Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sons of God have a good Easter - levremance

Being the son of a deity is no easy cross to bear, just ask …well you know who. It goes without saying that an over-achieving father can beget a singular burden on his son. One option for the offspring, when omnipotence is the yardstick, is simply to walk away.

Without creating all that lies beneath the firmament, Don Bradman assumed god-like status in Australia. So to dodge the universal hankering for a second coming the Don’s son changed his surname to Bradfield. Only in recent times has John Bradman felt comfortable enough to change it back again.

Where Aussie Rules is the winter religion, Gary Ablett earned the nickname of ‘God’ for his mercurial deeds on the field. Like Bradman, he was ‘half the side’ when he played. With the build of a middleweight and a bustling gait he could control the midfield or kick a swag of goals (and often did both on the same day). In possibly the greatest game ever played, the ‘89 Grand Final, he kicked nine goals only for Geelong to fall a whisker short. These days the old Cat fights his battles with the black dog and other demons.

Long-suffering Geelong fans must be pleased that the weight of expectation did not deter the ‘sons of God’ and now they have two new messiahs to believe in. Gary Ablett Jnr was best on ground last Saturday night with 28 possessions while younger brother Nathan came of age kicking five from full forward as the Cats thrashed Carlton by 78 points.

West Coast, described as ‘evil’ by columnist Robert Walls, met their new mascot, the West Coke Eagle, at Sydney airport courtesy of The Chaser comedy show. The oversized bird speckled with white powder on its orange beak cracked-up a number of players but only drew a wry smile from coach ‘Woosher’ Worsfold. Nothing stops the Eagles juggernaut though and while the Magpie faithful may feel their team was crucified by shoddy umpiring, Collingwood supremo Mick Malthouse blamed ‘missing targets’ for leaving Subiaco without the four points.

Last Thursday night the Lions exposed the Saints shortcomings with a comfortable 8 goal win at the Gabba. Port added to the Kangaroos misery with a narrow win at home while the Adelaide Crows shattered some Bulldog dreams winning in a canter. Essendon proved that Round 1 was no fluke by fending off the Dockers by 10 points while Hawthorn over-ran injury hit Melbourne in the 3rd quarter and then withstood a late charge in the last. Sydney rebounded from its first round loss to see off the Tigers at the MCG by 2 goals.

Tips for Round 3: Collingwood to bounce back over the hapless Tigers, Essendon to flog Carlton, Adelaide to take the wind out of Port’s sails, the Saints to exploit the Bulldogs lack of height, Fremantle to surprise West Coast, Geelong over the old rivals Melbourne, the Kangaroos to break through against Hawthorn and finally Sydney to send the Lions to the bottom of the harbour.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The World of the Velodrome - mimitig

Track cycling is a very weird and wonderful world. Quite aside from the World Cup and World Championship competitions that go on away from the limelight and the hype that the Olympics bring about, there are 2 events that hold a special place in the hearts of the cycling purists.

They are the KILO and the HOUR. Both are mired in controversy, filled with myth and legend, and shortly we are going to see a new contender pitting himself against the fiend that is the KILO.

This is probably the less peculiar of the disciplines and less riven with historical discontent. One man, on one bicycle, on one track aims to ride a kilometre faster than any other man has ever done before. Sounds simple, but it's not quite as easy as it seems. First the contender must go through hoops with the authorities to ensure that his bicycle passes muster and will be eligible for a record attempt. Handle-bars or saddle in the wrong place, and peddle your heart out, you won't get the record. Then you have to decide where to make your attempt. Obviously it must be a recognised venue, but choose the wrong altitude and it'll all go wrong. Chris Hoy is going for the record - it may be the last we see of him on the world stage. We await May with keen anticipation.

The HOUR is a very different kettle of fish, but one into which British cyclists have thrown their dinner a few times. In fact the whole madness that is this event was started by an Englishman - F.L. Dodds, back in 1876 when he completed a distance of 26.508 km on a machine that would scarcely be recognised as a bicycle these days.

In the 1980s Francesco Moser was king of the HOUR and his record of 51.151 km looked for a while to be invincible. But technology began to play a part with the science of aerodynamics finding its way into the world of cycling, and in 1994, Big Mig Indurain pushed the record out to over 53 km, stealing the thunder of Scotland's Graeme Obree.

The current holder of the record is another Brit - arguably Britain's best-known professional cyclist: Chris Boardman. Having covered a distance of 56.375 in 1996 using the controversial "Superman" position, he confirmed his supremacy in 2000 using what is now the UCI's official conventional riding position.

As I write, I am not aware of any of today's big name cyclists preparing to have a go. Lance Armstrong talked of doing it, but to no-one's surprise never did.

I would be sad not to see any further attempts, as would most track fans. We just need someone take to the velodrome and go like a madman for an hour to set a new record.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

When they weren't famous - Ebren

Sitting in a pub the other day, with the smell of a gently roasting tapir in the air and a pint of Guinness in my hand, the conversation turned to Wayne Rooney.

"He's bloody lucky he's good at football," said Mike.

"Cos not only is not that bright, he isn't even good looking."
This of course led to a discussion of "if they weren't footballers".

Here is a brief summary:

Beckham - model (depressingly, he might have been just as famous)

John Terry - drill sergeant in the army

Lampard - Estate agent

Phil Neville - getting England knocked out of the (cricket) world cup. [Sorry, but if you don't have the mentality for international sport talent won't change that]

Gary Neville - (Do I actually need to say local Labour party councillor/union rep do I?)

Fowler - co-hosting property ladder

Rooney - builder (you can just see him with a hod on his shoulder)

Drogba - bouncer (would you mess, i mean, would you?)

Pearce - electrician (failing)

Robbie Savage - Nurse

Ashley Cole - boy band member, along with Del Horno, Fabregas, and Owen Hargreaves.

Peter Crouch - school janitor (just picture him in a boiler suit pushing a broom)

I could go on, but I think it would be more fun if you guys did.

Woolmer, murder and the media - leeroycal

Many of us are still in shock and disbelief about the tragic and mystifying death of Bob Woolmer last weekend. But what has shocked me far more has been the nature of the press coverage since the police confirmed that his death was murder last Thursday.

Prior to the Police statement, there was much conjecture on internet forums, in the press and among cricket fans on the street as to what had happened, combined with the sadness we all felt and the hope that the post-death necessities would be carried out quickly for the sake of the Woolmer family. The journalists were doing their level best, as is their job, to discover what the police were actually looking into regarding the death; not surprising when considering the length of time the police were taking to produce specific information for the public.

However, since the statement has been published the media have gone bananas with innuendo, muck-raking and irrelevant sensationalism.
Much of it involves Bob himself: Woolmer was writing a book, Woolmer was not in charge of the team, Woolmer had no support from the PCB, Woolmer may have been drinking on medication. This kind of coverage serves no purpose other than to feed the giant monster of conspiracy that is rampaging all over the cricket world, paticularly in the sub-continent. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, it maligns the memory of a decent and universally respected man.

The second prong of nonsense on the media fork since last Thursday has been corruption. There has been hundreds of thousands of words written and spoken on the subject in the last week and I can summarise all the coverage here in one sentence: Some people think it still goes on, we have no idea how or by who. Yet this flimsiest of arguments seems to inform all the thinking on the murder of Bob Woolmer.

Is it too much to ask that the media stick to the fact that a man has been killed, it would seem by someone known to him, and the police are investigating all possibilities? Probably so, and I suppose the media are simply giving people what they want. But I feel sad that Bob Woolmer's alleged weaknesses and problems are now being aired in public, from the most unsubstantial platform of evidence, whilst the man is no longer around to defend his reputation.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Should two shots carry, and other local pool rules - Postern

It is 1992, my brother and I are in a pub in Melbourne. We'd only been in Australia for, maybe, three months. We've got our names down on the pool table, playing doubles against two local lads. One of them breaks and clears, if I remember correctly, five colours. He then snookers himself; both of his colours are tucked behind the black and a cluster of our balls. I'm thinking, he'll need a two-cushion escape.

Instead, he cracks into the black, breaks up the cluster, and opens up his final two colours.

Local rules round our way say you have to make an attempt to play a fair shot. This I explain to the two locals. After a fair bit of effing and jeffing, it is made clear to me by the manager of the pub that we are 12,000 miles away from round our way. We are escorted from the premises.

Now, this is not another piece on sporting morals (see last weeks' Maradona thoughts), rather a call for clarity on local pool rules. I don't think I've been in two places that ever had the same rules - despite many of them having official rules stapled to a board, it has more to do the the player at the table. But I like the fact there are local differences. I just don't like not knowing them.

For me the two-shots-carry debate is the thorniest. I've been brought up to carry the shot, and while I'm happy to play the alternative, I find it inferior. Carrying the shot is a greater penalty and therefore less of an incentive to foul.

But there are many others. From memory, I've played pool in places where the rules have stated:

White can be picked up and placed after every foul.
White can be placed anywhere, but only after pocketing white. Or white placed only in the D.
White ball has to play up the table after a foul (billiards, surely?)
No jump shots.
Nominate a pocket for every shot - no flukes.
Nominate black pocket. This can change every shot, or stick until the frame ends. Opponent may have to pot black opposite pocket.
No intentional fouls. Loss of game. (Worrying amount of room for subjectivity. Add alcohol. Trouble)
Black in off the break loses the game, or wins the game.
Every shot has to touch a cushion.
At least two balls have to hit the bottom cushion off the break.
Black has to go in same pocket as last colour - or the opposite pocket.
Potting an opponent's ball is allowed - if, during the same shot, you also pot one of your own balls. There is some argument as to whether your ball has to pocket first.
Foul on the black and you lose the game.
Three fouls during game and you lose.
Opponent clears all the balls off the break, you have to play the next game with your cock out.
And winner stays on, or names on the board?

I would welcome your clarification. And if the two Aussie blokes from the Saloon bar in Toorak, December 1992, are reading this: re-rack, and I will beat you like a whorehouse rug.

All hail Chris Schofield - leeroycal

When Surrey take to the field in the 2007 County Championship there will be familiar looking figure amongst them, a testament to that thing we all love, the sportsman who refuses to give up.

Chris Schofield was the last proper leg-spin bowler to play for England, he played two tests in which he took not a single wicket. An unusually tall wrist spinner with a gangly action and hair not unlike Billy Whizz, he nevertheless turned the ball a long way and was seen as talented enough to be given one of the first central contracts in 2000, albeit surprisingly and far too early. Having not bowled at all in his first test, in the second his bowling was as much a stranger to control as Rik Waller is to salad and talent. The selectors put an 'x' in their collective notebooks.

Schofield was sent back to his county to develop his talent away from the glare of the test arena. It was always going to be difficult to build a normal career with confidence shattered following his shambolic handling by the ECB , and so it proved . With his figures on a seemingly constant downward spiral with the ball, and first team appearances becoming increasingly fewer, he was finally released by Lancashire in 2004 after coach Mike Watkinson deemed him surplus to requirements.

Refusing to let the disappointments wreck his career, this man of willowy frame showed a surprisingly iron-clad determination to drag himself back into the county arena. His long journey back has been via minor counties Suffolk, the Surrey and Durham second XIs and working as a painter and decorator in between. Surrey have been impressed enough to give him the contract this year that he has chased stoically for the last three.

What Schofield's story illustrates is two things. The first is that the ECB are at times very stupid, the second is that the world class leg-spinner is coveted perhaps more than any other talent in the modern game. In 2000 the fever in English cricket to find a home-grown Shane Warne, or at the very least someone better than Ian Salisbury, was cloying; Schofield was a talented kid caught in the crossfire of muddled thinking. Now, at the still tenderish age of 28 and turning out regularly for Surrey, maybe the international selectors could come calling again. If they do, it will be all credit to Schofield himself.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Boat Race - mimitig

On a weekend stuffed with quality sport, like a turkey overflowing with pork and chestnut, cranberry and skirlie, and plain old sausage meat mixtures, we have the added fun of 2 boats from English universities rowing up the Thames for about 20 minutes.

Bizarrely this sporting endeavour, which is really nothing more than a personal rivalry between 2 institutes of learning who each claim to be the oldest in the land, garners a 2 hour television show, and a fair acreage of print in the quality broadsheets.

How and when did this come about and are there really so many people world-wide who give a damn?

Well, dear readers, you may be surprised to discover that I have no answers to this, just wild speculation and an imagination that knows no bounds!

I suspect, just a tiny bit, that corporate sponsorship - ie the unholy worshipping at the shrine of Mammon - and the seemingly endless internecine warfare between the BBC and ITV over sports coverage in general may be the main factors.

When I was a child, growing up in a university family in Oxford, the race was broadcast on BBC radio, and to be honest, I think the only people who listened were those who had some direct connection with either the oarsmen themselves, or the colleges they studied at. It was just a slightly more important event than the inter-college rowing competitions that take place in Oxford and Cambridge every year. The Cambridge one, I believe, is called The Bumps (though I may have been misinformed). The Oxford one is very confusingly called Eights Week, although it takes place in Sixth Week - took me years to understand that!

The years went by, the whole thing became more serious. Sponsorship was acquired and instead of just chaps who were at the universities and quite good at rowing being involved, colleges recruited overseas athletes specifically for their skills (academe taking second place sometimes to sporting prowess). The boats became loaded with Canadians, Americans, Australians, and even non-colonials: Germans for instance. British rowers able to find a place in the boat were Olympic standard and the television coverage began in earnest on the BBC. A few years ago ITV took over, and to my mind it is only since then that the fervour has been whipped up to today's extraordinary level, and I genuinely struggle to see why this should be.

You see, it's almost always a rather dull event. It's generally over by the time the boats get round the first bend and past Craven Cottage. That's approximately 3 minutes into the race. Mostly any excitement that ensues is if the weather is particularly bad and there's a possibility of a boat sinking.

And as if designed to prove me wrong, this year we had a very exciting race - up until the 10th minute when Cambridge went ahead, and because of the luck of the toss and being on the station that is favoured in the latter stages, that was it. Over - a Light Blue win.

So, according to figures I've found, approximately 400 million people will have watched that on global TV and 250,000 hapless sods will have traipsed down to the banks of the Thames - for 10 minutes of competitive sport. Still, at least for the spectators on the banks it was free, and they have not put yet more money into the corporate money safe.

Blades and imbeciles - ebren

Sweat, tears, skill, world-champions, underdogs, favourites, tactics, power, finesse, balance, determination, mental strength, and blades.

The annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge has all of this, but it also has one of the oddest crowds you will ever see at a sporting event.

There has always been a split between jocks and geeks. The brainy glasses-wearing, dungeons & dragon playing, computer loving chaps with BO and no dress sense don't like sport. The muscle-headed, hard-drinking, womanising, boorish, gym-freaks don't have a lot between the ears.

And unless movies and television have lied to me, this has always been the case.

Always will be.

With one exception.

Once a year - at the traditional start of London's summer social season - as green shoots and daffodils raise their heads from their winter slumber the two geekiest institutions in the UK clash.

Boffins brush off their beer goggles, and sportsmen and women admit to having knowledge of Kant, although not necessarily though direct experience of him.

250,000 of them, some in blazers some in shorts and flip-flops.

Properly posh people sip Pimms next to pissed Aussies, Kiwis, and Saffas (the race does start in Putney after all) drinking cans of carling from inflatable bins full of ice (bin comes free with 10 cans, as does a pair of flip-flops).

They then swap drinks.

The crowd is polite and drunk at the same time, thousands crush forward, all the while apologising in upper-class accents as they knock into each other.

There are more degrees along that stretch of river than in 100 boiling kettles, but not one of the thousands of people around me has brought a radio so they listen for the result after the boats pull round the corner - 500 yards into the four-mile race.

But it doesn't really matter.

There were three-and-a-half people that I could see who seemed to care about the result, because it's not about that. It's about the sun on the river, it's about the friends you haven't seen for years, and the ones you haven't met yet.

It's the true democracy of sport. Anyone can come, drink, watch and join in. Almost everyone in the UK, and probably a large number of the 100 million people worldwide that watch this race, have a reason to support Oxford or Cambridge. An allegiance that generally lasts for life.

This is an event older than any football competition, considerably older than the Ashes, and was the subject of one of the world's first films in 1895.

But it is also modern, six nationalities, men and women competing in carbon-fibre boats, computer designed blades and with telemetry analysed.

There is also something gloriously post modern about a competition on which nothing rests except pride, but that dominates the lives of 30 world-class athletes and coaches for over a year and is seen worldwide my millions.

And despite all this it remains resolutely English.

In what other country would the competitors - as your correspondent can confirm after an ad-hoc trip through the Cambridge dressing room to the toilets this year - would the contestants still turn up in wellies to keep their feet dry before getting soaked?

Would you trust Maradona to mark his own golf score? - Postern

Inzamam-ul-Haq refuses to bring his Pakistan team back onto the field after being accused of ball-tampering by the match umpire. Joey Barton flashes his buttocks at Everton fans. An AFL player is taped discussing Ketamine with an alleged 'underworld figure'. Korean Super Reds FC player Lee Sang Jin kicks the ball 'with intent' at an ad hoarding and raises his index finger to the crowd.

The captain of a national football team, playing in the quarter finals of the World Cup, intentionally punches the ball into the goal in a one-on-one with the opposition keeper.

"I was waiting for my teammates to embrace me," he recalls, years later. "No one came…I told them, 'Come hug me, or the referee isn't going to allow it.'"

And the odd one out? Okay, you're ahead of me. That's right, the first four examples were charged by their sport's governing body with bringing the game into disrepute. The final one, Maradona, was awarded player of the tournament at the 1986 World Cup, not two weeks after his cheating was seen by millions.

Unarguably the tournament's most watchable player, it does not alter the fact he is a cheat first, skilful player second. Ben Johnson ran fast, but he is known as a drugs cheat. Cincinnati Reds might have been the world's best baseball team in 1919, but the Chicago White Sox threw the game. The 1994 Chilean goalkeeper may have been decent between the sticks, but he'll be remembered for pretending a firecracker hit him. What will be Barry Bonds' legacy?

The cheat tag sticks. Like murderers, rapists or arsonists, reformed sporting cheats are not referred to as 'former-'.

Yet, to many, classing Maradona as a cheat is unthinkable. Human, sure. Tainted, who isn't? But cheat, no.

At present the sporting world has (at least) two sporting icons bestriding their respective sports, both with reputations for exemplary conduct. Fans of golf and tennis have years of enjoyment ahead of them as they see Tiger Woods and Roger Federer chase the wins to become the greatest of all time. Both could rip up their sports' Grand Slam records.

For Woods, there might be some argument as to who was the greatest if he was seen by TV viewers repeatedly moving his marker closer to the hole during the third round of this year's Masters. Federer might lose some of his shine if it was found he was triggering false Hawkeye calls via a device on his racquet. It is as likely either would blatantly cheat as it is golf or tennis fans would include cheats in their top 10 all time greatest. Not football fans though.

Football has its problems but not all of them can be blamed on officials. Dodgy agents, greedy players, rip-off ticket prices…that many fans continue to vote for Maradona in any Greats list suggests we get the game we deserve.

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