Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hockley's Sporting Second Chance - Wooley

I can honestly say that no piece of sporting news has given me more pleasure during the long, cricket-free winter months than the return of James Hockley to Kent colours.

It all dates back to 2000, the worst season I had ever endured as a Kent supporter, as an injury ravaged squad sneaked away from deserved relegation only in the last game, and Mr Hockley singularly failed to nail down a first team spot. Luckily in what had become a play-off to avoid the drop on the last day of the season, Kent beat Worcestershire, who even with Glenn McGrath in their side - at that point comfortably the best seam bowler in the world - were sent down instead.

This match was no classic. In fact, I suspect that there is only one member of either side who can remember anything more about it than that it happened. At one point, the interchangeable Sky commentator (Bob Willis? Paul Allott? Graham ‘Foxy’ Fowler? Who can tell?) did indeed say, “he’ll remember that all his life”, the Sky-box never a place in which to fear the cliché. But they had an excuse, you see, as Hockley, 21 at the time, had just lent into a pitched up delivery from McGrath and sent it comfortably past cover point for four vital runs.

Australian journalist Gideon Haigh once observed that he took more pleasure from a well timed cover drive than Mark Waugh, noting that the languid Australian number five expected to score runs, while for him there was a pleasing element of surprise. I suspect that the same applied with James Hockley’s cover drive. Not even a first team regular and facing the most skilful fast bowler of them all? He can’t have expected to do well. But that cover drive was the only evidence of cricketing genius in the entire match. Of course he remembers it.

Alas, this single shot is the only memory I have of his entire county career. He managed just one decent first-class score in Kent colours (although he did manage a century in a one day game), and when Kent chose not to renew his contract at the end of the 2002 season, he retired with an average below twenty.

Cricket in England is often ridiculed for the ease with which players with a palpable lack of the necessary talent wangle temporary passes on the professional circuit; we never have quite shaken off the crazed notion of the noble amateur. “On coming down from Oxford, (he looked) for some walk in life that would ensure the three squares a day and give him time to play a bit of county cricket”, was how PG Wodehouse put it. County members have endured swathes of these players, sons of high profile committee members, perhaps, or old boys from Eton, and most of us have visibly aged as a result.

But, the reason I’m glad to see James Hockley back is that he was different. He actually had the required talent, as he showed when asked to face down Australia’s leading strike bowler.

It’s just that when asked to use it, he failed, and he was dropped, and then (having biffed some poor second team attack for another frightening hundred) he came back to the first team, and failed again, and was dropped again. After his retirement, Hockley drifted into Kent League cricket and frightened plenty of attacks there too. He was good. But he wasn’t quite good enough.

It’s a fact many sportsmen eventually have to accept. You play for the school team, and are the best. Then the county juniors, and are the best. Then the county seconds, and you’re still the best. Then the first team selects you, and you’re the worst. Maybe you’re unlucky, maybe you lack talent. But, one meeting with the chairman of selectors later, and you’re signing up for a PGCE and training to be a PE teacher.

Failure in sport, for anyone who seeks to play at the highest level they can, is so obviously the norm that I sometimes wonder why anyone bothers. Hockley must look back at his single half centuries and think, “if only I’d not wafted at a wide one, I’d have made a hundred”.

But crisis for Kent, who actually did get relegated for the first time in 2008, changed that. No money and no players, these were the crucial variables. The credit crunch became the banking crisis, and this became a recession, and the building firm due to develop the ground went bust. Kent’s rising star Neil Dexter walked out, leaving Kent in a state of mild panic - they had no spare batsmen at all. Someone spoke to someone else, address books were skimmed, memories consulted. And James Hockley had given up teaching and was an ‘ex-player’ no more.

This really isn’t supposed to happen. Sport is supposed to be ruthless - just look at Arsene Wenger, who won’t even let his players flavour their food. In such an environment, second chances, we’re told, never come.

So, this romantic return is a victory for every fan who’s ever hoped that someone would pop down from the dressing room and say, ‘awfully sorry, old chap, I know its your day off work, but we’re a man down today, would you mind putting some whites on and batting at seven?’

No doubt in his first stab at professional sport he was ambitious and determined. But, now, having tasted real life, Hockley can surely not believe his luck. Now aged 30, he’s getting another stab at living true his childhood dream. If he does score that elusive first-class hundred, I shall rejoice.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A new season of Motorsport - mimitig

Formula One got underway in Australia last month with an exciting race in Melbourne. A raft of new regulations designed to spice up the racing on the track – technical changes made in an attempt to make it easier to overtake by reducing downforce and the reliance of aerodynamics had been introduced over the winter.

From pre-season testing in Barcelona it looked as though the new rules were going to work. First practices and qualifying in Melbourne carried through those hopes and the race was great. Far more overtaking, a shake-up of the old order (Ferrari and McLaren no longer topping all the time-sheets) and a fairy-tale finish for brand new team - phoenix from the Honda ashes – Brawn, taking first and second places. Button and Barrichello – referred to in some parts of the press as the over-hyped washed up driver and the on-the-edge of retirement has-been respectively. [Humble-pie being eaten now at certain newspapers? I do hope so!]

However, as has happened so often in the history of F1, the sport began its traditional pastime of shooting itself in the foot. Protests were lodged by teams who didn’t get points about the way Brawn GP, Williams and Toyota had interpreted the regulations. As the circus moved on to Malaysia, fans could not be sure whether the result of the previous week would stand.

And it got worse. As they had crossed the finish line in Melbourne, Toyota’s Jarno Trulli had been in third place. By the time the highlights came on, Lewis Hamilton had been awarded third place and Trulli given a 25 second penalty. This was subsequently overruled when McLaren – in the person of Team Director Dave Ryan – was proved to have been economical with the truth to the race stewards. Full story here:

Unfortunately these shenanigans ensured that as the cars hit the track in Sepang, talk was more of McLaren-gate and the upcoming case in Paris when the FIA would rule definitively about those pesky diffusers on the Brawn GP, Williams and Toyotas which were causing the other teams so much heartache than of the racing itself.

Nonetheless we had a race – another exciting one, albeit one truncated by rain described, rather unimaginatively by the commentators, as “of biblical proportions”. Won by Brawn GP for the second time out in the person of Jenson Button.

Hamilton and McLaren had endured a torrid weekend – acting quickly and suspending, later sacking, Dave Ryan had not got the press pack off their back, but Lewis put in a strong drive and took seventh place putting his team back on the leader board after they had been stripped of points earned in Melbourne.

With a two week gap before battle was re-engaged in China, the FIA Court of Appeal in Paris heard evidence on the diffuser conflict and made their ruling – binding for the 2009 season.

Fortunately for the credibility of the sport they, for once, paid heed to commonsense and ruled that Brawn, Williams and Toyota had done nothing wrong. All points thus far won would stand and the race in China would go ahead with no technical shadows hanging over it.

Here’s the take on it from the viewpoint of ex-Toyota and Force India technical guru, Mike Gascoyne:

While all this was going on MotoGP got underway with none of the hype and palaver that surrounds F1. Starting later in the year than usual, their opening race was a second year’s running of a night race in Qatar, at the Doha circuit deep in the desert. How unlucky then to have the race called off at the very last minute, with all the bikes on the grid, when the heavens opened?

As the commentators would say: it was rain of biblical proportions.

However, with comparatively little fuss, they re-organised themselves, went off for a kip and came back last Monday night to run the race.

To be honest it was not a great race. Casey Stoner on his Ducati Desmocedici was in a class of his own. The god on earth who is Valentino Rossi gave good chase on the Yamaha but, as you would expect from a multiple world champion, gave up to settle for a bag-load of points in second rather than risking a high-side chasing nothing.

Gorgeous George (Jorge Lorenzo) took a fine third and Colin Edwards fourth – putting to bed the idea that having had his race engineer “poached” by team mate James Toseland would hamper his form. Sadly for British fans, it was Toseland who was hampered – not least by heavy crashes in practice and qualifying – and finished in 16th and out of the points.

Although this race was no indicator of how the season will play out, it is clear that Rossi is up for it again, and Stoner is mentally far stronger than he was last year. Everyone else is pretty much in the balance. It’s really not possible to judge their form.

With no bikes this weekend, the focus was back on F1 – how would all the off-track issues affect the race in China? And what would the weather do? Climate change has certainly had an impact of three of the first four premier level motor races this year.

Brawn GP rocked up in Shanghai full of confidence – they won their case in Paris and Ross Brawn (team principal and part-owner) was obviously relishing that victory. As one of the key architects behind the revival of Ferrari helping them to shedloads of races and world titles, he was obviously finding it hard to not snigger about the accusations of “arrogance” thrown at him by Ferrari’s lawyer. In an interview with the BBC on Saturday, he could hardly keep the smile off his face when asked to comment on the FIA result. He knew he’d won, he said, when the Ferrari lawyer began by making a personal attack.

Time-sheets told the story – Brawn GP still impressively fast, and McLaren putting their woes (and former boss Ron Dennis who retired from all F1 involvement) behind them were much improved.

One other team caught the eye – Red Bull, formerly Jaguar, formerly Stewart Grand Prix – were constantly hitting the spot.

This was interesting. They do not have the contentious diffuser, but what they do have is Adrian Newey. Adrian has been designing title-winning cars since time immemorial – or so it seems. He is an engineering guru in the mould of the great British engineers like Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

He has that gift of having a different way of thinking and working – if he didn’t design cars and had been born two hundred years ago, we might have the Newey Suspension Bridge in Bristol, or the Newey Caledonian Canal.

Today his genius was there for the world to see. In a rain-affected but not shortened Shanghai GP, his cars came in first and second. Great drives from baby-faced Sebastian Vettel and old Aussie peddler Mark Webber achieved a result that team boss Christian Horner could only have dreamed of.

With “our Jense” taking the bottom step of the podium (and thereby still leading the championship), this was a wonderful celebration of British achievement and excellence.

The legacy of those goliaths of eighteenth and nineteenth engineering should rest happy knowing that their vision goes on – not now building canals, bridges and tunnels – but designing state-of-the-art racing cars.

I hope that young people can be inspired by the success of engineers like Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey, as they were by the likes of IK and Telford, and be the next generation of winners.

Role on the rest of the season and let’s hope everything will be decided on the track, and that weather will only intervene to spice it all up and not dominate.

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