Thursday, July 22, 2010

Are we nearly there yet? – mimitig

Whilst this is a phrase that, for many of us, echoes the little voice of childhood as we sat in the back of Morris Travellers or Hillman Minxes as parents seemed to drive for ever to the north or west in search of holidays, it is surely what the legs (if they could speak) of the peloton are asking today.

Today being the second rest day of this year’s Tour de France, the answer is 525.5 killermetres and that is not a typo. Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett always say “killermetres” although the accepted pronunciation, as far as I can research, is actually “kill-om-eter”. There’s a subtle difference and tomorrow’s 174km truly will be killer metres for someone as the Tour ascends the Col du Tourmalet for the second time this year.

So far this year the Tour has taken in over 3000 km of its total distance of 3642 km (official figures – my sums have them riding 4004.9 km but then I’m using a solar powered calculator and we’ve had no sun for the last five days!).

The peloton has covered a starting Time Trial – flat, rainy and a bit dull, seven further flat stages that have given Mark Cavendish three sprint wins, some hilly and middle mountain finishes and three in the high mountains. Mark’s three wins have seen him equal and beat some of the best sprinters the world of cycling has ever seen – Erik Zabel and Mario Cipollini have 12 each – The Manx Missile has 13 in just three and a half Tours. For a man who was way out of form coming in to this year’s Tour, and losing the first two possibilities for lack of form, it is a remarkable turnaround. Sadly there has been controversy again. This year not for Mark’s own actions in a sprint, but for those of his lead-out man, Aussie Mark Renshaw. On the run in to Cav’s third victory in Bourg les Valence (Stage 11, Thurs July 15), as the sprint started to wind up, Garmin Transition’s Kiwi Julian Dean stuck the elbow into Renshaw. A very dangerous and unacceptable thing to do. In defence, Renshaw nudged his head against Dean’s arm. Should have ended there, but the red mist of sprinters had descended. Renshaw went on to head-butt Dean three more times and then, unforgiveably looked behind and seemed to deliberately close out Tyler Farrar (of Garmin). None of these actions had an impact on the finish so rightly Cav claimed it, but it was a rather unedifying episode of Tour sprinting. Renshaw was the only man punished – not just relegated (which would have been fair) but thrown off the Tour (totally unfair) and Dean – the man who started the who’s yer father in the first place was off scott free. As I say, unedifying all round really.

However, that is cycling and that is Le Tour – the commissars have the last say and they said it. Fortunately – for fans of cycling and Mark Cavendish – the Missile proved on Stage 13 that he can do it without Renshaw. On a day when watchers saw former drug-cheat Alexandre Vinokourov prove that you can do it with your own blood and win a stage (and I am not convinced, sorry), Mark led the charge to the line for second place, but first of the sprinters, and did it in style.

After this lot of ducking and diving, elbows and heads, we saw the Tour head into the really high mountains. This year the Alps were just a little tickler for the big days. One hundred years to celebrate of men on bikes versus desperate altitudes and weather – The Pyrennees. The stages that tour director Christian Prudhomme hoped would define this year’s race.

He has done well, that man. No momentous occasions in the Alps, all to play for in the Pyrennees and even better, all to play for in the final day in the Pyrennees. There are only really two men left in the GC – Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador (though Denny Menchov and Sammy Sanchez could spring a surprise). It looks as though they will continue to go head to head up the Tourmalet. Neither has been able to lock down an advantage. Schleck maybe has looked stronger but then the mechanical problem with his chain on the 15th stage gave the lead and the Maillot Jaune (and the cuddly lion) to Contador. That little episode has lead to the Tour’s second big controversy – should Alberto have attacked under those circumstances? Tour protocol has an unwritten law that the Maillot Jaune is not attacked for a mechanical, but it is far more complicated this time. Denny and Sammy were already attacking and going to fight out their third and fourth. I don’t think Alberto did anything wrong. If Schleck comes out of the rest day strong, then he can make his attack before the final Time Trial. It’s up to him.

Of the other former favourites, there is both plenty and nothing to write. Bradley Wiggins has been totally honest – last year he came in with unexpected form and got fourth, this year his form has not been there. All he can hope for is a good finish in the final Time Trial.

Cadel Evans – with the Rainbow Jersey of World Champion on his shoulders – rode well early and proudly took Yellow. Then crumbled in what is becoming a rather Aussie way – maybe he and Ricky Ponting can share a beer of sadness together (88 all out when you win the toss – ho ho ho!).

Armstrong in his last ever Tour has been somewhat of a revelation – nice, journo-friendly, even a bit laughing. Once he knew all was gone he rode a fantastic breakaway on Stage 16 in to Pau. Gave his all and reminded us of why we respect him. The stage was won by Pierrick Fedrigo and he gave France their sixth Stage win of the Tour. I can’t remember the last time that happened and with French riders topping King of the Mountains as well.

Tomorrow we go out for the final day in the mountains. This day will certainly decide the Polka Dot Jersey, should also decide the overall winner. Unless something bizarre occurs, Andy Schleck will certainly win the White Jersey (and the stuffed yeti toy) and Alberto Contador will go into the final Time Trial knowing that he will be in Yellow in Paris.

After that we have two days more for Mark. A sprint finish is likely into Bordeaux and of course no matter if the Maillot Jaune is decided, there is the sprint on the Champs Elysees. Who can forget last year’s finish? Renshaw delivering Cav to the line so easily that it was a double Mark finish.

That won’t happen this year, but if Cav can get over the Tourmalet, he’ll fight to the finish. More to prove this year. My guess, and bet, if I were a betting woman, would be that Bernie Eisel will deliver Cav to the line in Paris.

Contador to win. Schleck second. Denny third.

Thor for the Green.

One of the French for KoM.

Cav on the Champs.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

World Cup 2018 - cissethedog

This year’s World Cup has been ok, not great, not rubbish. But I suspect the long term trend is towards a blander, cagier ‘product’. This is not good.

These changes have four main objectives:
  • Feature a wider variety of playing styles
  • More coverage for smaller teams/players
  • Support the referees with technology, but not to burden them with any extra subjective decisions. Make some things simpler, give the attacking team more of the advantage
  • Encourage new approaches to the game

It also accepts the World Cup is set apart from the rest of the football calendar; there should be no problem with it having some unique rules.

Increase WC to 64 teams:

16 groups of four
Six games per group = 96 games in the group stage. Six matches played most days (2 on opening day, 4 on last day of the group stage), no problem with matches played concurrently.

Knockout rounds of 32 – 16 – 8 – 4
Draw for knockout stages comes only after group stage is finished; top teams are seeded (1-8) by the number of goals scored in group stage, top seed gets to chose which runner up it prefers. Seed 1 plays 8 in the next round (2v7, 3v6, 4-5).

Why: more teams, more good & bad, more opportunity for small countries to progress. May make it easier for ‘top’ teams to qualify, therefore allowing more time/scope to develop new systems. Group games can be played in smaller venues. Seeded draw makes for more TV drama, and rewards goalscoring

Group stage points:
1pt for draw, 2pt for win by more than one goal, 3pt for win by 2+ goals

Why: creates more risk/reward

Knockout stage:
Teams reduced by one man if drawing after 90mins. Opposition managers to choose which outfield player to be removed; reduced by a further player after first period of extra time. Then penalties

Why: creates more space, throws up new tactical options

To be used if the ball has crossed the line. Play to carry on as normal, but brought to a halt by 4th referee (off field, watching the video replay) if evidence says ball was in.

Offside: microchips in shoes (& ball) should be able to detect real-time position of players; player onside if his foot is behind the foot of the last man. Again, play until off-field ref says its off (should be <1 style="font-weight: bold;">Scrap the 6-yard box:
keeper takes kick from the line between his posts

Why: limits distance of these kicks

players can take from anywhere within 5 yards of where foul was committed – but no nearer the goal.

Why: may help create better shooting angle for attacking team

Throw-ins taken one handed:
Why: speeds it up, allows option of longer distance throws

Use a proper football
Official ball to in use, worldwide, for full season prior to event. Silly to have the event undermined like Jubilano 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

For the love of the game - ebren

An email, a mad dash home, a cross-town trek. Arriving late, padding up, waiting on the boundary, taking off the pads after a single delivery, fielding, losing, drinking. This week I have played four games of cricket, losing three.

There’s something horrible about losing a game of cricket. Eight times out of ten you can see it coming, sometimes for hours, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

Each delivery whispers “wicket” seductively in you ear, before dashing off to the boundary for some other batsman. You feel every run at the end, deep in your stomach. The ones hit 100 metres away and the one that flash two feet past your outstretched hands. Worse are the unplayable balls that remove no bails.

I’ve lost three times, for three different teams, in four days, spent eighty overs fielding, 21 ‘umpiring’ because I was already out, scored two runs and bowled no balls.

“Three overs to come, three batsmen waiting, four runs needed. Now we’ve got our boot on your throat we’re going to keep pushing down,” I said to the opposition captain on Thursday. Gallows humour is sometimes all you have.

I should point out now I’m not very good at cricket. I love the game, but I never really progressed after dropping the sport as a 13 year old. I kept watching, spending days on the sofa in front of Tests, picking apart one side of a ball completely while watching Nasser score 207 at Edgbaston. I’ve seen England play Twenty20, ODIs and a few days of Test cricket at the Oval in the last couple of years as well as watching Surrey.

But until recently my last bat was in a junior size and I’d never owned pads or gloves. That was about to change.

Approaching 20 years after I stopping playing, I was asked if I wanted a game after a drunken conversation with some colleagues. I might have over-reacted. I bought whites for less than the price of a football shirt after my first game, then a bat, then gloves, pads, a box, more pads (thigh ones this time) new whites and three, different, bags.

I found that missing cricket because I was playing football annoyed me. I stopped playing football. I joined a new team so I could play on the weekends – I’d been pulled in and was hooked.

But once that first flush of lust, the quickening of the pulse and shy smile at the thought of pulling on whites and picking up a bat, has passed the drudgery sets in.

On Wednesday and Thursday we’d posted paltry scores, then somehow hung on and not lost embarrassingly early. It was still a nice way to spend a summer’s evening after work, and my mercy-mission across the capital to help one team out was rewarded by free beers.

Saturday was different. A 40-over game lasting well into the evening, we’d exploded in the middle order and then faded in the end to post a competitive total of 205. We asphyxiated their openers, cutting off space and air with a tight field and a tighter line. After 17 overs they’d scored just 50 runs.

Then something horrible happened. A man, who’d rather be at the theatre, came in. Every ball, regardless of its quality, was thrashed. After the 21st over we had a drinks break, he retired himself to go to the west end, and the score was 117.

The spell was broken and as afternoon slipped into evening the odds of victory lengthened with the shadows.

I didn’t go out for a drink after the game, I was bone tired after 40 overs fielding, 21 standing and six batting, flogging myself chasing lost causes as balls reached the rope a meter or two ahead of me, bruised by a ball I didn’t catch and facing a long journey by public transport before I could get food and clean the sweat from my body.

But the next time I get that email, I’ll come running back. Because the bitter taste of defeat doesn’t normally last long. The moments do. Like the grin after seeing a debutant thrash a ball straight over the bowler’s head, someone had never held a bat until a few weeks earlier, and the cheers from the boundary after I signalled a six not a four.

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