Archive for May, 2009

The first ball in the Ashes battle may be 43 days away but the verbal shelling in the phoney war is well advanced.

I should point out for the benefit of the uninitiated, that as a conflict, the Ashes is not El Alamein, Waterloo, Pearl Harbour, Vietnam, Robyn v Mel Gibson. It is much more serious.

 The Ashes is England versus Australia. The combat zone is a cricket field.

Sports sections in British newspapers and online cricket sites have already carried reports of the indiscriminate lobbing of grenades by Australian captain Ricky Ponting and fast bowler Mitchell Johnson.

Ponting is reported to have taken aim at his counterpart Andrew Strauss by declaring that his troops will be ordered to target him.

“We all know the Australian team tries to put the captain of the opposition under a bit more pressure,” Ponting says. “If you can do that, you can generally take another couple of the guys down with him. That is what we will try to do.”

Meanwhile, Johnson, likely to lead the Australian bowling attack, has another adversary in the crosshairs – England rookie, Ravi Bopara.

The fact that Bopara has rattled off three consecutive centuries against the West Indies doesn’t faze Johnson. “I’ve seen Bopara in those Tests against the West Indies where he scored those centuries,” Johnson said. “He looked good, but there is a big difference between a series against the West Indies and the Ashes. There will be much more pressure, so it will be interesting to see how he goes.”

So much for the first casualty of war being the truth.

They are mild incursions into enemy territory. There will be some heavier artillery to come.

And just to prove that there’s commercial mileage to be had from stoking the fire, England’s main sponsor, npower, has launched a competition in conjunction with The Times with an interesting sub-plot.

The blurb reads thus: “Bones of the Hills is the third volume of Conn Iggulden’s epic Conqueror series tracing the life and adventures of Genghis Khan. Dramatic, powerful and exhilarating, Bones of the Hills is a must-read book for summer. To celebrate, The Times is giving you the chance to experience another epic clash, as England take on Australia at Lord’s in the npower Ashes series.

As for the tabloids, in particular The Sun, they will be at their xenophobic best over the coming weeks. You can hear the sub-editors dusting off those ‘Fry Me Kangaroo Brown’ headlines as we speak.

They will see a potential inferno where the rest of us see an incinerator, and you can be sure they will wheel out former players-turned-pundits to add some kerosene on demand.

One of those quotes-for-rent pundits is the former England batsman Geoffrey Boycott, a gruff, no nonsense Yorkshireman who calls a spade a shovel if there’s a buck in it.

The last time the Ashes was contested in this country England emerged victorious and a vainglorious bus ride through the streets of London followed. In the return fixture, in Australia, a year later, the scoreline read, whisper it, 5-0 to her majesty’s estranged subjects.

Anyone planning a trip to Trafalgar Square this time round, may be dissuaded by Boycott’s take on the likely outcome. It won’t make pretty reading. It may also be grounds for treason.

Boycott’s concerns centre on the aforementioned England captain. “England have got Andrew Strauss who is quite a nice lad – he will do a decent job – but I’m not convinced he is a natural captain,” he says. Ouch.

Can England win the Ashes?, Boycott was asked. “No,” he replied.

In a reference to the upheaval which gripped the England team earlier this year when incumbent captain Kevin Pietersen fell on his sword, paving the way for the appointment of Strauss, and muddled selection policy, Boycott added: “Never mind shooting themselves in the foot, England have shot themselves in the head this winter.”

Hold that bus.


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As English soccer preached humility at the official launch of a bid to stage the 2018 or 2022 World Cup today, what a shame the talking heads were discovered to have missed the pre-launch internal briefing.

So just when you thought the soccer suits had finally grasped managing a nation’s inflated expectations, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Lord Triesman wandered off-message. And David Beckham, well, was David Beckham.

Opening proceedings, the chief executive of the bid, Andy Anson, had warned against arrogance, a reason he cited for England’s failed quest to host the 2006 event. “One of the things we learned from the last World Cup bid was we were perceived to be arrogant around the world in how we presented ourselves,” he said.

“We cannot be arrogant or complacent. We will certainly not be saying that ‘football is coming home’. It was an arrogant slogan.” Yes indeed, the anthem that accompanied England’s hosting of the European Championships in 1996, was arrogant. And presumptive.

Taking up the cudgels, chairman of the Football Association, Lord Triesman, said: “We in England would be truly honoured to host the World Cup and welcome the world.”

He steadfastly toed the party line when adding … “We’d extend a wonderful welcome to players and fans from across the world. Inside and outside our grounds, we’d share with them our love of the game and our sense of fair play.”

Sadly he undid all the good work by ending with … “What could be more inspiring than the dream of England winning the World Cup on home soil?” Oh dear. Couldn’t help himself could he?

Adopted Scot Brown weighed in with … “It’s fitting that we are launching the bid in England, the home of football, and at Wembley – the greatest stadium in the world.”

Saint David, of the parish of Milan, found time between photo shoots and the opening of envelopes to attend. “Our country is renowned for getting excited by big events. I don’t think any country in the world can compete with us for that, ” he alleged.

He avoided a reference to the mourning after those events, particularly European Championships and World Cups, that poleaxes the country’s deluded believers.

Staging it is one thing, winning it quite another. Cue that 1966 World Cup video. Assuming over-use hasn’t consigned it to the communal allotment along with those Bobby Charlton comedy toupees.

So once again, the prospect of success at a significant soccer tournament has been fed to a ravenous nation by people who should know better.

Pride before the fall.

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Judging by the events of the Spanish Grand Prix, Rubens Barrichello, not for the first time in his lengthy career, is heading for the Formula One altar dressed as sacrificial lamb.

The Catalunya race was Barrichello’s for the taking. Starting third, he led the field into the first corner and began to build what was expected to be an unassailable lead given that both Brawn GP cars were on a three-stop strategy.

Well, at least they were after the morning briefing. But once team-mate Jenson Button was switched to a two-stop and Barrichello was hampered by tyre issues during his third stint, the pendulum shifted.

The race ended with a Brawn GP one-two. Button 1, Barrichello 2. Victories in 2009 read Button 4, Barrichello 0. Qualifying is Button 4, Barrichello 1. Drivers’ championship points, Button 41, Barrichello 27.

F1 is all about numbers – or tenths of numbers to be precise. Barrichello is approaching his 38th birthday. So if you consider that Button has seven years on his side in terms of age, Brawn GP are going to be more comfortable with him topping the leader board at the end of the 2009 season and, more importantly, wearing the No1 on his car into 2010.

We are only five races into a 17-race campaign, but the cards may already be stacked against Barrichello. If Button continues to accumulate wins at the current rate, the maths will compel the team to throw its full support behind him. As in Spain, Barrichello’s toys will be hurled from the bassinet.

On Sunday, his reaction to playing second fiddle was to make quit noises. “If I get the slightest sniff of the fact that they have favoured Jenson, I will hang up my helmet tomorrow,” he told US television.

He will find some sympathy in this quarter. He has had his share of setbacks in a career which began in 1993. A violent crash at the wheel of a Jordan at Imola in 1994 came on the same weekend which claimed the life of Ayrton Senna. The mantle of carrying Brazilian hopes weighed heavily on his shoulders thereafter.

With Stewart Grand Prix in 1997 he scored a second in Monaco – one of only three race finishes in a notoriously unreliable car. He had two fifth places to show for his efforts in 1998 when the team shunned wisdom to run a carbon-encased gearbox.

Those of us who endured the horrors of that season clad in Stewart tartan (I successfully resisted the kilt), spent most of our time watching and waiting. Watching the oil temperature rise as the gearbox was brought to the boil. Waiting for the call to bring the SF-2s in to retirement.

The following year Barrichello, armed with a lightweight Cosworth engine with heavyweight grunt, recorded a pole position at a wet Magny Cours and three podium finishes. At the European Grand prix in Nurburgring, Germany, there was a maiden win for the team, courtesy of Johnny Herbert. Barrichello was third.

He had done the hard yards in testing and fast miles in race trim to dominate Herbert all season. So being denied the one moment of triumph for Jackie Stewart’s fledgling team was tough to digest.

Nonetheless, his reward for dragging Stewart GP by its boot laces to fourth in the championship was a seat alongside Michael Schumacher at Ferrari the following season. He was runner-up in the drivers’ championship in 2002 and 2004.

His six years riding shotgun for Schumacher at the Scuderia had its nadir at the Austrian race in 2002. Leading by a distance, Barrichello was ordered to allow Schumacher to pass on the start-finish straight with the chequered flag in sight. The win preserved the latter’s title chances.

Amid a chorus of crowd outrage, Schumacher shamelessly moved Barrichello on to the top step at the podium ceremony and handed him the winner’s trophy.

The podium indiscretion and Ferrari’s flouting of team orders led to the FIA banning the practice.

Two common denominators remain from those Ferrari days. Ross Brawn and Barrichello were colleagues then and now. And team orders are a touchy subject for Barrichello then and now.

Could be a case of bridesmaid revisited for Rubinho.

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Habitually flamboyant, often risqué, Kevin Pietersen’s prowess at clumping a cricket ball many a mile is unquestioned. But it is his technique in the area of allegiance that could do with some corrective net sessions.

The latest exhibit of his flaws in that facet of his make-up leapt from the pages of a British tabloid on Sunday.

The organ in question, the News of The World, reported that Pietersen had thrown his support behind newly-appointed England cricket boss Andy Flower.

No surprise there you might think until you recall that this is the same Andy Flower that Pietersen wanted sacked from the England coaching set-up earlier this year.

In January, at the height of Pietersen’s brief tenure as England captain he fired off a missive to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) – his blueprint for the way ahead.

It suggested the coaching team required some spring cleaning and some rubbish removal. An ECB official revealed that Pietersen advocated the sacking of head coach Peter Moores and, in a reference to the rest of the coaching staff, “wanted half of them out … and certainly Andy Flower”.

Moores was subsequently removed and Pietersen forced to relinquish the captaincy.
The nature of the negotiations surrounding the end of Pietersen’s reign remains opaque. Half an hour before the ECB’s press conference to announce the latest chapter in English cricket’s ongoing soap opera, and shortly before boarding a plane bringing him back from a break in South Africa, he issued a statement in which he claimed he “did not resign but had decided to stand down with immediate effect”.

Pietersen had been counting on the support of the dressing room for his grand plan to work. When that support wasn’t forthcoming, he had no option but to stand down. Backing from his colleagues was in short supply. There was not enough space in the England team for two dominant egos and Andrew Flintoff already occupied that space – and had the majority of the dressing room in his pocket.

Meanwhile, Flower, top of a very short shortlist of replacements for Moores, was duly installed as team director (head coach to you and me).

Now, less than six weeks after demanding his dismissal, Pietersen says Flower “has the makings of a world-class coach.”

“My opinion of Andy has shifted hugely over the past few months,” Pietersen said. “On the West Indies tour he was an absolute superstar. I loved working with him.

“I know I made some comments about him when I was captain but it hasn’t surprised me how my opinion of him has changed. Sometimes people make comments they shouldn’t do.” What, like sharing ill-judged views of the country of your birth eh Kevin?

Pietersen’s journey from Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa, to the England Test team, via a tattoo parlour to have three lions emblazoned on his left arm, is dotted with volte-faces and highly-charged exits.

He made his first-class debut for Natal in 1997 then promptly walked out on South African cricket citing the racial quota system in the post-apartheid era as the reason.

Views to the contrary suggest that he wasn’t prepared to tough it out with his rivals for natural selection. Others suggest that, quotas or not, he would never secure a place in the national side on talent alone such was the quality of the competition.

The hard facts are that, having learned that the contentious quota system, introduced to accelerate the development of non-white cricketers, was likely to limit his opportunities with the renamed KwaZulu-Natal and beyond, he walked.

“In effect, South African cricket threw me out,” he says. Current South African Test captain Graeme Smith begs to differ. “Pietersen ran out on us when things got tough,” he said. “If he didn’t want to be here then we don’t want him. We had to come from apartheid and move on. We all went through it and some fantastic cricketers have emerged.

“I’m patriotic about my country, and that’s why I don’t like Kevin Pietersen. The only reason that Kevin and I have never had a relationship is because he slated South Africa. It was his decision to leave and that’s fine, but why does he spend so much time slating our country?”

So at 19, after he and his Afrikaner father Jannie had exchanged heated words with cricket surpremo Ali Bacher, he fled, left quietly of his own accord, or was thrown out. Or all of the above.

He had previously tried his hand in English league competition at Cannock, Staffordshire. He disliked his single room above a squash court, the bar work he claimed he went unpaid for and the “horrible black country accents”.

But according to former college coach Mike Bechet, Pietersen “had no credentials to demand more than he was given. He had not really achieved any sort of level in provincial cricket in South Africa. It was like a doctor consulting and charging what a specialist would charge as opposed to a normal GP.”

For the return trip to England, the business card in his travel wallet read “Kevin Pietersen – Professional Cricketer”. His mother’s English passport, he hoped, would secure eligibility for England duty after a four-year qualification period.

By 2000, having already been refused a trial by county teams Warwickshire and Derbyshire, he joined Nottingham.
He made an acrimonious departure four years later. Captain Jason Gallian had thrown Pietersen’s kit bag over the balcony after Pietersen said he wanted out following the sacking of former South African Test great and Nottingham coach and Pietersen mentor Clive Rice.

Shane Warne and the lure of Hampshire’s resources proved irresistible in 2004. Pietersen made his Test debut the following year.

No doubt Pietersen’s explosive batting is alien to players nurtured in the English county game. It has made him a vital component of a team perennially mired in caution and uncertainty.

Pietersen has never gone out of his way to avoid attention – on or off the field. Last year he forced the MCC to consider revising the game’s laws by adding a “switch-hit” to his repertoire. In playing the shot he switches from a right-handed stance to a left-handed one just as the bowler is delivering thus gaining an unfair advantage. (More of that much later).

He is married to whatshername, a B-list celebrity who could be seen mostly on her backside during the latest Dancing On Ice series. Her claim to infamy is as a member of Liberty X which sounds like a late night cable TV channel but is in fact a failed pop band.

The silver earring, the rainbow hair colours, the incessant peacocking at the crease are all part of the Pietersen package. As for the aforementioned tattoos, they are a desperate overstatement of wannabe Englishness. The money might have been better spent on elocution lessons to disguise the homespun accent.

Flower is unlikely to be impressed by the celebrity trappings or Pietersen’s $1.5m price tag for a few weeks’ work in the Indian Premier League competition – the latest fast food fad of international cricket.

Flower is the man who remained steadfast in the face of Robert Mugabe. Flower made one of the most poignant political stands in sporting history, a black armband protest mourning “the death of democracy” in Zimbabwe at the 2003 Cricket World Cup on a cricket ground adjacent Mugabe’s residence in Harare.

As a cricketer, Flower’s credentials stand comparison with the best. In 60 Test matches for Zimbabwe over a 11-year career, the left-hander scored 4794 runs at a Test average of 51.54 and topped the world batting rankings ahead of Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh and Brian Lara.

The IPL looms as one final exit to ambition for Pietersen. Who’s to say that if the trend towards fallout continues, Pietersen won’t chuck in his lot with England and sign up as a free agent and a rickshaw of rupees.

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Hatton flattened

After his clinical dismantling at the hands of Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas, it is to be hoped that Ricky Hatton answers the clamour for him to quit. And he could do us all a favour and take his obnoxious fans into the twilight with him.

On the eve of the IBO light-welterweight world title bout against Filipino Pacquiao, Hatton declared that “this fat, beer-drinking Englishman is going to shock the world again”.

Well he didn’t.

Mancunian Hatton was floored by a flashing right hook in the first round and canvassed again shortly before the bell. In the second, he was pole-axed by a huge left hand and counted out with one second remaining.

All over in less time than it takes to say “I do” in that part of the world. And it was the best man who ran off with the spoils.

The defeat throws doubt on 30-year-old Hatton’s future. Twice he has challenged the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and twice he has come up short. There is no disgrace in losing to Floyd Mayweather Jr and Pacquiao, but Hatton may well decide that if he can’t mix it with the best, then there’s no point in mixing it at all.

As for Hatton’s so-called supporters, they are best confined to the soccer terraces where booing of the opposition’s national anthem and hurling of slurred obscenities are de rigueur.

In his post-match summary, one local sports writer noted: “The only blemish to the evening was the rude, arrogant, obnoxious, drunken behavior of the British fans. I actually started out the evening a Hatton supporter.

“Once the Brits disrespected the Star Spangled Banner I became a fervent Pacquiao fan, and god bless him, he didn’t let me down. I won’t make the same mistake again.”

So Hatton’s loss has upsides for the British image abroad. The department of trade and industry must be relieved that Hatton devotees will be not be exporting their wares to American shores for a while. The Nevada authorities, meanwhile, will not have to brace for further abuses of hospitality any time soon. A slump in beer sales is a small price to pay.

Pacquiao will have put a huge dent in Hatton’s brand in the US, and if he does decide to rebuild, he will have to do it in the foothills. The days of topping Vegas bills are in the past.

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