It is no certainly that the Cubs’ misery will end

There was no baseball played yesterday which is unusual. This is because on Wednesday night the New York Mets completed a four game sweep of the Chicago Cubs to book a berth in their first World Series since losing to the Yankees back in 2000. The result meant the continuation of what must be the longest sporting drought not just in US sport but in world sport. The fact is that the Chicago Cubs have still not won the World Series since 1908 – that is a staggering 39,089 days ago. They have not even reached the World Series since losing to the Tigers in 1945. The “Cubbies” are still the laughing stock of US sport.

But – unlike their disastrous collapse against the Marlins in 2003 in their last appearance in the NLCS – there is no gloom and doom on the North side of Chicago. No scapegoats like poor Steve Bartman who was blamed for their 2003 implosion. Instead there is excitement among the fans at Wrigley that the future will bring victories in the NLCS and perhaps even the elusive World Series win that would shut up all of the US – especially St Louis Cardinals fans who have seen their franchise win eleven World Series since the Cubs last won one. But is the Cubs’ fans optimism justified?

At first glance yes. The Cubs have an exciting crop of young position players like Javier Baez, NL rookie of the year favourite Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Not one of these seven position players will be older than 26 when the new season starts next April. The Cubs were widely considered to have reached this postseason ahead of schedule. If they can add another experienced pitcher to back up Jon Lester and possible Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and the young guns continue to mature the Cubs could go at least one better in 2016.

But it is not a sinecure. First of all history is against them. The 2015 Cubs are the eighth team to be swept in either an AL or NLCS since the Championship Series became a best of seven in 1985. The others being the 2014 Orioles, the 2012 Yankees, the 2007 Diamondbacks, the 2006 Athletics,  the 1995 Reds, and the 1990 and 1988 Red Sox. Of those franchises none made the postseason the next year and only the Red Sox have won the World Series since and that took them until 2004. In fact none of the other teams have even reached the Championship Series since they were swept.

Of course history is no guide but the Cubs have no guarantee of future success. They reached the postseason despite being third in their division this year and since neither the Cardinals or the Pirates are going anywhere in the immediate future there is no guarantee that they won’t at best have to go through the one game play off again and at worst not make the postseason. Also the new NL champions the Mets (it feels strange writing this) will still have the dominant pitching staff that stymied the Cubs in this year’s NLCS. The Dodgers flopped in the postseason again and yesterday parted company with manager Don Mattingly but “The Best Team Money Can Buy” (to quote the title of an excellent book about the Dodgers by Molly Knight) will be contenders again. Nor should we forget that 2016 will be an even numbered year and we all know that the Giants win the National League – and indeed the World Series – in even numbered years!

But the biggest pressure on the Cubs could come from within. This year the Cubs fans were not expecting to do so well. They had finished last in the NL Central and despite the signing of Lester in the off season the Cubs fans were hoping for signs of progress rather than a play off run.

That will not be the case in 2016. The fans at Wrigley will expect at least a repeat of this year’s run or even better – especially if they acquire one of the elite free agent pitchers like David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmerman or Zack Greinke if he opts for free agency. If they did acquire one of those names the hype will increase. It will start during spring training and increase until the season starts.

My point is this year the Cubs youngsters were able to play without fear as the fans were just happy that they were competing (Cubs fans on Twitter were using the hashtag  “We are Good” almost as if they were trying to convince themselves that they were). But now they know – and the rest of baseball knows. Cubs fans will expect this team to break the longest sequence of failure in sport. But sport has a history of “Golden Generations” that do not deliver trophies as any England football fan will tell you. The pressure on this young team will be huge. Just because the Cubs have a talented generation of players is no guarantee that they will end over a hundred years of misery next year – or even at all.

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Time to get Test cricket out of the dark ages

After four of the dullest days of cricket one could imagine – on an abominable pitch that rendered all bowlers useless – the first Test between Pakistan and England dramatically came to life yesterday when a mixture of complacency and the bowling of debutant Adil Rashid who recovered from harrowing first innings figures of 0-163 the worst figures ever recorded by a Test debutant to take five second innings wickets caused Pakistan to collapse to 173 all out leaving England to score 99 runs in 19 overs to win. They had reached 74-4 off 11 overs but could not go any further. The umpires took the players off for bad light and the game was left drawn.

People reading this who are not cricket fans will wonder “what is bad light”? A stoppage for bad light happens when in the umpires opinion it is too dark to play cricket safely. Fair enough one might think. But the ridiculous aspect is that the stadium in Abu Dhabi has floodlights. The purpose of floodlights is of course to enable sport to be played in the dark. How on earth can it be too dark to play a game under floodlights? Imagine that happening in football or baseball. It can’t unless the floodlights fail.

Now until fairly recently England would probably have won yesterday. That is because the umpires would not have taken the players off the field. Instead they would have asked the England batsmen if they wanted to go off for bad light. With England on the verge of victory they would have refused to go off stayed on the field and gone on to win. This is how England got their last away win against Pakistan back in 2000. The umpires offered England the light but they refused stayed on the field and won a famous victory which they would not have got under today’s rules as the umpires would have taken them off.

So why did the International Cricket Council (ICC) change the rule? Because bad light was being used as a tactical strategy. If a team was winning they batted on – the classic example being the Karachi Test in 2000 mentioned above. But if a team was in trouble they would take advantage of the offer and go off. The best example here was South Africa against England in 2004. The Proteas were 290-8 and heading for certain defeat when the umpires offered them the light and the batsmen gleefully accepted. Had South Africa been winning the game they would have stayed on. So the ICC removed the decision on bad light from the players to the umpires.

But this had made the situation for spectators and TV viewers even worse because they are losing more cricket than under the old rules because on those occasions where the batsmen would have stayed on the umpires are taking them off. Yesterday being a classic example. And the reason this is happening is that the ICC got it wrong. The problem with bad light is not that teams were using it as a tactic to get out of trouble but that it exists at all.

I am struggling to think of another sport where bad light is a factor. Only the Wimbledon and French Open tennis championships come to mind. The ridiculous thing being that only Test and first class cricket are effected by bad light. Fifty over and 20 20 cricket involving the same players goes on regardless of light and weekend amateur cricketers play in far worse light than professional cricketers do!

The main problem with bad light is the damage it does to the image of Test cricket. Test cricket is fighting to survive outside England and Australia where the people prefer fifty over and 20 20 cricket. The sight of the game being stopped because of bad light in a floodlit stadium will not help Test cricket’s image. Frankly it makes it look pathetic and out of date. No wonder the public outside England and Australia prefer short form cricket.

So it is time for the ICC to take action. They should order umpires that play must go on in any light regardless of how dark it gets. Play should only stop when it is raining or if there is a risk of lightening that could strike a player. Otherwise the show must go on. It is 2015. The idea of sport bring stopped because it is dark is ridiculous. It is time for Test cricket to get out of the dark ages get in line with the 21st century and play in all light. There is a saying called “Adapt or die”. If Test cricket does not begin to adapt to the modern world and get rid of bad light stoppages it will die. And frankly it would deserve to.

Beyond the Ashes

You would think that after regaining the Ashes in August the England cricket team would get a well earned break. They don’t get one. In fact their winter is going to be even tougher than the summer was with two tough away series against Pakistan – in the UAE* – and in South Africa.

Both series are important. England are hard to beat at home – only South Africa (twice) and Sri Lanka have won here since 2007 – but away from home they are poor. Take away no hopers Bangladesh and England have won just two of their last fifteen away series. And to be a great cricket team you must win on tour and in unfamiliar conditions as well as at home.

But the omens are not good. Both historical and current. This is the tenth away series since the war that England have played after retaining/regaining the Ashes at home. Of the previous nine they have won none. After a successful Ashes summer England ( perhaps subconsciously) relax. The classic case being a 0-2 defeat in Pakistan in the first series after the magnificent 2005 Ashes win.

The current situation is not promising either. England are being plunged into alien conditions with only four days of practice cricket as preparation. How alien conditions? The weather forecast for the first Test in Abu Dhabi is sunshine and for the temperature to reach 98 degrees. Not conditions that are normally seen in the UK! Nor can England’s seam bowlers expect the green pitches and swinging conditions they got at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge during the Ashes. Instead they will be slow low and help spin. England do not play spin well nor – since Graeme Swann retired and Monty Panesar fell by the wayside – do England have good spinners to exploit these conditions.

Also Pakistan are formidable in the UAE. The last time England played there in 2012 they lost all three Tests. Likewise Australia lost both their Tests in the UAE last year. Pakistan may not have their 2012 destroyer Saeed Ajmal – not the same bowler since he had to remodel his action after it was declared illegal – but new spinners Zulfiqar Babar and Yasir Shah embarrassed Australia last year and will aim to do the same to England. Their batting relies on the experience of captain Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan who scored five centuries in the two Tests against Australia last year but they also have opener Mohammad Hafeez and Azhar Ali who scored two centuries in one Test against Australia last year.

As for England not for the first time they look like picking the wrong team. It looks like Moeen Ali will open the batting in the first Test. This shows they have learnt nothing from past mistakes. They opened with Moeen in Sri Lanka last year. He did quite well but failed in the subsequent World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. This will happen again. He might do well in the UAE but will I fear be easy meat for Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in South Africa. Nor should they open with Alex Hales who Australia’s fast bowlers exposed during the one day series as a 20 20 slogger. They have dropped Adam Lyth too soon. Whoever opens in this Test will captain Alistair Cook’s seventh Test opening partner in three years. Lyth scored a century against a good New Zealand attack and deserved another chance.

I hope James Taylor gets a chance. Kevin Pietersen in his autobiography (page 168) said “His dad was a jockey and he is built for the same gig”. Taylor is 5ft 6in. Sachin Tendulkar is 5ft 5in and he proved tall enough so that is more tripe from this egomaniac. Taylor is good at using his feet to play spin which you must do in order to play it well (and too many English batsmen are leaden footed).

If England emulate South Africa and New Zealand’s performance in the UAE and draw this series they will have done well. To win would be a great achivement. This series in as alien conditions as England will ever find will be a big test in the development of this young England team as we look beyond the Ashes.

*Pakistan have not played Test cricket at home since a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009. They play their “home” matches in the UAE – in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

Fortune favours the brave

So the 2,429* game marathon of baseball’s regular season is over and the postseason is about to begin. And if we have learnt anything from the regular season it is that it is a marathon not a sprint – hardly surprising when the season lasts 162 games – and sometimes fortune favours the brave.

Three of the six division winners – the Royals, Cardinals and the Dodgers – were top on July 12th – the last day before the All Star Break – and no one was really surprised that they were still there at the end of the season yesterday. But the other three division winners no one could have predicted at the All Star Break.

On July 12th the Toronto Blue Jays – no post season appearance since 1993 – were actually below .500 (45-46) and were above only the Red Sox in the AL East. The Texas Rangers were even worse (42-46) and were third in the AL West. While the New York Mets were only two games behind in the NL East  that was more because of the poor quality of the division than their own form. The Mets hit a new low on July 23rd when they became only the second franchise since 1920 to field number 4 and 5 hitters with an average below .180 (for a position player in the majors anything below .200 is considered unacceptable). Against Clayton Kershaw! The biggest surprise was not that Kershaw tossed a complete game three hit shut out but that he gave up three hits. The Mets offence was the laughing stock of baseball and that the idea that these two teams would meet in the post season was absurd. But as it turned out not only will they meet but the meeting has been on the cards since the start of September

So how did the Mets (as well as the Blue Jays and Rangers) turn it round? Well in the case of the first two they both had strengths. The Blue Jays offence was seriously good but they lacked an ace on the mound. The Mets had the opposite problem. Their young pitching staff were outstanding – so much so that Matt Harvey is arguably the third best pitcher in the team but their offence as mentioned above was awful. But to their credit both franchises did something about it. The Blue Jays traded for ace David Price while the Mets traded for hitting star Yoenis Cespedes. Both were gambles especially as they would be free agents at the end of the season so in effect they were “rentals”. But their bravery paid off. Price only started 11 games for the Blue Jays but had a 9-1 record providing them with the missing piece in their jigsaw since the offence was already the best in baseball. Cespedes was so successful for the Mets that some people considered him a candidate for National League MVP despite only playing 57 games for the Mets. His average – .287 – was higher than any of his team mates and his 17 home run tally was the third highest for the Mets. It could be said that for the second year in a row he transformed a franchise’s season (last year the Athletics collapsed after they traded him). While in both cases the new stars were not the only factor it is clear they were a major factor and the teams courage was rewarded.

The case of the Texas Rangers** is more complicated. Experienced players like Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo got their form back after an injury ravaged 2014 and the bullpen – a liability early season – became the best in baseball by September. While talisman Adrian Beltre has been outstanding. But again they had the courage to trade for Cole Hamels – an ace – when it seemed they had no chance of reaching the post season (It was reckoned to be a signing for 2016). But although his ERA was actually higher with the Rangers than it was with the Phillies – 3.66 to 3.64 –  the Rangers won his last ten starts and when needed most he pitched a complete game against the Angels to clinch a remarkable Division win (considering it took until August 15th – the team’s 115th game of the season – to go above .500 for good). I don’t think the Rangers win the Division without Hamels.

Whether the Mets and the Blue Jays win their divisions without Cespedes and Price is harder to say. It certainly helped the Mets that their only rivals the Nationals imploded so spectacularly that two of their players Bryce Harper and Johnathan Papelbon ended up fighting each other in the dugout!*** But they were certainly key players. One suspects that if the Blue Jays, Mets or Rangers are to win a League pennant or World Series Price, Cespedes and Hamels will play a part. Proving that in sport fortune can favour the brave.

* There are 2,430 games in the regular season but a September washout between the Tigers and Indians was not made up as neither team could make the post season.

**I must declare that I support the Texas Rangers but I hope I can write impartiality about them.

***And today Nationals manager Matt Williams and his entire coaching staff were fired paying the price for the failure of a franchise that many – including myself – expected to be challenging for at least the NL pennant if not the World Series itself.