I am in total shock. I woke up today, switched on Sky Sports News and found out that the Australian Test batsman Phil Hughes had died aged just 25. He had been struck on the head by a ball from New South Wales fast bowler Sean Abbott during a Sheffield Shield match. He was taken to hospital where his condition was critical but I always thought – and believed – he would survive. Cricket has dodged so many bullets before – notably in 1975 when New Zealander Ewen Chatfield’s heart stopped beating for several seconds before he was saved by England’s physio Bernard Thomas – or earlier this month when Pakistan batsman Ahmed Shehzad fractured his skull during a Test and was released from hospital two days later – but this time tragedy could not be avoided.
I would just like to use this platform to state my sympathy with Phil Hughes’ family, his South Australian team-mates, his Australian team-mates and indeed all cricket players and fans. We are all sad, we are all hurting. Indeed everybody should be cricket fan or not. Whatever the talent a young person has, to see one with great talent as Hughes had, have it snuffed out before it had a chance to fulfil its potential is just so cruel. I’d also like to spare a thought for 22-year-old Abbott, who bowled the fateful delivery. No one blames him, but I bet he blames himself. I know I would if I were him. I hope he has the courage to carry on with his cricket career. I’m sure Phil Hughes would want him to.
I would just also like to say I will never forget Hughes’ two hundreds in one Test against South Africa in 2009, or his (then) world record last-wicket stand of 163 with Ashton Agar in the first innings of last years’ first Ashes Test. I can’t believe I’ll never see him bat again. He was a great entertainer – and everybody who knew him said he was a very nice man too.
RIP Phil Hughes and thanks.
It has been an eventful – to say the least – year for England’s cricket team. I would call it “The Year of the Long Knives”. Of the England eleven that played in their first Test of 2014 five of them have not played Tests since and three of them probably never will again. Then there was the Kevin Pietersen affair, the loss of two coaches and the team’s spectacular fall and rise during the summer’s Tests. And somehow it seems fitting that the last act of a chaotic year will be a series where England are in the wrong place, at the wrong time and playing the wrong type of cricket.
England’s seven One-Day International (ODI) tour of Sri Lanka has all the potential to be a complete disaster. First of all it serves no purpose. It doesn’t prepare for the World Cup next year as this tour will be on low, slow Sri Lankan pitches when the World Cup will be played on fast, bouncy Australian ones. Nor does it prepare for next year’s Ashes series as England are playing no Tests. In fact, England will play no Tests between August this year and April next year. That is the longest time they have gone without playing a Test since August 1988-June 1989 – and that was only because a tour of India was cancelled. You have to go back to September 1975-June 1976 for a longer planned break from Tests. England are only playing ODIs between now and next April. Every other Test playing country is playing Tests this winter. England’s plan is either very clever or very stupid.
The tour is a problem for England in another way. England’s ODI form in 2014 is not good – won 7 lost 11 – and it is even worse as two of the wins were in dead rubbers and one against Scotland’s part-timers. So they could do with winning this series to boost confidence. The problem here is that what wins in Sri Lanka is not guaranteed to work in Australia. An example. Moeen Ali will probably open for England as they reckon – correctly – they will need two spinners in Sri Lanka. But they won’t need two in Australia – and even if Moeen comes off in Sri Lanka he might not be the most suitable candidate in Australia. He struggled during the summer against the short-pitched ball and the 95 mph Mitchell Johnson will scent easy meat. They should persevere with young Alex Hales who they look like dropping after just four games. A classic example of England’s “hire and fire” approach to ODI selection.
And all this assumes cricket takes place. November/December is the monsoon season in Sri Lanka and it can rain heavily. In the last three years that Sri Lanka have hosted ODIs in November/December (2010, 2012 and last year) thirteen should have been played. As it turned out, the weather in 2010 was so bad the five ODIs were postponed until January. In 2012 and 2013 eight ODIs were played – of which three didn’t produce a result and five more produced a result but had to be reduced from 50-overs a side. In other words in the last four years not one 50-over a side ODI has been played in Sri Lanka at this time of year. They have all either been reduced or abandoned. And England’s tour has not got off to a good start weather wise. Their first warm-up game was reduced to 43 overs from 50 and the second one never got started. if this pattern continues the only skill England will be able to improve is that of sitting and watching the rain fall!
England should not be touring Sri Lanka right now (they should have toured in March this year. it would have been a perfect place to prepare for the World 20-20 in Bangladesh). What they should have been doing is touring South Africa – and playing Test cricket. This makes so much sense I’m not surprised the ECB didn’t think of this. First of all England are over due a tour of South Africa – they haven’t been since 2009-10. Secondly the conditions in South Africa are as near as you can get to Australia without playing in Australia. Thirdly the world’s best Test team would have tested how much England really have improved as a Test team. And it would ease next year’s schedule which is overloaded. Between April 17th next year and January 26th 2016 England will play SEVENTEEN Tests against five countries (West Indies, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan and South Africa). God knows how tired the players will be after that little lot. The sensible thing would have been to go to South Africa this year and cut that schedule down. I also think England’s two best Test players – captain Alistair Cook and bowler James Anderson – needed to be rested from the ODIs to save them for next year’s Tests. Besides neither are as good ODI players as they are Test players and keeping Cook as ODI captain resembles keeping Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party. In both cases it seriously reduces their chances of winning in 2015 and only gives hope to their opponents . In fact with Cook as captain England have no chance of winning the World Cup. In an era where batsmen can score 264 runs in an ODI innings – as Rohit Sharma has shown for India – Cook is an analogue batsman in a digital age. A relic. He should be replaced by Eoin Morgan who is more in tune with the ODI game as it is played in the rest of the world – who play it in a totally different style to England.
This Sri Lanka tour has all the potential of a disaster. The very fact it is taking place at all shows up the ECB’s incompetence. And that is why among the three England teams that are playing in major World Cups next year (women’s football and rugby union being the other two) the cricket team has by far the least chance of doing well.
Quiz question: Which organisation has banned its own fans from buying tickets for its own national team – even though the game was not a sell-out? The answer is of course, the FA.
The background is this. The FA arranged a match between England’s women and Germany’s women for tomorrow. The game is at Wembley – the first time England’s women have played at the new Wembley*. When ticket sales reached 55,000 the FA banned people from buying tickets because of work on the tube. So in theory an innocent mistake. The FA had simply underestimated the support the NWT had (they had set an attendance target of 30,000). The English cricket board did something similar during the 2005 Ashes where they put 20,000 tickets on sale for the last day of the Third Test – and had to turn 10,000 people away and the police told thousands more not to bother trying .
However that is not backed up by one fact and one coincidence. The FA must have known the women’s game would be popular. The England women, in their guise as Team GB** had an attendance of 70,000 when they played Brazil at Wembley during the 2012 Olympics – and the Final got 80,000. So that rules out the “the underestimation theory”. And there is a sinister coincidence here. Before last Saturday’s game with Slovenia, the biggest attendance England’s men had got at Wembley this season was 55,990. Remember the women’s attendance was capped at 55,000. Too big a coincidence. The FA capped the gate to stop the women beating the men. Sexist. And pathetic. And it allowed James Gill to write in the current issue of Radio Times, the BBC’s TV listings magazine (page 60) that “it might not quite match the number who got behind Team GB during the Olympics”. But he must know that is because the gate was capped. That event happened at the start of this month. Who is to say they wouldn’t have got 70,000? Or even 80,000? We were never allowed to find out.
This game comes at the end of another horrific week for football’s attitude to women. Convicted rapist Ched Evans (I mentioned him in an earlier post) last week was allowed to train with former club Sheffield United at the request of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). Needless to say it caused uproar, with patrons resigning and popular UK athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill asking for her name to be removed from a stand at the club’s home ground. The club quite rightly backed down – but co-chairman Jim Phipps dug a hole for himself by saying it was “mob rule” that forced the club to change its mind. No idiot, It was public opinion. We live in a democracy and have every right to express our disgust at the idea of a rapist playing professional football. The PFA don’t get it either. They think Evans should be allowed to join another club. NO. If he was a teacher he wouldn’t be allowed near a school. I bet you Dave Lee Travis, Rolf Harris and others jailed for sex crimes won’t be on UK TV ever again (the BBC don’t show 1970’s “Top of the Pops” repeats that DLT hosted). And UK Home Secretary Theresa May quite rightly banned controversial “pick up artist” Julien Blanc from entering the country because what he says is sexist and might encourage violence against women. If he can be banned from the UK for opinions that might cause sex crimes then surely Ched Evans can be banned from football for life for committing sexual abuse.
And to put the tin lid on it a sexist, racist and homophobic man is back in employment. Malky Mackay (another one I’ve mentioned before) is Wigan’s new manager. When Wigan’s MP Lisa Nandy dared to question this owner Dave Whelan said “our MP, I don’t think she has been to a football match. I don’t think she went to watch Wigan at Wembley”. So what? An MP has every right to comment on anything to do with their constituency. But football has this arrogant “we know best” mentality and thinks no one outside of football should have an opinion on it. Since the appointment Whelan has made racist and anti-Semitic comments to a UK newspaper and the FA might charge him. He – and MacKay – should be banned for life.
And what is the FA doing? Nothing. Chairman Greg Dyke has said the Evans affair is “no important issue” in an awful TV interview on BBC 2’s “Newsnight”. Both Dyke and former FA chairman Lord Triesman have attacked FIFA over its corruption – but not its sexism. Not a word has been said by the FA on FIFA’s sexist decision to make women play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf. Why? They couldn’t give a toss.
The FA are, in effect, using the England NWT for propaganda purposes to convince the country they are not sexist. But they are. An organisation that is not sexist would ban Evans, Phipps, Gordon Taylor (chief executive of the PFA), MacKay, Iain Moody (MacKay’s sidekick in the text scandal) and Whelan for life. Then we will know that the FA are not sexist (or racist or homophobic). But until then don’t let the FA fool you. As blogger Jason Burke Murphy put it (in a comment on “The Sport Spectacle”) “proving that the English FA are sexist is like shooting fish in a barrel”. He’s right. The FA are as bad as they were in the 1970s. In fact they are worse. The one thing worse than a sexist is one who is a sexist but tries to deny it. And that sums up the FA perfectly.
*Some in the UK press say its their first game at Wembley but England women played at the old Wembley in 1990.
**Apart from the excellent Kim Little (a Scot) the GB team who played Brazil were English.
The Alex Salmond era at Holyrood ends this weekend as Nicola Sturgeon will be confirmed as the SNP’s new leader – she is the only candidate – and next week will be elected Scotland’s fifth First Minister since the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999. That of course has been predicted ever since Salmond resigned the day after the referendum. But post-referendum Scottish politics has not gone the way most people had predicted and if it goes on the way it is going we could end up with another referendum a lot sooner than we think.
Most people expected Sturgeon to take over a demoralised party – after all the SNP had seen the whole reason for its existence rejected by the Scottish voters – but instead the SNP has gained 75,000 new members post referendum. Meanwhile the Scottish Labour party is in total disarray. Last month its leader Johann Lamont quit and while doing so fired a broadside at UK leader Ed Miliband saying he treated the Scottish Labour Party as a “branch office” of London. To show what a shambles this party is Lamont’s successor will be Scottish Labour’s seventh leader in fifteen years. And their poll ratings are awful. The election prediction website Electoral Calculus (http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/scotland.html) has the SNP at 43.48% and Labour at 26.61%. If that happened at next May’s UK General Election the SNP would have 47 seats (up from 6) and Labour just 11 (down from 41). And that is an average of the October polls. One was so bad for Labour that it would mean the SNP won 54 seats and Labour just 4. How on earth did we get into this position?
There are a number of factors here. I suspect the new SNP members are those people who voted “Yes” in the referendum but had never voted before and the referendum had ignited an interest in politics they hadn’t had before. As for Labour there are two factors at work here. One recent, the other long-term. Labour made a dreadful mistake joining up with the Tories in the “No” campaign. What you have to understand is that Scotland hates the Tories and any party that helps them gets the odium of Scotland’s voters. The SNP well know this. In March 1979 they helped to bring down the Labour Government. Their 11 MPs voted with the Tories and Labour lost the vote by one. As a reward, at the subsequent election the SNP vote went down by 13.1% and their seats went from 11 to 2. And they suffered for years after that. As former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars said (in Iain MacWhirter’s book “Road to Referendum” page 174) “there was pure hatred on the doorsteps…for letting the Tories in”. More recently the Lib Dem vote in Scotland has collapsed ever since 2010 when they went into coalition with the Tories. At the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections they went from 16 seats to 5 and if they keep more than 2 of their 11 Scottish seats in the UK General Election next May I’ll be amazed. Labour should not have joined up with the Tories as it has enabled the SNP to do to them what they did to the SNP after 1979. Labour called the SNP “Tartan Tories”. The SNP now call Labour the “Red Tories”.
Labour’s other mistake is more long term. They never really wanted a Scottish Parliament at all. In August 1974 UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson more or less forced the Scottish Labour Party to support a Scottish Parliament at an infamous conference at Dalintober Street in Glasgow. That was because in the election the previous February, the SNP had gone from 1 MP to 7, and its vote had gone up from 11.4% to 21.9%. As Wilson had no majority there was going to be another election soon, and Wilson supported devolution only to cut down the risk of the SNP gaining Labour seats. Short term it worked – in the October election the SNP went from 7 seats to 11 and their vote went up to 30.4% but none of their 4 gains came from Labour. But the problem was that because devolution’s only purpose was to stop the SNP when the Scottish Parliament was finally set up Labour according to MacWhirter (page 211) “didn’t know what it wanted to do with the Parliament it created”. Further more because Labour didn’t regard the Scottish Parliament as important its big names – Brown, Cook, Reid Darling etc – stayed in London and Labour had their “B” team at Holyrood against the SNP’s “A” team – with predictable results which lead to their disaster in 2011.
Some will think this only matters to the Labour Party. But it does not. it matters to the whole of the UK. The aforementioned Electoral Calculus predicts that if the UK General Election was held now Labour would have 302 seats, the Tories 263, the Lib Dems 16 and the SNP 47 – and their allies Plaid Cymru* 3. (with other parties winning 19). This means Labour could only rule with SNP support (the SNP’s constitution bans coalition with the Tories. They learned their 1979 lesson well). What would the SNP demand?
To make maters worse Alex Salmond could lead the SNP at Westminster. There are rumours he will try to win the Lib Dem seat of Gordon (majority 6,748). Judged by the polls that would be a formality. So we could have the nightmare scenario of Alex Salmond dictating terms to the UK parties. He could demand a second independence referendum in return for supporting Labour.
All this means the Scottish Labour Party needs to get its act together pronto. There are three candidates for leader – Jim Murphy, Neil Finlay and Sarah Boyack. They must pick the beat person for the job. And that is Jim Murphy. They must also pick Kezia Dugdale as his deputy. These two are the best in a depressingly shallow pool of Scottish Labour talent. So poor is the Scottish Labour party’s pool of talent they had to drag ex PM Gordon Brown out of mothballs to help win the referendum.
If Scottish Labour do not get this choice right they could face wipe out next year. And Scotland could be heading for another independence referendum very soon. And if that happened, could it be a case of the Unionists winning the battle but losing the war?
*Plaid Cymru (in English “The Party of Wales”) are the Welsh Nationalists. They and the SNP form a parliamentary bloc at Westminster.
Last week the UK sports journalist Matthew Syed wrote an article in “the Times” where he said sportswomen don’t deserve equal pay with men. He rightly took a lot of stick for that, but he also said something else. While writing about black athletes being banned from playing with/against whites he said “women have never faced such bans”.
Oh dear. Syed doesn’t know the history of sport does he? In fact women are treated worse than blacks in sport. Once blacks proved they could play with whites they weren’t banned. But there are examples – which I will write about below – of cases where girls/women matched or outperformed boys/men. In every case the sport establishment responded by banning them.
Case 1 was in swimming. In 1922 Sybil Bauer broke the world record in the 440-yard breaststroke. The men’s world record that is. She didn’t just break it, she took four seconds off it. Understandably, as the fastest 440-yard breaststroker on the planet she wanted to compete against the men at the 1924 Olympic Games. Surprise, surprise she was not allowed to, the establishment saying that the segregation of the sexes had “ages of precedent behind it”. Using that logic, nothing would ever change. Bauer won gold in the women’s race and died, aged 23, in 1927. The press called her a “mermaid” implying she was a freak.
Case 2 was in baseball. Teenage pitcher Jackie Mitchell signed a contract with the AA Chattanooga Lookouts. The team’s owner. Joe Engel. announced he would play her in an exhibition game against the Yankees. On April 2 1931 she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The response? She was pulled from the game. And a few days later baseball commissioner Keneshaw Mountain Landis banned her from AA on the basis that baseball was “too strenuous for a woman”. A cynic might say it was because she had dared to embarrass two of the sport’s superstars but surely not. The press in its usual sexist way produced the headline “Her curves confused the mighty Babe”.
The next case is shooting. Olympic shooting had been mixed since 1968 but no woman had won a medal until American Margaret Murdock won silver in 1976. Actually she tied with US team-mate Lanny Basham but the judges for some reason gave Basham the gold. Perhaps it was a coincidence but most shooting events became gendered in 1984 with only a couple of open events left. In 1992 a woman – Zhang Shan of China – won gold in an open event – and from 1996 all Olympic shooting events were either male or female. Funny how they didn’t become gender segregated until women started winning medals…
Now two examples from the English FA’s “Hall of Shame”. In 1978 a 12-year-old girl Theresa Bennett was picked on merit for a hitherto all-boys team. The FA banned her, but a court ordered them to let her play. The FA appealed and the Appeal Court sided with them. Yes the FA really did go to court to stop a 12-year-old girl from playing football. They couldn’t sink any lower could they?
Oh yes they could. In 1999 an Employment Appeals Tribunal said the FA had discriminated against coach Vanessa Hardwick by refusing her the Advanced Coaching Licence. Hardwick’s legal team discovered that eight men had passed the course despite having lower grades than Hardwick, and five men had passed with the same grade. The FA had been caught red-handed but worse was to follow. They preferred to pay a £10,000 fine rather than give her the licence she had earned. Incredible.
Some people would say “Yes but things have changed”. Really? While it is true a 2014 Theresa Bennett would be allowed to “play with the boys” being “allowed” is not the same as being “welcomed”. I’ve spotted interviews with three elite female players – Kelly Smith and Dunia Susi (England) and Eugenie Le Sommer (France) where they stated they weren’t exactly made welcome in boys teams to put it no stronger than that. And Marta, reckoned to be the world’s best female player, was banned from a boys team for being too good. Jennifer Doyle summed it up “The shitty thing for girl footballers world over is that you can get away with playing on boys teams – as long as you don’t offer them any competition. The minute you do, they want you off the pitch”. Pathetic, isn’t it?
And for adult women, it is the same. Since 2004, footballer Maribel Dominguez, skier Lindsey Vonn and cricketer Sarah Taylor all either wanted to, or in the case of Taylor, thought of playing against men. The first two were banned from doing so, and Taylor got such sexist abuse from the UK press she backed away from the idea. That wouldn’t happen to a black.
And even when women have the choice it is a spurious one. A woman can’t play in the English Premier League, but she could manage a team, or referee a game. But first the football establishment – a club or the FA – would have to appoint her. Secondly it would take a very brave woman to volunteer to cop 90 minutes of sexist abuse every week. And that would happen. And here’s the proof. Chelsea have a female first-team doctor, Eva Carniero who has a MSc in sport and exercise medicine which proves she is qualified to do her job. When Chelsea played at Manchester City recently she had a sexist song sung at her by City’s fans. To no one’s surprise no one has been punished for this. After all it adds to the atmosphere – and is that not what the Premier League is lacking?
All this proves is that Syed is talking a load of rubbish. Yes blacks in sport have been treated shamefully. But women were – and still are – treated far worse. And don’t get me started on homophobia…
As anybody who has read my thoughts will know (and thanks for doing so btw!) sports administrators don’t get a good write-up from me. Mainly because most of them are awful – Sepp Blatter, Roger Goodell, Bernie Ecclestone, Richard Scudamore… the list goes on. But there are good administrators in sport and today I’d like to pay tribute to one who is retiring this year, Allan H Selig (known as “Bud”) acting commissioner of baseball from 1992 and commissioner of the sport since 1998.
What you have to remember is that baseball was a shambles when he took over. The fact that Selig became the fourth commissioner since 1984 when he took over – but only the ninth since the office was created in 1920 – shows this. It’s labour relations were awful – just like Britain in the 1970s. Baseball had had seven strikes/lock-outs in 20 years and two years after Selig was appointed it hit its low point. In August 1994 yet another MLB strike began. This one lasted 232 days and achieved what ADOLF HITLERcouldn’t do. It stopped the World Series from being played for the first time in 90 years. It was baseball’s equivalent of the UK’s 1978-79 “Winter of Discontent”. Yet like the UK, baseball learned its lesson. The fact that the sport has had no strikes since – while the NBA, NFL and NHL all have – is Selig’s best achievement.
But not the only one. Here (in no particular order) are the best changes Selig has made to the sport.
1. Wild Cards. It is amazing now to think that in 1993 the team that was second best in MLB – the Giants who won 103 games – did not make the postseason. That was because the team with the best record – the Braves with 104 – were in the same division and only division winners got to the postseason. By bringing in the wild card not only did MLB stop such injustices it also gave more teams a chance to get into the postseason. Without wildcards classic championship series like Yankees-Red Sox (2003 and 2004), Cardinals-Astros (2004 and 2005) and Rays-Red Sox (2008) wouldn’t have happened. And the second wild card is a brilliant example of both “carrot” and “stick” there are now two wild card teams – but they are only guaranteed one game so it means you want to win the division and avoid the wild card game.
2.Interleague play. Coming from a UK football culture where the biggest games are often between teams from the same city or geographic region it amazed me that in baseball games like Yankees v Mets, White Sox v Cubs or Giants v Athletics did not take place outside the World Series. That changed when interleague play started in 1997. Quite why it took baseball so long to do what other US sports had already done is a mystery but it in my opinion is a good idea. Plus you can see stars from the two Leagues playing against each other now for their own teams. An example this year was when the Angels played the Nationals and Mike Trout and Bryce Harper – two of the sport’s future stars – were on the same field.
3. Realignment.By making both leagues have 15 teams it meant the three divisions had five teams meaning each team has to beat four others to win its division and get into the postseason. This made it fair for the first time since 1993 (four divisions of seven teams). Before 2013 one division had six teams one had four and the rest had five – making it harder for teams in the NL Central and easier for teams in the AL West to win their division.
4.Instant replay. No more need be said. We saw its benefits in Game 7 of the World Series where an incorrect call at first base was challenged – and overturned- by the Giants. Had instant replay not existed the Royals might have scored a run, took the lead won the Series and – like KC’s 1985 World Series win -it would have been remembered for a bad call and not the brilliance of Madison Bumgarner. Justice was done- and seen to be done.
Of course no one is perfect and Selig’s biggest failure is on Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). Baseball started to crack down on PEDs far too late and its punishments are too soft. You get a 50-game suspension for a first offence but in a 162 game season that is nothing and Nelson Cruz came back from a 50 game ban this year to become the leading home run hitter in the majors. Sports like athletics have a two-year ban – and some people say that is too soft. Baseball was far softer on PEDs than it was on gambling and now – with last years biogenesis scandal – it has paid the price.
Still when an administrator leaves their post I ask “have they left the sport in better health than when they started the job?”. And in my oinion for Selig the answer can only ne “Yes”. New MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred – who takes over on January 1st – has a hard act to follow.
PS – still on the subject of baseball I was horrified to hear of the death of young Cardinals’ player Oscar Taveras who died this week aged just 22. It is so sad to realise we will never know how good this prospect could have been. My thoughts go to his friends family and to the Cardinals’ organisation. To think that if the Cardinals had won the NLCS, he would have played in the World Series…