Thursday, September 18, 2008

Better (and cheaper) than the Test Card: Major League Baseball on Five - mountainstriker

In his mid 90s pomp as TV critic of the London Evening Standard (Eldorado: ‘They said wait until December. Well it is December. And I have watched it. And it stinks.’), Victor Lewis-Smith campaigned vigorously for the return of the daytime test card. You know, the spooky one in which the girl with the preternatural smile plays noughts and crosses with her ghoulish clown doll. Anything, he argued, was better than Going for Gold, Neighbours, Home and Away, Esther,Vanessa,… It’s hard to argue.

VLS was writing at a time when most people were restricted to just four terrestrial channels. Today, with thousands of channels required to broadcast 24/7 on budgets that won’t stretch to a round of drinks, I wonder just how much TV executives must long to broadcast ol’ Spooky and Chucky for 18 hours a day.

Anyone who surfs the sports channels after 10pm can see the consequences: Bolivian football, Masters football (i.e. old blokes playing five-a-side at the local leisure centre), lacrosse, poker, pool, synchronised diving, golf. This summer, Sky discovered the beach: beach volleyball, beach cricket, beach football – beach anything as long as it’s cheap, goes on a bit and gives an excuse to broadcast some more ads for price comparison sites, car insurance, text dating services and Carol Vorderman (or sometimes that bloke who used to play James Herriot) offering to solve your money problems.

It’s fair to say that this is a world in which quality is not high. Presenters often have only a passing knowledge of their subject – this is where former Blue Peter presenters come to die – production values are low and coverage involving more than one camera a rarity. But frankly, who cares? Would you like to save money on your car insurance/flirt with lots of hot girls/consolidate all your debts into one, easy, affordable payment? Step up. Right here. Now where did I put that phone?

In this sea of lost souls, perhaps the last place you expect to find hope is Channel 5’s baseball coverage. But there it is. Every Wednesday and Sunday night (actually Thursday and Monday morning) from April to the end of October, Jonny Gould and Josh Chetwynd follow the 162 games of the regular season, culminating in the post-season play offs and the World Series, offering insight, knowledge and not a few laughs.

The format, relatively unchanged since its 1997 début, is fairly straightforward. Channel 5 has access to full ESPN coverage and, for the majority of the show, this is pumped straight into your living room. Games from the east coast and central states usually have a delay of one or two hours, games from the West Coast are often broadcast live.

Sunday Night Baseball with Jon Miller, Joe Morgan and Peter Gammons is an ESPN flagship and it is simply sports broadcasting of the highest quality. Miller and Morgan in particular have that enviable ability to appear to be just chatting over a beer while never missing a play. Every possible angle is covered and the technology - K Zone, super-slo-mo and a bewildering array of stats - is fully, but not intrusively, deployed. Not least, the overhead views of the ball parks are often stunning and live pictures from a glorious day in San Francisco, Chicago or New York often offer stark contrast to the dark night drizzling down your window.

In the States, the numerous breaks in play - end of innings, pitching changes, 7th innings stretch – are filled with commercials. In the UK, we return to the 5 studio where Jonny and Josh go through their paces.

Jonny Gould really should be presenting the beach cricket by now. He still has the habits of the daytime TV quiz host he once was - the cheesy catch phrases ‘Goooood eeeevening fellowbaseballnuts!’, the bouffant hair and the voice modulation, but somehow he seems to have been liberated by an injection of self-awareness which allows the viewers and his co-host to rib him mercilessly.

Perhaps the highlight of this season was when Josh claimed that the JG bouffant had, literally, peaked. This led to comparisons with Eddie Munster for which photographic evidence was immediately demanded and supplied. As the studio crew guffawed loudly in the background, you had to admit it was a decent likeness. He regularly refers to his ‘Sportsman’s 2:2’ and blatantly provokes viewer derision by extolling the virtues of Chelsea FC, Surrey CCC, the Atlanta Braves and, criminally, wearing a selection of appalling, garish, short-sleeved shirts.

The baseball expertise is provided by Josh Chetwynd. A former college and minor league catcher and, until 2007, an active player for the London Mets, Chetwynd has a gift for explaining the mechanics of this most technical of games - be it the difference between a slider and a curve ball, or why you should never pitch Manny Ramirez inside on a 3-2 count. Even better, unlike Mark Lawrenson, whose unscripted ‘jokes’ often meet a slow and agonising death on the Football Focus floor, he understands that Gould is the professional broadcaster, not him. The result is that both are completely comfortable in their roles and seem genuinely to like and respect each other. It’s worth comparing the warmth of their banter with the death stare that Manish Bhasin often seems to be sending dear old Lawro.

A key strength is that the show understands that its audience chiefly comprises baseball obsessives, students, the parents of newborn children, insomniacs and security guards. As such, it’s able to welcome their input without ever being patronising. Those watching live are referred to as ‘Hardcore’ while those of us who follow on tape are ‘Softcore’ but welcome none the less. A student drinking game has apparently built up around Gould’s numerous catch phrases ‘Josh’s favourite part of the show’, ‘It’s time foooor...7th innings stretch’ and he’s happy to oblige on cue every time. He’s also become increasingly obsessed with his fantasy baseball team. Josh remains unconvinced.

Less it be thought that it’s all knock about banter, both Gould and Chetwynd are happy to express an opinion when needed. When Barry Bonds finally overtook Hank Aaron’s all time home run record last season, Gould was keen to state that the achievement was tainted by the allegations surrounding Bonds’ use of steroids. Nor are they slow to point out when a pitcher has deliberately hit a batter, or a runner raised his cleats or dropped a shoulder when trying to reach base. When you’ve listened to Motson insisting endlessly that John Terry has ‘just gone for the ball there’ while the opposition clear up the dismembered limbs, such candour can come as a something of a shock.

So, next time you’re sitting there, glass or can in hand, wondering whether you really care if Graham Hick can knock this next ball from Sir Richard Hadlee into the Indian Ocean, I recommend that you give the baseball a try. Failing that, you can always go to bed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Murray in mint condition - Allout

Despite the Scotsman’s loss in the US Open final, victory in a Grand Slam event should come sooner rather than later.

The praise was fulsome after Andy Murray outplayed Rafael Nadal, the World No. 1, last week in the semi final of the US Open. “This will go down as the defining afternoon in Murray's career” wrote Lawrence Donegan in the Guardian. Yet, for all that the victory over Nadal, and the style it was achieved in, was impressive, what is even more striking is the fact that it was not surprising after Murray’s performances over the summer. In short, this summer has seen Murray join the tennis elite and, although his straight sets defeat at the hands of Roger Federer in the US Open final was disappointing, it will surely not be long before Murray is playing in his next Grand Slam final.

Earlier in the summer the situation was different. Murray had bombed out of the Australian Open in the first round and followed this up with a third round exit in the French Open. He was hovering just outside the top 10 in the rankings and it seemed he had stood still for a couple of years. Many observers contrasted this with Murray’s friend and contemporary Novak Djokovic, who was seen as being at a similar level to Murray at the start of 2007, but who stepped into the higher echelons of the game by reaching the final of the 2007 US Open and winning the 2008 Australian Open. Murray had never reached the last eight of a Grand Slam event and many said it was high time to talk about fulfilment rather than potential.

Looking back now, it can be seen that Murray has made a similar leap this summer to Djokovic’s last year. It started at Wimbledon where he reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final. Just as importantly for his future he came back from two sets down to beat Richard Gasquet in the fourth round, thus giving him an indication of what was possible if he retained his self-belief during adversity. That game also seemed a watershed in the terms of his relationship with the SW19 crowd who, until then and perhaps because of some perceived anti-English comments previously, had not cheered Murray to the same degree as they had Tim Henman.

Rather than resting on his laurels after this Murray went on to produce a great hard court season. In the Toronto Masters he beat Djokovic on the way to the semi-finals. In the Cincinnati Masters he beat Djokovic again but this time in the final as he won comfortably his biggest career victory to date. Hopping over a poor Olympics campaign (everybody is entitled to one poor tournament) Murray then became the first Brit in over a decade to reach a Grand Slam final. Focussing on the Nadal match would be understandable, given that he outplayed the World number 1, but there were also encouraging signs elsewhere. Murray looked notably fitter than his opponent in victories over Jurgen Melzer and Stanislas Wawrinka (the former another comeback from two sets to love down) and also beat the talented Juan Martin del Potro. That achievement should not be underestimated – the Argentine not only has a big serve and a powerful forehand but came onto the match on a 23 game winning streak.

Further reason for optimism is that Murray now seems to be an all-round player. As a teenager his natural talent was obvious but it was equally easy to spot his weaknesses. The most damaging of these was a fitness level below other top professionals which was rectified by hard work. Following the US Open run (as well as the matches against Wawrinka and Melzer there was little sign of Murray missing anything in this department against Nadal, generally regarded as the fittest tennis player in history) this criticism can now definitively be written off. A couple of years ago Murray also lacked physical strength but over the last twelve months he has worked hard in this area and, although the circumference of his biceps is never likely to match Nadal’s, he can now hold his own against most opponents in this department. The last area that Murray has worked on in his mental approach. Often seen as stroppy and temperamental, Murray has been able to curb that side of his character recently, and possibly with it, the tendency to drop off mentally at crucial points during the game.

All of this is not to say that Murray must not continue the hard work. His powerful serve, for instance, is erratic; his fabulous performance against Nadal unsurprisingly coincided with him getting an unusually large percentage of first serves in. This percentage dropped significantly in the final with predictable consequences. Murray, however, knows this himself and straight after the US Open final, the only topic he mentioned more than the continued need for hard training was praise for Federer.

This rounded all-round game should give Murray a chance in all Grand Slam events, although the French Open would seem the least likely avenue for success. Murray spent some crucial teenage years at the Sánchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona so he is no stranger to clay, but the continued excellence of Nadal on this surface and the tough competition provided by continental clay-court specialists means that a quarter final appearance is as much as can reasonably be expected in Roland Garros in the immediate future.

Things are different, though, in the three other Grand Slam events where Murray has come out himself since the US Open final and said that he feels he has a chance of winning any of the three. His performances on hard courts this year provide ample evidence to support that assumption as far as the Australian and US Open are concerned whilst, with extra experience and the continued backing of the crowd, it is a distinct possibility that he can build on his Wimbledon quarter final finish this year.

Murray himself feels that his best chance is at the US Open, a tournament he has described as his favourite since his junior days. Lawrence Donegan in his GU blogs seemed to find it amusing that a young man from the small town of Dunblane in Central Scotland feels at home in New York, but perhaps it is exactly the contrast with his own background that Murray finds exciting. New York seems to provide a form of mental rush for Murray. At the same time the tournament is more relaxed than the palace of pomp and pageantry that is Wimbledon, an atmosphere which meant that Murray, starting out as a young Scot, didn’t feel totally relaxed there despite it being ostensibly his “home tournament”.

As an aside, Murray’s mother, Judy, explained recently to BBC Sport that when Murray feels comfortable with his surroundings it brings out his best form, which also explains why it is realistic to expect him to produce his best performances in the US Open. It also provides an explanation as to why his current coaching set-up, lead to Miles Maclagan, a mediocre former player little known outside of Scotland, has resulted in his career’s best form. Murray has come under fire in certain sections in the media for not having a big name coach but the results he has produced this summer prove that he has chosen his back-up team well and that lesser lights can also lead to top results if the personal chemistry is right.

In the comparison with his direct rivals there are also opportunities for Murray. Federer, despite re-discovering his all-round excellence in the closing stages of the US Open, is not the player he was a couple of years ago and, even if he manages to fully resurrect his game, he has surely little more than two years left at the top. Nadal, on the other hand, is still young at 22 but is, in my view, currently around his peak. The Majorcan matured early physically and already has considerable experience, meaning that he has less scope for developing his game than Murray has for his. Further, Nadal puts an immense amount of physical and mental energy into each point of every tennis match – contrast his slightly jerky hitting and general intensity to the languid, fluid and cerebral style of Federer. Problems directly or indirectly associated with physical and/or mental “burn-out” are therefore a real possibility and I therefore expect Nadal to be able to spend less time at the top than the Swiss maestro.

This all bodes well for Murray but there are still plenty of obstacles. Djokovic, his contemporary, already has a Grand Slam win to his name. Other young players (for example Del Potro) are likely to push hard for titles as Federer fade away. However, the most promising sign for Murray this summer is that with the form he has shown he seems to have conquered his most difficult opponent, a person he has played more than any other. That person: himself.

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