United Need to Not Aim High

24/03/2014

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This may sound bizarre, but believe me, I do have a point. If Manchester United, and David Moyes, want to get back to challenging for the title next season, they need to remain pretty average for the rest of the season. The only way they are going to qualify for the Champions League is by winning it, they are so far off 4th place, and even with Arsenal faltering, there seems little chance of them getting there, especially with the likes of Everton and Spurs playing well enough to stay just outside that coveted spot.

So what’s left for United? A top 6 finish could get them in the Europa league, a competition they’ve only played in once, and that was after failing in the group stage of the Champions League. Would they really want that? There’s an argument that Europe is Europe and they should strive to play in the bridesmaid of European club football, but the reality is they would be better served by missing out completely.

The Europa league starts when preseason should start, meaning the break between seasons is hardly there, players don’t get a full preseason, new players get less time to settle in, and players who feature at the World Cup get almost no break. The plus point of competitive matches early on meaning a more energetic and battle ready start to the domestic season is soon outweighed by tired legs, injuries and too much rotation, as the Europa League qualifying, and then league games start to take it’s toll. Add to that Thursday matches, with little recovery time before the weekend, and the old European hangover becomes a more likely story than United running away with the league.

Perhaps the best case for United missing out on the Europa League comes from their most bitter rivals – Liverpool. Liverpool are enjoying perhaps their best league season in over 24 years, and it’s precisely because of a lack of European action. Past Liverpool sides have not been able to juggle the strains of a league tilt, cup run and European matches with squad boasting less numbers and quality than the usual big four. This season however, unbridled by mid week action, they have kept their first 11 fit, fresh, and better prepared than most of their rivals. They’ve enjoyed less injury problems than United and Arsenal, and will probably just miss out on the league title because of Chelsea and CIty’s bette, and bigger, all round squads. Take nothing away from them though, they have played great attacking football, that’s proved effective as well as pleasing, and wherever they finish this season will be a big step forward from their recent past.

All that meaning that United need to win and play well in their last 9 games, as players play for their futures, as the club plays for pride, and to bring a certain amount of momentum into their start next season, but they also need to hope that those above them carry on winning, ensuring that Europe is just out of their reach. Then maybe Moyes will have a better chance at lifting United to the expected heights and challenges next season.


Don’t Hide Your Match Winners

19/03/2014

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South Africa have been accused, and with some reason, of being too one dimensional in the past. They have a plan, and they stick to it, and generally execute it well. It’s why they have risen to the top of Test cricket, and been ranked first in both ODI and T20 cricket in the recent past. It also may be why they’ve never won a World Cup.

Despite going into tournaments as the form team and favourites they’ve always fallen short, losing a key moment that sees the dreaded “c” word thrown around. At the last T20 World Cup they decided to change things a bit and went in the complete opposite direction – too much flexibility. They had a fluid, floating batting order, with the opposition, and it seems the players themselves, never knowing who was coming in next. Balance has always been a buzz word in teams, and this is what the Proteas need, balance in their approach, balance between structure and flexibility.

Although the recent T20 series against Australia was spoiled by the weather, it did give an alarming indication of what the Proteas plans may be in the World Cup – a regression to the past inflexibility. They seemed to have had everyone down from 1-11 and nothing was going to change that. In the opening game, with it being only 7 overs each side, they sent their usual openers in with Faf Du Plessis in at 3. All indications were that JP Duminy would be in next if needed. No AB De Villiers, David Miller or Albie Morkel in a 7 over shoot out? The next game saw AB in at 5, followed by Miller and then Morkel. The batting order is going to lose South Africa this World Cup.

AB de Villiers is not only South Africa’s best batsman, he’s the best in the world. So why is he coming in at 5 in a 20 over game? Because he does it for his IPL team and has been a destructive finisher with a quick 30 and the occasional 50. This is a World Cup, and they have a chance of finally winning one! The batting order should be built around AB, with him coming in at 3 to face as many balls as possible, and everyone batting around him. If AB bats for over 30 balls you generally end up with a good score. At 5 he either has to come in and have a slog after a good platform has been laid, or perform a rescue act if it’s been a bad start. He’s wasted at 5, and needs to bat at 3. It’s that simple.

The idea behind the Proteas batting lineup is that the foundation is laid by the openers, Faf and JP, and AB, Miller and Albie are the finishers. Sound logic, but this is T20 cricket! Get AB in their sooner, and you still have JP, Miller and Albie to finish! That being said their is a case for Miller to be moved up the order too. He’s a match winner, and can’t win matches facing 8 balls, batting at 6. He bats at 4 for his franchise the Dolphins and has been amazingly effective there. If wickets are lost early, hold him back, send JP and Faf in ahead to work the power play, but then get him in after the 6th over. He’s a destructive batsman, but not from ball one, give him an over or two to play himself in, and then sit back and watch the fireworks.

AB and Miller are South Africa’s match winners. Don’t hide them at 5 and 6, get them in earlier, let them control the game, and then take it away from their opponents. The weapons are there, use them correctly and the Proteas could just win a World Cup at last.


Who’s Next?

09/03/2014

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The Protea’s don’t play another Test until the middle of the year when they take on Sri Lanka, the last team to beat them away from home, back in 2006. The selectors and board, rightly, have decided not to name the new Test captain, the man stepping into Graeme Smiths enormous shoes, until they’ve weighed their options.

Those options have been spoken about in great detail since the shock announcement of Smith’s retirement. In the 23 years since South Africa re-entered the Test arena they have only had 4 official Test captains, Wessels, Cronje, Pollock and Smith. So who will be the 5th man to lead the Proteas Test team, and look to continue their reign as the number one ranked team?

By all accounts there are only two options. AB de Villiers is the vice captain of the Test team an captains the ODI team, and Faf du Plessis is the T20 captain. Within those in the current squad Hashim Amla and Alviro Petersen have also captained to a degree at domestic level, and Amla has captained on occassion and been vice captain of the national side. However Amla relinquished his role as vice captain because of his wish not to take up the full role when it became available, and to concentrate on his batting. Petersen’s role in the first eleven isn’t as automatic as would be needed to captain, so he would be ruled out. So really there are only the two choices, AB or Faf.

AB is the natural choice, and as vice captain the progression should see him step up to the full role. He’s been the ODI captain since 2011 and although he has struggled with the change and demands the role requires he has matured and grown into it, and has worked closely with Smith for a number of years. The problem with AB captaining is the triple demand it throws on him, as captain, top order batsman and keeper. He won’t be out of the game at all, and the mental drain could have effects on his batting and keeping. It’s not to say it can’t be done, MS Dhoni does it for India. The difference being AB bats at 5 and Dhoni at 7, and AB is his teams best batsman, while Dhoni has that responsibility shifted to those up the order. It could be done for a short while as they identify who the next keeper will be, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see AB don the gloves in Sri Lanka, keeping in the Subcontinent is a lot different to keeping in SA, and the new keeper be introduced at home against the West Indies in December. What that doe suggest though is that AB will have to give up the gloves if he is to captain the team. It’s already happened in the shorter formats, AB was the keeper but did find it difficult setting fields, rotating his bowlers and keeping up with the pace of the game while keeping. He has twice been warned and suspended over slow over rates. As captain it’s often easier to up to speed with the game and the batsman when fielding at mid on for example rather than standing behind the stumps. The ODI and T20 gloves have been handed to Quinton de Kock, and outrageously talented young batsman, who is surely destined to be one of South Africa’s next great batsman, but a young keeper non the less. He’s only played 21 First Class games, and has not kept in all of these. With him looking to play a big part in the Proteas plans for the next World Cup, there is a school of thought that says don’t throw the Test keeping burden on him just yet. He made his Test debut against Australia and showed his youthful inexperience when throwing his wicket away late in the day to give Australia an opening. However you only need to go back to Mark Boucher, who was thrown in at the deep end as a young keeper in Pakistan to make his debut, with many saying his keeping wasn’t up to the standards of an international Test keeper. He ended his career with 999 wickets as a keeper (and one as a bowler, giving him 1000 international wickets) and the Test record for keepers. With South Africa losing the experience of Boucher, Kallis and now Smith in the last two years it may be the perfect opportunity to blood someone like de Kock. De Kocks first class average of 48 also means he’d fit the balance of South Africa playing 7 batsman, and allow AB to even move up to number 4, where he’ll get more chances to play longer innings. The balance of the team won’t be effected, de Kock will get time to grow into an international keeper, and AB will bat higher – all good for the team, and all good for AB’s case to be the next captain.

The case of Faf would be built more on the lines of AB staying as keeper. Although he does have a lot of respect within the team as a leader, and has done a good job of leading the T20 team. This months T20 World Cup may be a reason why the selectors have decided to wait in naming the captain, as a Proteas win, their first in a World Cup, would be a strong case for Faf to take over the Test team. He’s also captained the Titans at domestic level, something AB has not done. The counter to that would be him not having a settled slot in the Proteas batting line up. Having batted everywhere from 4 to 7 in is short career, you’d want him to establish a role within the team before throwing the captaincy at him. He was earmarked as taking over from Kallis at 4 in the batting line up, but was then moved down the order 3rd Test against Australia. A lot will depend on how he handles the pressure of captaining a South African team at a World Cup in the next few weeks, the outcome of which could have a baring on which way the selectors lean.

Both are strong candidates for the job and will not let anyone down. However if I were asked to decide today, I’d hand the captaincy over to AB and get de Kock the gloves, and usher in a new era in South African cricket, with a new captain, and a talented young batsman-keeper who could end up being the next Gilchrist. We’ll have to wait a while before we know which way the selectors will go though!


When Home Ground Advantage Isn’t An Advantage

07/03/2014

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When you play in the subcontinent you’re going to get a pitch that looks like a day 10 pitch on day 4. It will be a dust bowl, devoid of grass, and turning sideways, with inconsistent bounce. When you play in England you’re going to get a pitch that’s conducive to swing, a pitch that moves the game forward quickly with play lost to to rain expected. When you play in Australia you’ll get a fast bouncy wicket. You don’t know what you’re going to get in the West Indies these days, anything from a fast and bouncing track, to a flat road. Home ground advantage is expected and pitches are prepared for the home team. It’s why the Subcontinental teams are tough to beat at home, but travel badly, it’s why England do well at home, and not really anywhere else, and it’s why Michael Clarkes Australian’s hadn’t won away in years. So why don’t South Africa prepare pitches to favour their team?

It used to be because of “fairness.” We’ll play on what’s in front of us, and it will be an equal contest between both sides. Just like cricket should be. Then it was, “yes everyone else is doing it, but we won’t stoop to that.” The time has come to stoop. It’s the way the game has gone, and not just the modern game, but the way it’s been for a while now. This Proteas team has prided itself on being the best, the most consistent team, and rightly the number one ranked team. A loss to Australia didn’t really dent their rankings such was the lead they had racked up. Their away record has been particularly impressive, having not lost an away series since touring Sri Lanka in 2006. The ability of the batsman to play in all conditions, to adjust their technique to the pitch, and quickly, coupled with the attacks ability to get assistance from even dead tracks has been reflected in their climb to the top, and their hold on it for 20 months now. If they actually started getting help from groundsmen at home they’d be up within reach of the West Indies team of the 70’s and 80’s and the Australian team of the 2000’s.

The Windies were unbeaten for 15 years and 29 series. The Australian’s unbeaten in 16 series. This Proteas team falls into 3rd spot with 14 series unbeaten, before Australia come to South Africa and beat them 2-1. Australia bookend their run having also won 2-1 in South Africa in 2009. It could have been different had South Africa got pitches to suit their team. Instead of pitches that assisted Vernon Philanders subtle movement, Morne Morkels bounce and Dale Steyns swing, they got a Mitchel Johnson track in Pretoria, a pitch that helped no one at St Georges Park, and a Newlands deck almost allowed them to escape with a draw with its flatness on day 5.

In the old days you’d come to South Africa and have a seamers paradise on the green top in Durban, a pitch that offered some turn for the spinners in Cape Town, and a good batting pitch with some bounce and carry in the Highveld. Something for everyone. It’s time South Africa started preparing pitches to suit their attack in every match. Groundsmen should be consulted early enough in the season and told what type of pitch to prepare for the match, given the season, climate and opponent in mind. It’s not because everyone else is doing it but because it should be done and there’s nothing wrong with it. You should have an advantage when playing at home. You shouldn’t lose to an Australian team when preparing pitches to suit Mitchel Johnson who’s just destroyed England at home. You shouldn’t be looking at the stats after a series and seeing that Vernon Philander, the number two ranked bowler in Test cricket, has gone for over 50 and has had the worst bowling record in a series of his career.

South Africa may be way in front at the top of the Test rankings, but there are some things they can still learn from the other teams. Let’s hope the next time they play at home they’ll enjoy South African conditions.


Smith Has Earned Our Respect

06/03/2014

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There’s been a tendency amoungst South African’s to not give our sports stars due respect. We tend to hide behind the bumbling line of keeping them humble and grounded. It’s the casualness of the South African spirit that leads us to want to treat everyone as equals when the rest of the world hoists them as high as possible. It’s that sense that they, as sportsmen and women, are doing what we’d love to be doing, and getting paid, so why should I look up to them. We’re a sports mad country that likes nothing better to do then have a braai and watching our teams. That’s the meat of it. We support our team, and not the individual. 

Sometimes individuals bring teams together, sometimes they rescue teams, and sometimes they lift a nation. The team ethos is admirable and comes from a good place, but why not show pride and respect to our heroes? We’ve had the world greatest all rounder, and our best ever batsman, Jacque Kallis retire recently, and he’s the prime example, a player who was revered more outside his own country than in it. Now that he’s no longer playing and we move forward trying to fill that gap cricket fans in South Africa will begin to realise just what a special player he was. 

The same can be said for Graeme Smith, probably the most divisive cricketer in the country. Picked as captain at just 22, the brash opening batsman who would go on to lead his country to the number one ranked test team, became the first captain in the game to lead in over 100 tests, set records for fourth innings winning chases, and captain for an unbelievable 11 years, yet Smith has never been the most popular player amongst the South African public. His stats have been rehashed all over the broadcast media, TV, print and online, and there’s no need to delve into the numbers again here, but it’s safe to say as a player he was amongst the best, and as a captain he was the best. Some might point to that last statement, particularly those in Australia who would suggest Waugh and Ponting would claim that accolade, and like anything in sport, it’s all opinion based. What I would say though is his record in fourth innings chases can’t be beat, he opened the batting, the most difficult position, for his entire career and still laid the foundation through weight of runs for South Africa’s victories, and the most important element I think, he took his team to number one in Tests, and has been unbeaten away from home since 2006 (incidentally Smith missed this series, Ashwell Prince captained the team that lost to Sri Lanka, so Smith has not lost an away series in over 8 years) and did it all without a Shane Warne, a luxury both Waugh and Ponting had. He also captained for 11 years. The mental toll that will take on anyone can not be underestimated, and the toll it can take on a South African captain, who has the added pressure of racial politics, World Cup failures, and a less than supportive public to deal with. 

Through all this Smith has been dignified and represented his country with pride and honor. As a cricket he is due respect, and gets that from the rest of the world, but as a man he has earned it. The tide has changed with a new generation in South Africa, players like AB De Villiers, Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla are getting the trust and support that the public never gave to Kalls, Boucher and Smith. Lets hope that continues and that South African’s learn that it’s okay to support your own stars. For now though lets show Graeme Smith, a Proteas legend, the respect and admiration he was denied as a player. 


Disgusting

04/05/2010

What a strange weekend of football. On Sunday there were two surreal matches, one in England, and one in Italy. In England, Liverpool hosted Chelsea, and in Italy, Lazio played host to Inter. In both matches the home fans wanted their team to loss, although both got their wish, there was only one where the team agreed with the fans.

Lazio’s fans may have jeered and booed whenever their team attacked or the keeper made a save, they were determined that Roma were not going to win the league, and so happily favoured an Inter win over their team, but there was a difference to what was happening in Liverpool – the players still tried.

From the moment the Liverpool Chelsea match kicked off the viewers were treated to a limp, lifeless and really shameful performance from Liverpool. They wouldn’t make any tackles, stood off the Chelsea players, inviting them to attack, and refused to go at anything other than a jog. Chelsea fared little better, looking as nervous as they had in losing to Spurs a few weeks earlier. They were there for the taking, and until Steven Gerrard gave them an opening goal Liverpool could have easily sprung into action and had them. If they wanted too – clearly they didn’t.

Obviously Liverpool fans will protest that their was nothing sinister or underhanded in Gerrards pass to Drogba. Perhaps there wasn’t, but the truth is would he have been that reckless, careless and irresponsible, had he been concentrating? If he cared? I doubt it. It was the attitude of the players that was alarming.

There can be two things drawn from this. Either they, like the fans, did not want to allow United to win a 19th league title, or they were determined to get rid of the manager. Both are favourite now, so which ever it was they will get their wish. Rafa should be on his way, probably to Juventus, and Chelsea have one hand on the league.

Whoever takes over at Liverpool next year should be alarmed and disgusted by the unprofessionalism of the players, and the loss of integrity they’ve given to the game. They’ve done themselves, their club and the game a disservice. unfortunately I doubt they realise and sadly I don’t think they even care.


Mumbai Got It Wrong

26/04/2010

The 3rd edition of the IPL ended yesterday with the Chennai Super Kings being crowned champions. It was a fitting result for the Super Kings, who have been the most consistent team in the 3 editions, reaching the semi finals on each occasion,  the only team to do so. They also lost the first final by one run to the Rajasthan Royals. With the end of the 3rd edition signally the end of the teams first window together, there will be a fresh auction where the teams will be reshuffled and joined by two new teams, Chennai were rewarded for their results in the first three years. How different it could have been had Munbai got their tactics right.

The Mumbai Indians were the most expensive team at the beginning of the IPL. Bringing in the likes of Tendulkar, Harbajhan Singh, Shaun Pollock, JP Duminy and Dwayne Bravo. The first two editions saw them flatter to deceive and fail to reach the semi’s both times. This year things were different. The balance of the team was perhaps the best of the 8 teams. In Pollard, their expensive new acquisition, they had a powerful all-rounder who could finish games off for them. They sailed through the group stages, easily topping the log, and lead by the magnificent, and ageless, Tendulkar, and the simply brilliant Malinga.  There blend of local and overseas players gave them depth in all area’s, and little weakness. But when it really mattered they came unstuck.

Firstly they had Chennai on the ropes, and then fluffed it, dropping Raina twice on his way to a match winning 50. They allowed Chennai to post a decent score on a wicket that was always going to be harder chasing on. Their biggest mistakes came with their batting line up. When they were chasing 14-16 an over, with 6 overs to go, they should have sent Pollard in. Instead they waited until the 17th over, where his big hitting cameo showed what could have been, and not what was too late. Duminy, who is well capable of clearing the ropes, his brilliant 99* in the Champions League was evident of that, is not a hitter from ball one. He needs an over to play himself in, and coming in when he did he wasnt afforded that. His success in this format has been built around opening the batting, or coming in higher than what he has been doing lately. Last season he was Mumbai’s top run scorer, and that was from the to of the order. Why he wasn’t opening with Tendulkar, or at least coming in at 3 or 4, is something that Mumbai should look at.

The real crime was waiting till the match was all but lost to send Pollard in. It was simply asking too much to expect him to single-handedly win them the match with so few balls left. valiantly he attempted to do just that, but in vain, with a brilliant piece of captaincy by Dhoni, and an excellent 19th over by Morkel, winning the game for Chennai.

So was we move to the next phase of the IPL, with the auction and the reshaping of the teams, it will be interesting to see what happens. The teams have all had 3 years to work things out, and to see which players excel and which don’t. We’ll have to sit back and let it all unfold, but it should be the most interesting window in the IPL to date. For Chennai, they will know that there 3 years have culminated in a win, while Mumbai will now start again, knowing what it takes, and hoping not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

pic from cricinfo