Familiar England failings exposed again

It is an all-too-familiar tale for England in the One-Day arena.  Conservative batting, unimaginative bowling, a general lack of pragmatism and inventiveness – I could go on.  Time and again they are getting schooled by teams who are playing a brand of cricket which is light-years ahead.  Against an India team that were comprehensively outclassed in the Test series, England are finding that revenge is a dish served pretty chilly.  Losses by 6 wickets, 9 wickets and 133 runs are not close encounters; they are absolute thrashings.  So why is it that a team which triumphed 3-1 in the Test series be so totally outplayed not three weeks later?

            England have historically been ambivalent at best towards One-Day cricket.  Players are rightly brought-up to view Test cricket as the ultimate goal, and pyjama cricket as an added extra.  In this country especially, One-Day internationals are usually tagged on the end of an intense Test Series where interest is waning from both players and spectators alike.  I am yet to meet any serious fan who prefers the shorter form of the game.  Overseas however the One-Day arena is treasured, not least on the subcontinent where crowds are much larger than for Test cricket.  Nevertheless, England should be commended for preserving the popularity of the 5-day game over the crash-bang-wallop of limited-overs cricket.

            Yet it is the lack of any crash-bang-wallopesque cricket which is currently hindering the national side.  No one loves orthodox cricket shots more than me, but there is a time and a place for them – the test arena.  One-Day cricket has moved on.  No longer can one patiently build an innings at a leisurely strike-rate.  The requirement is that batsmen attack the bowling from ball one.  As scores of 300 become commonplace at a rate of one run per ball, a conservative approach is doomed to failure.  Yes there are situations where a pragmatic approach is prudent, but the time when pottering along to set a target of 250 has passed.

            So how do England escape the mire and become realistic challengers for the World Cup in just 6 month’s time?  With great difficulty.  As long as Alastair Cook is at the top of the order England will continue to struggle.  Get off to a fast start and the middle-order can relax and play their shots knowing that a competitive total is almost guaranteed – and this puts pressure on the bowling team.  If, like England, the openers do not take advantage of the fielding restrictions in the first 10 overs, the team is always playing catch-up.  It is not a recipe for long-term success.

            I don’t necessarily think there needs to be wholesale personnel changes to the team.  The basic spine of Root, Buttler, Tredwell, Bell, Anderson and Broad (if fit) is strong.  I like the introduction of Alex Hales at the top of the order who, if he stays in for 20-30 overs, can take the game away from the opposition.  Steven Finn is another who I rate very highly and who causes batsmen real problems whatever form of the game he plays.  He is key to England’s prospects of success in the future.

            Two selections baffle me.  Eoin Morgan must have some very incriminating photos of James Whittaker because his continued presence in the England side is perplexing.  He has not played an innings of substance or significance for at least two years and often wastes valuable balls scratching around for form.  Gary Ballance would be a much better alternative in the middle order.

Equally, Ben Stokes has never convinced me as player of international class.  With bat in hand his recent form has made Chris Martin look like Sachin Tendulkar – he has also been expensive with the ball.  The team’s all-rounder should be able to contribute in at least one facet of the game but Stokes is doing neither and is currently a waste of a position in the team.  I feel he is still living off his exploits over the winter in Australia.  Ravi Bopara’s international experience of almost 10 years has been bizzarely jettisoned and I would like to see him back in the fold as soon as possible.  His batting is far superior to Stokes’ and he can also bowl troublesome cutters that opposition batsmen find oddly difficult to hit.

In an ideal world England would have a player like Surrey’s Jason Roy or Nottinghamshire’s James Taylor in the side.  Both have been selected for the one-off T20 international and, after his exploits in the Natwest T20 Blast, it will be interesting to see how Roy fares on the international stage – he will certainly improve the strike-rate.  Taylor has merited his place in the squad through sheer weight of runs in the domestic 50-over competition and he is certainly knocking on the door of both the One-Day and Test squads.  After bursting on the scene so spectacularly earlier this year, Chris Jordan’s star has waned slightly.  His bowling is still too erratic but he remains a useful lower-order batsman and I think he is worth persevering with.

Not even the most optimistic England fan could envisage Alastair Cook’s men lifting the World Cup trophy in Australia in March.  Even though the team has some class operators, they don’t produce the goods often enough when it matters.  If one were to look at the best teams in the world, they all have a plethora of match-winners and usually at least one player steps up to the plate and performs.  England currently lack this (apart from possibly Anderson), and consequently, although it pains me to say it, they won’t win the World Cup.

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World Cup Awards 2014

It’s all over. Finished. After 31 days of blanket media coverage, tense and exciting and football and the frankly disturbing sight of Gordon Strachan in shorts, the 2014 World Cup is at an end. Up and down the country bleary-eyed blokes are re-acquainting themselves with their partners, desperately trying to remember what they used to do with their evenings (I speak from personal experience), while football hipsters take a moment off from deciding whether to go for crimson, salmon or magenta trousers today to wonder if spending £10 million on Divock Origi on the basis of a reasonable 15 minutes against Russia is a good idea and how to justify the purchase of a season ticket to Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Lots of the recent rhetoric over the tournament has been over whether this has been THE BEST WORLD CUP EVER. After the group stage, the general consensus was ‘yes,’ at the end of the quarter-finals the answer had changed to ‘no, definitely not,’ and the current trend of thought is ‘yes, but…’ In comparison to recent World Cups, and in particular the turgid snooze-fest that occurred in South Africa, this tournament has been a breath of fresh air. Even the goal-light knockout stages were big on tension and drama (penalty shoot-outs always help); most teams continued to commit to attacking play, and even those that didn’t were admirable in their defensive organisation and stubbornness.
Yet, despite all the entertainment there still persists the feeling that the tournament as a whole lacked a certain what the Germans would call Ich weiβ nicht was. Great tournaments of the past have been illuminated by great teams and great individuals (Hungary 1954, Holland and West Germany 1974, Brazil 1982, Maradona 1986, Ronaldo 1998). History may yet inform us that this Germany team will go on to be great – the average age of the starting XI was 27 years 271 days and, with the exception of Miroslav Klose, Philipp Lahm and possibly Bastian Schweinsteiger, you would expect them all to be around for 2018 at least – but at the moment they are merely extraordinarily promising.
There were, however, two epoch-defining matches, matches which will, in years to come, still be discussed in the awed tones with which people of a certain generation talk about Italy v Brazil in 1982, or even Hungary v Uruguay in 1954. I am referring, of course, to Spain 1 Holland 5 and Germany 7 Brazil 1. Neither game can be described as a classic, given the result was obvious long before the end, but in the dethroning of one of the most successful international teams of all time, and the brutal destruction of the fragile Brazilian dream of a sixth World Cup victory, on home soil to boot, we witnessed two great World Cup stories.
Anyway, enough chat – it’s now time for some awards. For non-German recipients, hopefully the knowledge that they have aroused the admiration of two such discerning football watchers as us will be consolation for not winning the actual tournament itself.

Best Player: Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
RDW: I know the Adidas –sponsored Lionel Messi won the Adidas-sponsored FIFA Golden Ball (otherwise known as the FIFA Award for the Highest-Profile Player to have had a Half-Decent Tournament), but there can’t be too many who seriously believe he deserved the award. James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado were outstanding in an aesthetically-pleasing Colombia team, while Neymar coped with the extreme pressure of being the hosts’ poster-boy admirably. Further back, Javier Mascherano raised his game to almost obscene levels in the semi-final and final, while Phillip Lahm is, without wishing to conform too much to national stereotypes, probably the most efficient footballer in the world – he just never does anything wrong. However, in every game he played Robben looked by far and away the most dangerous player on the pitch. He has the rare ability to run as fast with the ball as without it, and the way he toyed with Spain’s defenders prior to his second goal was mesmeric. If only he passed the ball occasionally.
Best Player: Philipp Lahm (Germany)
DDW: I have run out of superlatives to describe this most underrated of players. Lahm started off in central midfield but was moved by Joachim Löw to his favoured right-back position and what an inspired move it turned out to be. There are other more flashy full-backs in world football, but none more effective. Yes Götze, Kroos and Müller may have grabbed the headlines for Deutschland but they would not have been the assured footballing machine without their captain marvel Lahm. He does the donkey work behind the scenes – selflessly overlapping, brilliantly tackling, confidently passing. A World Cup that was full of goals and attacking football and still a defender wins our best player award (no FIFA/Adidas Messi love-in here). That’s how good Lahm is.

Best Goal: Tim Cahill v Holland
There were some pretty fruity goals in Brazil – Lionel Messi v Iran and Xherdan Shaqiri v Honduras both floated inside from the right before curling a delightful left-footer inside the far corner, Andre Schürrle v Algeria and David Villa v Australia treated us to a couple of lovely backheel flicks, and James Rodriguez’s delicate finish against Japan was delicious, but I’m not being particularly controversial when I say there are three goals that really stood out. Robin van Persie’s diving header lob against Spain was a triumph of innovation, while the aforementioned Rodriguez brilliantly found space against Uruguay before chesting the ball down and nonchalantly stroking the ball in on the volley off the underside of the crossbar. As everyone knows, any goal that goes in via the crossbar is scientifically proven to be 72% more enjoyable than one that does not, so this is a very strong candidate, but Cahill’s effort during Australia’s thrilling yet ultimately futile display against the Dutch is, in my opinion, marginally better, mainly because he hit it first time, so technically it was trickier to pull off. Given the respective talent of Rodriguez and Cahill, you would say that maybe the Australian was a little lucky, but the sheer brutality and exhilaration of his shot gives it the edge.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/25285148

Best Team: Germany
No contest here really. They were the best, end-of. FIFA could have named the entire German side as the Team of the Tournament and no-one could have complained. They even managed to accommodate the pedestrian Mesut Özil. In goal, Manuel Neuer is a commanding presence, even if he does give his defenders the willies with his marauding runs out of his area. The defence of Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Per Mertesacker, Benedikt Höwedes and the aforementioned Lahm were solid as a rock. The tigerish Bastian Schweinsteiger harassed the opposition constantly, allowing the creative Sami Khedeira and Toni Kroos to wreak havoc. At 36, Miroslav Klose looked a bit off the pace but he still managed two fox-in-box style finishes (as many as the entire England team). And the piece de resistance was the tireless Thomas Müller who, despite his questionable on-field behaviour, found the net with regularity. If that wasn’t enough, Andre Schurrle and Mario Götze could be called upon from the bench. An embarrassment of riches.

Worst Team: Honduras
England did their utmost to claim this prize but were just pipped to the post by the Hondurans. Football was an added extra as far as Honduras were concerned because they spent most of the time assaulting, kicking and fouling any member of the opposition unfortunate enough to be in the vague vicinity of the ball. Wilson Palacios stamped his authority (literally) on Paul Pogba in Honduras’ opening match against France, eventually getting himself sent-off after a series of ill-timed challenges, and as captain, set an example to his teammates that they admirably followed. Their saving grace was having possibly the best-named player at the World Cup in striker Carlo (insert relevant pun) Costly.

Best Defence: Costa Rica
Even if Costa Rica’s games weren’t the most exciting to watch, particularly once they’d qualified for the knockout stage, their defensive organisation and determination was admirable, showing that good coaching, discipline and trust in your teammates’ ability to adhere to a plan can be the springboard for success. Having the seemingly unbeatable Keylor Navas in goal was obviously a bit of a help – the Levante keeper with apparently 3 arms and 4 legs displayed positional excellence and startling reflexes – but the 5 players in front of him knew their job inside out, with central defensive duo Giancarlo Gonzalez and Oscar Duarte particularly impressive. Gonzalez gave probably the defensive performance of the tournament against Holland (tied with Jerome Boateng in the final), and I’d be staggered if he’s still at Columbus Crew come the end of the summer.

Best Save: Rais M’Bohli from Phillip Lahm, Algeria v Germany
RDW: The ball is laid back for Lahm, 22 yards from goal. The German skipper shoots powerfully first time, right-footed, the ball accurately curling away from the keeper, homing in on the top right-hand corner. M’Bohli, just behind the six-yard line reacts immediately and springs to his right, stretching for all his worth. It looks as though the ball has beaten him, but he just manages to get the merest touch, deflecting the ball inches wide. An astonishing save, slightly better in my opinion than any of Guillermo Ochoa’s reflex saves against Brazil or Holland, Tim Howard’s stretch to deny Portugal’s Eder and Keylor Navas’ making himself as big as possible to stop Kostas Mitroglu snatching victory for Greece against Costa Rica.
Here are M’Bohli’s best bits: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrS6UCTel8E

Best Save: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico v Holland)
DDW: There were a plethora of top goalkeeping performances in Brazil (Tim Howard v Belgium springs to mind) but the best save must go to Mexico’s stopper, Guillermo Ochoa, who from point-blank range somehow managed to deflect Daley Blind’s volley from Arjen Robben’s corner onto a post. A phenomenal effort.
Here are some of Ochoa’s highlights made by one of those youtube goons who have far too much time on their hands: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pax9GQny7tE

Best Pass: Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Get your Kleenex at the ready because this pass is technically pornography. Daley Blind’s 60-yarder for Robin Van Persie’s infamous header against Spain set the benchmark but Messi’s effort blew it out of the water. The vision to see Angel Di Maria’s run and the perfect weight of pass so Di Maria didn’t have to break stride, get me a bit hot under the collar. It’s a shame Di Maria couldn’t give the pass the fitting finish it so richly deserved.

Worst Miss: Sergio Busquets (Spain v Chile)
A category teeming with potential, Sergio Busquets is the winner of possibly the most coveted award of the tournament. With the goal literally at his mercy, Busquets decides that this is his time in the spotlight – a goal for his nation at the World Cup. But he sees an even greater prize, the opportunity to feature in Worst Misses compilation videos for years to come, and he doesn’t disappoint – sidefooting wide when it would have been easier to score. The phrase ‘my mum could have scored that’ is widely overused but in this case it is wholeheartedly applicable.
Those kind chaps at FIFA have even compiled a little video: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/videos/y=2014/m=7/video=fifa-com-s-choice-some-of-the-biggest-misses-of-the-2014-fifa-world-cu-2405478.html

Biggest Disappointment: Belgium
There were a few candidates for this unwanted gong – England obviously, although little was expected of them, and (I know I’m in the minority here) I didn’t think they were that bad, definitely better than in 2010; Lionel Messi’s performance in the final was particularly disappointing, especially that last-second free-kick, but in mitigation he didn’t look fully fit, clutching his hamstring throughout the second half, and even on one leg made the hitherto excellent Mats Hummels look a bit ordinary. For me, however, Belgium’s failure to live up to all the pre-tournament hype was most disappointing of all. They seem to be the natural successors to England under Sven Goran Eriksson – a team full of players who do very well in the Premier League and so therefore, according to media logic (an oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one), are among the greatest players in the world, but who under-perform on the international stage. I know that I’m being hyper-critical here – nowadays in England we’d kill for an underwhelming quarter-final exit – but, 60 minutes against the USA aside, they brought little to the tournament, and their big players – Hazard, Lukaku, Fellaini, even Vincent Kompany – were below their best.

Best Game: Brazil 1-7 Germany
Yes, it wasn’t exactly a classic and not necessarily an even contest, but the manner in which Germany dismantled the Brazilians in their backyard was one of the most awesome displays of sporting dominance I have ever seen. Aided by some very accommodating Brazilian defending (if you can even call it that), the Germans demonstrated their complete supremacy over the footballing world on the biggest stage of all. Apparently they took it easy in the second half so as to spare the Brazilian team further humiliation. How very charitable of them.

Worst Game: Iran 0-0 Nigeria
Apparently England v Costa Rica was duller than watching grass grow but I actually watched this dire bore fest and its 90 minutes of my life I won’t be getting back anytime soon. The main issue was the complete dearth of talent on either side which made creating goalscoring opportunities slightly problematic. In an effort to find a winner, Nigeria threw on that renowned goal-machine, Shola Ameobi. Says it all really. After the match Iran coach Carlos Queiroz mused, “the fans didn’t see any goals but sometimes intensity, togetherness, focus and team-spirit can make for an interesting spectacle.” No it can’t.

Luckiest Player to Avoid a Red Card: Sergio Aguero v Germany
One of the most noticeable aspects of the tournament was the consistent leniency of the referees, meaning the card count was far below that of recent World Cups. Whether this was because of a directive from FIFA, or down to the officials putting their heads together and deciding to use something known as common sense, I’m not sure, but it was decidedly A Good Thing. Only the Brazil v Colombia game degenerated into a foul-fest, and the players seemed to respect the officials more than usual (though still not all that much). This reluctance to brandish cards, however, led to several instances where players were probably lucky to stay on the field. Off the top of my head, I can think of: Neymar clouting Luka Modric with a stray arm, Paul Pogba kicking out at Wilson Palacios, Diego Godin elbowing Daniel Sturridge in the throat yet avoiding a second yellow card, likewise Junior Diaz after scything down Arjen Robben in the quarter-final, Thiago Silva bringing down Robben (again) as the last man and Javier Mascherano fouling his way through extra-time in the final. The most obvious red card offence, though, must be that committed by Sergio Aguero when he jumped for a header with Bastian Schweinsteiger (who took quite a lot of punishment from Argentina) and swung his fist into the German’s face, felling him, and causing a nasty cut below the eye. Considering Aguero was already on a yellow card, the only logical explanation for his avoiding a red was that he had possession of a number of incriminating text messages from the Italian referee.

Biggest Commentating Blunder
I tried, as much as possible, to avoid watching any build-up, halt-time analysis or post-match debrief, so I can’t really comment on the punditry at this World Cup. What I did see taught me that, even if Fabio Cannavaro is best defender of the last 20 years, and a decent man to boot, he’s not going to add much insightful analysis to an English-watching public if his grasp of English is sketchy. Otherwise, I hear Robbie Savage was self-congratulatory, Ian Wright was Tigger-esque, Thierry Henry was smoother than a glass of port served in a velvet glass and Chris Waddle spoke a lot of sense. As for the commentators, I was in no way offended by Phil Neville, and anyone who actually took the time to officially complain about him needs to have a long hard look at themselves, but found Danny Murphy too talkative, Clarke Carlisle too much of a try-hard (the reason Jackson Martinez struggles to get into the Ecuador starting XI is that he’s Colombian, obviously) and Mark Lawrenson just plain irritating. We all had a good chuckle though at Jonathan Pearce as he displayed righteous indignation over the goal-line technology which worked perfectly. When Martin Keown is acting as the voice of reason, you know things aren’t going well. Special mention must be made to all those cretinous tabloid journalists who thought vanishing spray could make things vanish.

Most Obvious Case of History Repeating Itself: Manuel Neuer v Gonzalo Higuain
I reckon I know the rules of football fairly well; I can explain the offside rule without the use of condiments; I’ve read many editions of You are the Ref in The Observer. But it seems I have overlooked a small subsection of the rule on fouls. Apparently, if you are a German goalkeeper and you are forced to dash from your goal to try and foil an opposition player who has broken clear, then the usual rules don’t apply – you can do what you want. For Harald Schumacher’s foul on Patrick Battiston in the 1982 semi-final, read Manuel Neuer taking out Gonzalo Higuain in this year’s final. Thankfully the consequences weren’t as severe for Higuain as they were for the unconscious Battiston, but Neuer did recklessly catch the Argentinian striker a potentially serious blow on the side of the head with his knee as he punched the ball away. The upshot of this collision? A free-kick to Germany, against Higuain for viciously not getting out of the way of a flying German.

Best National Anthem: Argentina
The Argentinian national anthem is actually about four minutes long but they only allow the introduction to be played at football matches, hence the lack of singing, but what a piece of music it is. It’s like listening to an opera overture – full of life and hope – not like England’s dreary effort which, along with having the world’s most unimaginative lyrics, is possibly the dullest tune I have ever had the misfortune of singing. No wonder the national team play so uninspiringly, having to listen to that emotionless turd of an anthem before a match.

Biggest Muppet(s): Players who cry
Lots of candidates for this award. Luis Suarez made an early bid by chewing on the Italian defence. Jonathan Pearce didn’t exactly cover himself in glory by not knowing the difference between ‘a goal’ and ‘not a goal.’ However football has reached a new nadir with its latest fad – crying. After a calamitous defeat, what better way to divert your nation’s vitriol than turning on the waterworks? David Luiz expertly showed the world his teary-eyed skills after a particularly generous performance against the Germans. Similarly, the Argentinians must have been chopping onions just after the full time whistle in the final because they immediately fell to the ground with tears welling-up in their eyes. It’s not just the footballers though. Football fans are just as bad, blubbing away like four year-olds as their team heads for an early exit (Brazil were notable culprits here). A grown adult crying because his team hasn’t won a football match? Shameful.

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.

The England World Cup Squad

It’s now only just over a month until the World Cup kicks-off in Brazil and every football fan up and down the country is (probably) playing Roy Hodgson and naming their 23-man squad for the tournament.  Cole or Shaw?  Lampard or Carrick?  Cleverly or someone with actual talent?  These are the big decisions Roy will have to make in the coming weeks.

It will be a refreshing change for an England team to go into a World Cup unencumbered by unreasonable public expectations of winning the thing.  Remember Sven Goran Eriksson being castigated for merely leading an admittedly superior England team to 3 successive tournament quarter-finals?  Most England fans would bite your hand off if you offered them a quarter-final exit this time round.

Time to select a potential squad to go to Brazil.  Unlike in previous years where the problem has been whittling the squad down to 23, this time it’s not easy to find 23 players who are worthy of going.  There are maybe 14 or 15 English players who are of international class, and the rest of the squad picks itself more by a process of elimination rather than via merit.

To make Hodgson’s job slightly easier, my brother and I pick our 23 players to gallantly fall at the group stage with a solitary laborious victory over Costa Rica to show for their efforts.

 

Goalkeepers (3):

Joe Hart (Manchester City)

Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion)

Fraser Forster (Celtic)

 

RDW: Selecting the goalkeepers is probably the easiest task.  Joe Hart, despite his high-profile slump earlier this season is by far and away the best English keeper, and the mind boggles at how much ropier an already ropey England defence would be were he to get injured.  His decision making is occasionally poor, and he often seems to want to play the hero by trying to claim a ball he’s never going to reach, but his positioning and shot-stopping are excellent.  Beyond that, Ben Foster is nothing more than a reasonable Premiership player, while I have never seen Fraser Forster play, but am selecting him based on the fact he reportedly played well in this season’s Champions League, and that I think John Ruddy is a bit crap.

DDW: I agree.  As undisputed number one, Hart picks himself.  Foster has been in good recent form for West Brom and is pretty much guaranteed a place.  The third-choice goalkeeper almost certainly won’t play so I would take Fraser Forster.  He has top-level Champions League experience with Celtic (they shut-out Barcelona last season) and has excelled as they romped to the title.  At 26, he still has a good 8 years in him at the top-level and the general experience would be beneficial.  John Ruddy isn’t an international-class goalkeeper and Scott Carson, although good enough (witness his performance against Arsenal in the FA Cup sem-final), has been playing 2nd tier football all season.

 

Defenders (7):

Glen Johnson (Liverpool)

Leighton Baines (Everton)

Phil Jagielka (Everton)

Gary Cahill (Chelsea)

Ashley Cole (Chelsea)

Phil Jones (Manchester United)

Chris Smalling (Manchester United)

 

RDW: We have only selected seven defenders because we don’t think a specialist reserve right-back is necessary.  All the talk, in these days of congested midfields, is of the modern full-back being the most important attacking outlet, which can be true given the right formation, and a tactically disciplined full-back equally comfortable attacking and defending, but such players are rarely seen this side of Dani Alves and David Alaba.  Kyle Walker is fast, skilful and loves getting forward, but is positionally a liability, and were Glen Johnson to get injured, then either Phil Jones or, potentially, James Milner would be just as good an option.

DDW: The first choice back-four of Johnson, Baines, Jagielka and Cahill looks relatively strong but if any of them are injured, alarm bells start ringing.  Jones and Smalling can cover right-back and centre-back and their inclusion is mainly based on their versatility rather than their current form which has been pretty abysmal.  There are a startling lack of viable alternatives at centre-back.  Michael Dawson has been found wanting too often at the highest level, Ryan Shawcross is just a thug, and John Stones of Everton is very promising, but also very raw and too inexperienced.

RDW: The lack of depth at centre-back is worrying – Cahill has improved vastly this season, but neither Jagielka’s pace nor his anticipation are sharp enough against top-class strikers, while Jones and Smalling, despite their potential, have struggled this season.  The other options aren’t too promising though – the soon-to-be-relegated Steven Caulker, the aforementioned I’ve-got-the-turning-circle-of-an-articulated-lorry Michael Dawson and the one-good-season-in-a-mediocre-Hull-side-makes-me-look-better-than-I-actually-am Curtis Davies.  Left-back however, is a position where England have if not an embarrassment, then at least a mild self-consciousness of riches.  I’ve never been fully convinced by Leighton Baines as a defender, but he seems to be Hodgson’s choice.  Following his impressive debut against Denmark, there has been a clamour for Luke Shaw to be included, but he is still very green, and I would feel much safer with Ashley Cole facing a rampaging Luis Suarez, not to mention an exuberant Joel Campbell. 

DDW:  Cole over Luke Shaw is a sensible choice because even though the Southampton youngster is a prodigious talent and will probably usurp Baines as first-choice after the World Cup, Cole has mountains of experience at international level which will be absolutely priceless in Brazil.  Lest we forget, the Chelsea player has put in two excellent performances recently against arguably the two form teams in Europe: Atletico Madrid and Liverpool.

 

Midfield (9):

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)

Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)

Adam Lallana (Southampton)

Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)

James Milner (Manchester City)

DDW: Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)

Ross Barkley (Everton)

RDW: Michael Carrick (Manchester United)

Frank Lampard (Chelsea)

 

DDW: The hardest selection for me.  In the heat of South America, the midfield requires a combination of energy and technical prowess.  The only dead certs are Captain Marvel Gerrard and, even though he is a bit crocked at the moment, Jack Wilshere.  On his performances this season, Jordan Henderson gets the nod, as does Ross Barkley.  The Everton man is not in the greatest of form at the moment but he is a fine physical specimen and he is a brilliant technical footballer whose forceful, driving runs from midfield could be important.  Now there is a case for Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick, both of whom offer a wealth of international experience in an otherwise fairly novice midfield, but they are the wrong side of 30 and have not shined for their clubs this season.  I have watched Lampard in Europe this campaign and he has looked sluggish.  The quickness of thought is still there but the body cannot keep up with the mind.  Carrick, who, one assumes, would play the same role as Gerrard, has neither the same athleticism nor the range of passing as the captain, and Manchester United’s dreadful campaign has somewhat ruined his chances.  On the flanks, Raheem Sterling is a must, as are Adam Lallana (who could be England’s star of the tournament) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  I’m even including the much maligned (by myself mostly) James Milner who offers not only versatility, but also a newfound attacking threat this season from midfield.  The final place goes to Aaron Lennon.  The mini winger hasn’t re-produced his stellar level of last season, but as an old-fashioned wide-man, he offers something different.  And, unlike Theo Walcott, he can cross.

RDW: Much as I’d like to be contentious and daring in choosing my midfield, there just aren’t that many good young England players around getting enough game time to force out some of the old guard.  Picking Gerrard is a no-brainer – he’s had one of his most influential seasons for years, and has added positional discipline to his impressive range of passing, while, provided they are fit, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain must also go.  Sterling and Lallana both impressed against Denmark and have arguably been the two best attacking midfielders in the Premier League over the past two months.  From then on the selection is far less clear-cut.  James Milner has long been derided as your typical English player – long on work-rate and stamina, short on actual talent, but he has been one of Manchester City’s most influential players recently, and his versatility could be invaluable.  Lampard and Carrick are both known quantities, and Carrick’s ball-retaining and underrated ball-winning abilities may well be crucial against Italy.  Lampard makes my squad just ahead of Tom Huddlestone, whose passing is a joy to watch, but is too slow and ponderous for international football, and Gareth Barry, who has been in great form for Everton this year, but doesn’t add anything different to the squad.  The final place goes to Jordan Henderson, who for many people would be an automatic choice given his pivotal role in Liverpool’s season, but I don’t see his energetic bursts being quite so critical, particularly in the heat of Brazil where games may well be played at a lower tempo.  However, for me he’s a better bet than Ross Barkley (out of form and too inconsistent), Aaron Lennon (too much like a headless chicken) and Tom Cleverley (too crap).

 

Forwards (4):

Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)

Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool)

Danny Welbeck (Manchester United)

Rickie Lambert (Southampton)

 

RDW: As with the goalkeepers, the strikers select themselves almost by default.  Rooney is a tricky one.  He is clearly a fabulous player, now a regular goalscorer for both club and country, but the feeling remains that he should be so much more.  At Euro 2004, there were three outstanding young players – Rooney, Robben and Ronaldo.  The latter two have gone on to become truly world-class players (in Ronaldo’s case an all-time great) and have proved their talent consistently in subsequent continental and international tournaments.  Rooney hasn’t.  It could be that he’s not strong enough mentally to raise his game for the most crucial matches; it could be that his level of fitness isn’t high enough, meaning he’s just too tired come the end of the season.  I personally think that his technique doesn’t match his vision, leading to frustration on the pitch.  Many times he looks to make a pass, or take a touch that very few other people in world football would have even spotted, let alone dared play, but his technique lets him down.  However, he is, of course, England’s most talented player and most likely source of a goal, and, despite recent poor performances, should never be left out of the team.  Sturridge has had a brilliant season at Liverpool, playing with a swagger, striking up a partnership with Luis Suarez, and scoring plenty of goals.  He is a selfish player, and has gone off the boil in the past few weeks, but always carries a goal threat.

DDW: With Jay Rodriguez’s untimely injury, I agree, the forward line basically picks itself.  Rooney and Sturridge will almost certainly spearhead the attack and Will-Smith-in-Fresh-Prince-of-Bel-Air lookalike, Danny Welbeck, can stretch tiring defences, as well as covering left midfield.  Rickie Lambert sneaks in ahead of Andy Carroll for many reasons, the main one being superior talent.  The Southampton striker offers an aerial threat combined with a sharp footballing brain and great vision.  Carroll offers one of those things and little else.  Yes, if England are losing he could be an option in the last 10 minutes but I’d like to think that they have progressed from the dark days of ‘lump it up to the big man.’  England’s defeat to Italy in Euro 2012 was a microcosm of Andy Carroll.  He scored a great header but when the team needed him to control the ball/pass to a teammate in the second half, he was found wanting.  His selection would certainly be a backwards step for the England team.

RDW: Welbeck is ungainly and looks slightly un-coordinated, but seems to play well for England, looks comfortable down the left, and Jay Rodriguez’s injury means his place is far more secure.  The fourth striker isn’t easy to select.  I would love to pick Liverpool legend Andy Carroll, and have been desperate for him to make an unarguable case for selection in the past couple of months.  Instead, he’s been harshly sent off, set up Kevin Nolan a couple of times, and hit the woodwork a lot.  I worry that like Peter Crouch, who seemed to constantly get penalised at international level merely for being very tall and gangly, he would unwittingly give away too many free-kicks, and wouldn’t be allowed to play his natural, forceful game.  Lambert is in good form, holds the ball up excellently, and, potentially rather importantly, takes penalties with a Le Tissier-like precision.  It is also high time a former Rochdale man played at the World Cup.

 

The two defeats to Germany and Chile in November really highlighted England’s standing in world football; capable but limited.  The team no longer possess the individuals to strike fear into opponents’ hearts.  With a tactically astute Hodgson at the helm, the best England can hope for is a quarter-final, although I would be very surprised if they even make it that far.  Roy, we’ve selected the 23 players who almost certainly won’t be bringing football home.  You’re welcome.  Over to you.

England wrong to jettison Pietersen so soon

England’s dismal display at the recent T20 World Cup re-inforced the view that they have made a massive error in ditching Kevin Pietersen.  With someone of KP’s class and experience in the side one doubts whether England would have suffered that humiliating defeat to the Netherlands.  But it is not even in the crash-bang-wallop of the one-day arena that Pietersen’s absence will be felt most strongly.  With the Surrey man out of the picture, only two of the top 7 are nailed-on certainties for the first Test against Sri Lanka in June.  Pietersen himself has admitted that he still has the hunger and desire for Test cricket, and with England’s top order in disarray, it seems like an absolute no-brainer to keep him.  Even at 33 years-old he still has two to three seasons at the top level left in him.  So why did England feel the need to dispense with his services?

 

All this talk from Alastair Cook, Andy Flower and various ECB bigwigs of the team wanting to move in a new direction seems like a load of dog-turd to me.  The fact is that Pietersen didn’t fit in to the authoritarian atmosphere that Flower had created.  He had the audacity to question certain things and, god-forbid, speak his mind.  Because of this, he created tension within the management and the team too.  My concern is that Flower and co. refused to adapt to Pietersen’s single-minded nature.  You hear talk in football about coaches having great man-managing ability.  Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are two such examples of managers who could mould a group of superstars into a coherent and ultimately successful team.  Why was this not the case with Pietersen?  I have no doubt that he could sometimes be difficult to manage, but therefore why wasn’t he treated a little differently so as to coax out of him maximum performance and commitment to the cause?  Every team has a maverick who doesn’t necessarily fit-in.  The challenge is to embrace this and enable them to maximise their rare talent, not to try and supress it.

 

I have a little theory about this whole saga.  Pietersen was born and raised in South Africa and despite his ‘English’ nationality, has a very ‘South African’ approach to the game.  The culture is highly competitive – aggressive even, and there is a huge will to win at all costs.  Pietersen embodies this culture.  He is a winner, believes he is the best and wants to show everyone he’s the best.  He was often criticised for giving his wicket away to needless attacking shots, but in his world, he wanted to dominate the bowling and grind the fielding side into the ground.  It was not enough to simply occupy the crease and stay in.  It is an approach that, despite the criticism, brought him 23 Test centuries and over 8,000 runs.  Now Pietersen has a very similar record to England captain Alastair Cook, but you don’t hear people chastising Cook for giving his wicket away.  This is because Cook accumulates his runs in a very unassuming fashion.  He rarely plays extravagant shots and likes to score methodically and ‘correctly’ – in short, in a quintessentially English way.  KP by contrast liked to score his runs with authority, taking on the bowling with unorthodox strokeplay and with an air of brashness and arrogance – namely, a more ‘South African’ approach.  I think this insistence on playing his natural game combined with his intense ‘winning’ attitude off-the-field jarred somewhat against England’s more traditional and conservative values.  There has also been a nagging feeling, and I include myself in this, that Pietersen didn’t quite make the most of his extraordinary ability.  The truly great batsmen of the era; Kallis, Ponting, Lara, Tendulkar, Dravid, Jayawardena, Sangakkara, all average above 50 in Test cricket.  Pietersen’s average of 47, whilst very impressive, does not place him in that exalted category.  There is a frustration that, with the talent at his disposal, he should have achieved slightly more than he did which could have contributed to his eventual downfall.

 

Pietersen’s ‘sacking’ is not a first.  A recent example is the John Terry/Rio Ferdinand saga of 2012, when, despite clearly being good enough, the Manchester United man was not selected by Roy Hodgson for the Euros squad because of the personal differences he had with Terry.  Ironically, a few months later, Terry himself was told he would no longer be selected for England, yet finds himself in a similar situation.  Arguably he is one of the four best centre-backs in England but cannot go to the World Cup in Brazil this summer.  The difference between these cases is that whilst Terry and Ferdinand were good players in their own right, they were not the best in the team.  Pietersen is palpably still the best batsman England have at their disposal, yet they refuse to pick him.  One can’t imagine Steven Gerrard, for example, being dropped just because he isn’t that popular in the dressing-room.  The whole saga has been conducted in a very childish manner.  Someone needs to sit Flower, Cook, the ECB and Pietersen down and just bang their heads together.  I’m still hopeful I will see KP in an England shirt again (as a Surrey fan I will hopefully get to watch him a fair amount), but with all that’s happened, it unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

 

The timing of Pietersen’s removal is made all the more bizarre in that there is no ready-made replacement waiting in the wings.  Obviously, players of Pietersen’s class and style come round once in a generation, but I have high hopes for James Taylor, who has been on England’s radar for a number of years.  He played a few Tests in 2012 against South Africa and looked solid but since then, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow have jumped ahead of him in the queue.  If he can overcome his fitness problems, Samit Patel is another who has oodles of talent, but time is running out for the podgy Nottinghamshire player to make a mark in Test cricket.  Eoin Morgan has pulled-out of the IPL in an effort to force his way into the England side but I think he is vastly overrated and will never be a Test regular.  Bairstow is another who has a good county record but doesn’t have the requisite technique to succeed at the highest level.  He has had enough chances to stake his claim and has never really convinced.  Aside from those mentioned, the early county season is a chance for someone to force his way into the selector’s reckoning  given that there are no fewer than four places in the top 7 up for grabs (Jonathan Trott has to earn his re-call to the side à la Graham Thorpe in 2003).  Whoever is picked as Pietersen’s replacement against Sri Lanka in June will have some enormous shoes to fill.

6 Nations Team of the Tournament

Now the dust has settled on an exciting but not vintage tournament, it’s time for me to put my formidable rugby knowledge to the test and choose my team of the tournament.

15. Full Back: Mike Brown (England)

After a pretty horrible 2013 Six Nations, Brown was possibly the player of the tournament this time around.  His support running was a joy to behold and he has the indispensable ability to almost always make the correct decision.  Looks so much more at home as a full-back than on the wing.  Rock solid in defence and also the joint-leading try-scorer.

14. Right Wing: Andrew Trimble (Ireland)

Yoann Huget was a rare bright spark in an otherwise average French side, but for his consistency, the Ulsterman gets my vote.  An unheralded player but someone who does all the basics very well and, like Brown, supports play excellently.  Kept his cool in Paris to score a crucial try.  Has inherited a great finishers instinct.  On this evidence, Tommy Bowe has more chance of replacing Brian O’Driscoll that ousting Trimble.

13. Outside Centre: Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)

Who else?  While Luther Burrell had a superb debut tournament for England, the retiring veteran showed the world what they will be missing with some all-round displays of class, elegance and ingenuity.  The beauty of O’Driscoll is that he never seems to be rushed on the rugby field.  He has that Henson-like ability to make time stand still and pick a pass no-one else sees, yet the defence hardly lays a finger on him.  Again, he was a rock in defence.  The great man will be sorely missed

12. Inside Centre: Jamie Roberts (Wales)

As much as I do have a rather large man-crush on Wesley Fofana (you’re lying if you claim you don’t), Dr Roberts had an excellent Championships.  As always he broke the gain line and tackled with energy and verve, but he has matured with age into more than just a battering ram.  He runs more intelligent line these days and often pops up as a support runner.  Two tries against Scotland capped an impressive tournament.

11. Left Wing: George North (Wales)

Despite playing at the unfamiliar position of Outside Centre for a couple of games, the giant Welshman looked much more at home on the wing.  Scored three tries and caused general havoc with ball in hand.  He still needs to work on his finishing in my opinion but he has the potential to be one of the game’s greats.

10. Fly-Half: Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

A quite brilliant tournament for the Racing Metro outside-half.  He was by far the most effective player in his position because he offers and equally potent kicking and running game, highlighted by his four tries.  Kept a cool head in the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Championship decider in Paris.  Made Wales’ Rhys Priestland look even more shit that he actually is, which is difficult.

9. Scrum Half: Danny Care (England)

The England number 9 has finally come of age.  His darting runs are reminiscent of Rob Howley and Matt Dawson at their best.  By far the best scrum-half in the northern-hemisphere, his high-tempo delivery set the foundations for England’s impressive attacking displays.  A joy to watch.

1. Loose-Head: Cian Healy (Ireland)

What a player.  An animal in the loose but also a formidable scrummager.  When he carries the ball he resembles a charging rhino and is (probably) almost as difficult to bring down without tranquiliser.  Healy has also curbed his ill-discipline which has blighted his career to date.

2. Hooker: Rory Best (Ireland)

Having originally been overlooked by Warren Gatland for Lions selection supposedly because of his lacklustre throwing, the Ulsterman showed the Welsh coach why he had been wrong to omit him with a brilliant tournament in which he was almost flawless at the line-out.  Edges out Dylan Hartley because of his superior tackling ability and energy in the loose.

3. Tight-Head: Nicolas Mas (France)

There was no outstanding candidate for the number 3 shirt so I chose the Frenchman more for his commitment in that brutal final encounter with Ireland in Paris.  The French scrum was pretty tidy in that game against an Ireland pack that had dominated up front against Wales, Scotland and Italy and that was in no small part due to Mas.  I have no idea what he’s like in the loose but let’s assume he was average-to-good.  Basically, he was less bad than all the other tight-heads.

4. Lock: Paul O’Connell (Ireland)

The Ireland captain is like the postman; he keeps delivering top-class performances year after year.  His display in Paris was one of the great performances.  He seemed to be everywhere: at the breakdown, tackling, ball-carrying, taking line-outs  – all in the face of some ferocious French resistance (there’s a first for everything).  The Emerald Isle will be hoping that he continues for at least a couple more seasons.

5. Lock: Courtney Lawes (England)

Another coming-of-age tournament for an Englishman, this time the giant Northampton second-row.  His all-round brilliance was exemplified by a man-of-the match display against Wales.  Rather like O’Connell, he is an all-action player with the addition of impressive pace.  Always near the top of the tackle count.  Looks a certainty for the World Cup.

6. Blindside Flanker: Peter O’Mahony (Ireland)

This very blog had tipped Ireland to have a disaster tournament precisely because they were without their star flankers in Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris.  Well I am currently eating mountains of humble pie because the Munsterman was an absolute tour-de-force.  He was a permanent fixture at the breakdown and won man-of-the-match in the forward masterclass against Wales.  Excellent.

7. Openside Flanker: Chris Robshaw (England)

By far the outstanding open-side in this year’s tournament.  Not only was he a tireless in defence and excellent at the breakdown, he also showed an impressive fleet-of-hand to release Mike Brown for Danny Care’s try against Ireland.  Deserved his try against Italy and led England flawlessly after much criticism in past years.  Looks to have benefited from a summer’s rest.

8. Number 8: Billy Vunipola (England)

A controversial choice.  I know he only played three games and Jamie Heaslip excelled throughout the tournament, but Vunipola (like his cousin Taulupe Falateau) is a complete rugby-footballer, in the mould of Sergio Parisse, Nick Easter or Bobby Skinstad.  Not only does he always break the gain-line, he has brilliant awareness and is constantly looking to off-load the ball.  This results in a far more dynamic attacking platform which defined England’s matches.  He is vital if the red-rose are to be successful in the World Cup.

 

As regular readers (apparently there’s at least one) will know, thealternativesportsblog is based purely on facts and is almost never wrong, so if you disagree with any of my choices, you are severely misinformed.

The 6 Nations 2014

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

 

Wales:

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

Prediction: 2nd

 

England:

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

Prediction: 1st

 

Ireland:

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

Prediction: 4th

 

France:

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

Prediction: 5th

 

Italy:

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

Prediction: 3rd

 

Scotland:

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

Prediction: 6th

 

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

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.

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.