Deliberate Deliberations

Surely I can’t be the only one more than a little confused at the decision by the English FA to rescind the red card that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain eventually was awarded for his sprawling save in the 6-0 defeat to Chelsea. I mean as deliberate hand balls go this season that was by far the pick of the bunch. Arsenal contested the decision on the basis that the visible trajectory of Eden Hazard’s attempt on goal was destined to go wide and as such the midfielders deliberate, and successful, attempt to stop the ball with his hand would have all been in vain anyway. The FA’s conclusions to agree with Arsenals’ thesis on this matter is one of the most ridiculous decisions of the season and I’m astounded that given the propensity for the English media to chastise the FA and all that they do there has been not so much as a whimper of disagreement, in fact I’ve read and heard many agreeing with what the FA has decreed.

I’ve been trying to rationalise the outcome of the governing bodies findings and I have struggled whilst simultaneously trying to cast aside any conspiracy theories about how being young and English give’s you that little bit of extra leeway. Somehow over the last 12 months the rules surrounding handball have become just as muddled as offside and the six-second rule. Natural body position, deviations in flight and general proximity to the ball itself have all been used as defence’s when the deliberate nature of handball has been the focus of debate, and you know what? That’s fine, it would be remiss of any official not to take these factor’s into consideration when making a final decision, the problem I have is that in the case of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain none of these factors came in to play. It was deliberate as deliberate could get. Yes, Andre Marriner made a massive error in red-carding Kieran Gibbs but the decision to give a red card and penalty for the offence itself was spot on as far as I’m concerned.

Let us try to transport ourselves into the mind of ‘The Ox’ on that fateful Saturday lunchtime. Your team are 2-0 down after a 15 minute spell where you are getting totally over-run, recent history has shown that another thumping is on the cards and here come Chelsea again. You get yourself back on the line for the inevitable moment they manage to break through once again. The shot comes in and it’s heading towards you. It’s at chest height but too far away to get in front of it. You could head it away but with the speed of the ball coming at you the lack of control you would have would probably result in a goal anyway. You decide to risk it and fling your body to your left and stick your hand out to claw the ball away. Now I’m fully aware that the timeframe required to read that paragraph is far greater than the time the midfielder had to make the same decision but I hope it shows that the decision he made to throw a hand out to stop it was a conscious one and one taken oblivious to the fact that the ball was going wide and as such a foul worthy of a straight red card.

Whenever I delve into a debate of this nature I like a comparison and when it comes to red cards and handballs there are a few to pick from but I have restricted myself to just a couple, both with goal scoring opportunities at the heart of them.

One of my earliest memories of being a Scotland fan is a World Cup qualifier in 1992 away to Switzerland, at that time I had to make do with a combination of radio and late night television highlights but I, like many other members of the Tartan Army, still to this day remember the moment that Richard Gough caught the ball. A good old-fashioned punt up the park from the Swiss defence headed towards the then Scotland captain. With a Swiss forward descending all the signs pointed towards Gough launching a header back from where it came, however the ball was too high and in a moment of madness he reached his arms into the air and plucked it from the sky like a front row in a rugby line-out thus preventing an almost certain one-on-one opportunity for Switzerland to score. His punishment was rightly a red card but imagine that same scenario in the world of the English FA. If you refer back to the  Oxlade-Chamberlain incident as Gough’s offence did not occur within the 8ft by 8yd area contained within the goal posts a red card would not have been necessary.

If that is too subtle what about the moment where Luis Suarez ‘broke the hearts of Africa’, as one commentator proclaimed, at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when stopping Asaomah Gyan’s winner in the final minutes of extra time in Uruguay’s World Cup quarter-final with Ghana. He was again rightly red carded and much debate followed about whether Suarez had cheated or simply done what he had to do to keep his side in the tournament. His histrionics as Gyan missed the resulting penalty are now part of World Cup folklore but there is no debating that the punishment fitted the crime. If that ball was going a couple of inches over the bar and Suarez had done the same thing would there have been the same ambivalence to the incident by the media and the red card reversed or would a pre-Premier League Suarez be a villain before he had even hit these shores. Suarez just like Oxlade-Chamberlain was knowingly trying to stop a goal, the only difference was the shot he stopped was on target.

My argument remains that Oxlade-Chamberlain was guilty of preventing a goal scoring opportunity with his hand and the red card and penalty awarded was the correct decision to give. The fact that the ball was going off target is a technicality that opens a can of worms that will go to further blur the lines of what should be one of the simplest rules in a game where the primary objective of an outfield player is to kick it with his foot, not to juggle it with his hand.

Ashes Final Test: 37 A New Hope?

 

It is a mark of how far Australia have fell that a debutant who makes just 37 is being hailed as the Green Baggy’s next big thing. Usman Khawaja showed more than the man he replaced, Ricky Ponting, in his 95 ball innings than Punter had managed in the entire series. In a first over sprinkled with a good leave, a nicely timed nick and an elegant boundary there was enough variety on display to suggest he may indeed be the real deal.

Unfortunately for the debutant, inexperience was his undoing and as Graeme Swann niggled and span at him the pressure got too much and a swing and a towering looping ball later the ball had nestle safe in hand and the exciting youngster had gone. Last ball of the day and with it the momentum firmly swung in England’s favour.

Not that the test hadn’t started in England’s favour anyway, the decision to bat on an overcast UK-esque was strange and given the nature of the decision by stand in skipper Michael Clarke you would expect the Aussies to come out all guns blazing. Clarke himself didn’t help his debuting colleague with another innings of ineptitude. Instead of leading by example it appeared the he and his side were playing with something that I certainly haven’t seen in my lifetime. Fear against the English.

The scoreboard ticking at a run rate that even Mike Atherton would have been hurtling past as batsmen erred on the side of caution that would make Craig Levein’s infamous 4-6-0 look almost kamikaze. Afraid to play their shots the performance on day one gave the impression of an Australian side hanging on until the end of the series where they can slip away to think again. In Usman Khawaja they have a shining light and in Michael Beer they will hope they have finally found another spin king but who would have thought the day that 37 in 95 balls would lift the hopes of a nation who pride themselves on being associated with excellence in the field of willow and leather.

Cricket on the Spot

I have tried to do this a few times now so this will be the amalgumation of my thoughts on the story of Three Men, A Couple of Spots and a Few Thousand Pounds. What has transpired, guilty or not, has tarred the sport of Cricket once again, a game gripped in a battle between The Traditionalists and the dwinding crowds of Test Cricket and The Radicals, the IPL and matches that last just a few hours. Like all sport cricket needed to evolve to keep up with a life now spent living in the moment. The revamp was working, the ICC and IPL have seen advertising revenue explode in the short form of the games but in Test’s outside The Ashes and the very rare clashes between India and Pakistan, it is the same formula that legends such as Lillie, Richards and Bradman played to except people don’t quite have the time or patience to fully appreciate it.

It may be a coincidince but while the radicals have been progressing the game of old has lurched from one problem to another. The latest though is one that could easily have happened at any ground and in any form. Spot fixing although not strictly match altering is, by any other definition, conspiring to effect the events and result of a match that should be played in a true competitive spirit. The balls that were allegedly thrown away by Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, could have induced an edge, sent the bails flying or resulted in the batsman launching the cherry over the boundary for a six and eveything in between and the calls for them to be banished if found guilty are correct. Or are they?

Yes what they have done is wrong, very wrong and as a passionate sports fan, it irritates me immensely that people blessed with skills I can only dream of may have risked it all for a fast buck. What has transpired but if these two men along with Salman Butt have done what they are being accused of then the reasons why they have are yet to come to surface. In my mind it could be one of 3 reasons.

1. Greed – Unfortunately no matter how much success some people have they will never be happy with their lot. They will always want more, bigger, faster, sexier. If personal financial gain has been the catalyst that led to these men supposedly carrying out these acts then indeed the rather hefty, and to many confusing, cricketing rulebook should be launched at them by a wound up Stuart Broad, it’s not like he hasn’t been getting in the practice.

2. Naivity – Not the Christmas story based on 3 Kings and a baby Jesus, no just plain lack of comprehension of what they have done. They have viewed the mis-stepping of a few run ups as nothing more than a small foible of the game, an inconsequence of a match that is played over 5 days, though very few get that far. If it is naievity then the same people within the Pakistani Criceting authorities who are claiming it is a stitch up, something which they have failed to provide any backing for, should be guiding these players on the rights and wrongs of the game. Amir is only 18 and seen as one of the future stars of the game, with commentators and analysts alike waxing lyrical about his potential. Was he merely following orders from his more experienced team mates or was he a more than willing accomplice? At the moment nobody knows. Do you ruin the career of somebody who could boost the game because somewhere along the line he was given some really bad advice? 

To argue naievity in the cases of Butt and Asif is perhaps a stretch too far, Butt is the recently appointed captain of his country, a dream for millions of Pakistani children. They are far more experienced not just in cricket but in life in general. They would of been old enough to remember the Hansie Cronje Scandal and so questions must be raised as to what exactly would have been going through their head other than kerching!

3. Fear – Betting is a massive business in the Middle East, you can bet on how often Billy Bowden scratches his nose during an innings if you look at the markets hard enough. And what of Mazhar Majeed, ‘The Fixer’, pitched as the brians behind the operation, is he really the big hitter in all this or just the tail that does a bit of wagging? If any of these menhave found themselves in circumstances which has meant those of a dubious nature have them over a barrel then although what they have done is wrong, everything should be done by the same authorities investigating these men, to find the true cause of the problem. Theres too many questiosn still unanswered.

Whatever the outcome and for whatever the reason if found guilty these men and anyone else involved should be punished. They have brought the sport into disrepute while also letting down millions of fans back home who will be looking to the cricket team to provide some much-needed relief from a series of flooding that refuses to subside. Those who say ‘Ban them Forever’ may get their way, but only after a a rational and considered investigation is carried out into if they are guilty of the charges being levied against them and what caused thme to make the decision to sully the game. We can only hope that this has all been a massive misunderstanding but as more and more information creeps out of the woodwork we just have to cross our fingers and hope that whatever the result and resolution, Cricket comes out stronger and more resolute against the challenges it faces today. While football had hooliganism in the 70’s and 80’s, betting and fixing seems to be ‘Cricket’s Disease’ for the 21st Century.

Dan Parks: Scotland’s No. 10

Two matches and two losses, against the French we were outclassed and against the Welsh we capitulated to such a degree there isn’t a metaphor strong enough, the one difference between those two matches: Dan Parks . I was astonished when Phil Godman was picked ahead of the Glasgow fly half for the first Test against France, there did not seem to be any logic for picking the Edinburgh man ahead of the Aussie born Scot.

Godman’s form for Edinburgh has been decidedly average and his kicking game lacks that sparkle whilst in a Scotland shirt you never feel that buzz that something is going to happen, with Parks you get that feeling. It is retrospective now but the 1872 Cup games over the Christmas period should have been used as an auditioning process by Andy Robinson, he would get a chance to see his two top number 10’s battle out and there was only one winner in that contest.

There are many detractors for Dan Parks, to be honest I’m not a hundred percent sure why, yes he can be abrasive but that’s just his manner, in fact that’s just the nature of his homeland Australia, but his frank opinions at the end of the Wales match were far more interesting than listening to some insipid line that we were unlucky. I like the fact that when he does something good he will revel in it. His form can be inconsistent but when he is hot, he is very hot and for Glasgow in the Magners League he has been instrumental in their title push. There are those that say he never cut it in a Scotland shirt, and that may of been the case but that was several years ago and he is matured into a pivotal figure for club and now country.

This was epitomised by two touches of magic from his boot in Cardiff, firstly the intelligent little grubber kick to the corner which Max Evans pounced on as Scotland went about efficiently picking apart the Welsh defence. The vision to spot Lee Byrne miles off his mark made the kick even better as Evans only had to land on the ball to score. The second was a mammoth drop goal which at the point seemed to have pushed Scotland into a, seemingly, unassailable lead. He had just missed a simpler kick minutes earlier and it shows his belief in his ability that he went for goal from near the half way line. For the remainder of the Six Nations Parks is the stand out choice, quite literally, he has imagination and invention something that has been badly lacking from the Scottish team for the last decade.

Scotland were the better team against Wales  when left 15 on 15, they were more incisive, tighter in the defence and broke the game line more often against a Welsh barrier made from crepe paper as shown by the ease in which John Barclay went over for the first try.  Indiscipline and stupendous idiocy by Scott Lawson cost Scotland the game coupled with the bizarre decision by Mike Blair to keep the ball in play instead of taking the draw with his team down to 13 men. If anything, this Championship has shown that if you lose a man you will be punished, with the average loss to the penalised team so far being just over 14 points.

Scotland can feel aggrieved at the way results have gone as they have looked a far more organised side and with Parks in the team more creative. The loss of Chris Paterson, Thom Evans and in particular Rory Lamont can not be under-estimated, it’s a hammer blow. Lamont so far has been Scotland’s stand out player along the backline while the Brown, Barclay and Beattie combination is bearing considerable fruit. The metronomic boot of Paterson will be missed but in Parks there is a capable replacement, whilst to Thom Evans we wish a speedy recovery. The scrum is the main worry, annihilated by the French and pressurised repeatedly by the Welsh. The onus will be on Euan Murray and Moray Low to find a way to wrestle control whilst operating with a lighter pack.

If you were to ask Scotland coach Andy Robinson about the results so far, he would be bitterly disappointed. Ask him about the performances and apart from seven minutes of utter lunacy at the Millennium Stadium the signs are good. Scotland should still be aiming for three wins from three. So far in this tournament England, Ireland and Italy have shown nothing that should give Scotland reason to fear facing them. It will be hard and backs against the wall but it’s the Scottish way to do things. With Dan Parks and some willing runners anything could be possible.

Tiger Woods: It’s His Game

What came first the chicken or the egg? Nobody knows; ask the question, what came first Tiger Woods or golf? The answer is golf, but for some Tiger Woods is golf. Bare that in mind as one of the biggest tournaments on the calendar continues in the background Tiger Woods decided it was his time to apologize for his past discretions. What followed was a 14 minute PR stunt that did little for anyone.

This may have been a corporate, sponsor driven enterprise but the delivery and rhetoric which Woods produced did little to improve his tarnished image if that was the aim of the piece. Seven ‘highly staged’ minutes in and the word sorry was being more overused than the picture messaging service on Ashley Cole’s phone. He listed his past transgressions saying sorry for each, sorry to his wife, to his family, to his fans, to his sponsors and to the world of golf. With each word sounding like it was not what he wanted to say but more what he was told to say. Personally what he does in his private life is of no interest, save that for ‘Loose Women’ and ‘The Wright Stuff’ but that last apology is the one that should be addressed. It’s hard to avoid the impact that the Woods fiasco has had on golf, he is their marquee player and the man the PGA paraded as their flag bearer.

Woods’ choice of location was safe and secure, he wanted to say his piece without being hounded by questions he wasn’t ready to answer, and perhaps that he will never answer but the one thing that grates from a purely sporting standpoint is his decision to make his announcement now.

He announced that his indefinite sabbatical from the game would remain in place for some time but when he does return what kind of reaction will he get from his peers and fans? He is a one man marketing machine for the fairways and prize funds are that little bit healthier when Tiger’s in town but Ernie Els has already derided Tiger for the timing of his announcement. Are there more that feel the same? When he does return it will be just another circus that will take away from the sport itself. While some fans will see past his personal life as irrelevant to his sporting life, and quite rightly so, others will fail to separate the lines that are becoming increasing blurred between sports star and celebrity.

This may have been a PR exercise that was not Woods’ idea but in the end he had the final call. He could have kept quiet and made his comeback without addressing the issue in hand, an issue that has nothing to do with his ability as a golfer. It would have helped rebuild his reputation on the circuit and draw clear distinction between his personal and public life. If he felt the need to speak then get it done on a chat show or current affairs programming. I’m sure his ‘people’ could have restricted the direction of the questioning to protect him.

In the end his timing and his words have done nothing to help the game of golf other than take away from the World Matchplay. It gives the impression that those around him think he is bigger than the game but without the game he would be just another man. I hope Woods can come back from this, as a person the damage is done, but as a golfer he has single handedly raised the bar. We can only hope that he hasn’t single handedly brought it down because no matter how much you try some people will not be able to distinguish between the man and the sport.

Tour de France: A Tour de Force?

While occupying myself on a day off I did my usual dredge through the freeview box for something to watch, normally endless Top Gear repeats and the odd cooking programme appease me but the other day I stumbled upon something and I couldn’t get away.

The Tour de France has never been something that has particularly enthralled me but as I watched the riders slowly climb yet another peak of the Pyrenees I found myself strangely mesmerised, I couldn’t watch it but I couldn’t turn it off either. I had to see what would happen next, maybe the masochist in me was hoping for a crash but I watched and watched and then it dawned on me. It was interesting because somewhere in amongst it all there was a Brit with a chance to win. I never though of myself as fickle but as I watched Bradley Wiggins try to keep pace with Contador, the Schlecks and renaissance man Lance Armstrong I became engrossed.

British sports fans are renowned for becoming a sports biggest fan when we might have a chance of winning. Andy Murray at Wimbledon, Lewis Hamilton in F1 and golfer Rory McIlroy to name but a few who have experienced the suffocating pressure of media and fans a like. The World Diving Championships even made it onto BBC2 the other day and all because we had a chance, I’m not knocking it, sporting success is great for a nation that sometimes basks in its pessimistic nature but if Tom Daley had not been there would anybody really give a flying giraffe’s testicle.

As a sport cycling still doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense, you get the Yellow Jersey for finishing faster than everyone else, simple, yes. But you get the Green Jersey for finishing fast but not being anywhere near winning the whole race. Although he lost out to Thor Hushovd for the Green Jersey, Mark Cavendish won nine stages breaking a British record held by Barry Hoban for decades but he finished 131st overall, how does that work. At least the Polka Dot ‘King of the Mountain’ Jersey means you are good at something, climbing hills. The Green Jersey seems to be awarded to those that can’t be bothered racing half the time. These men are all great athletes that’s not in question its just a bit confusing sometimes, some people go into this gruelling slog knowing that their job will be to help somebody else win. Surely going against every sportsman’s natural instinct.

In 2010 I’m sure the Tour de France will be covered with great significance in the UK. Bradley Wiggins seems geared to having a realistic go at winning the whole thing while Mark Cavendish will be in Green Jersey contention once again. Add to that the inclusion of a British team backed by Sky then there is no doubt we will all be getting excited about the journey from Rotterdam to the Champs-Elysees.

KO for Kev and Freddie’s Farewell

The Ashes are underway and England hold a 1-0 series lead after a dominating victory over Australia at Lord’s, England will feel great pride in winning against the Baggie Greens at the home of cricket but they now face the biggest test of the series so far.

Kevin Pietersen being ruled out for the remainder of the summer will leave a huge gap in the side. He may not of hit full flight, and injury has obviously played a part, but Pietersen is a match winner with the bat but so far it has been the superb form of the bowlers in particular Jimmy Anderson, a man who is my pick so far for man of the series, that have shone brightest. As recenly as two years ago he couldn’t hit a boundary if the ball was the size of Jupiter but now he has added combative batting to his forte. He has taken wickets at important times and his partnership at the end of the first test set up England’s victory in in the second.

So far with the bat though England are still facing the same old problem, a collapse is never far away. Bopara has failed to sparkle but Pietersen’s injury has perhaps given him one more chance to prove he can handle the pressure on cricket’s grandest stage. He has the ability to in part replace what they have lost in Pietersen and with the impending recall of Ian Bell a chance to move down the order maybe the ideal remedy to Bopara’s poor form. Pietersen will be missed, no one can bludgeon a bowling attack like KP but he proved in the first two tests a less than fully fit Pietersen could be an accident waiting to happen in the short and long term and it is the right call to leave him out for the summer.

And so to the hero of the hour, Andrew Flintoff, a man experiencing a premature Indian Summer. He may of had a word in KP’s ear suggesting that a summer of disappointment may be the best in the long run. Many judged his test retirement announcement as ill timed but perhaps it has given Freddie that extra push to play through the pain for a few more weeks at optimum level. Perhaps Pietersens injury will only invigorate further the Lancashire lad to make sure that the Ashes 2009 is remembered as ‘his’ series. It definitely had the desired effect as only his third ever five-for came at precisely the right time for England.

And what of Australia, they have the players but they are at present too streaky and in Phillip Hughes and Mitchell Johnson they have players who can be brilliant but have shown in this series they can be awful too. Players such as Brad Haddin and Ben Hilfenhaus though have shown that this team are not far away from getting it right. The one thing that stands out though, and what may hinder an Aussie return to greatness, is that without Warne and McGrath that Ricky Ponting may not be as great a captain as he is as a player. His decision making has been bizarre at times and he is quick to blame bad decisions and others for his errors in judgement. he may have a case having fell himself to a dubious call from the umpire but it his job to maintain high spirits within his squad. Although Andrew Strauss is still developing, he sat on a big lead instead of trying to driving the second test advantage home, he is now showing signs of maturing into a good captain at Test level.

With a ten day gap between the two tests, Australia will have to ensure that they have the right line up and right mindset for the challenges ahead. At the moment it looks like England’s to lose but anyone in cricket will tell you never rule out the Aussies.