing 8 assists and scoring 16 points.  Fellow Nets player Alan Anderson top scored with 22 points against a pretty anonymous San Antonio side, for whom Danny Green was the standout performer.

            Would I recommend live NBA?  Yes I would.  My companions were not so enthusiastic.  They argued that each basket was not as significant event as say a goal in football or a try in rugby and in principle, I agree.  The game is perfect for American audiences because there is some sort of action every 24 seconds (the allotted time each team can have possession) whereas English audiences prefer something with a little more build-up (hence the obsession with cricket).  That should not detract from the fact that from an entertainment standpoint, I was not disappointed.  Yes, the game is unashamedly geared towards television audiences, with regular breaks in play due to time-outs, but it is not as bad as NFL in that respect. For a first time visitor I found the experience overwhelmingly positive and at $26 a ticket, I found it money well spent.  Am I now a genuine convert to the NBA?  Probably not.  Given the opportunity, would I go and watch another match live?  Absolutely.

The 6 Nations 2014

The 2014 6 Nations has the potential to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory.  There is no clear favourite and realistically, any one of Ireland, Wales, England or France could take the crown (depending on which version of Les Bleus turn up).  Having not endured a gruelling Lions tour, expect Les Tricolores to feature strongly.  Ignore the fact they have only won two of their last eleven Test Matches, and the fact that they finished bottom last year.  In the year after Lions tours, the French have won the 6 Nations title every time since 1998 so they have history on their side.  Italy managed an impressive two victories last year and are no longer the rollover they used to be.  Scotland have made significant improvements since Scott Johnson replaced Andy Robinson.  Wales are possibly favourites given that they are the reigning champions and are going for an unprecedented third championship in a row.  However they don’t have the player depth of England who have some exciting talent coming through the ranks.  Ireland too have always been strong in recent years and with their teams doing so well in Europe, their form may easily translate to the international stage.  Here’s a lowdown of the teams:

 

Wales:

The Welsh have a very settled line-up that are not only in their prime but also vastly experienced.  The likes of George North, Toby Falateau, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton are all 25 or under but have been playing regularly for the past 3-4 seasons.  The losses of Ian Evans, Ryan Jones and Jonathan Davies are big blows because they are real physical presences and in the case of Jones especially, his experience and versatility would have been a real asset.  Wales have the advantage of playing at home for three of the five fixtures but still have not sorted out the pivotal position of fly-half.  Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland both started the Autumn Internationals without convincing totally.  Expect Biggar to start and (hopefully) the world’s most underrated rugby player James Hook to come off the bench and pick off tiring defences.

Prediction: 2nd

 

England:

Logic dictates that England should be miles better than the three other home nations given the vast resources available to them, both financially and player-wise.  However they have been remarkably adept at evening out this so called advantage since lifting the World Cup in 2003.  Stuart Lancaster has slowly but surely been building England up to be a world force in international Rugby Union once again.  Lest we forget, they were only 80 minutes away (admittedly, probably the most naive 80 minutes of rugby I have ever seen) from a first Grand Slam since 2003 so the re-building process is well and truly in full swing.  England have finally seen sense and jettisoned the king of missed tackles, Chris Ashton, and should be all the better for it.  This leaves a rather inexperienced back three, albeit one brimming with potential.  I am particularly excited by this whippersnapper Anthony Watson from Bath.  This could be his international breakthrough season a la Stuart Hogg two years ago.  Perhaps the two most significant decisions have been the restoration of Brad Barritt to midfield (he is to tackling what Ronnie O’Sullivan is to snooker/Chris Ashton to not tackling), and the discarding of Ben Youngs.  I pray to God that Danny Care takes this chance to finally realise his enormous potential on the international stage.

Prediction: 1st

 

Ireland:

Given that three of the four Irish provinces have progressed in the Heineken Cup, they should maybe be regarded as the favourites this year.  A side boasting the talents of Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell will always be a formidable prospect, as shown by the Irish’s hearbreaking defeat to New Zealand in November, even if the latter two players are in the twilight of their careers.  The loss of both Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris through injury though is a huge blow, given the pair’s immense ball-carrying ability.  Sexton is key for me because at his best, he is the best fly-half in the northern-hemisphere (sorry James Hook), and also he offers a significant running option.  If he can bring the likes of D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Bowe and Kearney into play then Ireland have a big attacking threat.  However, I think the absence of their two experienced flankers will count against them.

Prediction: 4th

 

France:

Ah the enigma that is French Rugby.  One moment; astoundingly brilliant, the next; total merde.  Unfortunately for Les Bleus, they have been doing a lot more of the latter in recent internationals, much to the chagrin of their coach, Philippe Saint-André.  They have the strongest domestic league in Europe, yet, as the England football team knows all too well, a thriving league doesn’t always translate to success on the international stage.  The steady stream of imports from abroad has unduly affected the national side who, with the resources they have, should be beating every other team in the 6 Nations out of sight.  They still have world class players in captain Thierry Dusautoir, no. 8 Louis Picamoles, scrum-half Morgan Parra and centre Wesley Fofana but as always with France, it’s a case of whether they can all perform together as a coherent unit.  First of all they need to return to their audacious style of play from four or five years ago.  In the last 6 Nations championship they were painfully one-dimensional, lacking in any invention or creativity.  If they can re-capture the old French spirit and get the ball to Fofana in space, a lot can happen.  Or they will implode spectacularly.  Either way it will be fun to watch.

Prediction: 5th

 

Italy:

The Italian squad is vastly experienced, especially in the forwards.  With the Azzuri, you more or less know what you are going to get: A lot of forward power, distinctly one-paced in the back-line, except for my new favourite player: the mercurial fly half, Luciano Orquera.  Now the little number 10 has the ability to win a game in a flash as well as lose one, but isn’t it exciting to watch someone who is willing to take risks?  Someone will throw the audacious pass because it might lead to a try?  Modern day rugby has very few players of Orquera’s ilk and he should be applauded.  To be honest, with a back row of Alessandro Zanni, Sergio Parisse (surely the greatet number 8 ever) and Mauro Bergamasco (pretty sure he played in the ’99 World Cup, he must be about 50 now), the Italians have the ability to triumph over anyone on their day.  The problem is that they have sweet FA out wide so when Orquera does open the defence up like a can of beans, they don’t have the players to finish moves off.  Could cause a surprise but also, could not.

Prediction: 3rd

 

Scotland:

The Tartan Army have recently played rather attractive rugby without attaining the results their play has deserved.  Nevertheless, the schooling by South Africa in the Autumn was a stark reminder of their standing in World Rugby.  In Stuart Hogg they have the best running full-back in the competition, and with Seans, Lamont and Maitland on the wings, they have speedsters who know where the whitewash is.  Scotland’s problem has always been a dearth of creativity and tries.  Since the mighty Gregor Townsend retired, they have lacked the subtlety and creativity required to open up defences.  They also don’t have battering ram centres so they don’t force themselves over the gain-line either.  The resultant combination means lots of huff and puff but precious little end product which is a shame because Greg Laidlaw is a talented scrum-half and deserves to show what he can do with a pack on the front foot.  I can maybe see Scotland winning one match but no more.  They simply don’t have the requisite quality over the field, save for Hogg.

Prediction: 6th

 

As with all thealternativesportsblog’s predictions, they almost universally turn out to be incorrect.  Do not under any circumstances run down to the bookies and put money on any of our predictions.  You will end up disappointed, resentful and out of pocket.  Do however revel in the joy of five weekends of uninterrupted, (possibly) world-class rugby on your doorstep.  It might not be pretty but it will (probably) be exciting.

The Transfer Window

It’s the start of the silly season.  For the next month, all of the 20 Premier League clubs will be linked to all and sundry.  Don’t be surprised to see Buzz Lightyear mooted as Cardiff City’s new saviour, or Winnie the Pooh touted as the answer to Manchester United’s defensive frailties.  In January, in the words of Cole Porter, anything goes.  Chairmen, managers and agents are all working overtime in a bid to find the right formula for a final push for the title/to stave off relegation (delete as appropriate).  The January transfer window is rarely a good time for buying clubs.  Inflated prices mean that they often pay over the odds for players that they don’t really need.  Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m is a classic transfer window move, as is Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50m the same season.  But there are bargains to be had: Luis Suarez cost a paltry £22m when he moved from Ajax to Liverpool in 2011 and Christophe Dugarry was the first real January transfer bargain when he helped save Birmingham City from relegation in 2003.  So who will make their move?  Expect to see clubs further down the table splashing the cash in a bid to avoid a relegation dogfight.  There may be one or two significant transfers amongst the top eight clubs but I would be surprised if a major signing was made.

 

Arsenal

Top of the league, through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, and into the 4th round of the FA Cup, life could be worse for the Highbury club, all the more so if you consider the discontent around the Emirates a year ago.  They have turned round their fortunes with basically the same playing squad with two major additions – Mesut Özil and Mathieu Flamini.  However, with Theo Walcott and hairdressing’s Nicklas Bendtner both injured and Olivier Giroud struggling for fitness, Lukas Podolski is Arsene Wenger’s only fit forward (himself having only recently returned from injury) so the Gunners may require extra back-up in that area.  Wenger is loath to do business in January but needs must if he is to secure Arsenal’s first trophy since 2005.

Linked to: Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata (both Real Madrid), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Pedro (Barcelona)

 

Aston Villa

Villa’s recent form has been poor, culminating in an embarrassing FA Cup loss at home to Sheffield United at the weekend.  They should have enough in reserve to avoid relegation and if they can get Christian Benteke scoring again they will be absolutely fine.  Villa haven’t splashed the cash recently, preferring to promote from within and have assembled an impressive array of home-grown talent.  They could probably do with a bit more quality in the centre of the park to complement Fabian Delph (Tom Huddlestone would be a good fit) and if Joleon Lescott becomes available he would be a good steadying buy for Paul Lambert’s team.  Villa may have to sell before he can buy though.  If that is the case, fringe players like Charles N’Zogbia (whatever happened to him?) and Alan Hutton may be vulnerable.

Linked to: Joleon Lescott (Man City), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich)

 

Cardiff City

Fuck knows why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to be part of Vincent Tan’s Flying Circus of Nutjobbery but who am I to judge.  He seemed to galvanise the team in their 2-1 FA Cup victory at Newcastle at the weekend.  Scoring goals (and letting too many in) has been Cardiff’s achilles heel this season but if they re-discover their home form they might just stay in the division.  A proven goalscorer is a priority but they don’t exactly grow on trees.  Solskjaer is apparently bringing a couple of his countrymen in (midfielders Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Mats Moller Daehli since you ask) and I know shit-all about them so I can’t tell you if they’re any good or not.  I think someone like Darren Bent would be a good shout for the Bluebirds.  He knows where the goal is and can’t get a game for Fulham so he could be available, as might Jermain Defoe.  Equally someone like Jordan Rhodes from Blackburn would be a more long-term fix.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Tom Ince (Blackpool), Magnus Wolff Eikrem (Heerenveen), Mats Moller Daehli (Molde)

 

Chelsea

Despite not playing anywhere near their potential, The Special One’s team are still in the title hunt, the Champions League and the FA Cup.  Their defence has been uncharacteristically porous and I can see Thibaut Courtois (currently on loan at high-flying Atletico Madrid) replacing veteran Petr Cech between the sticks next season.  Tellingly, Chelsea’s leading scorers this season (Edin Hazard and Oscar) are both midfielders.  The Blues do have plenty of striking talent (Fernando Torres, Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Andre Schürrle) but they have not been doing the business and if their particularly turd record at signing strikers in the January window is anything to go buy, they would be well advised to keep their cash in the bank.  They need a long-term successor for Ashley Cole, though that will probably wait until the summer unless someone world-class becomes available.  They may also look in to a replacement for Frank Lampard when he finally hangs up his boots.  Both Juan Mata and Kevin de Bruyne have been linked with moves away from Stamford Bridge so another creative midfielder may be on his way to West London.  With Roman Abramovich running the show, expect the unexpected.

Linked to: Luke Shaw (Southampton), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Nemanja Matic (Benfica), Radamel Falcao (Monaco), Jackson Martinez (Porto), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)

 

Crystal Palace

Tony Pulis has certainly improved Palace’s results since his appointment in October.  They proved they really can play in their plucky 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in December.  Their defence has been pretty solid, but any side that regards Danny Gabbidon as a first choice needs to strengthen.  The Eagles also need more inspiration from midfield to ease the burden on Jason Puncheon.  A proven goalscorer wouldn’t go amiss either (they are the lowest scorers in the Premier League).  Dwight Gayle has only impressed in fits and starts, Marouane Chamakh has done OK but Cameron Jerome doesn’t have the goals in him to keep Palace in the Premier League.  On the bright side, they don’t need a new goalkeeper.

Linked to: Demba Ba (Chelsea), Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn), Joe Ledley (Celtic), Tom Ince (Blackpool), Nikica Jelavic (Everton)

 

Everton

Roberto Martinez’s appointment has been an absolute masterstroke.  Everton are playing with confidence and flair – something that was lacking under David Moyes.  This transfer window will be focussed on holding on to their prize assets such as Ross Barkley and Leighton Baines, rather than bringing new ones in.  Nevertheless, a new striker would be nice given the injury to Arouna Kone and the fall from grace of Nikica Jelavic.  They could also do with a bit more cover all over the pitch.  However that goes against their policy of promoting from within so whoever comes in will have to be a good fit.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Aiden McGeady (Spartak Moscow), Shane Long (West Brom)

 

Fulham

The Cottagers (interesting choice of nickname) have been well below par this season.  Their defence has been leakier than a leaky tap aided in no small part by the ever (un)reliable Philippe Senderos.  New goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg hasn’t covered himself in glory since his move from Ajax – for me, the number two keeper David Stockdale is a safer pair of hands.  Another big problem has been Fulham’s home form.  Craven Cottage has not been as much of a fortress as it usually is.  Confidence isn’t exactly sky high though after their 6-0 humiliation against Hull.  The return of Clint Dempsey should help.  Rene Meulensteen has an important month ahead of him, even if it is simply instilling belief into his players.

Linked to: Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United)

 

Hull City

The Tigers have been a revelation this season, basing their success on a solid defence and strong home form.  Apart from the Fulham thumping, goals have been hard to come by but they do have a strong midfield lead by the rejuvenated Tom Huddlestone.  Again, like most teams in the relegation zone, a proven Premier League goalscorer is top of their wish-list.

Linked to: Shola Ameobi (Newcastle United), Shane Long (West Brom), Steven Fletcher (Sunderland)

 

Liverpool

Brendan Rodgers has transformed Liverpool’s fortunes since they were languishing in mid-table at this point last season.  I think the Premier League title is beyond them this year but a Champions League spot is definitely within their grasp.  Maybe another young striker is required as back-up for Daniel Sturridge and Suarez.  Simon Mignolet in goal has not exactly convinced and the defence has been a little suspect recently after starting the season with three clean sheets, but with the free-scoring Suarez in their ranks, that hardly matters.  Perhaps their most important signing was tying the Uruguayan down to another long-term contract.

Linked to: Mohamed Salah (Basel), Arda Turan (Atletico Madrid), Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese), Danny Ings (Burnley)

 

Manchester City

The richest team in the Premier League don’t exactly need much in the transfer window.  City’s attack is purring like a contented cat and when all their squad is fit, they could play two world class teams and beat almost anyone in the world.  Their central defence isn’t completely watertight however, and the continued absence of Vincent Kompany has not helped matters so another centre-back would be ideal but is not compulsory.  Joleon Lescott may have to leave to make space for a new arrival.  Joe Hart seems to have got over his bout of poor form so the goalkeeper position seems tied up.  The title is theirs to lose.

Linked to: Asmir Begovic (Stoke City), Nemanja Matic (Benfica), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto), Douglas Costa (Atletico Madrid)

 

Manchester United

Nothing has gone to plan for David Moyes in his a debut season as Manchester United manager.  Their big problem was the lack of world-class re-enforcements in the summer.  Instead they splurged £27m on Marouane Fellaini and £12m on Wilfried Zaha.  The injury to last season’s top scorer Robin van Persie has not helped matters and consequently the team has been relying too heavily on Wayne Rooney who is currently struggling for fitness.  The return of Nemanja Vidic to central defence should sure up the defence.  The main area that needs strengthening for me is the midfield.  Wesley Sneijder is always mentioned at this point every season but he is pushing 30 now.  Ross Barkley is the ideal signing but I doubt Everton will sell another one of their prized players to the Old Trafford club.  United are still sniffing around Leighton Baines like a randy dog and Fabio Coentrao is still on their radar but I would be very surprised if either of them were to move.  They have a real job on their hands getting into the Champions League next season.

Linked to: Fabio Coentrao (Real Madrid), Leighton Baines (Everton), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Ross Barkley (Everton), Luke Shaw (Southampton), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Ilkay Gundogan (Borussia Dortmund), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto)

 

Newcastle United

The Magpies have had a promising season so far after a slow start.  On-loan striker Loic Remy has started banging in the goals and he has been ably backed up by Yohan Cabayé and Yoan Gouffran.  The ever-reliable Tim Krul has been solid between the posts and when Fabricio Coloccini is fit, the defence becomes a lot stingier.  Newcastle do not have any desperate need for re-enforcements but another reliable centre-back to partner Coloccini would be a welcome addition.  Cabaye seems to no longer be on Arsene Wenger’s radar anymore which will please manager Alan Pardew.  If they do buy someone, it’s a safe bet that they will be French.  Comfortable in mid-table and pushing for Europe.

Linked to: Luuk de Jong (Borussia Monchengladbach), Bafetimbi Gomis (Lyon), Ola Toivonen (PSV Eindhoven)

 

Norwich City

Chris Hughton’s men have had a strange season.  They play attractive football yet the results have not matched the performances and they find themselves just three points above the relegation zone.  Their midfield is very strong and Gary Hooper has been a fine acquisition from Celtic.  Like most teams in the relegation zone, Norwich can’t stop conceding goals.  Goalkeeper John Ruddy hasn’t been in his finest form and the central defensive partnership of Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner currently isn’t cutting the mustard.  A centre-half is a priority because they need to find a tough backbone if they are to remain in the Premier League.

Linked to: Ola Toivonen (PSV Eindhoven), Chris Samba (Dinamo Moscow)

 

Southampton

The Saints’ bright start to the season has been tempered somewhat recently amid a run of tough fixtures.  However they continue to play a wonderfully slick brand of football and Mauricio Pochettino’s men have been a breath of fresh air in the top flight.  Their footballing philosophy requires a certain type of player, technically gifted and intelligent, and I am not sure that player is available to them at the moment with the budget they have.  Their biggest fight in this transfer window will be keeping hold of Mark Clattenburg’s favourite man, Adam Lallana, hotshot forward Jay Rodriguez, and two of the country’s most promising full-backs, Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne.  The defence has not recently been as mean as previously but given where they were last season, most Saints fans would bite your hand off for their current league position.  An added bonus would be to get summer signing Dani Osvaldo scoring regularly.

Linked to: Ever Banega (Valencia), Diego (Wolfsburg)

 

Stoke City

Everyone’s least favourite team are doing a frustratingly competent job of staying in the Premier League.  I was hoping that the departure of Tony Pulis in the summer would lead to an inevitable slide into the Championship but so far my hopes have been dashed.  The Potters haven’t exactly been impressive this season (save for the 3-2 defeat of Chelsea) but Liverpool loanee Oussama Assaidi has been a bright light, as has the evergreen Peter Crouch.  Asmir Begovic continues to excel in goal but Stoke have not quite been as solid defensively as under Pulis.  They have a good spine to their team but not too much back-up if one of Robert Huth or Ryan Shawcross gets injured.  A forward or attacking midfielder is also a priority if they are to improve on their rather meagre tally of 19 goals so far this season.

Linked to: Michael Mancienne (Hamburg), Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City)

 

Sunderland

I don’t know what Paolo Di Canio was doing during the summer because he seems to have worsened Sunderland’s squad, rather than strengthening it.  They have an OK midfield – slightly light on creativity but with plenty of fight – but it is up front where they have the real problem.  Leading striker Steven Fletcher has been injured for part of the season, and has not been firing since his return.  The back-up options are simply not good enough for this level.  Jozy Altidore has only scored two goals this season and their joint leading scorer is their right-back David Bardsley with three which tells the whole story.  Also, when injury-prone pair John O’Shea and Wes Brown don’t play, the central defence looks like an accident waiting to happen.  Furthermore, they have the hindrance of having to sell before they can buy.  Marcos Alonso has been brought in on-loan but they need high-quality first-team players, not fringe players.  Gus Poyet has done a good job in galvanising the Black Cats but it may be too late for them to save themselves from relegation.

Linked to:  Darren Bent (Fulham), Wayne Bridge (Reading),

 

Swansea City

Michael Laudrup’s team have endured a trickier second season in the top flight.  They still play attractive pass-and-move football but teams seemed to have worked out how to beat them.  Michu is not the force of last season and I think their squad has been stretched by their European jaunts.  Another striker to relieve the burden on Wilfried Bony and the injured Michu would not go amiss as would a top centre-back.  The Swans have been a bit leaky at the back and this has not been helped by the absence of Dutch stopper Michel Vorm.  Replacement keeper Gerrard Tremmel just isn’t in the same league.  Not totally out of the relegation scrap but should have enough quality to survive with comfort, as shown by their win at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Tom Ince (Blackpool)

 

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs, rather unwisely, decided to spend all the proceeds from the sale of Gareth Bale on every midfielder ever.  Consequently left back and up front are looking a bit bare.  Danny Rose has recently looked a bit suspect at defending (rather important for a left-back) so that is a priority.  In the striking department, the return from exile of Emmanuel Adebayor has been a godsend and Tim Sherwood has found Tottenham’s attacking mojo again.  Still, if one of Soldado or Adebayor gets injured then an uncharacteristically lacklustre Jermain Defoe and not-all-that-talented Harry Kane wait in the wings.  It will remain to be seen just how much money the notoriously frugal Daniel Levy makes available for transfers.  He may have to dig into his pockets if Spurs are to get into Europe next season.

Linked to: Luke Shaw (Southampton), Mohamed Salah (Basel), Alex Buttner (Manchester United), Ezequiel Lavezzi (PSG), Paul-Georges Ntep (Auxerre)

 

West Bromwich Albion

The Baggies are pretty comfortable in mid-table although whoever takes up the reigns at the Hawthorns will not have a lot of money to play with.  To be honest he won’t need it because West Brom have a good squad and plenty of cover for all positions.  They arguably could do with another right-back as cover for the injury-prone Steven Reid.  The Midlands club have a jewel in Saido Berahino and they will have a job keeping hold of him in the coming months.  They should also use the transfer window to buy Nicolas Anelka a brain.

Linked to: Aaron Cresswell (Ipswich), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Craig Gardner (Sunderland)

 

West Ham

The Hammers have some serious problems.  I watched their 5-0 drubbing to Nottingham Forest at the weekend and it was embarrassing.  Forest could have easily scored 10.  I know West Ham have some defensive injuries but to lose in such a fashion to team from a lower tier is inexcusable.  They need Andy Carroll fit and playing (and scoring) to have any hope of arresting their current slide.  They have been unfortunate to have so many injuries to key players (Collins, Tomkins and Reid) and actually, overall, at the back, they have been fairly solid.  It’s in the final 3rd that they’ve been pretty pathetic.  If Big Sam can do a bit of wheeling and dealing, if he doesn’t play Stewart Downing, if they get their defenders back in time and some decent service to Carroll, and some magic dust, they might just avoid relegation.

Linked to: Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Demba Ba (Chelsea), Andre-Pierre Gignac (Marseille), Chris Samba (Blackburn), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur), Nikica Jelavic (Everton).

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.

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.

Top 5 Ashes moments – number 1

Blokes love ranking things.  It’s just something we do.  We love to order things, quantify things by relative quality, and relish in the ensuing debate.  YouTube is brimming with videos entitled ‘Top 10 Goals OF ALL TIME!!!,’ ‘Top 20 most brutal knockout punches,’ or ‘Top 17 escapes from tricky snookers behind the baulk colours’ (I made that last one up by the way, although I am now considering compiling such a video).  Rugby HQ, Fox Sports Australia’s Rugby Union show, has had a new slot this year detailing Rugby’s Top 5s in a variety of categories, including Top 5 Tackles Gone Wrong, Top 5 Bombed Tries, and Top 5 Fatman Tries.  Most of them have topped 100,000 YouTube hits.

Cricket as a sport loves ranking (I said Rrrranking) more than most.  A sport in general will have a World Ranking list.  Cricket, as you might expect from a sport dedicated to statistics, has rankings for international teams, rankings for the best batsmen, best wicket-keepers, best bowlers and best all-rounders in international cricket (although given Alex Hales is currently rated the best Twenty20 batsman in the world I wouldn’t rely on them too much).  Not only does every current international player have a ranking, but every international player of all time.  Some people have been paid (jammy bastards) to trawl through every cricket international ever played, and feed the data into the ICC’s rank-o-meter, so if you want to know the top ranked Test batsman or bowler in July 1958 (Peter May and Tony Lock respectively if you really want to know), you can find out. 

All I have been trying to do in those two paragraphs is justify the subject of this latest article, which will be the top 5 Ashes moments that I can remember.  I’ve decided to limit it to one per series, and only ones that I can actually remember happening rather than reading about later on.  Given my tendency to waffle on, I’ll publish them one at a time, so here goes.

  1. 1.       Day 5, Adelaide, 4th Test 1995

The first Ashes series that I was aware of was the 1989 series, an unmitigated disaster for England, who, laughably, started the series as favourites, but ended up, due to injury, the announcement of a rebel team to tour South Africa in the winter, and a staggeringly short-sighted selection policy, using 29 players during the series, the equivalent of picking 3 new players every Test.  To my mind the series consisted of Mark Taylor scoring runs, and Terry Alderman trapping a succession of players (but mainly Graham Gooch) lbw – never any chance of there being a top moment here then.  The 1990-91 series likewise passed me by, and it wasn’t until the Oval Test of 1993 that I was able to consciously experience an England victory in an Ashes Test.  However, other than the fact it was Angus Fraser’s return to Test cricket, I don’t remember much about that game, so we must continue to England’s nest Ashes victory for my first moment.

England arrived Adelaide in a pretty dreadful state.  Some ludicrous selections (Martin McCague and Joey Benjamin ahead of Angus Fraser?  Really?), and a terrible run of injuries and illness meant the Aussies won the series despite not being anywhere near their best.  Shane Warne took a stack of wickets to win the first two matches in Brisbane and Melbourne, but Darren Gough inspired an England fightback in Sydney, where Australia ended the final day 7 down to claim a draw.  However, in the one-day international between the third and fourth Tests, Gough, England’s latest new Botham, suffered a stress fracture to his foot, and by the morning of the Adelaide match, Mike Atherton literally only had 11 fit players to choose from, with Graeme Hick’s injury meaning Chris Lewis had to be drafted in from playing local club cricket.  The batting line-up looked desperately shallow, with Steven Rhodes, in horrendous form with the bat, batting at 6, and Fraser, belatedly called up as a replacement, getting vertigo at 9.

As it turned out, England didn’t do too badly in the first innings, making 353, thanks mainly to Mike Gatting scratching out an ugly 117, and Atherton making a cussed 80.  Reservations about the length of the tail proved accurate, however, as the last 6 wickets only added 57.  Australia responded strongly, with Michael Slater and Mark Taylor putting on 128 for the first wicket, but a quick flurry of wickets left the score at 232-5, a promising position for England.  As per usual, they couldn’t make it count as debutant Greg Blewett, a batsman so aesthetically pleasing you could hang his cover drive in the Louvre, and Ian Healy, possibly my most hated cricketer growing up, put on 164 without too much effort.  Although Australia did a passable impression of England, losing their last 5 wickets for 23 on the morning of the 4th day, you felt that their lead of 66 would probably prove crucial.  Once Lewis was bowled by Damien Fleming trying to leave the ball, England were 181-6, a lead of 115, and despite John Crawley and Philip DeFreitas dragging them to 220-6 by the close of play, no-one but the most deluded would have expected anything other than yet another Australian victory (yawn).

It turned out both Crawley and DeFreitas must have been pretty deluded, as they added a further 50 before Crawley fell for 71 to that most potent of weapons, a Mark Waugh bouncer.  It was at this point that DeFreitas went beserk.  Whether he thought that England’s lead was such that they now had a chance, whether he figured that, with only Fraser, Devon Malcolm and Phil Tufnell to come, he was England’s only hope of runs, or whether he just fancied giving it a pit of humpty, he proceeded to lay into Craig McDermott, flicking him expertly over square leg for 6, and then taking 22 off his next over, including a brutal hook over long leg, before becoming the next victim of Mark Waugh’s suddenly unplayable bouncer.  His 88, coupled with a couple of Malcolm specials off Shane Warne, lifted England’s total to 324, setting Australia a target of 265 in 66 overs.  The perfect run chase – low enough for the chasing team to have no qualms about going for the runs, high enough for the defending team to set attacking fields and not worry initially about conceding too many.

As it turned out, an Australian victory was never on the cards.  Devon Malcolm had one of those days where it all clicked – similar to his famous 9-57 against South Africa at The Oval the previous summer, where the South African batsman had looked petrified.  You knew it was going to be England’s day when Tufnell of all people took a tricky catch at fine leg to dismiss Slater, and when Malcolm timbered Steve Waugh first ball with a blinding in-ducker to leave Australia 23-4, it was a question of whether Australia could hold out.  Wickets continued to fall regularly – Mark Waugh went to a very questionable catch by Gatting off Tufnell at short leg (the ball apparently hit Gatting on the instep and ballooned into his hands without touching the ground), and when McDermott edged Lewis to Rhodes, Australia were 83-8 with more than 30 overs left.

But that annoying bastard Healy was still there and, accompanied by Damien Fleming, hung around, scoring fairly fluently and never looking like getting out.  The pair battled through until 9 overs from the end, when Lewis, giving one of his best performances in Tests, which isn’t really saying much, bowled a short-ish ball to Fleming that didn’t bounce as much as the batsman was expecting.  He missed his pull shot, the ball struck him on the pads and the 9 England players around the bat all appealed.  To the naked eye, the ball appeared to be going over the top, but umpire Venkat immediately raised the finger, and England had the breakthrough.  Healy got to his 50, but when last man, leg-spinner Peter McIntyre was left on strike, Atherton brought back Malcolm.  It only took one ball, a fast inswinger trapping the tailender in front, to give England an unlikely victory.

The reason this is a memorable moment for me is the sheer unexpectedness of it.  At the risk of sounding like an old git, there was no internet back then, no up-to-the minute scores, so for Test matches in Australia, you went to bed, and woke up the next morning to find out what had happened in a whole day’s cricket.  So, I went to bed expecting another ignominious England defeat, only to be greeted with the news at breakfast that they had somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, a most un-English trait during the 1990s.

The James Hook dilemma

This weekend sees Wales take on Argentina at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, but one man will be very conspicuous by his absence: the mercurial James Hook.  The Perpignan utility back continues to be overlooked by Wales coach Warren Gatland despite his good form for his club.  He is one of the greatest rugby talents Wales has produced in decades.  His play has drawn comparisons with the great Barry John.  Alongside Gavin Henson, he is the most gifted rugby-footballer to come out of the principality this century.  So why can’t Hook get a game for Wales?  After being named on the bench for both the Autumn Internationals and being overlooked for the Lions tour, does the coach Warren Gatland just not rate Hook?  At 28, the Welshman is in the prime of his career, yet he already seems surplus to requirements despite having over 70 caps and being his nation’s 3rd highest points-scorer.  It simply doesn’t add-up.  So what can be the reason?

Hook made his début as a replacement in late 2006 after breaking into the Ospreys team as a fresh-faced 21 year-old, scoring 13 points against Australia.  Wales’ coach at the time was Gareth Jenkins who liked to play free-flowing running rugby and this fitted in perfectly with Hook’s natural attacking instincts as a running fly-half.  Unfortunately, at the time, as well as scoring lots of tries, Wales tended to concede plenty and were not the force they are today.  After a humiliating defeat to Fiji in the 2007 World Cup (a game in which Shane Williams scored one of rugby’s greatest ever tries http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmtouHIVexw  go to 2:50), Jenkins was removed as coach and replaced by the current incumbent, Warren Gatland.  In the Grand-Slam winning team of 2008, Gatland tended to rotate Hook with the more experienced Stephen Jones.  Following Gavin Henson’s self-imposed rugby exile in 2009, Hook was moved into the centre where his elusive running and inventive passing could unlock the midfield.  He was a regular in the Wales team until Gatland settled on a more power-dominated (and totally invention-lacking) centre-partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.  The emergence of Rhys Priestland at fly-half further marginalised Hook and he only just scraped into the World Cup squad of 2011, largely because of his versatility.  Since then Hook has been used sparingly, not least because he doesn’t have a full release clause for internationals in his Perpignan contract which has irked the Wales coach, but also because Leigh Halfpenny has blossomed into a world-class full-back (the position in which Hook currently plays for his club), further limiting his playing chances.

Last weekend against South Africa, Wales looked ponderous in attack showing an alarming lack of invention for a side that is usually renowned for its attacking flair.  Priestland in particular looked decidedly average – he kicked aimlessly and seemed to shirk the physical confrontation with the Proteas.  Instead, Wales decided to run at the defence instead of attempting to unlock it or find the gaps, and against a physical side like South Africa, that strategy is doomed to failure.  I can sort of see where Gatland is coming from.  Priestland is a safe pair of hands and is likely to take fewer risks than Hook.  However against the big three Southern Hemisphere sides, that simply doesn’t cut the mustard.  Having someone like Hook at first receiver brings a whole load of possibilities into play.  Hook can expose a defence in an instant with a clever kick, a drop of the shoulder, an inside pass, a burst of pace.  Yes he is unpredictable, but that is the key to his effectiveness as a rugby player.  Defences will be more aware of Hook’s flair and will consequently stand-off slightly.  With Priestland, you know he doesn’t have great running ability so the defence will be more inclined to rush-up, putting more pressure on the attack.  Wales have been crying out for that touch of class and Hook has it in spades.  Without it their long drought for a Southern Hemisphere scalp will most likely continue.

The age in which international rugby sides fielded a ‘playmaker’ is slowly coming to an end.  James Simpson-Daniel is a prime example.  Probably the most naturally gifted player England have produced this century, his international career was very stop-start due to injuries and also the England management not knowing what his best position was.  A silky runner with a devastating burst of speed, Simpson-Daniel earned 10 caps but was never allowed an extended run in the team.  He was viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity and was often used as an impact substitute, as Hook is, against tiring defences.  Henson was sort of a ‘playmaker’ as was Mike Catt for England at inside centre and Gregor Townsend for Scotland.  There is a pre-conception that they are defensive liabilities and modern day rugby being what it is (i.e very physical), opponents will ruthlessly target any defensive weaknesses.  However this is a fallacy.  Catt and Henson were definitely not liabilities and neither is Hook.  Australia’s Quade Cooper and Italy’s magical Luciano Orquera are the modern equivalents of a ‘playmaker’ – not the strongest in defence but worth the risk because they can win a match single-handedly.  This is the case with Hook.  He can win Wales a match on his own and against New Zealand, Australia or South Africa, Hook’s creativity is vital if Wales want to break their duck.

With Jamie Roberts and now Jonathan Davies out injured, the most logical centre partner for Scott Williams this weekend against Argentina would be Hook.  Gatland has other ideas, selecting Corey Allen from the Cardiff Blues, who has played 10 games of professional rugby in his life.  Now I’m all for giving youth a chance, but you also need your best players on the pitch to win rugby matches.  Argentina are no mugs and Allen is certainly being thrown in at the deep end.  He is either going to sink or swim.  Regardless of whether Gatland should have picked Allen, I personally think James Hook should start at 10 instead of Dan Biggar (and Rhys Priestland).  Despite Biggar winning the 6 Nations earlier this year, the Ospreys man was rarely a stand-out performer.  He had the benefit of willing midfield runners and an excellent pack in front of him.  Now if someone like Hook that as an attacking platform, he could rip defences to shreds, especially a less mobile team like Argentina.  I don’t know why Warren Gatland doesn’t pick him but he is missing an enormous trick.  I’m sure the Pumas will be breathing a huge sigh of relief when they see him warming the bench on Saturday.

If, like me, you yearn to see James Hook in a Wales shirt sooner rather than later, let this video (which I definitely haven’t watched about 20 times) whet your appetite:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw6CuMwiKn4