World Cup 2014

The FIFA World Cup kicks-off today and what better way to enjoy the next month of summer than cooped up in your sitting room glued to your TV for six hours a day?  Nope can’t think of one either.  The nation has been gripped by World Cup fever.  Will Wayne Rooney play?  Should Raheem Sterling start?  Can Joe Hart fit in another commercial before the opening ceremony?  All these questions and more will be answered in thealternativesportsblog’s comprehensive guide to the world’s greatest football tournament.

 

Group A (Brazil, Croatia, Cameroon, Mexico)

I am going to put my non-existent mortgage, my as yet unborn child, and basically everything I own on Brazil winning the group.  The question is who will come second?  Croatia, Cameroon and Mexico will all feel that they have a good opportunity to progress to the round of 16 and they are all capable of beating each other on their day.  I’m plumping for Croatia however.  They have a genuinely world-class playmaker in Luka Modric, a formidable striker in the shape of Mario Mandzukic and an experienced defence featuring the one-time Tottenham and Manchester City full-back Vedran Corluka.  Cameroon have an experienced squad too featuring such talent as Samuel Eto’o (playing in his fourth World Cup), Barcelona’s Alex Song, hairdressing’s Benoit Assou-Ekotto and last, and definitely least, Aston Villa flop Jean Makoun.  An all-to-familiar disagreement between the Cameroonian FA and the players has disrupted their preparations somewhat.  Could spring a surprise but I doubt it.  Mexico’s golden generation of Gerrado Torrado, Jared Borgetti and Cuauhtemoc Blanco (who apparently retired from football yesterday at the grand old age of 41 – the World Cup will be a lesser tournament without him) has passed and in their place is a team with no real stand-out individuals, save for Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez.  Rafael Marquez, 74, is still knocking around but his best days are well and truly behind him.  Expect professional flatter-to-deceiver Giovanni Dos Santos will do a few step-overs and then give the ball away a lot.  Fallers at the first hurdle I’m afraid.

 

Group B (Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia)

On paper, the Spain squad looks formidable and it is no different in real life.  They could probably have named three squads and still be a pretty good bet for the Jules Rimet trophy.  Their only area of concern is up front where one would expect monkey lookalike and new Chelsea signing Diego Costa to start, but he has hardly any international experience and is coming back from a hamstring injury that curtailed his appearance in the Champions League final.  Fernando Torres is still finding a banjo with which to attempt to hit a cow’s backside and Pedro has featured sporadically for Barcelona this season.  Nevertheless Spain won Euro 2012 without a recognised forward (instead they employed a false 9) so they should progress without breaking sweat (incidentally they have my kiss of death to win the tournament).  The Netherlands are the logical choice to qualify as runners-up but I don’t particularly like the look of their defence or midfield.  Star midfielder Wesley Sneijder hasn’t had a stellar season for Galatasary and any nation that selects a Norwich City player (Leroy Fer since you ask) must be lacking in quality personnel.  They will be relying on Robin Van Persie to fire them into the second round, but it might not be enough.  Chile are my tip to spring a surprise and pip the Dutch to 2nd place.  They have real quality throughout the team in Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez and Juventus duo, Arturo Vidal Mauricio Isla.  Let’s gloss over the fact that recently relegated Cardiff City defender Gary Medel and Championship stalwart Gonzalo Jara of Nottingham Forest make up their defence.  They deservedly beat England 2-0 at Wembley last November and are lethal on the counter-attack.  I am delighted to announce that the whipping boys of Group B will be Australia.  With such infamous luminaries as, for example, Ryan McGowan of ‘Shandong Luneng Taishan’ and Bailey Wright of Preston North End, they will be totally out of their depth and may be on the end of some heavy tonkings.  Fingers crossed.

 

Group C (Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan)

This is possibly the most wide-open group of the entire tournament.  Colombia were the favourites to progress until mercurial striker Rademel Falcao was ruled out through injury.  His goals will be a huge loss to Los Cafeteros (which means ‘The Coffee Growers’ apparently).  Nevertheless Porto’s Jackson Martinez has been banging them in for fun and with Monaco’s James Rodriguez and Inter Milan’s Freddy Guarin pulling the strings in midfield, he should have a plentiful supply-line.  Experienced duo Cristian Zapata and Mario Yepes will be marshalling operations in defence so Colombia could be stingy too.  In goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, they have the tournament’s oldest player who will turn 43 during the tournament.

What of the others?  Ivory Coast have a handy attacking threat in the shape of the evergreen Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony.  However in defence they have the lethal own-goal expert Kolo Toure on duty who, if own goals counted, would be a solid bet for top goalscorer.  Greece are one of those teams who really are more than the sum of their parts.  They seem to turn it on in major tournaments and don’t count them out from pulling a few rabbits out of the hat (and surprise results too) this time around.  Fulham’s new Steve Marlet, Konstantinos Mitroglu will be hoping to prove his doubters wrong alongside veteran poacher Theofanis Gekas, who will put away anything given the slightest sniff.  Led by the effervescent gorgeous Giorgos Karagounis and organised by the try-and-say-that-after-a-few-pints Sokratis Papastathopoulos they are always very difficult to beat.  Hellas may not be pretty but you can bet your bottom drachma they will be effective.  Which leaves Japan.  Traditionally a disciplined and hard-working side, the Samurai Blues have a smattering of creative talent in AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa which makes them somewhat of a dark horse.  A tough group to call.

 

Group D (Uruguay, Italy, England, Costa Rica)

Ah, England’s group.  I’m sure the Italian and Uruguayan squads are having sleepless nights at the prospect of facing a team, who, in their most recent internationals, gallantly drew to two powerhouses of the international game in Honduras and Ecuador.  Unfortunately my patriotic side has completely deserted me and, although it pains me to say it, England will do very well to (and probably not) progress to the knockout stage.  The turgid, slow, predictable attacks will be cannon-fodder to Luis Suarez and co. against Uruguay.  Likewise the Italians will use their superior technical skill to pass England to death just like in Euro 2012.  A solitary win against Costa Rica and two unlikely draws against Uruguay and Italy are the best The Three Lions can hope for.  I expect the Italians to be at their usual miserly selves at the back – this will be captain Gianluigi Buffon’s fifth World Cup – a remarkable achievement.  Going forward my favourite player Andrea Pirlo will be pulling the strings in midfield allowing the likes of Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti to roam forward.  Maverick duo Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli will lead the line (thealternativesportsblog guarantees that one of these two will get sent off at some point).  They can even afford the luxury of naming Liverpool legend Alberto Aquilani in their squad.  Uruguay of course rely heavily on Luis Suarez and if he can return to full fitness, they have a real chance of progressing from the group.  Los Charruas are by no means a one-man team though.  La Liga, Serie A and Primeira Liga winners Diego Godin, Martin Caceres and Maxi Pereira respectively are certainly no mugs at the back.  Uruguay do play a counter-attacking game and with the likes of Atletico Madrid’s Cristian Rodriguez and PSG’s Edison Cavani joining Suarez going forward, they will be a danger to all and sundry.  Costa Rica’s chances of qualification are slim but at 34 in the FIFA rankings, they are not to be taken lightly.  Playing for Olympiakos, on-loan Arsenal forward Joel Campbell scored a cracker against United in the Champions League this season and on his day, Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz can dictate play at will.  Their defence does seem slightly suspect and if they aren’t organised at the back, they could be on the end of a few cricket scores.  Uruguay and Italy to qualify.

 

Group E (Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras, France)

One of the weakest groups this one – France are obviously favourites to win the group, with an inexperienced, but very talented squad.  Franck Ribery’s absence through injury is a blow, as is Didier Deschamps’ refusal to call-up Samir Nasri, but in Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba they have two stars of the future.  As much as the rest of the world loves nothing more than a hilarious Gallic implosion, as in 2010, there is sadly no Raymond Domenech or Nicolas Anelka to spread discord, and I rather fancy them to make at least the quarter-finals.  Switzerland are the seeded team in this group, but I don’t think they’ll qualify here.  The Swiss have an established solid team, with the odd sprinkling of star quality in the X-Men Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, but may struggle with the conditions, and I feel Ecuador will grab second place.  Yes they were embarrassingly held to a 2-2 draw by England’s second-string, and their defence is weak, but they have some exhilarating dribblers, such as Jefferson Montero and Enner Valencia, and such ability will be crucial in breaking down stubborn defences.  Honduras, as they showed against England, are tough but limited, and will struggle to get more than one point.

 

Group F (Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria)

Another weak group, once you look beyond Argentina.  The attacking potential within the Argentina squad is simply frightening – they could well play a front five of Messi, Higuain, Di Maria, Aguero and Lavezzi.  However, further back they look vulnerable.  Pablo Zabaleta has been the most consistent full-back in the Premier League over the past few seasons, but Martin Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay are both prone to brainfades, and Fernando Gago, whose calming presence in the centre of midfield is crucial to the way the (wanky show-off football term alert) albiceleste play, has been struggling for fitness.  Nevertheless if they don’t win this group I’ll eat my hat*.  As for who will join them, none of the other teams make a particularly convincing case.  Nigeria, the African Champions, are probably the most obvious candidates – they have in Vincent Enyeama a world-class keeper, and a pacy attack – but they are in poor form, and needed a last minute goal to draw with Scotland.  Bosnia have several outstanding attackers – Edin Dzeko will be their main man, ably supported by Roma’s little gem of a playmaker Miralem Pjanic, the Bundesliga star Vedad Ibisevic and potentially the strolling Zvjezdan Misimovic (think Tom Huddlestone without the dynamism) – but their defence is at best weak, and at worst a complete liability, with the captain Emir Spahic coming off a horror season at Bayer Leverkusen.  Iran are defensively solid, but have no experienced goalkeeper, and very little in creative talent, although, to be honest, my knowledge of the Iranian league is a little shaky, so there may be a potential star in there somewhere.  It seems their most potent creative force is Fulham’s Ashkan ‘moves like’ Dejagah, which isn’t a ringing endorsement.

 

Group G (Germany, Ghana, Portugal, USA)

This is definitely the tournament’s obligatory ‘Group of Death’, containing 4 teams with realistic ambitions of going deep into the knockout stages.  Many Germans aren’t feeling particularly confident about their chances, pointing out that Bastian Schweinsteiger is in poor form, Sami Khedira is recovering from a serious knee injury, Marco Reus is missing entirely and there is no striking option other than the 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, who hasn’t exactly been pulling up trees at Lazio this season.  Rubbish.  First of all they’re Germany, they always qualify.  Secondly they’ve been lining up like a Jonathan Wilson wet dream, playing a strikerless formation featuring Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze as a false nine (yes I have read Inverting the Pyramid), so Klose may not even feature that often.  Finally, they play with the confidence of a team that know each other inside-out, with many of the players having featured in the victorious European U-21 side of 2009.  Portugal aren’t quite a one man team, but Cristiano Ronaldo effectively won the play-off against Sweden on his own, and he often plays for Portugal as if he doesn’t trust any of his teammates not to screw up if he loans them the ball.  This sometimes works as he is the best player in the world and, if on song, unstoppable, but he is recovering from a slight knee injury, and the rest of the squad are nothing more than reasonable, although good things are said of Sporting Lisbon’s William Carvalho.  Ghana were famously unlucky in 2010, and bring a similar squad to Brazil, supplemented by the usual collection of talented youngsters.  Asamoah Gyan has been banging them in over the past season and a half, albeit in the UAE, while Andre Ayew (son of Pele – Abedi Pele that is) and Christian Atsu are both quick and skilful.  The USA have been beaten by Ghana at the last two tournaments, and Jurgen Klinsmann has made a bold call by omitting probably the highest-profile American player in Landon Donovan, but those in the know say this will aid team spirit, and Klinsmann isn’t convinced of the commitment of a player who took a few months of football to find himself in Cambodia in 2012.  German-raised winger Julian Green is an intriguing choice (he has been earning rave reviews for Bayern Munich’s B team), but any side that has Jozy Altidore as its main goal threat is going to struggle, and I’ll be very surprised if they make it out of the group.

 

Group H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea)

I find this group one of the toughest to call.  There has been a lot of hype over this Belgian squad, with so many people tipping them as dark horses that they can now no longer be considered as such (in the same way that so many people asserted that Paul Scholes was underrated that he eventually became overrated).  I’m not entirely convinced that they’ll even get out of the group.  I would love them to do so, as they play exhilarating attacking football, and are the most exciting group of talent to emerge unexpectedly from a country since the Denmark team of the mid 80s (incidentally look out for the Armenia team over the next few years – you heard it here first), but I worry about their lack of tournament experience and, more particularly, their lack of proper attacking full-backs.  Jan Vertonghen, as any Spurs fan will tell you, is nobody’s idea of a decent left-back, but he is first choice for the Red Devils.  However, with the attacking verve of, among others, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Defour, they will in all probability prove me wrong, and look rather good whilst doing so.  The question is, if Belgium don’t go through, who will?  Russia are a workmanlike side, with few stars, but qualified comfortably  ahead of Portugal, and in Fabio Capello have a manager with a proven track record at translating an impressive qualifying campaign into a successful tournament (hang on a minute…).  In all seriousness though, I expect Russia to grind out 3 drab wins, with any flair being provided by the impish Alan Dzagoev.  South Korea normally stroll through the Asian qualifying campaign without breaking sweat, but this time only edged out Uzbekistan by one goal.  However, they have an experienced but relatively youthful squad, full of smart technically-adept players, boosted by the presence of Yun Suk-young, the first QPR player to go to a World Cup since Paul Parker in 1990.  I think they will surprise a few people and make the second round.  Algeria are probably the weakest of the African nations and will perform rather like they did 4 years ago.  They will be disciplined, niggly and almost entirely ambition-free, although look out for El Arbi Soudani, the slippery Dinamo Zagreb centre-forward.

 

So there you have it.  We’ve provided you with all the information you could wish for, now to let the football do the talking.  Delight in spending the next month feasting on a banquet of the world’s finest players with a side order of controversy and, in England’s case, a huge dollop of disappointment.  We can’t wait.

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. 

 

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 Ashes Squad

After two months of intense Ashes cricket, what better way to celebrate than by doing it all again?  The process all starts on Monday with the announcement of the touring party for the winter down-under.  The weeks leading up to the announcements of England squads to Australia used to be the subject of endless speculation.  In years gone by the squad always used to include one or two left-field youngsters who would go along just for the experience.  Martin Bicknell’s selection in 1990/1 was such a selection, as was Alex Tudor’s in 98/99 (although Tudor ended up playing an influential role in the series).  These days, the competition for places within the England team means there is no space for such luxury.  The selectors will pick the 17 players they think are capable of retaining the Ashes urn.  No room for any passengers.  So who will be on that flight to Australia.

Firstly, the batsmen; Alastair Cook is making his maiden voyage to Australia as captain so he’s obviously the first name on the teamsheet.  Add to that Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen and Joe Root and there are probably only two more spaces left for specialist batsmen.  Michael Carberry was mooted as a possible candidate but he seems to have done his chances more harm than good with his recent performances in the ODI’s.  I don’t think he will, but Nick Compton should go.  He has Test Match experience and can play as an opener as well as in the middle order.  I saw him play this season in the T20 quarter-final for Somerset against Surrey at the Oval.  He seemed very composed and compiled a tidy 20-odd not by slogging but by manipulating the ball around with classy touches and deflections.  He was by far the most accomplished batsman on either side that day.  I know he had a tough time earlier this summer against New Zealand but those problems were more mental than technical.

To go with Compton, Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan have also been mentioned due to their recent form in the one-day game but they have had their chances and been found wanting at Test level.  Ben Stokes could be a prudent selection.  He has been in the England limited overs squads for a couple of seasons now and has shown enough promise to be given at least an opportunity in the Test arena.  His batting stats are a bit disappointing in the four-day game this season; 563 runs at 28 apiece but his bowling is much more impressive – 40 wickets at a shade under 25.  He is still a very raw talent and to be a Test no. 6 his batting would have to improve, but he is an exciting cricketer and his performances over the past 3 seasons have warranted an opportunity with the Test squad.

The wicket-keepers pick themselves: Matthew Prior and Jonny Bairstow with the Yorkshireman just about good enough to play at no. 6 as a specialist batsman (he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory this summer however).  As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Bairstow’s technique is looser than a wizard’s sleeve – not ideal for combatting the world’s best bowlers.  Until the England management are convinced that Bairstow has made his game more compact, the selectors should seriously consider moving Joe Root down the order to 6 and putting Compton back in to open for the first test in Brisbane.  Bairstow has become a bit of a liability in the batting order who does not put a high enough price on his wicket for my liking.

Until Monty Panesar’s ignominious fall from grace, the spinner situation was fairly simple.  Since Panesar was questioned by police in August, there have been serious question marks over Panesar’s mental capabilities.  If he is on top of his demons then he has to go because he is the second best spinner in the country, no question.  However if the England management feel he is going to be too much of a hindrance because of his off-field issues, a space becomes vacant.  Whoever is selected would most definitely be going as back-up to Graeme Swann, but with the Nottinghamshire man’s dodgy elbow, he may be called upon to play in the Tests.  I can safely say Simon Kerrigan will not be named in the touring party.  My 64 year-old father (he once took all 10 wickets in an innings) could have bowled better than the sack of shit Kerrigan served up at the Oval last month.  James Tredwell would be my choice.  He will not pull up any trees but he bowls very tight and deserves his chance after performing admirably in the one-day arena (he has a bowling average of 24.88 for England).  An outside choice would be Middlesex’s off-spinner Ollie Rayner.  I saw him bowl at the Oval last month and he took 15 wickets in the match and was nigh-on unplayable on an admittedly helpful wicket (and against some pretty dross batting).  His 6ft 5in frame makes him a very awkward customer to face and on bouncy Australian wickets, he could be a real handful.  The logical choice is Tredwell but if the selectors are feeling adventurous, Rayner could sneak in through the back door.

The seamers almost pick themselves.  James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan are certainties.  Steven Finn is pretty sure of his place despite his indifferent season and Graham Onions has had yet another stellar year and must go on the tour.  I feel sorry for Onions.  He finally made it into the England team in 2009, only to be decimated by injuries and has always been on the fringes ever since.  He has taken a hatful of wickets in the past two seasons but has never been given his chance to show what he can do.  I really hope he gets an opportunity if he is selected.  The final seamer spot would seem to be Chris Tremlett’s.  Chris Woakes rather bowled himself out of contention with an innocuous performance in the fifth test against the Aussies.  Tremlett hasn’t had a great season for Surrey and when I have seen him in the flesh, he seems to have lost a bit of zip – a result of a catalogue of injuries throughout his career.  He had a real impact on the series in 2010/11 but I doubt whether he could re-create those performances.  If Tremlett isn’t selected then Boyd Rankin would seem to be in the driving seat.  A very similar bowler to Surrey man (like Tremlett he is 6ft 7in tall), Rankin is a very awkward customer to face.  The pace and bounce of the Australian wickets will most definitely suit his style of bowling.  The only drawback to his selection would be his lack of experience in Test Cricket.  He has played over 40 ODI’s, both for Ireland and England with great success but that is nothing compared to the intensity of an Ashes Test.  He would represent a very progressive selection.

No-one else has stood out this season in the county game.  Toby Roland-Jones was bandied about at the start of the season as a potential England bowler but injury has ruined his season and at 25 years of age, he still has time on his side.  Sussex’s Chris Jordan has had a wonderful season with both bat and ball since his move from Surrey. 50 wickets and a batting average of 25 is a very impressive return and his form was rewarded with a place in England’s one-day squad.  The Test touring party may be a step too far for him but he is certainly one to watch for the future.

So after much deliberation, my touring party would be as follows:

Cook

Compton

Root

Trott

Pietersen

Bell

Stokes

Bairstow

Prior

Swann

Panesar

Anderson

Broad

Bresnan

Onions

Finn

Tremlett

I’m pretty sure the 17 names on the above list would have more than enough to overcome Australia.  England aren’t at the peak of their powers by any stretch of the imagination, but the Aussies, especially with star fast-bowler Ryan Harris’ fitness doubtful for the series opener, aren’t in much better shape.  There’s even talk of bringing scattergun Mitchell Johnson back into the team.  If this is indeed the case, England are almost certain of returning to Blighty with the little urn in hand.

England should go for the jugular

So far, so good Ashes-wise.  Two games, two victories, and everybody of an English persuasion is happy.  We’ve even had some history-making moments.  We have had a record score by a number 11 batsman; we have had a record 10th wicket partnership; we have had a truly outstanding delivery to dismiss the opposition’s captain and main batsman (Anderson to Clarke at Trent Bridge); we have had a bollock-clenchingly close finish; and we have had a hilariously brutal spanking.  Yet, there are some who claim to feel a particular emotion that is utterly alien to almost every English cricket fan; that of sympathy towards the Aussies.

This was most notable at the end of Australia’s first innings at Trent Bridge.  Ashton Agar had just been dismissed for 98 in his debut innings, an astonishing effort as everyone acknowledges.  However, you could hear murmurs of ‘isn’t it a shame that the poor lad didn’t make his century.  I wouldn’t have begrudged him an extra two runs.’  Excuse me?  This lad has just contributed to a stand which may very well have taken the first test away from England.  From a position of impregnability, we are now staring down the barrel of a 70 run deficit after the first innings.  We want him out as soon as possible.  Every run may be crucial.

There is something in the British psyche that looks down on winning too easily.  Drumming home one’s obvious advantage is seen as vulgar, not the done thing.  We root for the underdog, and often fail to acknowledge sheer sporting class because we are too busy sympathising with the loser.  For example, following this year’s women’s Wimbledon final, most reports concentrated on the collapse of Sabine Lisicki’s form, rather than praising Marion Bartoli for her high-class, tactically prefect play.  This may have something to do with the relative attractiveness of the two players, which is a different issue entirely (for more information write to J Inverdale Esq, BBC Sport, Chauvinism Place, Misogyny Road, I’m-no-looker-myself-ville), but also displays the British fixation with a plucky, but tearful loser over a deserved winner.

In reference to the cricket, any supporter who has lived through the barren years of 1989 to 2005 is not going to feel sorry for the Aussies in a hurry.  The first Ashes series I was aware of was the 1989 fiasco which, to my mind, seemed mainly to consist of Steve Waugh scoring runs, and Graham Gooch getting out to Terry Alderman.  England fielded 29 different players in that series, including such luminaries as Phil Newport, Tim Curtis and John Stephenson.  Between 1991 and 2005, the following players have played Test cricket for England against Australia: Eddie Hemmings, Martin McCague, Mike Smith, Warren Hegg, Ian Ward, Jimmy Ormond, Richard Dawson.  In the same period Australia have had the following selection dilemmas: which Waugh twin to play (1991); Michael Slater or Matthew Hayden (1993); which fast bowler out of McGrath, Gillespie, Reiffel or Kasprowicz to leave out (1997); Ricky Ponting or Michael Bevan (also 1997); Michael Slater or Justin Langer (2001); how are we possibly going to deal with the loss of Shane Warne, oh well better call up Stuart MacGill I suppose (2003); is our batting line-up strong enough to ignore Brad Hodge, Stuart Law, Matthew Elliott, Jamie Cox, Michael Hussey, Darren Lehmann and Michael Di Venuto (most series from 1997 onwards – the answer’s yes by the way).  Given the disparity in quality and selection policy between the two teams for 16 long, predictable years, I am certainly not about to offer up any sympathy towards this current Aussie outfit.  Keep your metaphorical foot on their metaphorical throat is my message to the England team.  And don’t worry about the metaphorical bit.

The Ashes

What a weekend for British sport; and it’s about to get a whole lot better.  If anything can top the Murray/Lions euphoria, 22 men from England and Australia playing for a comedy, pint-sized urn can.  With more thrills and spills than Michael Barrymore’s Christmas party, this series has already had more than its fair share of controversies – and a ball hasn’t even been bowled yet.  Many so called ‘experts’ are predicting an easy England victory but this blog (always 100% accurate with its predictions) isn’t so sure.

 

            On the face of it, the Australian cricket team is in absolute turmoil.  They sacked their coach, Mickey Arthur, two weeks ago; one of their batsmen (David Warner) punched an England player (Joe Root) in a nightclub and was banned from playing in the warm-up matches; and when they played India, earlier this year (whom England beat 2-1 just before Christmas) they got absolutely hammered 4-0.  The Aussies also suspended four of their players for failing to do their homework on the India tour.  So far, so good from an England perspective.

 

            The reality is not necessarily so rosy.  Australia have appointed ex-batsman Darren Lehmann as their new coach which is something of a masterstroke.  Unlike the draconian Arthur, Lehmann is a people’s person from the old-school, someone who will encourage and galvanise the side and this makes them potentially very dangerous.  Lehmann will install some stereotypical hard Aussie grit back into the team and make them very hard to beat.  The tourists may not be as technically gifted as England but you can bet your bottom Australian dollar that Lehmann will extract every last drop of determination out of his side.  The mental side of sport is too often ignored, but in this case it can and probably will make a big difference to the Australian side England will face on Wednesday and the side they faced in the Champions Trophy four weeks ago.

 

            Australia have the luxury of the world’s best batsman, captain Michael Clarke, in their ranks  Since the beginning of 2012 he has been a run machine, scoring four Test double-centuries (one of them was a triple century) in a single calendar year.  Clarke’s back has been playing up a bit recently but if he’s fully fit, England will have a serious job on their hands shifting him.  Supporting their captain will be Chris Rogers and Shane Watson.  Rogers is very much a horses for courses selection who has excelled for years in English domestic cricket.  Watson has oodles of talent but in 75 innings for the Baggy Greens, he only has two centuries to his name.  At 32 it is now or never for the broad-chested all-rounder and Australia will need him to improve on his current record.

 

            Much has been written about the vaunted England attack but there has been relatively little said about the Australian bowlers.  Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc all have the armoury to excel in English conditions, and James Pattison and James Faulkner in particular look like very promising seamers.  Starc could be the trump card for the Aussies.  He is a handy lower-order batsman and crucially bowls left-arm fast.  Another left-armer, New Zealand’s Trent Boult, caused serious problems for the England batting order earlier this year and Starc will try to exploit that weakness.  Siddle also has had success in English conditions, taking 20 wickets in the 2009 series.  His consistency, pace and aggression is bound to trouble the English batsmen this summer.  The current weather could in fact negate their impact and may in fact play into England’s hands.  The hosts are more experienced in these drier conditions.  James Anderson is a master of reverse-swing and also bowls brilliant cutters when the ball is not doing much.  The Australians are yet to prove they can bowl effectively in batsman-friendly conditions.

 

            That is not to suggest that the Australian bowlers won’t get opportunities.  I have felt for some time that England’s batting order is a little too brittle and recently they have failed to post the sort of imposing first innings totals that were commonplace between 2009 and 2011.  England have two relative newcomers in the top six (Root and Jonny Bairstow) who will no doubt come in for some special treatment during the series.  They Yorkshire pair have both had impressive starts to their test careers but nothing can prepare them for the intensity of series against the old enemy.  The decision to open with Root is certainly a bold move – one that represents England’s faith and confidence in the 22 year-old.  Both their performances could well be a deciding factor in the destination of the urn.

 

            One area England do have a significant advantage is in the spin department.  Since his début in 2008, Graeme Swann has risen to become one of, if not the best spin bowler in the world.  The likeable Nottinghamshire man has the ability to bowl in all conditions be it in a containing capacity or as a wicket-taker.  With all due respect to Australia’s Nathan Lyon, England’s top-6 are hardly going to be having nightmares about his off-spin.  In a move that smacks of desperation, Australia have called up newly qualified native, Fawad Ahmed into their A squad who are also touring England this summer but he has barely played any first-class cricket, let alone test cricket.  Even if he does get called up, I find it hard to believe that he will immediately become some sort of world-beater.

           

            On paper, England have a far stronger team.  Their batting is superior to Australia’s, the seamers and spinner are more experienced and England have a wonderful wicket-keeper/batsman in Matt Prior.  But cricket matches are rarely, if ever, won on paper.  This Australian side is dangerous; they have absolutely nothing to lose.  They have a new coach who will have boosted morale no end and if the key players perform, like Clarke, Shane Watson, Siddle and Starc, and England aren’t at their best, the Aussies have more than just a chance of victory.  All this talk of England winning 5-0 is complete nonsense.  It will be a lot closer than that.  The series will be won during two or three key sessions.  Whoever performs when it matters most will be lifting the little urn at the Oval in late August.  I hope (and think) it will be England but you can unfortunately never discount the Aussies.

The Ultimate Test

The end of the 2013 Lions tour is fast approaching and the series has come down to the final test.  The tension on Saturday in Sydney will be practically unbearable, and that’s just for the spectators, either in the stadium, or watching in a pub/at home/on an illegal internet feed.  For the players (especially the Lions players) it will be possibly the most important match of their career.  One thing has dominated, and will continue to dominate the build-up to the game, however, and that is Warren Gatland’s decision to omit Brian O’Driscoll, the first time, it seems, that the Irish legend has been dropped in his senior career.

I’ll come to that issue shortly, but first of all, let’s look back at the tour as a whole.  Personally, I think a Lions tour is one of the great sporting events.  For me, interest in a sporting event is often proportional to length of time between occurrences.  So in football, a World Cup is more exciting than the Champions League, in athletics the Olympics is more exciting than the World Championships, in golf the Ryder Cup is more exciting than the US Masters.  This argument falls down slightly when looking at cricket, where the ODI World Cup is a turgid bloated lump of disinterest, but that’s more the fault of the format of the tournament, rather than the event itself.  However, what puts a Lions tour above almost every other sporting event (the Olympics and possibly the Ryder Cup can rival it) is the fact that the team and the concept only exists for a month and a half every four years.  For both the rugby and football World Cups, the teams that are playing have been building towards that tournament for years, and the element of surprise and suspense is lacking when the team takes to the field.  The fans know, broadly, how their team will play, which players combine well, which players are in form.  Naturally, that can’t happen for the Lions.  Therefore there is a sense of history being made during every minute of a Lions game, in particular during the test.  Scoring a Test try in a Lions jersey is a rare thing, and those that do will have their careers defined by doing so.  Think of the most memorable tries by (for example) Brian O’Driscoll, Jason Robinson, Ieuan Evans and Matt Dawson, and I imagine you’ll pick the tries they scored whilst playing for the Lions.

Ramble aside, I think this has been a successful tour, irrespective of the result of the final Test.  Yes, the lack of top quality opposition in the tour matches was an irritation, but it is entirely understandable.  The coaches of the Super Rugby teams are naturally going to prioritise a strong league performance over victory against a touring team.  As much as such a victory will probably be remembered for longer, a poor season will lead to him losing his job, so the Lions match is the obvious time to allow your important players to benefit from a rest.  It is similar to cricket teams who tour England – 20 years ago they would play most of the counties in either a 3-day or a 1-day match, and the counties would put out their strongest team, anxious to claim a famous scalp.  Now the two or three counties who actually play a touring team view it as a chore, and they tend to send out a development XI, resting as many players as possible without looking rude.  I thought the Lions made excellent use of their warm-up games – every player was given ample time to play themselves into (or out of) form, different combinations were tried, and the expansive style of play won Aussie admirers and enthused British watchers.  Naturally, the intensity wasn’t the same as in a Test, but then no warm-up match can be.

The first two Tests have seen more buttocks clenched, more fingernails chewed, more breath held per square mile than any other occasion on record (except for in Hoxton on the day the Glastonbury line-up is announced).  The Wallabies have looked more likely to break the line, and Will Genia has been marvellous at keeping the tempo relentlessly high.  The heart-breaking try towards the end of the second Test was down to his constant probing and ability to read in a split-second where the Lions defence was at its weakest.  Attack-wise the Lions have looked a little flat, and have lacked a ball-carrying presence in both games (welcome back Toby Faletau).  Jonny Sexton has kicked nicely, but has failed to deliver the ball to his fellow-backs with the required zip and regularity.  Too often, especially in the second Test, a forward (normally Mako Vunipola) ended up at first receiver, slowing down any chance the Lions had of taking advantage of width. 

So, to the team selection for the final Test.  Corbisiero for Vunipola makes sense.  Although I thought Vunipola had a pretty decent game last Saturday, helping the scrum win a few penalties and tackling like a dervish, he also gave away a few high-profile penalties, got in the way of attacks, and, as keeps being said, is probably a better impact player.  Hibbard for Tom Youngs also makes sense, in that the Welsh Dmitri Szarszewski (only not as handsome) is a better scrummager and ball-carrier.  The only caveat is that his throwing has been mediocre at best all tour, and the Wallabies may well target the Lions lineout even more.  Mike Phillips will be welcomed back, not only because it means the world’s slowest passer, Ben Youngs, won’t be on the field, but also because, given the right protection from his back row, he is a potential match-winner, whose physicality may well prove useful.

The back row selection is an interesting one, in that Gatland has decided against replacing the injured Warburton with a Justin Tipuric, the other turnover merchant in the squad, but has instead gone for Sean O’Brien.  Now O’Brien is a terrific player, who makes a staggering number of yards with the ball in hand, and could, at a push, be used in the lineout.  However, it seems that Gatland was struck by the lack of ball-carrying by the forwards in the second Test, and so has moved to remedy that.  Hibbard, O’Brien and Toby Faletau, who has replaced Jamie Heaslip at number 8, make a large number of hard yards, but this particular Lions pack now looks like it will lack something at the breakdown, especially now the Aussie have recalled George Smith, precisely for his ball-snaffling abilities.  Tipuric is on the bench, and should make an impact in that respect, but I worry it will be too late by then.

So, finally to the biggest call of the lot – the dropping of Brian O’Driscoll.  First of all it is clear that the Davies/O’Driscoll partnership wasn’t working – neither player has shown any kind of penetration.  If fit, Jamie Roberts was always going to return to the side, because of his abilities to break the gain line, suck in defenders, and leave more space out wide.  That is the way Gatland always envisaged playing, and as such Roberts’ injury was crippling to his game plan.  Therefore, the choice was between Davies and O’Driscoll as to who would partner him.  So far in the Tests O’Driscoll has been a slightly blunted instrument.  He has had little chance to get his hands on the ball, little space to show his quick feet, few opportunities to demonstrate his immaculate timing of a pass, and, after being pinged twice in dubious circumstances during the first few minutes of the series, has lost his breakdown mojo.  He has kicked poorly, and even looked a little panicked when faced with a quick decision.  Against that, he has been defensively immaculate, tackling everything, positioning himself perfectly, and being a vocal organiser.  An Irish Brad Barritt if you will.  Davies has been better during the tour itself, and has looked more potent going forward during the Tests, but has also started to look jaded, and it was technically his man who broke through for the Australian try in the second Test (although given the excellence of Adam Ashley-Cooper’s angle, anybody would have struggled to stop him).

From a rugby point of view, I think Gatland’s decision makes sense.  Here he has two outside centres, neither of whom are playing particularly well, to choose from.  One is 34, struggling a little for confidence, and would be playing with an unfamiliar centre partner, while the other is 25, has more of a physical presence, and knows the game of the man inside him like the back of his hand.  But this is Brian O’Driscoll we are talking about, one of the greats, not just of this era, but of any era; a leader, a player who has performed on the big stage, a player who inspires his teammates by his presence, as well as scaring the opposition.  He isn’t the player he was – indeed his level of performance has dropped steadily over the last four years – but he is still a formidable force.  This is a decision that will define this tour, one which will define Gatland’s coaching career.  I can see why he has made it, but I worry it is the wrong one.