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Archive for June, 2009

Flagging fortunes

Further flags of convenience fluttered into the view of Funny Peculiar English this week – from the US Open golf championship at Bethpage, New York.

A rain-affected first round and seven of the top 10 positions on the leaderboard were filled by North Americans. Englishmen were anonymous, Scotsmen, Welshmen or Irishmen were thin on the ground, so for BBC sports commentators, the ever-reliable British default setting was not an option.

The Spanish, French, Swedes and Danes were way off the early pace. No chance to wave the European standard proudly either.

So, in a live cross from the course, BBC Five Live commentator Matt Williams gleefully informed listeners that the best-placed UK player was Graeme McDowell. Yes, “best-placed UK player”.

McDowell, of Northern Ireland, was trotted out as the hastily-adopted son of BBC golf coverage. Well, he’s almost British and as good as European.

Ah, Europe. The BBC has a severe identity disorder when it comes to Europe and golf. It would dearly love to remain true to the Britishness in its title. But in Ryder Cup year, the biggest team event on the golfing calendar, the Beeb is forced to swallow hard. A similar disease afflicts BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting).

Both willingly forget Britain’s distaste for all things European – the sneers at the discourteous French, the historical distrust of the Germans.

They put to one side the British government’s reluctance to fully embrace the EU, and the English allergy to anyone born south of the La Manche.

So, every two years, the BBC and Sky throw their unequivocal support behind the Frogs, Krauts, Hombres and Scandihooligans. A gaggle of sycophantic scribes follow suit.

Remember, the Ryder Cup began as a contest between Great Britain and the US in 1927. From 1973 the Irish were included to lend weight to the cause. When their combined strength was not enough to see off the Americans, the net widened to include Europeans from 1979.

Shades of the Lions rugby team here.

Prior to 1979, the scoreline read 14-1 (with one draw) in favour of the Americans. Post European inclusion, the score is 7-7 (with one draw).

And what are we to make of the fact that, in that that time, only two of the 16 European Ryder Cup captains have been European?

On both occasions, there were wins for Europe. In 1997 Seve Ballesteros oversaw a narrow victory at Valderrama and Bernhard Langer administered a romp at Oakland Hills Michigan in 2004.

Last time out, in 2008, it was Englishman Nick Faldo.

And what was his reward for his team’s spectacular failure against the Americans at Kentucky? A knighthood.

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The English summer sporting banquet is about to be served. Wimbledon fortnight and the (British) Lions rugby union Test series are on the carte du jour.

It offers up a chance to gorge on the oddities of the English sports spectator, the staple diet of Funny Peculiar English.

Let’s take SW19 for starters.

For Annabel Middle-England, of Basingstoke, Wimbledon is a social outing, the tennis is incidental.

She double parks the C-class estate at the station, catches the 08:30 to London Waterloo, takes a tube to Southfields, has a pleasant stroll to the lawns of the All England Club, eases that ample derriere onto her Centre Court cushion, and gives thanks to the ticket ballot scheme. Mrs Wimbledon is born.

No matter that Mrs Wimbledon thinks deuce is what washes down her croissants with cumquat jam in the mornings. She travels in the hope that her Philip Treacy sun hat draws comment from her zinc-splattered neighbours or that rain will launch Cliff Richard into song.

There will be British wild cards for her to politely applaud and plucky first-round exits to bemoan (actually they’re one and the same).

She will join the group ovation when the umpire remonstrates with amateur flash bulb photographers and she’ll mimic the oohs and aahs of all around her.

First serves will be returned with interest, break points earned, match points saved, top spun cross court backhands will create chalk dust, seeds will be scattered and former champions will depart. For good.

And all the while, she remains gloriously oblivious.  

Yes, an English girl might sneak through to the second round of the ladies’ singles on Court 15. But it escapes Mrs Wimbledon’s notice that the progress is not down to innate talent but a consequence of Susannah Double-Barrel having had more arse than class. More arse than Beyonce against the 16-year-old Uzbekistan qualifier who dumped three game clinchers into the net in the deciding set.

Of course Annabel has heard of that nice (but dim) Tim. But for her, Philippa and Felicity, the 2009 championships will be different.

This year, for Tim Henman read Andy Murray. For Henley-on-Thames read Dunblane, Scotland. For well-reared, wholesome, husband, out of his depth in the semi-finals, read spotty, angst-ridden youth with a genuine shot at the title.

Yes, Scotland. Whisper it.  

So this year Bella, Pippa and Flick, will be waving not their cross of St George but flags of convenience. You can almost smell the dilemma Bellsy Wellsy and her fragrant friends will endure.

It will help Murray’s cause that he has just signed a deal to be the clothes horse of Fred Perry, that most quintessential of English tennis clothing brands.

The irony of that will be lost on Annabel. It was Murray remember who said he would be supporting the Paraguayans against Beckham’s England in the 2006 World Cup.

Meanwhile, the obsequious BBC (more of that during the tournament) and the tabloids can fawn and salivate all they like about ‘British’ this and ‘British’ that, but what they really crave is an English winner.

Well, sorry to disappoint you all but young Murray – Messers Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Roddick notwithstanding – may yet lift the trophy.

If he does, salacious tales of his English girlfriend will adorn hectares of the Sun, Mirror, Star, Express and Daily Mail. If he doesn’t, we’ll be reminded of Dunblane’s geographical location.

Here at Funny Peculiar English we call it the Monty syndrome. It pervades sports coverage in England and sways the opinions of those it touches. It goes like this … Colin Montgomerie is a factor for the first three rounds of a major golf tournament, particularly the (British) Open Championship.

His presence on the leaderboard is attributed to British bulldog spirit. When the slide to ignominy occurs over the closing 18 holes, and he finishes joint-23rd, or victory is cruelly snatched from his grasp by Johnny Foreigner, we are reacquainted with Monty’s tartan roots.

No doubt Annabel will raise a glass of sparkling pinot grigio to Murray’s feats, but a thumb through the biographies in the official programme will render the taste bitter-sweet. For her, and plenty like her, Murray Mound is definitely not Henman Hill.

Which brings us nicely to the British and Irish Lions. As the aforementioned flags of convenience go, this one takes some beating.

The Lions concept came about because of the English rugby team’s serial failure to beat a bunch of New Zealand sheep farmers. It was devised by the Rugby Football Union in the early 1900s and has the whiff of rampant bullying about it.

Despite the predominance of Irish players in the 2009 squad, a Welsh tour manager, a Scottish head coach, and a New Zealand assistant, any victory will be seen as made in England by that rare species of Englishmen – Rugger Orotundus Rotundus.

A defeat, on the other hand, will be down to the fact that the Welsh, Scots and Irish playing staff, let the side down. 

The RORs conveniently overlook their disdain for Taff, Jock and Paddy. They usher players from the home nations into the fold and roundly celebrate victories over modestly-populated southern hemisphere nations which are otherwise out of reach. 

The Lions draw from a catchment of over 60 million. Australia has 21m (not all rugby converts), New Zealand has 4.3m (all devout). Pick on someone your own size I say.

And since you ask, yes, I’ve heard of the Webb Ellis Trophy. 

I once saw it paraded on a London bus and twice on the streets of Sydney.

P.S. I will deal with the Ashes, the Boat Race, the Derby and the Badminton Horse Trials in due course.

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The World Twenty 20 Championship of cricket starts in England tomorrow – a fast-food alternative to the sumptuous banquet of Test match competition.  

The abridged version of the game will cause no manner of issues for Americans who have just about got their heads round the concept of the five-day format.

By way of explanation, pay attention at the back, Test cricket works like this …

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out.

When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.

When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay all out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out.

When both sides have been in and all the men have out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game.

As for Twenty 20. Oh forget it.

Suffice to say, during the month of June, the spotlight will fall on batsmen impersonating baseball sluggers.

It will also linger on a bowler whose action is best suited to the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park. That’s the home of the Boston Red Sox for any non-Americans out there.

I talk of course of Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan – the game’s leading wicket taker in both Tests and the one-day game. Confused? This might help.

The man has a questionable bowling action. So much so that biomechanical analysts were brought in by cricket’s governing body several years ago. A re-writing of the rule book to accommodate him was the result.

He was first tested (under non-match conditions) and cleared by the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 1996 and again in 1999.

The legality of the latest weapon in his repertoire – the doosra – (the equivalent of a slider, or a knuckle curve for Sox fans) was queried in 2004. This delivery was found to exceed the ICC elbow extension limit by nine degrees, five degrees being the limit for bowlers of his type at the time.

The ICC subsequently revised the elbow flexion limits applying to all bowlers in 2005 and guess what, Muralitharan’s doosra fell within those revised limits.

In many people’s eyes, no matter how many scalps he captures, his ‘achievements’ will always trail a whiff of suspicion and his entries in the record books have an asterix placed beside them.

The purists, you see, are uncomfortable having an illusionist sitting atop the pile. And I’m with them.

What of Bishan Bedi, Clarrie Grimmett, Derek Underwood, Lance Gibbs, Hedley Verity, Anil Kumble, Jim Laker, Bill O’Reilly, Abdul Qadir, Shane Warne? Great spin bowlers all. Men well placed to adjudicate. Where do the deeds of Muralitharan sit with their own? 

A “shot putter” was one of Bedi’s kinder descriptions of Muralitharan. A bit harsh maybe, but you get his point.

Richie Benaud, a voice of calm in many a storm, and a mean twirler of a cricket ball in the 50-60s, was asked to name his top 10 spin bowlers of all time. Muralitharan was not in it on the grounds that the doyen said he “was too controversial to be included”.

He has been labelled a chucker, a thrower and a lot worse. Few cricketers have divided opinion like Muralitharan. To some, he is blessed by genius. To others, he is a cheat.

His record of 770 and 505 wickets respectively in the Test and one-day arena is the source of the fiercest debate known to the game.

A debate inflamed by the presence on his record of a glut of wickets against inferior opponents from Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, all taken on home soil.

He won’t add to those stats during this tournament as Twenty 20 is a separate competition altogether. It is also heavily weighted in favour of the batsmen so any wickets he does take will be costly.

But his mere presence will prompt sniggers from men in blazers. He is to cricket what a rehabilitated drug taker is to cycling, weightlifting or track and field.

Dare the umpires on duty this month enforce the letter of the law? Dare they ban the doosra for fear of plunging the game into disarray when the eyes and the ears of the world, not to mention the money men from emerging markets, (particularly the US) are fixed on it?

The sad reality is that they won’t and the game’s proudest record will remain in the keep of the magic circle, the art of deception. And tarnished.  

Or at least until another bowler with a legitimate action comes along to expunge it.

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