England v New Zealand preview

They say familiarity breeds contempt.  If so, then sticking an English cricketer and an Antipodean cricketer in a room come the end of the year should result in a fairly major contre-temps.  This year, England will play Test series against New Zealand (away), New Zealand (home), Australia (home) and…yes you’ve guessed it…Australia (away).  The first of those series starts next week, and, while the accepted wisdom is that England should win with some comfort, the usual noises of ‘we must treat every match the same…shouldn’t underestimate New Zealand…team more than the sum of its parts…just as important as the Ashes series’ are emanating from the England camp.  So are such noises justified?

England played some outstanding cricket in India before Christmas – away teams winning a series in India over the last 30 years are rare beasts – and as such should be full of confidence, especially against a team in turmoil.  The sacking of Ross Taylor as captain following the breakdown of his relationship with coach Mike Hesson (sound familiar KP?) appears to have damaged morale.  A creditable series draw in Sri Lanka (inspired by Taylor’s batting in the 2nd Test) was followed by their first Test series post-Taylor, a defeat in South Africa.  Ordinarily defeat in South Africa would not be too much cause for concern, but the manner of this one (losing both tests by an innings and being skittled for 45 in the first Test) hinted at a team lacking focus and leadership.  Taylor has since been recalled for the one-day matches, and is in the squad for the first test, so maybe his re-integration into the side will have the same effect as Kevin Pietersen’s in India.  Given the inexperience of much of the rest of the squad, it seems unlikely.

New Zealand’s opening batsmen for the first test will be Peter Fulton, a 34-year-old journeyman who played the last of his 10 Tests in 2009, but who has scored heavily in domestic cricket for the last two seasons, and one of two left-handers – Hamish Rutherford or Tom Latham.  Both are the son of a former New Zealand Test player, and neither has played Test cricket before.  Both are playing in the 4-day warm-up match before the 1st Test, which effectively makes the game a Test trial for them.  It also gives the English bowlers a chance to see whether either player should unduly inconvenience them. 

The middle-order is where New Zealand appear to be at their strongest.  Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum (who will bat at 5) are all at least perfectly decent Test batsmen, and both Dean Brownlie, and wicket-keeper B-J Watling have scored Test centuries.  However, the questions to be asked are: will Taylor be able to put his problems with the team’s coaches to the back of his mind and continue where he left off in Sri Lanka?  Will McCullum be able to continue his quite frankly astonishing form of the one-day matches (332 runs off 228 balls in the six matches)?  Will Williamson add consistency to his undoubted talent?  The answers are probably, unlikely, no.

Daniel Vettori has been around for so long, that his presence is as integral to the New Zealand team as a white fern or a Chris Martin duck, but he is still injured, so the selectors have called up yet another uncapped player for the spinning role in the shape of 32-year-old left-armer Bruce Martin.  Not a household name, he is apparently a persistent bowler who has been around for a while and always seems to cause batsmen trouble without ever running through a team.  Similar to Shaun Udal being selected to tour India in 2005/6 I would guess.  It is said he bowls a little flatter than Vettori, and is an inferior batsman.  There is also a suggestion that New Zealand will play 4 seamers and leave Martin out, but, unless the wicket is going to be as green as an environmental conference on St Patrick’s Day, that would leave the attack very unbalanced and Martin will probably play.

As for the seam attack, again it doesn’t look like there will be much to cause England’s batsmen to lose much sleep.  Tim Southee has been promising now since his debut on England’s last tour, but has yet to spend enough time off the treatment table to perform with any consistency.  Trent Boult is left-arm seamer, seemingly a la Geoff Allott, Shayne O’Connor or James Franklin – that is perfectly decent but unlikely to do any significant damage, and the same could be said about right-armer Doug Bracewell, although he has a match-winning performance against Australia to his credit.  If New Zealand do decide to go for 4 seamers, then one of the bowlers from the New Zealand XI playing the England XI will be drafted in, probably either Mark Gillespie or South-African-born Neil Wagner.  One can imagine Alastair Cook waking up in a cold sweat having dreamt once again he was staring at Dale Steyn beginning his run-up.  One cannot imagine him doing the same for any of the above bowlers.

It would be logical to think that, having put in an almighty performance to win in India, England’s team selection should be simple, but not so.  There are question marks over the make-up of the batting line-up, and the identity of the third seamer.  Out of the top six, Cook, Trott, Pietersen and Bell are guaranteed to start (although Bell always seems to be a couple of daft dismissals away from being dropped by the press), and you would imagine that both Nick Compton and Joe Root would fill the other two positions.  But what about Jonny Bairstow, I hear you cry (my hearing’s exceptionally sharp.) He was left out in India because the selectors at first decided Samit Patel would bring the team better balance, as well as expertise against spin, and then realised belatedly that Joe Root was actually a remarkable player and would most likely thrive.  Bairstow has a thrilling 95 against that South African attack to his credit, and seems comfortable against seam bowling.  New Zealand have no-one of Kemar Roach’s pace to test his technique against the short ball as happened in his debut series, and he batted well in the first T20.  With an eye to the future, he seems a more probable test prospect than Nick Compton, who showed commendable durability but not much else in India.  Given that Root has taken to international cricket like a duck encountering the Pacific Ocean, he will almost certainly play the first test, and Compton may well continue given he is the man in possession and the selectors might not want to give Root the added pressure of opening.  But I would like to see Bairstow given a chance in an environment where he should thrive.

As for the bowling, Anderson and Finn will play.  Despite being marginally less impressive in India than Monty Panesar, Graeme Swann will too – his batting lengthens the tail (provided he bats sensibly) and his enthusiasm and canny cricket brain is invaluable.  But who will be the third seamer?  The choice is between Stuart Broad, Graham Onions and Chris Woakes.  At first glance you would say Broad without hesitation – after all when fit he has been selected for England’s Test team almost invariably since his debut.  But his bowling appears to have lost its spark recently – it has been a while since he performed well over a Test series – and he went wicketless in India (although many other seam bowlers have done that before).  Chris Woakes is yet to make his Test debut, and would represent a very unexpected choice (almost as outlandish as selecting Joe Root for a crucial last Test in India…oh.)  Which leaves Graham Onions.  As a wicket-to-wicket bowler who aims for the stumps and relies on small amounts of movement, Onions should find New Zealand very much to his liking.  He can tend to overdo the short stuff, and as a result can be expensive, but he always takes wickets.  That may sound like an obvious thing for a bowler to do, but, for example when Broad is labouring away and bowling poorly it is hard to see how he might take a wicket.  Even when Onions appears to be struggling, he always looks like he could make a breakthrough.  As much as I suspect Broad will be selected, I would love Onions to be given a go, as he could turn out to be a matchwinner.

So, what’s the verdict?  Based on what I’ve just written, you would say that any self-deprecating noises England may be making are, while sensible and diplomatic, unjustified.  Past New Zealand teams, whilst being similarly low on real quality, always had one or two players who could lift their game at the right moment and turn a match on its head (think Richard Hadlee, Chris Cairns, Shane Bond.)  Of the current team only Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum have those capabilities and, whilst their batting exploits could provide some excitement, the weakness of the bowling attack means it won’t win games.  England should win with comfort.

6 Nations Preview

Round three of the 6 Nations takes place this weekend with the Championship delicately poised. This is a key match day for all the teams – a victory and the championship is still within reach (apart from Les Blues, mon dieu), but lose, and suddenly the dreaded wooden spoon looms ever closer. Can England continue their winning run at home to a wounded French side? Will Wales now kick on after stopping their horrendous run of form against a lacklustre France? Perhaps the most intriguing tie is Scotland vs Ireland; two evenly matched teams with some exciting runners, a debutant a fly half, one the most exciting full-backs in the northern hemisphere. It promises to be a good weekend (weather permitting).

Italy vs Wales

The Italians pulled off the surprise of the tournament against Les Tricolores on the opening weekend but I just can’t see them doing it again without the suspended ‘captain marvel’ Sergio Parisse. Italy are far from a one-man team, but his influence is so omnipresent that the Azzuri will be severely weakened by his absence (think Steven Gerrard with Liverpool). Against Scotland the Italians had a lot of possession and territory, but didn’t quite have that final pass to unlock the Scottish defence. I suspect Orquera’s performance against France was an anomaly, and true to form (or lack of), he was back to his lacklustre best 2 weeks ago. If he doesn’t turn up (metaphorically) Italy will find it hard. I think they have the forward power to compete, but Wales showed against France that they can grind out a victory with determined defence and the Welsh have a (marginally) more talented back line. They start with the same XV that beat France – why they don’t start with James Hook bemuses me because their backs are crying out for some creativity. A midfield of Roberts and Davies has about as much subtlety and craft as Brian Moore’s commentary. Ultimately, Wales have the more talented players so I expect an attritional match with plenty of kicking and the defence to dominate (I can’t wait). Wales by 5-8 points.

England vs France

France. What is going on? Les Bleus used to embody flair, throwing the ball around with gay abandon and outwitting opponents with their superlative skill, elusive running, and magnetic handling. Against Wales, it was like watching 15 drunken vaches wandering aimlessly around a field, occasionally charging at the wall of red matadors in front of them. The French were dreadful. They had absolutely no game plan. Not even the merest hint of subtlety. No cheeky inside passes. No outrageous dummies. Nope, just shove it up your jumper and try and blast your way through the defence. I despair. You’re FRANCE! You don’t lose matches because you’re worse. You lose because you were eyeing up the jolie fille in the stand and forgot to defend. You lose because you were discussing Descartes with the full-back over a café-crème and missed the team bus. You lose because you decided to run the ball from your own dead-ball line and the ballsed it up. Merde. But at least they tried to play rugby. Not anymore. France used to be entertaining – even more when they lost. But now I feel sorry for them. Sorry? For the French? Sacre bleu. How times have changed.

The French opted to play a power game against the Welsh – any old muppet could have told you that’s Wales’ strength. If you’re going to play Basteraud, maybe just once use him as a decoy? At least they’ve got Vincent Clerc back from injury, who makes playing rugby look like a stroll down the Seine on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Parra and Trinh-Duc are back together. Fofana is back in his favoured centre position. Sunday’s team look a bit more like the France of old, which could spell bad news for England. Their back row especially will have to be on form to stop Dusatoir and co. dominating the breakdown.

But England have home advantage and also a settled team. Tuilagi in for Twelvetrees is a good call to negate Basteraud. Lawes for Haskell is interesting – he can cause havoc in the loose and is another lineout option. And England have two world-class scrum-halves to call upon. Overall, England to win quite comfortably, but something deep inside me, and I’m very ashamed to say, wants a France victory. The 6 nations needs a strong French side. Maybe Saint-Andre can inspire his team to play like once he did in scoring that famous try at Twickenham 22 years ago.

Scotland vs Ireland

This is a tough one to call: two exciting sides with some relatively inexperienced players in key positions. Paddy Jackson’s call-up instead for his debut instead of Ronan O’Gara seems like sheer madness but he has played in big matches before (2012 Heineken Cup Final) and offers a lot more of a running threat than O’Gara does. Declan Kidney could have pulled off a masterstroke. But test rugby is that bit more intense that club rugby; he will have less time to kick, pass, and make those split-second crucial decisions. It’s certainly a baptism of fire.

Scotland seem rejuvenated since Andy Robinson’s departure. It could simply be the fresh approach Scott Johnson is adopting, but they are playing a much more expansive attacking game. To my eyes, Johnson has simplified their play and given the players licence to express themselves. With Robinson, you always felt that he was one dropped pass away from exploding, and that seemed to translate to his team. They were almost trying too hard, because they knew that he’d bollock them if they cocked up. An attitude of fear is not conducive to a successful rugby team. Trust is key; under Johnson, once they get over that white line, Scotland are now backing themselves and trusting each other. They also happen to have, for me, the player of the tournament so far in Stuart Hogg who is playing himself very much into contention for this summer’s Lions squad. He offers a threat all over the field, especially on the counter-attack and indeed from that point of view he reminds me of a young Iain Balshaw. Hogg is certainly a match winner and Ireland will have to be wary of his attacks from deep.

This match will be decided on the half-backs. At his favoured scrum-half position, Greg Laidlaw has played a major part in the Scots’ resurgence; his elusive running and accurate place-kicking have been particular highlights. His partnership with Ruaridh Jackson could well tip the balance in the home side’s favour. They have a good on-field understanding which Conor Murray and Paddy Jackson have yet to try, and with a passionate Murrayfield willing them on, I think the Scots will just edge this one.

David de Winter

How good are Ronaldo and Messi?

Let me start off by acknowledging the impossibility of comparing players from different eras.  There aren’t enough absolutes.  In any sport the game is constantly changing – often most noticeably in the increased physical fitness of the participants – and the suspicion is that many great players of yesteryear would struggle physically were they playing now. 

Can you then judge players from different eras based on their importance to their team, or, if in an individual sport, based on their success and talent relative to their opponents?  This method doesn’t take into account eras where a player was strong within weak competition.  For example, Michael Atherton was an excellent batsman whose importance to England’s batting line-up in the 1990s (particularly 1993-97) was almost immeasurable, so does that make him a better batsman that Jonathan Trott, whose batting statistics are (having played admittedly far fewer Tests) significantly more impressive?  It is, I think, an interesting comparison – I chose Trott rather than Ian Bell, because many of Trott’s runs have come in situations of high pressure.  Atherton was England captain for over half his Tests, and, despite the presence of many talented batsmen around him (Stewart, Thorpe, Hick, Hussain), the man who both the public and the team expected to provide runs every innings.  Trott is fortunate in that if he fails he can (unless the Test is played in Abu Dhabi) rely on another member of the top 7 to score big runs.

That rather lengthy paragraph, initially intended to be a simple rhetorical question, shows how involved it is possible to become when assessing the relative merits of players from any era in any sport.  It might mean that the question ‘where should Ronaldo and Messi stand in a list of all-time great footballers’ is unanswerable, since such a list cannot exist.  It doesn’t mean it cannot, or should not be asked.

When discussing the greatest footballers of all time, it is generally accepted that Pele and Maradona (not necessarily in that order) are the best two.  The next group of greats often include (again in no particular order) Cruyff, di Stefano, Best, Beckenbauer, Zidane and Puskas.  I would argue that both Ronaldo and Messi belong in this group and above the next rung, containing the likes of Baresi, Yashin, Charlton (B), Laudrup (M), the original Ronaldo and van Basten.

Let us look at the statistics, as they are truly astounding.  Since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid in 2009 he has scored 180 goals in 183 games in all competitions.  Over the same period, Messi has scored 221 goals in 203 games.  The level of consistency required to produce such stats is staggering.  This season in the league, Messi has scored 37 goals and provided 9 assists in 24 games.  That means he directly contributed nearly 2 goals a game, and has scored more than all but 4 other teams in the league.  Such stats belong to a bygone age; since 1960 I can only think of Jimmy Greaves and Gerd Muller who scored with such regularity over such a period.

Yet the reason why Pele and Maradona are regarded as the two greatest players of all time comes from their performances in the World Cup.  Nowadays the Champions League is of a higher quality than the World Cup, and both Ronaldo and Messi have lit up the tournament, so why should they need to prove themselves at a World Cup?  The answer is, I think, because it is so infrequent, and therefore the pressure to succeed is huge.  A poor showing in the Champions League?  No problem, there’s always next year.  A poor World Cup?  Have to wait another 4 years.

Messi seemed a little unsure of his role at the last World Cup, asked by Maradona (great player does NOT equal great coach) to play deeper than he does at Barcelona, in the hope that he would find more space in which to sparkle.  It just meant, however, that he was getting on the ball too far away from goal to create anything, either for himself or for his teammates.  Without the high-tempo super-accurate passing, and imaginative running off the ball of Xavi, Iniesta et al, perhaps he struggles to find space nearer the opposition goal.

Ronaldo on the other hand suffers from what is technically known as try-to-do-everything-by-yourself-cos-you-don’t-trust-your-teammates-itis when playing for Portugal, which can be spectacular if it pays off (such as v Czech Republic in the Euro 2012 quarter-final), but means the opposition defence can afford to pay less attention to the other players, the other players get frustrated when they don’t receive the ball, and everyone gets angry – Portugal’s recent record in qualifying games is rather poor for a team of their talent. 

However, if both players continue to be as consistently outstanding for their clubs for the next 3 seasons, would it matter if they failed to reach a similar level at the next World Cup?  They are both scoring so relentlessly and playing so brilliantly, both in a league which is probably the world’s most skilful, and in the world’s premier club competition, that not dragging their country to victory should not prevent them from joining Pele and Maradona in that special temple within football’s pantheon.  They are both truly incredible players, a complete pleasure to watch, so let’s enjoy doing so while we can.

 

Arsenal: Club in crisis?

            Just what is going on at Arsenal at the moment?  They’re about as consistent as Massimo Taibi’s goalkeeping.  Saturday’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Blackburn was greeted with a chorus of boos from the home fans, with the renowned ‘pundit’ Robbie Savage even suggesting that time is up for Arsene Wenger.  Yet that was their first defeat in six matches – so is there really a crisis at The Emirates, or is this just an overreaction to an embarrassing defeat?

            Many observers of Arsenal over recent seasons have commented on their lack of steel, especially in midfield.  It is true that Wenger prefers ball-players rather than bruisers in the centre of the park.  The likes of Viera, Petit, Parlour, Gilberto, Flamini and Song were all fond of a tackle, but could also play as well.  I, however, don’t think they lack a midfield presence.  Arsenal’s style of play is very fluid and dynamic and a one-dimensional protector in the Mascherano or Mikel mould would hinder the effectiveness and vibrancy of the team as an attacking force.  The two tough back-to-back 1-0 victories against Stoke and Sunderland show that they can still grind out a result against robust opposition when required – reminiscent of the old Arsenal of the 1990s.

            What Wenger actually needs to concentrate on is the attack – or more specifically, its balance.  He indulges in luxury players like Gervinho and Arshavin who all too often flatter to deceive.  Instead he should be promoting players like Oxlade-Chamberlain – good on the ball, yet also direct and – more importantly – hard-working.  Yes, the Ox is young, and yes he is nowhere near the finished article, but it’s worth persisting with these promising talents.  A midfield of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta has all the right ingredients: industry, passing ability, speed, technique and experience.  That said Arsenal do need Giroud to start firing.  He has struggled to fill Van Persie’s sizeable shoes, and for all the French forward’s diligence and industry in leading the line, he is yet to consistently find the target.

            This is not to say the defence is entirely blameless.  Per Mertesacker has never convinced me as a commanding centre-back and the less we say about Andre Santos, the better (he is to defending what Emile Heskey is to lethal finishing).  Added to that, Laurent Koscielny has seemingly been determined to become as lethal in his own box as Frank Sinclair, with finishing skills that Ade Akinbiyi could only dream of.  Stick him up front I say.

            The patience Wenger once enjoyed from the Arsenal faithful is now wearing thin.  The reaction to Saturday’s defeat clearly showed that the fans are no longer content with playing attractive football and scraping qualification for the Champions League.  They demand trophies and rightly so.  Wenger made an error of judgement with his team selection at the weekend and I think fans thought he was devaluing a trophy the Gunners once called their own in the early 2000s.  He may have had one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League tie against Bayern Munch, but in that case, play your strongest team for an hour, seal the win and then take off your important players for a rest.  It will be interesting to see how the Arsenal supporters behave on Tuesday night, especially if they go a goal down.

            Saturday’s defeat and the even more embarrassing loss to Bradford in the Capital One Cup mean that Tuesday’s match takes on even greater significance.  But oddly, I think the Blackburn reverse could in fact liberate the team.  No one expects Arsenal to progress against Bayern, and so the players could and possibly should play with a nothing-to-lose attitude that might work in their favour.  On their day, players like Walcott and Wilshere can win games single-handedly, and if the right Arsenal turn-up with the right mind-set and get a victory, anything can happen in the return leg at the Allianz Arena.

            Arsenal in crisis?  Not really.  They’re one of only two English teams still in the Champions League, they’re only four points off 4th place, and their league form is pretty healthy.  The likelihood is that they’ll finish the season off without a trophy for the 8th successive season and at least qualify for Europe, but if the Arsenal board and fans decide that is not good enough then Le Professeur might be in queue for ‘le jobcentre’ come May.

 

David de Winter