Saturday, January 10, 2009

So What Was the England Cricket Row About This Time? – Zephirine

Sigh. It seems like only yesterday that I was reporting to Pseudscorner on the sudden and emotional departure of an England cricket captain or two.

And now here we are again.

This time many of us saw it coming, but perhaps not quite so soon.

Last summer, after the apparently coincidental resignations of captains Vaughan and Collingwood, the England National Selector, Geoff Miller, was determined to revert to the traditional system of having only one captain for all 3 forms of the game. Unfortunately, he himself had not selected Andrew Strauss - the man most suited for the captaincy in terms of personality and experience - to play in one-day matches for over a year. Also, most of the England side were in patchy form, and only one player could be guaranteed a place in all three sides - Test, ODI and 20/20 - Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen is like an operatic tenor, gifted, obsessive, conscious of his celebrity status, driven by a sense of his own destiny, and impatient with anyone in the chorus who can’t reach the high notes. Miller and the other ECB suits could hardly fail to know this. They also knew that Pietersen had never captained any cricket team at first-class or international level. And they should have known – though they may have chosen not to – that Pietersen didn’t get on at all with the England coach, Peter Moores.

But they gave him the job anyway.

The ECB think highly of Peter Moores, who came up through their own élite coaching system and succeeded at County level. He leans heavily on computer analysis, but is also a great believer in general physical fitness and instigated something of a boot-camp régime when he first took over after the dismissal of the portly but tactically talented Duncan Fletcher. Getting along with England captains, however, is not his forte.

Michael Vaughan failed to find a good working relationship with Moores. Paul Collingwood didn’t even tell Moores when he had decided to stand down as ODI captain. On accepting the captaincy, Pietersen made a public statement that he had only done so after a lengthy clearing-the-air meeting with the coach, and that he now believed the two of them could work together.

They couldn’t – and by Christmas Pietersen had had enough. Several key players seemed to have stagnated or even lost their touch during Moores’s tenure - although Flintoff, whose problems had been to do with injury and fitness levels, made good progress – and England’s record had been poor, beating only teams well below them in the rankings and several times losing Test matches from winning positions.

Then Pietersen asked for the former captain Michael Vaughan to be in the squad to go to the West Indies in February 2009 – tricky, as Vaughan has been playing terrible cricket for quite some time, but beneficial for a novice captain who could use some of Vaughan’s strategic skill. Miller and his panel of selection advisers (which includes the coach but not the captain) decided against Vaughan, seemingly on Moores’s advice.

Pietersen decided that Moores had to go.

Had he announced this online, cyberspace would have resounded with cheers from the massed ranks of cricket bloggers, who have been declaring for at least a year that Moores is the cricket version of Steve McClaren and calling for his head in more or less colourful ways.

In fact, Pietersen had a discreet meeting with Giles Clarke, chairman of the ECB, who steered him back towards Hugh Morris, the managing director of the England team. At some point, Pietersen apparently stated that he really wouldn’t be prepared to go to the West Indies with Peter Moores still in place. He seems to have been assured that discussions would be had and something would be done, and he left to go on holiday in Africa.

And then the media got hold of it.

Somebody told a journalist that Pietersen, angered by the refusal to select Vaughan, had issued an ultimatum to the Board, ‘Moores or me’. It now seems very likely that this person was Michael Vaughan himself, perhaps anxious to convey how essential he still was to the side, or to demonstrate the difficulties of working with Moores.

Vaughan is a political animal, but is friendly with Pietersen and probably had no intention of undermining him. The effect of his leak, though, was to launch a volley of press coverage of The Power Struggle, much of it hostile to the captain. Pietersen had “seized an unprecedented amount of power for an England captain”, he had been “indulged”, the ECB were “giving in to his whims”. Pundits warned that Pietersen was effectively taking over the power to hire and fire the coach. Right-wing papers dragged up his South African background yet again. Who did he think he was, this opportunist mercenary trying to get an honest, hardworking English coach the sack? Pietersen made a vague statement in his regular column which was characterised as “using the media”.

Then the ECB began briefing against Pietersen, and their tame journalists were kept busy knocking out pieces about how outrageously Pietersen was behaving. “People who want to keep their jobs don’t issue ultimatums” said a carefully anonymous Board official. “I’ve never seen an ego like it in cricket,” said another, demonstrating a remarkably limited experience of a game with a rich history of human steamrollers. For a while it looked as if they really intended to keep Moores in place and sack the captain they had appointed only five months before.

Meanwhile, managing director Hugh Morris was sounding out opinion in the England team - but, knowing that the coach was a personal friend of his, players may well have been less than frank. He didn’t speak to all of the players, either; but he got the ammunition he needed to tell Pietersen that the team were not behind him and that by issuing his ultimatum the captain might have ‘lost the dressing-room’. Pietersen seems to have been told this while still on his safari holiday, the sort of phone call which makes one disinclined to pop out and photograph a few giraffes.

In the end, the ECB pressured Pietersen into resigning, indicating that they thought he was wrong, and fired Moores, indicating that they thought Pietersen was right.

It was always likely that Kevin Pietersen’s reign would end in tears, and no doubt he has been impetuous and arrogant. He always is, as those who gave him the job knew very well. But he’s never less than entertaining, he brought an enjoyable theatricality to the role and he was growing into the captaincy. I predicted that he wouldn’t last till the Ashes in Summer 2009, but I take no pleasure in being proved right.

The England side will now be captained by Andrew Strauss, despite the perceived shortcomings as an ODI or 20/20 player which ruled him out last year. He has the attributes to become a very good captain, and arguably should have had the job some time ago. There will be a new coach, who will, one hopes, have a better understanding of the needs of international players than Moores did.

But what a mess.

It becomes easier to understand when you look at this photograph. These are the England and Wales Cricket Board. Sadly, the thing behind them is not a spaceship and they will not be leaving in it any time soon.

(photo of Kevin Pietersen by Greg75 of

NFL Playoffs: The Case for Momentum - Mac Millings

“Can the Cardinals just turn it on after weeks of poor play? I don't think so,” asked an idiot, amateur, 0-for-4, below-the-line pundit recently. Arizona proceeded to defeat the visiting, and strongly favoured, Atlanta Falcons last weekend. Said idiot amateur pundit – you’ll never guess who it was - had fallen victim to the Momentum Fallacy.

The Cardinals had lost 4 of the 6 games leading up to that Wild Card match-up with the Falcons, their two wins in that period coming at the expense of two of the League’s weakest teams, St. Louis and Seattle. Meanwhile, the Falcons had won 3 straight, and 5 of their last 6; this was a leading reason why most experts, and a certain ex-pat, wrongly backed the away side.

In the event, the Cardinals emphasized their previously-lacking running game, and featured an unexpectedly aggressive defence, to confound, and eventually defeat, the visitors.

Over in San Diego, the hosts had won four in a row, their guests nine straight. Plenty of momentum on both sides, but 9 beats 4, right? Unfortunately for Peyton Manning’s Colts, momentum did not bring triumph. Instead, their inability both to run the ball and to stop the run did for Indianapolis.

A run of 5 wins coming into their game against Baltimore didn’t help Miami deal with the Ravens’ relentless defence, nor did it allow them to take advantage of rookie Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s struggles.

Momentum favoured neither team in the final Wild Card game. In the last five regular-season tussles leading up to their post-season meeting, the record of both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings read W-W-W-L-W; so instead of relying on the winning habit, Philly decided not to allow prolific running back Adrian Peterson to win the game for Minnesota, and pressured Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson into losing it for them.

In short, “momentum” means less than you might think in professional sports. Sure, it’s nice to have the confidence that winning your last game brings – but in this case, my (doubtless inadequate) research tells me that EVERY team in the Wild Card round had won its previous match. The momentum theory doesn’t take the opponent into account.

Furthermore, I’d suggest that the impetus of a winning streak drives an American football team, with its rigidly structured patterns of play (every player on offence knowing exactly where to go and what to do at the start of every play), less than teams in any other major sport. How “hot” you are is no substitute for how good your game plan, and your execution of that plan, is.

As for the next round of games, Mystic Mac predicts:

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers – Carolina’s power running game is carrying them to the Super Bowl. Also, Panthers are big cats, whereas Cardinals are birds, whose bright red plumage leaves them especially vulnerable if it snows. Panthers

Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans – Ravens have too much defence, Titans not enough offence. Plus, ravens, like all members of the genus Corvus, are wily, whereas Titans, I’m guessing, are ponderous and stupid. Ravens

Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants – It’s even between these teams’ passing games, but, Brian Westbrook’s one big carry last week notwithstanding, the Eagles can’t run the ball. The Giants can, and will. Hmm…having just predicted that an enormous, fictional creature will be defeated by a mere bird, I’m now not so sure. Is it a big Eagle? Hedge your bets, Millings. Giants

San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers – I really don’t like the Steelers, but I’m not choosing based on who I like (not any more, after last week). I’m afraid the Steelers defence will squish little running back Darren Sproles, and then go after QB Philip Rivers. Let’s see…a Charger’s a horse, right? And I suppose a Steeler’s a bloke. Umm…man tames horse. Steelers

And so the Seer of Seers, the Sage of Sages, the Prognosticator of Prognosticators has spoken. These predictions are correct. If any of them prove to be wrong, something must be terribly amiss. Feel free to print that out and take it to your bookie.

And why are they right? Because they’re based on reason, on observation, on cold, hard fact. Nevertheless, there are plenty of pundits prepared to base their predictions for this weekend’s games on the myth of momentum. But not this one, not this time. I’m sticking to the basics. May the best teams win.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gomes – Margin’s part in his success

In mid November Spurs’ number one priority for the coming transfer window was to buy a new Number One.

The fans groaned as much every time a cross threatened us. The press printed it and listed possible replacements. And Harry Rednapp hinted the same with all the subtlety of a Soho Strumpet after a cut price jug of sugary purple cocktail.

Of course Gomes wasn’t ever as terrible as he appeared. The Brazilian’s poor record of three clean sheets in nineteen games was also the fault of shoddy defending. And he did made a string of impressive saves in those games.

But there was no escaping it. He more than matched the good with the inexcusably bad. He was indecisive, he punched instead of caught, and he flapped so badly at so many crosses that a lighter man might have flown.

So why is it then, that now January has come, no one anywhere thinks Spurs want a new keeper?

The answer is that, as Jarvis Cocker once sang with Pulp, something changed. And that something was a home game against Blackburn Rovers.

Now you have to understand, and I don’t believe I can illustrate this adequately with mere words on a page, that Paul Robinson was not worshiped as a footballer at Spurs. He was loved as our friend. And that was especially so for the rowdy bunch of crooks and scoundrels who join your beloved Margin in the Park Lane every other week.

This was a man who, like many a Spurs fan, would shout “Yiddo!” in recognition of a lilywhite shirt in the street. He would signal a fan about to return the ball to the pitch to throw it the wrong way if we were winning. He bought us dozens of Spurs printed footballs and excitedly kicked them to us as gifts at Christmas. He rushed to join us, and instinctively us, when he scored his 80 yard goal. And he came to share his gleaming winners medal with our stand the game after last season’s League Cup victory.

Robbo even admitted on TV before the game, almost unprofessionally, that he didn’t how he’d feel if Blackburn won, and that perhaps a draw would be for the best. So when he returned we cheered, sang his name, and praised a man whose monumental slump in form never could diminish his standing as our best mate in football.

Then the second half came, and he was replaced in front of the Park Lane by Gomes. And having backed Paul Robinson for 45 minutes, we turned our attention to supporting his usurper. We had to. He was our keeper now and we owed him our support. So we sang his name. He cheered his every touch of the ball. We held off from groaning for a full 45 minutes. And we gave him all the support a struggling player dreams of having.

We won. With a clean sheet. And we now cheer Gomez every game.

We sing his name and ask him ‘what’s the score’ knowing he’ll only answer if goals against stands at nil. And such is the turnaround in his fortunes that we have achieved five clean sheets in twelve games since then.

So now that the importance of that drab 1-0 home win is clear I thought take my credit. Gomes walks tall onto the turf of White Hart Lane nowadays, and I undoubtedly played my part in making that happen. After all, he himself has put his turnaround down to support from us fans. And who am I to argue?

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