Thoughts on England’s African Safari

The England Test team’s 2015 has resembled one of those gauntlet matches Mr McMahon used to put wrestlers he hated through where the wrestler would fight five men in succession with each opponent getting progressively harder. England’s schedule has also involved five opponents and has got progressively harder. Their year started away to the West Indies, then went on to a home series against New Zealand. The challenge got harder with the home Ashes series against Australia and harder still with an away series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emarites. And while the rest of us are recovering from the Christmas festivities England will be starting another challenge. And in theory this series is the toughest of the lot. On Boxing Day England will start a four Test series away to South Africa the World’s number one ranked Test team. It should be their toughest test yet.

And yet there is hope for England. For South Africa start this series in total disarray. Their last Test series was a complete disaster. The Proteas were humiliated 3-0 in India. Their batting was an absolute disaster. In the four Test matches in India South Africa’s batsmen produced totals of 184, 109, 214, 79, 185, 121 and 143. The brilliant AB de Villiers – arguably the best batsman in the world – coped reasonably well with India’s spinners – averaging 36.85 with two fifties. No other South African who played two Tests or more could average even 20, or score fifty in an innings. Captain Hashim Amla only averaged 16.85 in India and has not scored a Test century in a year. The opening partnership struggled horribly. Stiaan van Zyl and Dean Elgar were hopelessly out of their depth so much so that van Zyl was dropped and replaced by Temba Bavuma even though he is usually a number five. South Africa are struggling to replace Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis both of whom have retired since the Proteas easily beat England 2-0 in England back in 2012. Since then South Africa have lost two great batsmen – Smith and Kallis – and one good one (Alviro
Petersen) while producing only one good batsman (Faf du Plessis). The batting is vulnerable and James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn must fancy their chances. Plus the disastrous batting perfomance of South Africa’s A team against England in a warm up match suggests there is not a queue of young batsmen waiting to break into the Test team.

South Africa’s bowling is still formidable however. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are arguably the best new ball pair in the world and although Vernon Philander will miss the first two Tests Kyle Abbott and 20-year-old Kagiso Rahada offer useful back up.

This means the key for England will be their batting line up which has not exactly been reliable – Alistair Cook and Joe Root apart. After the UAE series the selectors took action dropping Ian Bell – probably for good – and recalling Nick Compton and Gary Ballance. But for some reason they look like opening with Alex Hales who is a 20 20 specialist who looked out of his depth against Australia’s fast bowlers in fifty over cricket never mind Test cricket. They should open with Compton – who had some success as a Test opener in 2012-13 and was probably dropped prematurely. England’s best batsman Root should bat at three, James Taylor at four and Ballance should bat at five where he bats for Yorkshire. Add Jonny Bairstow and fit again Ben Stokes and it is probably the best batting line up England can field.

It is still not reliable though. Like South Africa’s batting it is horribly dependant on two players (Cook and Root for England, Amla and de Villiers for South Africa). The key will be if – and for how long – the other players give them support plus which “big two” fires the most.

England do have a chance. But they must hit the ground running. South Africa struggle on Boxing Day – one home Boxing Day win since 2003. Plus their confidence must be in tatters after the trauma of India. If England get stuck in early they can keep South Africa’s wounds fresh. I reckon England must be ahead by the end of the Second Test in Cape Town. The precedent of England’s last South African tour in 2009-10 suggests South Africa will get better as the series goes on. Plus South Africa do better in the Highveld altitude venues of Johannesburg and Centurion and Philander – a formidable bowler – could be back by then.

Back in 2009-10 England were 1-0 up after two Tests but South Africa fought back to draw 1-1 and but for number eleven Graham Onions they would have won the series. This suggests if England don’t start well they will have no chance. But on the eve of the series it is clear England do have a chance away to the best Test team in the world. And when England started this gauntlet in Antigua back in April no one would have given them a hope of winning in South Africa.

Finally I would just like to wish everyone who reads me a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thanks for reading me!

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A tale of two awards

This is a big week for sports awards with two major ones being decided, one in the US and one here in the UK. But both awards have had their share of controversy and neither have had a distinguished week to put it mildly.

The first award started in 1954 and is presented by the American magazine Sports Illustrated. Despite its title – the Sportsman of the Year – both individuals (male and female) and teams (male and female) are eligable for the award. For example the 1999 United States Women’s World Cup winning team and the 2004 curse breaking World Series winning Boston Red Sox have won this award. The staff of the magazine have decided the award rather than a vote of the magazine’s readers.

But this year the magazine got into a horrid mess. First of all they ran a public poll. Second they nominated a horse – the triple crown winner American Pharaoh. Now a horse is not a person Therefore it should not be able to win the sportsperson of the year award. Whether or not they intended American Pharaoh’s candidacy to be a joke we don’t know. But the public have a habit of voting for “joke” candidates and American Pharaoh romped to victory. I suspect the vote was hijacked by the horse racing lobby but whatever the reason he won the poll.

Quite rightly the magazine staff did not make American Pharaoh Sportsman of the year instead they gave the award to tennis superstar Serena Williams (when a woman wins they call it Sportsperson of the year. Why not just call it the Sportsperson of the year every year or else split the award into two awarding both the sportsman and woman of the year?). Cue an uproar from American Pharaoh’s supporters claiming the public vote should be respected with sadly as it was a black woman who won disintegrated into racist and sexist abuse. And it was all totally unnecessary. The magazine should not have had a public poll nor should they have nominated a horse. By doing both they have made a fool of themselves and overshadowed Williams’ deserved award. But at least they chose the right winner.

The second award also by a coincidence started in 1954. This one is the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award (hitherto known as SPOTY). Unlike the Sports Illustrated award this one is only open to individuals – teams have their own award. Also unlike the Sports Illustrated award it is decided by public vote. Except the public don’t get to vote for who they want but they are limited to a group of 10-12 nominations decided by a “panel of experts” who have got into a dreadful mess over the nominations.

One of the twelve people they nominated was new World Heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury who won his title on November 28th – just in time (along with Davis Cup hero Andy Murray) to be nominated. Now purely on sporting achivement Fury would deserve to be nominated. But it is not that simple.

After he won his title Fury opened his mouth and out came the bile. Fury on homosexuality:

“There are only three things that need to be  accomplished before the devil comes home. One of them is homosexuality being legal in countries, one of them is abortion and the other is paedophillia. Who would have thought in the 50s and 60s that those two would be legalised?”

Oh dear where do you start with that? To compare homosexuality and abortion to paedophillia is ridiculous. To say that the devil would be happy with them being legalised is even worse. Fury really should have shut up at this point. He was in a hole so he should have stopped digging. Instead he did another interview where he was asked about women in sport and said this about fellow SPOTY nominee Jessica Ennis-Hill :

“She’s good, she’s won quite a few medals, she slaps up good as well. When she’s got a dress on she looks quite fit”.

And then he spoke about women in boxing :

“I’m all for it. I’m not sexist. I believe a woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back. Making me a cup of tea that’s what I believe”.

If this guy is not a sexist I’d hate to meet one who is!

Now you would think these views would stop him being nominated for SPOTY or be withdrawn from the list. After all when Conservative MP Enoch Powell made his infamous racist “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968 outraged party leader Edward Heath banished him from the Shadow Cabinet and the speech cost him any chance he had of being Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. I suspect if an MP made these comments he/she would become a “parliamentary leper” – as Harold Wilson called controversial Smethwick winner Peter Grifffiths in 1964. I suspect in any other industry Fury would have been punished for his outrageous views.

But not in sport. Oh no. Fury remains on the SPOTY list. In fact the only person that has been punished is BBC journalist Andy West who has been suspended for saying that he was “ashamed” of the BBC for nominating Fury. So someone has been punished for criticising Fury while the bigot gets off scot free. The BBC should be ashamed of themselves.

This shameful affair must never happen again. First of all the BBC must get rid of the nominations and let the people vote for who they want not just limiting them to twelve names. As usual there have been complaints that other worthy candidates like Joe Root have not been nominated. If nominations did not exist there would have been no fuss over Fury’s nomination since no one would have been nominated.

But secondly sport must be forced to change its ways. People in sport who behave in a racist/sexist/homophobic way should be banned for life. Since sport will never agree to this voluntarily the Government should threaten sport in the only way sport understands. If a sport does not agree to ban people with offensive views the sport in question should (a) lose all Government funding and (b) have to pay 83% tax*. This would cost a sport a lot of money. And the only way to make sport make sense is threaten it with losing money.

As for the SPOTY award itself Andy Murray will be the favourite but if there is justice in this world Ennis-Hill will win it. First of all she should have won this award in 2009 and 2010. Only Manchester United and horse racing fans thought Ryan Giggs (2009) and A P McCoy (2010) deserved the award more than she did. Secondly she deserves some reward for having to be in the same building as a scumbag who holds her in contempt.

And thirdly it would restore the reputation of an award that the nomination of Fury has sent into the gutter. If Ennis-Hill wins the BBC – like Sports Illustrated – will have got away with their blunders and their award too will have a worthy winner.

*The top rate of tax from 1974-79 in the UK was 83% (amazing as it seems now). Since sport – especially football –  seems to be stuck in the 1970s – there is a case for saying that if the 1970s were that wonderful sport should have to pay 1970s tax rates!

Recalling another silly season

To say the 2015-16 Premier League season has been weird is an understatement. Leicester City are top, defending champions Chelsea – who today sacked Jose Mouriniho – are 16th out of 20. It is as if the table has been turned upside down. Manchester United are only consistent in playing out 0-0 draws, Liverpool are thoroughly unpredictable, Tottenham are hard to beat but draw too many games and even Arsenal and Manchester City – the best of the big teams – have had their bad results. While as well as Leicester the likes of Watford, West Ham, Stoke, Crystal Palace and even Premier League first timers Bournemouth have been wrecking havoc. It is all exciting and totally unpredictable and no one knows how it will end. Critics have complained about the lack of quality – using the Premier League’s poor European performances as an argument – but no one can deny the excitement. You could call 2015-16 the “silly season”.

The English football season that most resembles 2015-16 is 1974-75 – another silly season which was totally unpredictable. I just thought I would compare that season with this to see both the similarities and explain how despite the silliness 1974-75 ended predictably – as this season could well do.

One statistic will show how crazy the 1974-75 season was. By the second Saturday of December 1974 six different teams had topped the Division One* table – Carlisle**, Ipswich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Stoke and Everton. Quite remarkably none of those six teams would go on and win the title. Big clubs were struggling. On the 10th of October 1974 – the day of the October 1974 UK General Election – Arsenal were bottom of Division One, Tottenham were second bottom and Chelsea were third bottom*** (Manchester United were not even in Division One having been relegated to Division Two**** the previous April). Small teams were doing well – not just Stoke but Burnley and promoted Middlesbrough challenged for the title for a large part of the season. At the end of 1974 only five points separated the top thirteen teams. Another similarly was that English clubs did badly in Europe (only one – Leeds United – got to the last eight in Europe).

And yet another similarly between 1974-75 and the current season was the implosion of the defending champions. In 1973-74 Leeds United had easily won the League title but in the summer of 1974 manager Don Revie had left to become the England manager. Inexplicably Leeds replaced him with Brian Clough. Inexplicably because in the summer of 1973 Clough had criticised Leeds poor disciplinary record saying that the club should have been relegated as a punishment. So no wonder he was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the Leeds players. The only difference between Clough in 1974 and Mouriniho today was the implosion came quicker. A lot quicker. After 44 days in charge with one League win and the reigning champions 19th out of 22 Clough was sacked. The affair caused a sensation then and still does. A book was written about Clough’s 44 day reign – called the “Dammed United” – which was turned into a film with the same title. It might interest Chelsea fans that Leeds stabilised under new manager Jimmy Armfield but could only finish ninth. They did get to the Final of the European Cup (now the Champions League) but lost it 2-0 to Bayern Munich. An omen for today’s Chelsea?

So how did the 1974-75 season end? Predictably. After all the mayhem the title was won by Derby County one of the best sides of the time (they were third the previous season and had won the title in 1972). Runners up were Liverpool – as they had been in 1974 – who had won the League in 1973.  Two of the three previous title winners in the top two. Hardly a surprise. Everton should have won the title – by March 22 1975 they were three points clear with seven games left. But they won only two of them to blow it. Stoke, Burnley and Middlesbrough – the three small clubs involved in the race – finished fifth, tenth and seventh respectively – a warning for the likes of Leicester, Palace and West Ham today.

So does what happened in 1974-75 give us a clue about the rest of this season? I’d say yes. Based on that season I’d say Chelsea’s new manager will stabilise them but they will rise only to mid table (though they might do well in the Champions League). Leicester won’t win the League but should be top six while Palace Watford and West Ham could be top ten.

And remember I said that the top two of 1974-75 were the two teams that finished immediately below the Champions the previous season. Applied to this season and that means the top two will be Arsenal and Manchester City. Would that really surprise anyone? I suspect after all the mayhem the season will end with either City’s third title in five years or Arsene Wenger’s first title in 12 years. And let’s face it apart from Chelsea those two were the pre season favourites.

I suspect after all the hype, the twists and turns and the shock results the silly season of 2015-16 will come up with a sensible ending. Just like its counterpart in 1974-75 in fact…

*Division One was what the top tier of English football was called before the formation of the Premier League in 1992.

**I mentioned Carlisle’s 1974-75 team – and cricket playing Chris Balderstone – in previous post “A feat you will never see again”.

***Only Chelsea were relegated at the end of the season. Arsenal and especially Tottenham struggled throughout finishing 16th and 19th respectively. In fact if Tottenham had lost their last game of the season they would have been relegated.

****Division Two is the pre 1992 name for what is now the Championship. For the record United easily won Division Two in 1974-75 returning to the top division remaining there ever since.

A tale of two footballers

This is a tale of two footballers. Both among the best in the world. One is nominated for the FIFA Ballon D’Or award the other should be. Both are rumoured to be leaving their clubs next summer – one is a free agent the other has apparently fell out with his current club. One suspects most clubs would sign these players if they could.

There is one difference between them. One is a man – Cristiano Ronaldo who needs no introduction from me. One is a woman – Amandine Henry of Lyon and France. For those who don’t know she is a midfielder who was voted the third best player in this year’s Women’s World Cup but for some reason best known to the voters is not among the top three contenders for the Ballon D’Or. She is out of contract with Lyon after this season while there are rumours that he is fed up with Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez and might want to leave in the summer. Real fans were not happy when after a Champions League tie against Paris Saint Germain (PSG) he greeted the French club’s owner “like some lost friend” according to Keith Jackson in today’s Daily Record. So it is at least possible Amandine and Cristiano could be looking for new clubs this summer. And while it is a dead cert that Cristiano’s wage packet will be bigger than Amandine’s – it is reckoned Cristiano earns more in a week than Amandine earns in a year (gender equality football style!) it is interesting to see which clubs would be in contention to sign Cristiano and Amandine if they wanted to move. And the answer is surprising.

First Cristiano. While every club on this planet would want to sign him I reckon the only ones that could afford to are Barcelona, PSG, Manchester United, Manchester City and perhaps Bayern Munich. But as a Real player I cannot see him going to Barcelona ( though compatriot Luis Figo did move in the opposite direction back in 2000). Nor as an ex United hero can I see him in the blue of Chelsea or City. Since I don’t think Bayern can afford him that means if he does want to leave Real it can only be for United or PSG. But Real and United get on about as well as David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn as the farce of David de Gea’s non transfer showed. No wonder Keith Jackson is not alone in thinking that Cristiano will be in Paris next year(and NOT just for Euro 2016!)….

Now Amandine. Again like Cristiano there are few clubs she could go to if she decided to leave Lyon although this time it is because very few women’s clubs have any money at all. Again every club on this planet would want to sign her but I reckon the only ones that could afford to are Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg, PSG, and perhaps Chelsea or Manchester City (interesting to note the overlap with the big male clubs that would not have happened say ten years ago). But like Cristiano I’d be surprised if she joined her current club’s main rivals and the two UK clubs are handicapped by the salary cap in the Women’s Super League (WSL) – a pity as I’d love to see her play here. So at first glance it looks like Amandine will be in Germany next year if she leaves Lyon.

But in her case it is not that simple. For despite the difference in salary Amandine has an option Cristiano does not. There is no league outside europe which is rich or competitive enough to attract elite male players. But in the women’s game there is an other option. Namely the American Women’s National Soccer League (NWSL) the league where the mighty World Champion US players play in. Although the wages are low it won’t be a huge difference compared to europe and she would be playing with and against the best players in the world. In fact Amandine recently begun to follow the NWSL’s best supported club the Portland Thorns on Twitter which may (or may not) mean anything…

So Amandine despite the sexism and wage inequality in football actually has more future career options than Cristiano. An ironic twist to this tale of two footballers….