Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The performance or the stage – Ebren

Being a batsman is a strange occupation. You are a patient accumulator, a defender, but one expected to exert aggression and your will on an ever changing attack.

In an argument between those with willow and those with leather in their hands it was pointed out that the bowlers do the work – they think, vary, change line and length, pace and angles toiling for and forcing breakthroughs. And then Atherton looked up and said "but as a batsman you only have one chance".

The psychology of the men with armoured plating and armed is often baffling, but some aspects are universal to sports. Pressure. Concentration. Performance. Numbers.

Another universal sporting consideration is the stage. A man scoring six goals on his Newcastle debut will never be lauded as highly as one scoring a hat-trick in the FA Cup final.

And so the question remains – how important is the stage and how important the performance? Especially in the case of Mark Ramprakash.

Last season the man who is without a doubt one of the two finest cricketing dancers scored 2,000 first-class runs for the second season in a row.

He did this with an averages of 103.54 and 101.30 – becoming the first man ever to average over 100 in two consecutive English seasons. And there have been a lot of English seasons.

The sheer weight of numbers stack up to make Ramps a contender for one of the greatest batsmen in the world. Going into this season he has scored 30,333 runs in 400 first class matches. In 379 List A games he has banked 12,195 runs. Arguably as impressive is his average of 36.18 and 977 runs in Twenty20. All told, he has 111 centuries, 220 50s (including seven in 34 Twenty20 games) in county cricket.

In short he has excelled at every form of the game – except internationally.

His last Test cap came in Eden Park, at the end of March in 2002. He scored 9 and 2 – both times dismissed by Daryl Tuffy in the form of his life.

In between his 1991 debut against the West Indies (alongside fellow newcomer to the English side Graeme Hick) and his Eden Park finale, Ramps batted 92 innings for the Test side, averaging just 27.32.

12 ducks in 52 Tests spoke far more loudly than his centuries against the West Indies attack of Ambrose and Walsh and Australia's McGrath, Lee and Warne. His ODI career was less glamorous still. Just 18 caps averaging only 26.85 with a solitary half century.

And so – like Hick – Ramps will never be a great. Because in sport the stage matters more than the performance.

But as he lines up against Lancashire tomorrow he is within touching distance of achieving another milestone. Ramps only needs three more First Class centuries before he has 100 of them. And then he will join a list of very few players indeed. So far only 24 batsmen have managed it:

Jack Hobbs, Patsy Hendren, Wally Hammond, Phil Mead, Herbert Sutcliffe, Geoffrey Boycott, Frank Woolley, Graeme Hick, Len Hutton, Graham Gooch, WG Grace, Denis Compton, Tom Graveney, Donald Bradman, Viv Richards, Zaheer Abbas, Andy Sandham, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Hayward, Glenn Turner, John Edrich, Ernest Tyldesley, Les Ames, and Dennis Amiss.

And, probably in a few weeks, Mark Ramprakash. A great county player.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Who wants it? PremCorrespondent

The usual British recipe for footballing success calls for a peck of technical skill to be added to a great, boiling stew of passion - and look how far that's got us. The flint-eyed continentals have always preferred a more balanced diet, with pecks of passion spicing up a cassoulet of solid technique. But this is the one time of year when technique can take a back-seat to passion, particularly when a relegation-threatened club comes up against a mid-table stroller.

And so it proved at the Reebok where dead and buried Bolton, suddenly sprung to life to despatch a late-season Curbishleyesque West Ham 1-0 and give themselves a glimmer of hope. Bolton are just a win behind troubled Birmingham City who played their "Get out of Jail Free" card, Mauro Zarate, to scrape a draw against tiring Everton. Whether the club have any more such cards remains to be seen.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Fulham finally remembered how to win away from home (0-2 at shouldn't be can't be bothered yet Reading) and Sunderland risked the wrath of Roy Keane by can't be bothereding their way to a 1-2 defeat to two lucky Manchester City goals. In the games that nobody noticed, Aston Villa walloped Derby County 0-6, Tottenham drew 1-1 with Middlesborough and Kevin Keegan's entertainers drew 0-0 with an FA Cup obsessed Portsmouth.

Small Slam Sunday saw Liverpool and the Kop doze through the first half against Blackburn, before News of the World star Gerrard and New World Star Torres decided to win the game (eventually 3-1).

Then the main course.

After a cagey first half, Adebayor added some punch to Arsenal's pretty football to snatch a handy lead. Only one of the teams on the pitch were populated by players who knew what it takes to win a Premier League, and that soon showed as Ronaldo converted a penalty and tousle-haired Canadian-Englishman, Owen Hargreaves popped up to slot home a free-kick that reminded everyone of another Manchester United midfield fee-kick specialist who keeps a low profile these days. Arsenal's season has collapsed with Arsene blaming referees, rough boys, anyone except the man who could have strengthened his squad and didn't.

Only Chelsea, slogging away under Avram Grant, are left to dispute the title and they blew it at home to Wigan, drawing 1-1, which goes to show just how much use a 100 league game (or whatever it is) unbeaten home run can be.

So that's pretty much that for the Premier League - Manchester United and Arsenal have served up some cordon bleu dishes; the rest have offered bread and butter football most of the time, despite having exotic overseas chefs to call upon. Dullest domestic season in years.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

MotoGP: normal service is resumed, or is it? - Mimitig

What a weekend of sport we’ve just been treated too! In Manchester our guys and gals have continued to swim their hearts out – not landing any more golds, but plenty of silvers and bronzes including David Davies’s magnificent swim in the 1500 metres freestyle, which netted a silver and this in what must be the most gruelling of races. Specially when you’re not fit.

Yesterday also brought us the fun of Queen of the South doing the biz against Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup, but very much sshh about that as my entire village supports Eberdeen!

Today we had a vital win for Man U fans over the beautiful game of Arsenal, or perhaps that should be described as a win for pragmatic Fergie over philosopher Arsene. Don’t know enough of that to be a spokesperson, but I did enjoy my team winning. Keeps Liverpool in the hunt, keenly for that fourth spot above Everton.

But mostly today, I was watching the bikes. It hasn’t been a great opening few races – those fly-aways never really tell us much – and we were all waiting keenly for a return to Europe.

The boys were in Estoril, Portugal this weekend. This is a very tricky circuit. On the coast it is subject to weather vagaries and we had plenty of them. Friday was rubbish for riders such as James Toseland who had hoped to use the day to learn the track. It was too wet and cold to be of any use. Saturday qualifying stayed dry, but was all about Jorge Lorenzo.

He is just 20 years-old and already a double World Champion in 250cc bikes, and just destroyed the field. An early lap should have been wrecked by an encounter with Chris Vermuelen, but Gorgeous George still set a pole lap and then nibbled away for the next five minutes to set a pole by over half a second that no-one could get near.

Little Dani Pedrosa and The God Valle also made the front row, but with an uphill battle to face.

Come the race, the first lap was certainly the most exciting of this season, possibly one of the most exciting we’ve seen for a few seasons. The lead changed, and all through the field there were men losing places (Stoner, Toseland), and men gaining places (well Rossi, mainly).

On that first lap, it was all action with the three men we most keenly watch – Rossi, Pedrosa and Lorenzo. After last year you could be forgiven for wanting to keep an eye on Casey Stoner, but this weekend, the Ducati was well off the pace and actually, only Casey could ride it even vaguely competitively. There are big problems with the Desmocedici that it seems only Casey can ride around. We wait to see in later rounds how those problems get sorted – because they will.

Anyway, we were underway and before long it seemed as though proper order had been resumed. Rossi riding like a fiend in difficult conditions with rain spotting the cameras and the visors and no-one quite sure where the non-slippy bits of the track were. It was fun.

Nicky Hayden – a former World Champion – was dragging his Honda round very fast and got into fourth at one point before he lost it.

Rossi’s lead didn’t last for more than half the race – a big discussion to be had there about his choice of Bridgestone tyres – Lorenzo pulled a move on him that the master himself would have been proud of. It was a breath-drawing, brilliant, fair but tough overtake.

Not long after Pedrosa put a move on Valle, but this was different. I may well be biased, but Dani’s overtake was a result of having a better bike at the time, not pure skill. Lorenzo’s move was skill to die for!

When it came to the end, Lorenzo had the win, and the record for being the youngest ever GP rider to finish on the podium three times in a row. Valle retained his record of never not being off the Estoril podium – in nine years, and that includes five wins. Pedroso retains a joint lead of the championship with Lorenzo.

Stoner, despite his bike problems, fought his way back to sixth, and James Toseland, in his third ever outing on a MotoGP bike, on a track he’s never seen before, and coming off the back of serious bronchitis, took seventh to keep a grip on fifth place in the Championship. Which is amazing for a rookie in a satellite team. He is ahead of his far more experienced team-mate – the delightful Colin Edwards – and not so very far behind the factory Yamahas.

James’s performances in the two races prior to Estoril had already led his team to extend his contract for the whole of 2009 – an option they were not obliged to exercise until September this year. They must have a lot of faith in him. We know he is a fine bike rider – you don’t get to be a double-world champion in Superbikes without being a bit special, but to know how much faith Yamaha have in him, well, get your bets in now for a top three finish in 2009.

As far as this year is concerned – it’s wide open. Casey is not going to give in, and he will make that Ducati bike on the Bridgestones into a winner. Rossi never says die, and he wants another championship. Pedrosa is a miserable little sod but he wants to win and maybe if he won the whole thing he might even smile! Lorenzo is a joy and a pleasure – he has moved to London in order to learn to speak English better because he knows that the more he wins, the more the journalists want to talk to him.

Today was the best yet of the season. Normal service was not resumed in that Rossi didn’t win, but it was because the man best able to take over Rossi’s mantle as a full-on entertainer alongside utter skill, has won a race.

Move over Valle – welcome Jorge.

But I still want Valle to win lots and lots this year!!!

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