Tag Archives: England

Who will be the Queens of Europe? 

A year after Euro 2016 the men’s European Football Championship the women’s equivalent Euro 2017 starts in Holland this Sunday. Reflecting the growth in women’s football this is the biggest women’s Euros in history with sixteen countries participating. To think only twelve years ago in 2005 only eight teams participated in the Euros. In 2009 the tournament expanded to twelve teams and now in 2017 there are now sixteen teams. 

This will improve the tournament as sixteen teams means that the group stage has been made simpler. No more third place finishers qualifying without winning a game (like Portugal did in the men’s Euros last year) and no more needing slide rules and calculators to work out which third placed teams go through or which first placed teams the third place teams play. Just nice and simple. 

So with that said what might happen in the tournament? One fascinating thing about the draw is it has thrown up five matches between near neighbours which if nothing else might give the tournament extra publicity. So let’s take a look at the groups.

Group A – Holland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium – In men’s football it is often said that the host nation has an easy draw. This does not apply to the women. Hosts Holland are in a group that involves three of the top eight European teams in the FIFA world rankings. The Dutch team like their men boast a squad that is mainly scattered across Europe including four Arsenal players -Sari van Veenenvdaal, Danielle van den donk, Dominique Jansen and new signing – and the teams star player – Vivienne Miedena. Their problems include the loss of Manon Melissa to retirement since the last World Cup and can they cope with the pressure of being hosts? Women’s football as we all know does not get the same publicity as the men’s game which can make it harder when players who are not used to hype and publicity suddenly have to cope with it. 

And it is by no means certain that Holland will even get out of the group. This is not because they are a bad team – quite the opposite – it is the quality of the opposition. First of all there is 2013 Finalists Norway who include arguably the best striker in the world Ada Hegerberg. her sister Andrine, the excellent Caroline Graham Hansen – who they badly missed at the last World Cup – plus captain Maren Mjelde. One worry for Norway is that Ada Hegerberg laboured through the Champions League Final in June and did not look fit. They will hope she is back to her best but they are always competitive in the Euros and will be so again. 

So will their neighbours Denmark. They won’t be able to get to the Semi Finals without winning a game again – the benefit of not having third placed teams qualifying – but with star strikers Pernile Harder and Nadia Nadim and a history of punching above their weight in the Euros means they cannot be underestimated. Neither can first time finalists Belgium. During qualifying they became the first team in eight years to avoid defeat away to England in a competitive game and also drew with neighbours Holland in qualification for the last World Cup. Realistically I cannot see the “Red Flames” qualifying from the group. I can see them taking a point from at least one game – and whatever team that is could miss out on the next stage as a result….

Predicted Qualifiers – Norway, Holland.

Group B – Germany, Sweden, Italy, Russia – In contrast to Group A this group on paper looks clear cut for Germany and Sweden. Germany are the powerhouse of European women’s football and have won the title six times in a row. In 2013 people predicted France, England. Sweden or Norway might end their dominance but none of them did. Thy might have needed two penalty saves from the excellent Nadine Angerer to win the title but they still did. They were not expected to win the Olympics last year either – but they did. For the first time in a decade the Frau Bundesliga did not provide a Champions League semi finalist but omminously for the rest of Europe the last time that happened Germany won the World Cup without conceding a goal. Again (like 2013) key players – in this case Simone Ladehr and Melanie Leopulz – are injured and they have a new coach in Steffi Jones who has been in the job for less than a year. And yet…they have excellent players like Dzenifer Marozsan, Anja Mittag and Tabea Kemme. More important they are used to winning. Anything less than the Final is unthinkable and the title is highly likely.

What Sweden will turn up in Holland? Will it be the team that flopped horribly in the World Cup two years ago or the superbly organised team that won the silver medal in the Olympics last year? My money is on the latter. Under veteran coach Pia Sundhage they will be well organised and have one of the best keepers in the tournament Hedvig Landhal, an experienced defender in Nilla Fischer and experienced players Caroline Seager, Kosovare Asllani and Lotta Schelin. I hope Sweden make use of young striker Stima Blackstenius who will be a star. Could be between them and their Norwegian neighbours for a Semi Final spot. 

The other two teams in this group are examples of former powers in the women’s game trying to get back into prominence. Italy were in the first World Cup in 1991 which had only twelve teams but have not qualified for a World Cup since 1999. They were runners up in the Euros in 1997 but have platued at the Quarter Final stage ever since. Russia – the only Eastern European team in the finals in contrast to both the men’s game and the high number of elite women tennis players from Eastern Europe – reached the Quarter Finals of the 2003 World Cup but have failed to qualify for a World Cup since. Both – but especially Italy – might be on the way back up but I doubt either knock out Germany or Sweden. 

Predicted Qualifiers – Germany, Sweden.

Group C – France, Iceland, Austria, Switzerland – In my post on the 2015 World Cup I compared France to the South Africa men’s cricket team calling them talented chokers who never win anything. This year South Africa have failed to win a major tournament yet again. Will France finally win? A lot of people think so but not me. Yes they have magnificent players – captain Wendie Renard, Amandine Henry, Camille Abily and Eugenie Le Sommer for example – but they have had these players before. They still have an appalling chance conversation rate and unless or until they get a better striker than Marie-Laure Delie they won’t be winning anything. Some people think the fact they won the She Believes Cup in the US changes things but they were only impressive against the rebuilding host nation which in the context of this tournament is irrelevant. Against European teams they needed two late goals to beat England and would have lost to Germany but for a missed penalty. That is not a sign of dominance. They will hope to play England though – England have not beaten France since 1974 (!!) 

France should win the group so the interest will be who qualifies with them. One of the candidates is that remarkable little country Iceland who caused mayhem at the men’s Euro 2016 knocking out England on the way to the last eight. But the men were only following the trail blazed by the women in 2013 where they shocked Holland en route to the last eight. They will be contenders again but three players have gone down with the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury which is for some reason a blight on the women’s game and their top scorer in qualifying gave birth to a child in March. 

All that could leave a small country vulnerable to either of the debutants in the group the near neighbours Switzerland and Austria. Switzerland have the advantage of being the only one of the debutants to have played in a major tournament before – the last World Cup – and although they slightly underachieved in Canada they will be better off for that experience. Also they have star players Lara Dickenmann, Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic. But their neighbours Austria can not be underestimated either. Although they are debutants fourteen of their twenty three strong squad play in the Frau Bundesliga the best league in Europe. Frankly you can make a case for any of these three teams to ride shotgun behind France but my marginal favourites to do so are Switzerland.

Predicted Qualifiers – France, Switzerland. 

Group D – England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal – This is the British group. England after their magnificent World Cup are for the first time considered among the favourites to win the whole thing. Can they cope with the hype? Coach Mark Sampson named his squad on April 3 – far earlier than he had to. For comparison most of the other teams announced their squads either in late June or early July. It is either very brilliant or very stupid and I suspect that it will come back to haunt him if the team does not do well. My worry is against the very best teams and sometimes even against poor teams (like the two laboured 1-0 wins over Bosnia and Herzegovina in qualifying) the team struggle to score. There are a lot of good in fact very good players available but not the one great player like Kelly Smith used to be. I’d personally have picked Eni Aluko for her pace. I reckon semi finals, maybe the Final – but not the title. 

And England need to hit the ground running. For their first game they have the absolute classic banana skin in Scotland. England should win especially as tragically the brilliant Kim Little – a player so good that four different Americans tweeted to me that not only would she get into their mighty World Cup winning team but she would be their best player – is injured (that damn ACL again). Wether she could have done for Scotland what Gareth Bale did for Wales’ men last year sadly will be a question without an answer. But Scotland are not a one woman team and have players like Manchester City’s top scorer Jane Ross, Lisa Evans who plays for Bayern Munich and Liverpool star Caroline Weir. And they will be up for the first game against England – which makes that match dangerous for England. Scotland’s men are notorious for qualifying for big tournaments but not getting out of the group stage. Can the women change that? Difficult but not impossible.

But this group also contains the dark horses for this tournament (every tournament has one). In the past I have called Spain the sleeping giants of women’s football based on the success of the country in youth tournaments and the talented women that feminist sports writer Jennifer Doyle saw in Barcelona in 2011 – when Spain did not qualify for the World Cup. Doyle said these women play football in the tiki taka style of Barcelona’s men – and we all know how successful they have been. Well there are signs that if the giant is not awake yet it is stirring. The stirring began when a player revolt after the last World Cup finally got rid of coach Ignacio Quereda – who had coached them for 27 years but apparently had treated players awfully. This was a sign that the FA there were finally taking the women’s game seriously as are Barcelona who reached the Champions League Semi Finals for the first time. This team could be dangerous. It is not impossible that they either repeat their win over England from 2013 which could force England into a quarter final against France (see above for why that is NOT good news for England) or that they upset France in the last eight. Watch out for Spain.

To balance the presence of dark horses Spain the group also has the weakest team on paper Portugal who are ranked only 38 by FIFA and 23 by UEFA. They certainly were not expected to finish second in their group above Finland who were in the last three Euros but they did. They still had to go through a play off against Romania to qualify which they did on the away goals rule after extra time. They will be regarded as underdogs but they have a couple of players well known to followers of the WSL here in the UK – ex Chelsea player Ana Borges and ex Liverpool player Amanda da Costa. Could be out of their depth but they have nothing to lose. They had never finished higher than fourth in a Euros qualifying group and they are obviously an improving team. Do not underestimate….

Predicted Qualifiers – England, Spain.

So if I have got that right – very unlikely – that means a last eight line up of Germany v Holland, Norway v Sweden, France v Spain and England v Switzerland. I would predict wins for Germany, Norway (just.That game is a coin toss), England and Spain. Looking at the draw that leads to Germany v Spain and England v Norway. I would further predict a win for Germany and – Norway(another coin toss). I would say Germany are favourites to win but a case can be made for either England, Norway or Sweden to be Finalists. Spain are the dark horses while France (again) could underachieve. 

My wish for this tournament is like in 2015 is that the UK press behaves itself. The sexism was less in 2015 probably because England did well but it was still there. I will also be interested to see how the press in Scotland cover the event as it is the first time the Scotland team has played in a major tournament. Women’s football has little or no coverage in Scotland and shamefully the men’s BetFred (League) Cup starts tonight. A bit of arrogant selfishness from the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) who should be ashamed of themselves for threatening the best chance the women’s game has ever had to gain publicity here. 

I have also seen rumours that the event might be threatened by terrorists. Please God no. Let’s just hope the event passes off peacefully and it is another step on the road to the acceptance of women’s football in Europe. 

England’s Root ahead starts here

Some people would say that the toughest job in sport is the captain of the England cricket team. And they are probably right. Since Mike Brearley retired in 1981 fourteen men have been appointed England captain* and on Thursday Joe Root will become number fifteen. In 36 years! For comparison there have been fourteen different UK Prime Ministers since the war! The nadir was reached in 1988 when England had four captains in six Tests that summer. No doubt about it this job does not have long term security. Even in recent years the captain tends to have a shelf life of four or five years before the pressure of the job gets to them and they end up as broken men as anyone that saw former captain Alistair Cook on last year’s tour of India will testify.

So how will Joe Root fare? The fixture list has not helped him. In a normal summer the weakest of the two touring teams (this year West Indies) would have toured first in May/June and the stronger team (this year South Africa) would have toured in July/August. But because England hosted the Champions Trophy in June this year the fixture list has been reversed with South Africa touring first – still in July/August – while West Indies have been moved to August/September. So instead of the luxury of a debut against a poor West Indies team he has been plunged into a tough debut series against South Africa. 

South Africa are so tough that the last three times they have been here the England captaincy has either changed hands mid series (2003 and 2008) or immediately after the series (2012). At least we know this won’t happen this time – Root has only just been appointed so he won’t be removed after four Tests regardless of what happens – but only an Ashes series or a tour of India could have offered a tougher debut. 

The remarkable thing about South Africa is they will be without argubaly their best batsman – AB de Villiers – and their best fast bowler – Dale Steyn. Had one been told a year ago that South Africa would be without these players one would have anticipated an easy win for England. But it won’t be. This past winter South Africa won 2-1 in Australia, 1-0 in New Zealand and whitewashed Sri Lanka 3-0 at home to climb to number 2 in the World Test rankings. De Villiers did not play in one of those nine Tests and Steyn only one – and he broke down after two days in that match. The fact is South Africa have moved on from the Steyn/de Villiers era. 

Their strength is still the pace bowling. Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander were key parts of the team who won in 2012 to which can be added the best young fast bowler in the world today Kagiso Rabada and another youngster in Duanne Olivier. They also have the best counter attacking wicket keeper batsman in the world in Quinton de Kock – who is as dangerous coming in at 80 for 5 as 300 for 5 –  a promising spinner in Keshav Maharaj who was their leading wicket taker in the New Zealand series and who could make England pay if they fall into the trap of underestimating him – easy to do as he will seem like light relief after the fast bowlers. And another strength is Faf du Plessis’ captaincy which is so impressive that South African fans wanted him to stay captain even if previous captain de Villiers was fit and available. 

But there are weaknesses too and I think South Africa’s batting could be vulnerable. Only Hashim Amla of South Africa’s top seven batsmen has played Test cricket in England before – even captain du Plessis hasn’t. Plus they have never really replaced former captain Graeme Smith in the opening position. Dean Elgar is a solid opener but they have struggled to find a partner for him. Stephen Cook has been dropped and Elgar’s new partner will either be a debutant (Heino Kuhn or Andre Markham) or a player with only one unsuccessful Test (Theunis De Bruyn). Add to that Duminy and Temba Bavuma could be vulnerable at no 4 and 5 respectively and there is plenty of hope for the England bowlers. 

But England have their problems too. One good thing to come out of a dreadful tour of India was that England had appeared to solve their opening batting problems with the emergence of Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings. Unfortunately Haseeb has had such a nightmare season so far that he has not scored a first class fifty for Lancashire never mind a hundred. Unsurprisingly he has not been picked but I’m surprised that the selectors have recalled Gary Ballance who has been picked and dropped twice in three years and is in danger of being this era’s answer to Grahame Hick or Mark Ramprakash. Yes he is averaging 100 for Yorkshire but has he sorted out his technical flaws? We’ll only find out when he steps back into the Test arena…

But the main worry for England is their pace bowlers – or rather their fitness (or lack thereof). James Anderson and Stuart Broad have missed parts of the season, Chris Woakes and Jake Ball are out, Mark Wood is fit at the moment but cannot be relied upon to last a full series and all rounder Ben Stokes is struggling with a knee injury which only affects him when he is bowling apparently.  Because of these injuries England are likely to go in with four pace bowlers plus Stokes which is really too many but the selectors are probably thinking that if we play five pace bowlers at least three of them should last the game! As for spin Liam Dawson is a depressing safety first selection when they should have kept faith with Adil Rashid or more bravely picked Hampshire youngster Mason Crane who got AB de Villiers out in the recent T20 series between the countries. 

Both teams are not going into this match in great form. England had a nightmare tour of India and have only won three of their last twelve Tests while South Africa might be undercooked having had only one (rain affected) first class warn up match plus captain du Plessis might not make it back to the UK on time to play in the first Test because of the difficult birth of his first child back in South Africa. 

This series could go either way. But in English conditions I would say England’s batting line up might be marginally less incompetent than South Africa’s. England have already beaten South Africa 2-1 in both 50 over and 20 over series this summer. It would not surprise me if England completed a hat trick of 2-1 wins in a hard fought series that would mean England’s new “Root” in Test cricket gets off to a good start…

*I have not counted Allan Lamb or Andrew Flintoff in the number of England captains as although both did the job they were never officially appointed as England captain. Both only captained when the appointed captain (Graham Gooch for Lamb, Michael Vaughan for Flintoff) were injured. 

Today’s history making event is unnecessary. 

History has been made today – unlike the bogus history of last week’s WWE Women’s Money in the Bank Ladder match genuine history. For the first time in history a full round of English County Championship matches started at 2pm instead of 11pm, will be played under lights ( even though we are only a week removed from the longest day of the year !) and with a pink ball. Revolutionary change ( unlike the so called WWE “Women’s Revolution) but unlike that so called “revolution” totally unnecessary. There was no demand from the English counties for the change.

So why was it done? Simple. England are playing a Test match under lights and with the pink ball against the West Indies starting on August 17th at Edgbaston so this round of County Championship matches is being played under lights with a pink ball in order to prepare England’s elite players for this match. But there was no demand from England’s players or fans for a floodlit pink ball Test in England. So why is this Test taking place?

The answer is because of a spineless, pathetic capitulation by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) which could cost England dear in this winter’s Ashes series. In November 2015 (see previous post “Test Cricket Joins the 21st Century”) Australia played New Zealand at the Adelaide Oval in the first ever floodlit/pink ball Test. The next year Australia played South Africa and Pakistan in floodlit/pink ball Tests at Adelaide and Brisbane respectively. The Tests were great successes all won by Australia and all attracted bigger crowds than the day only Tests played previously in the same cities. So Cricket Australia (CA) asked the ECB to agree to play a floodlit Test in the 2017-18 Ashes series and shamefully they agreed so the floodlit Ashes Test will be played at Adelaide starting on December 2nd. But the ECB should not have agreed to this. And here’s why.

The only raison d’être for day/night Test cricket in my opinion is to increase attendences. But the Ashes always sells out – regardless of whether it is played in England or Australia. If the Ashes always sells out why have a day/night Test? The answer is that CA have laid a trap for England and the ECB have walked straight into it. Australia are used to playing with a pink ball – they have played and won three home Tests with it. So if they could lure England into accepting the day/night Test it would give Australia a big advantage. And the pea brains at the ECB did just that.

But of course they could not send England to Australia this winter without any experience of pink ball cricket hence the Test against the West Indies in August and hence why they had nine pink ball County Championship matches starting today. But again there was no demand for pink ball day/night cricket in England.

So in summary to appease Australia the ECB have agreed to two unnecessary pink ball Tests – as day/night Tests are unnecessary in England (where Test cricket has always been well supported). Because the ECB was too spineless to tell Australia where to go. Playing a floodlit Test in England in August is asking for trouble. And it is so unnecessary…

PS – if you read previous post “Test Cricket Joins the 21st century” you will know I am in favour of day/night Tests.  But – and this is the caveat – only as a way of boosting attendences. Ashes Tests – plus Tests in England generally – do not have problems attracting spectators. Plus the climate in the UK is not suitable for day/ night pink ball Test cricket. Therefore these Tests are unnecessary.

Why Allardyce leaving could be a blessing in disguise

Just when you think the England men’s national football team could not sink any lower after June’s humiliating Euro 2016 defeat by Iceland they do. It has to be said in fairness that this time it is not the players that are to blame it is the now ex manager Sam Allardyce. Just sixty seven days – and one game – after being appointed on Tuesday Allardyce left his England post by “mutual consent”. The FA had no other option.

Allardyce’s reign came to an end as a result of a “sting” by British newspaper the Daily Telegraph. Allardyce met with two bogus businessmen who offered him £400,000 for being “a keynote speaker”. He also made plenty of controversial remarks criticising predecessor Roy Hodgson saying he’d send them (the England players) off to sleep. He criticised his own players for being physiologically weak, and his own employers the FA for wasting £870 million on redeveloping Wembley. In both those cases a lot of fans would probably agree with him but it’s not a very good thing to criticise your players and your bosses.

If that is all he said he might – might – have survived. But something else he said sealed his fate. He said that there are ways around the FA’s ban on third party ownership – that is the rule brought in by the FA in 2008 where individuals have a stake in the ownership of a player rather than him being owned wholly by his club. Whether you think the rule is a good idea or not is irrelevant. No one in any industry would survive being caught giving people advice on how to get around the rules of their own employers. Once that remark appeared in the Telegraph it was all over for Allardyce. 

Predictably this week’s events have been called a disaster for English football. It is certainly embarrassing. TV pundit Rio Ferdinand said the affair made English football look ludicrous. And yet long term this could be a blessing in disguise for English football as the FA made a dreadful mistake appointing Allardyce in the first place and by making a fool of himself in the press he has given the FA a chance to redeem themselves and get rid of him before his appointment could cause much damage.

An article in yesterday’s Sun by Neil Ashton showed why Allardyce was unqualified for the job. The article said even his own wife did not want Allardyce to take the job as she knew what he was like when he started guzzling pints of lager. Apparently he was famous for his boozing sessions that lasted until 3 am. Earlier this month he apparently had a monumental night out with his coaching staff Sammy Lee and Craig Shakespeare. The next day he turned up for work and a number of FA staff said his breath reeked of alcohol. How on earth is that guy fit to manage a school team never mind his national team? 

But although it was the UK press that brought Allardyce down they cannot be exempt from criticism either. They must have known about his boozing. Also the Ashton article yesterday mentioned Allardyce’s “skewed social views” and that “his comments about females have bordered on sexism”. So why did the press not expose them? They were quick enough – quite rightly – to slaughter Malky MacKay and José Mourinho for sexist behaviour but somehow they didn’t expose Allardyce’s remarks. Even Ashton admitted that they should have exposed him “Shame on us, if the truth be told”. Shows that football thinks that crimes against itself – ie corruption – are more serious than crimes against society – ie sexism (Allardyce was brought down during an ongoing Telegraph investigation into corruption – no UK paper has investigated into sexism in football). It is highly likely that Allardyce would have been brought down by some scandal anyway and had it come say a month before the World Cup in 2018 it would been a disaster. 

But it’s not just Allardyce that is a problem – its English football managers generally. Chelsea fan David Baddiel said in an article about Mourinho in the Radio Times in 2014 that today’s English managers – Allardyce, Steve Bruce, Alan Curbishley, Alan Pradew, Harry Redknapp – could have managed in 1954. That is not a compliment. It is very possible that there are hidden sexist views among those men – in fact Bruce questioned the rape conviction of Ched Evans – how would he know he wasn’t in court for his trial.

It is clear that most British managers are unfit for purpose – it is interesting that most of the Telegraph’s corruption allegations so far have been against British managers and assistant managers. If I were the FA I would not even consider appointing an English manager. There is a reason why the elite Premier League clubs avoid English managers. It is because they are stuck in the 1950s and they represent a horrible macho culture that really should have died long ago. The Allardyce scandal has given the FA a chance to atone for its mistake in appointing him and instead appoint a progressive foreign manager. It is interesting that according to the book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (page 370) that Fabio Capello was the most successful England manager (in terms of win percentage) of all time and Sven Goran Eriksson was fourth both way ahead of Steve McLaren who was manager between the two foreigners (and therefore had the same players to choose from). England’s cricket and rugby teams have been improved by foreign coaches after disastrous 2015 World Cup campaigns under Englishmen. If the FA take heed of this and appoint a progressive foreign manager the Allardyce shambles could be a blessing in disguise.

England face a true Test

In a summer dominated by Euro 2016, Wimbledon and Brexit it is fair to say cricket has struggled to make much of an impression on the nation’s conciousness. It has not been helped by the fact that although England’s victories over Sri Lanka in Test, one day and 20 20 cricket were impressive, the visitors were too poor and the series were too one sided to make much of an impression on the public. Add to that a yawn of a T20 Blast group stage that started back on May 20th and won’t end until July 29th and it is no wonder cricket is struggling for publicity.

However with a window in the UK sporting calendar until the Olympics and the Premier League start in August cricket has a chance to regain its place in the sporting spotlight. And the start of England’s four Test series against Pakistan should allow cricket to take this opportunity. For one thing usually guaranteed in England v Pakistan series is drama. Not all of it is good to put it mildly. In past Pakistan tours of England there has been cricketers found guilty of spot fixing and sent to prison (2010), a team refusing to play a Test match because they were penalised for ball tampering (2006), pitch invasions  (2001), ball tampering allegations (1992), controversy about umpiring (1987 and 1982), controversy about intimidatary bowling (1978), and even a row about rain getting on the covers at Lords (1974). Only in 1996 did a Pakistan tour pass off without controversy in the last 42 years.

The main tour controversy this time is a relic of the spot fixing controversy of 2010. Three Pakistani players Mohammad Said, Salman Butt and Mohammad Amir were banned by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for five years. The bans expired last year but only Amir (who was 18 when he was banned) has been picked for this tour. Now I mentioned Amir in an earlier post (“On the hypocrisy of sport”) but let’s just say I reckon if he was guilty of rape or domestic abuse and white he would have got a far friendlier reception than the one he is likely to get on Thursday.

But fortunately series between England and Pakistan are not just famous for controversy but also exciting cricket. For some reason the combination of England and Pakistan in english conditions rarely  produces dull cricket and it won’t this time either. Pakistan are a cricketing miracle. Unable to play at home since the Sri Lankan team’s coach was bombed in 2009 Pakistan have none the less risen to number three in the Test rankings above England. This is mainly due to the remarkable captaincy and batting of the 42 year old Misbah-ul-Haq who took over a team on its knees after the 2010 turmoil and turned them into a team that punches above its weight especially in Test cricket. Pakistan have a proud tradition of producing world class bowlers and this team continues the tradition with Amir, Wahab Riaz and Yasir Shah who is probably the first world class leg spinner to visit this country since Shane Warne’s last tour in 2005.

This bowling attack will provide a severe examination for what is still the weakest part of the England team the batting. Even against an outclassed Sri Lanka England’s batting was still unreliable. In only one of the five innings where England scored over 100 did the team reach 100 with fewer than three wickets down. The selectors have taken action again. Nick Compton withdrew from first class cricket citing exhaustion but his form was so poor he would certainly have been dropped anyway. Gary Ballance has been recalled and most interestingly Joe Root  indisputably the team’s best player will bat number three. Root at number three and Ballance at his county position of number five gives England at least the appearance of solidity although James Vince who failed to get runs against Sri Lanka and Alex Hales who did have still got to prove themselves against Test quality bowling.

England also have problems in the bowling department. Their leading wicket taker of all time James Anderson is out of at least the first Test with injury while all rounder Ben Stokes can only play as a batsman and thus has not been picked. This means that either Nottinghamshire’s Jake Ball or Middlesex’s Toby Roland-Jones will make his Test debut. Ball really should have been given his debut in the dead third Test against Sri Lanka to give him experience but instead he will be thrown in at the deep end.

England’s bowling is a key in this series as Pakistan’s batting especially in English conditions could be seriously vulnerable. In 2010 Pakistan were bowled out for scores of 80, 72 and 74. It goes without saying that Pakistan must bat better this year but most of their batting is unproven in England. Even Misbah has never toured England before. The experienced Younis Khan who has been a success in England before has a key role both with the runs he can score and also he needs to mentor the other batsmen.

Because of this batting vulnerability England must start the series as favourites but Pakistan are capable of putting England’s batting under pressure. One hopes this series will produce excellent cricket and more importantly will be the first England v Pakistan series in twenty years – and only the second in 45 years – not to be marred by controversy over match fixing, ball tampering or umpiring decisions. But judging by the history of England-Pakistan cricket on the last forty years that could be wishful thinking….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who will rule Europe?

June is “Europe month” with the UK’s EU referendum dominating the political news (I’ll get to that in a future post) while in sport the main event is Euro 2016 the European Men’s football championship which starts in Paris on Friday.

The first thing I’ll say is that the tournament is far too big now with 24 teams in it. From 1996 to 2012 the Euros had a perfect format. Sixteen countries playing in four groups of four teams with the top two in each group going through to the last eight and the tournament then being played in a knockout format. Sixteen teams meant most of the big teams qualified but minnows still had a chance (Slovenia in 2000 and Latvia in 2004 being the best examples). No one – except disgraced former UEFA President Michel Plattini – thought the Euros needed expansion but there you go. In the ideal world now that Plattini has been banned from football UEFA should do with him what WWE did with Chris Benoit and wipe him out from history.

But they won’t so we are stuck with 24 teams which means four third place teams will qualify and that it takes 36 games to knock out 8 teams. With that all said what might happen in France during June and July? Let’s take a look at the groups.

Group A – France, Romania, Albania, Switzerland. It is a joke that host nations get easy groups at major tournaments and on paper this group is weak. Not that France need the help. France unlike most countries do well at home. They are the only country since 1978 to win the World Cup or Euros at home. In fact they have won them both – the Euros in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998. Plus their current team is loaded with talent – Paul Pogba, Kingsley Coman, N’Golo Kante the unsung hero of Leicester’s title win, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial among others. Add one of the best keepers in the world in Hugo Lloris and you have a formidable side. Add to that the fact that coach Didier Deschamps had the good sense to leave underachieving trouble maker Karim Benzema out of the squad and France have a great chance of going all the way.

They have little to fear from the rest of Group A. Romania might have been unbeaten in qualifying but drew half their games and finished behind Northern Ireland in a poor group, Switzerland lost twice to England in qualifying and Albania are finals debutants. Second place will be between Romania and Switzerland and if they both beat Albania and draw with each other they will both likely go through.

Group B – England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia. England are the team with the youngest average age in the tournament.Young stars like Harry Kane, Ross Barkley and Deli Ali could shine. Two problems for England are do they play record scorer Wayne Rooney and can the defence which has looked dodgy cope? Quarter Finals at best.The group is not easy. 2018 World Cup hosts Russia have improved since sacking Fabio Capello (which probably won’t surprise England fans) and Slovakia beat Spain in qualifying, Germany in a friendly last week and put holders Italy out of the 2010 World Cup so could be dangerous. The big danger could be Wales. Wales are a team of journeymen who depend too much on Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale and could be out of their depth. But the game against England on June 16th will be a British style Cup tie which will be a classic banana skin for England. If they get through that they should top the group with Russia and Slovakia following them.

Group C – Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland. As World Cup holders Germany should be favourites but struggled – by their standards – to qualify losing in Poland and not beating the Republic of Ireland home or away. In friendlies they have lost in France, at home to England and at home to Slovakia. But its Germany we are talking about, most of the 2014 team are still there and anything short of a semi final is unthinkable. Poland whose star player Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandovski is well known in Germany are the main threat. Ukraine and Northern Ireland – who like Wales did well to qualify but could be out of their depth – look below the quality of Germany and Poland and the third placed team in this group could miss out.

Group D – Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia. Spain are two time defending European Champions still have Sergio Ramos, Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas in their squad plus David de Gea the best goalkeeper in the world. However I think they peaked in 2012 when they thrashed Italy 4-0 in the final to win Euro 2012. They will do better their pathetic defence of the World Cup in 2014 but won’t win the tournament. The rest of the group is unpredictable.  Croatia are always dark horses, the Czechs always overachieve in the Euros and Turkey had a sensational run to the Semi Finals in 2008. Croatia would be my favourites for second place but there are no no hopers in this group.

Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Sweden. This group could contain teams that will underachieve. Belgium on paper are scary  but some big names had poor Premier League seasons – Eden Hazard did not score a League goal until April, Christian Benteke was 32 million down the drain at Liverpool and keeper Thibaut Courtois got sent off twice. On paper they are formidable but they are less than the sum of their parts and I don’t think they go past the last eight. Italy could be another big name to underachieve. They are short of goals and got hammered 4-1 in a friendly in Germany. But they still have Gigi Buffon one of the best keepers in the world and usually do better in tournaments than their talent suggests they should (though this did not apply in the last two World Cups). And nothing is guaranteed with Sweden and the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a Republic of Ireland team who played Germany twice in qualifying without losing both capable of causing upsets in the tournament ‘s toughest group.

Group F – Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Hungary. This group is unlikely to produce the winner but it is the stage for Europe’s best player Cristiano Ronaldo. However great players do not best great teams. Ronaldo has helped Portugal to semi finals in the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012 but they went no further and that will be the case again. Austria could be a surprise team. They won nine out of ten in qualifying – in a group that included Russia and Sweden. They have a star player in David Alaba plus another Leicester hero in Christian Fuchs and if they maintain their qualifying form they could emulate teams like Turkey (2008) and Czech Republic (1996, 2004) who have overachieved at Euros. Of all the debutants Iceland (population 300,000) are the most unlikely (because of the size of the country). But in another sense they are not surprising qualifiers. The book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (pages 238-260) claimed that Iceland is the most fanatical football country in Europe. A higher percentage of Icelandic people watched the 2010 World Cup on TV than any other country in Europe even though they had no team in the tournament. I suspect that with their own team in the event the audience will be even bigger. I think they will get to  the last 16 in third place ahead of Hungary which would be a remarkable achievement.

If I were to predict the tournament I would say France, Germany and Spain are a class above with Portugal, England and perhaps Italy as Semi Final candidates. Poland, Sweden and Austria could cause surprises but Belgium could be surprise underachievers. And if I were to predict a winner I would say France.

What I sincerely hope for is that the tournament passes without incident. France suffered two terrorist attacks last year – one of them at a France v Germany friendly. Just keep your fingers crossed that there is no terrorism and that Euro 2016 can rise above its ridiculous format to give us a memorable month of football.

 

How to sort out English T20

Although the english cricket season started on April 10th the season starts for real this week. Tomorrow the first Test of the summer – England v Sri Lanka at Headingley – begins. While on Friday the  English domestic 20 20 competition – the T20 Blast –  starts. So where does the England Test team and the English domestic T20 competition stand at the start of the season?

England’s Test team come into the summer in good heart after their 2-1 win in South Africa in the winter. They play Sri Lanka in a three Test series followed by Pakistan in a four Test series. England are favourites to win both series but they cannot underestimate Sri Lanka after Sri Lanka ‘s famous series win in England in 2014. However back in 2014 England were still in turmoil after the Ashes series whitewash the previous winter while Sri Lanka still had the experience of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. But now Jayawardene and Sangakkara have retired and England are in a far stronger position than they were in 2014 they are clear favourites. What worries me about England is still the batting. Three of the top five – Alex Hales, Nick Compton and debutant James Vince – have played just 17 Tests between them. If England are going to keep improving and build on their South African success at least one of these batsmen must break out and establish themselves as Test class and reduce the dependency on Alistair Cook, Joe Root and allrounders Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes. The fast bowling attack of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Stokes and Steve Finn is the team’s strength and should lay the foundation for Test victories. England should aim to have an unbeaten Test summer which in recent years England have only achieved in 1990, 2004 ,2011 and 2013 but with Sri Lanka and Pakistan ‘s batting both fragile looking England have a chance of going through the Test summer unbeaten.

If only English T20 cricket was in such good health. On the field it is. Had Stokes bowled a better last over England would have won the World T20 in India last month. But England’s domestic T20 competition is a mess. First of all it goes on far too long. It starts this Friday (May 20th). The group stage does not finish until July 29th! We will have had an EU referendum, two Grand Slam tennis tournaments, five England Test matches and the whole of Euro 2016 happen before this bloated yawn fest of a group stage finishes. It takes 126 games to reduce 18 teams to 8…and seven to reduce those eight to one champion. Plainly nonsense…and it must change.

Some people want franchise/city teams in English T20 cricket but as I explained before (see previous post “Why the Big Bash Won’t Work in England”) city teams (for population reasons) and franchises (for reasons of tradition) won’t work. If you were creating English cricket from scratch you would not have 18 counties. But the fact is you do. We have to work with what we have.That doesn’t mean English T20 cannot be improved. It is a shambles. And to quote Adam Blampied of What Culture WWE “And I can do it better”.

First thing first. Reduce the number of games. Currently there are two groups of nine teams who play six teams twice and two once. Which makes fourteen games a team. Which is (a) too many and (b) an uneven and unfair schedule as some teams will play the best team twice and the worst team once or vice versa. The logical thing to do is have the nine teams play each other once which makes eight games per team (as in the Big Bash). It would mean that the total number of qualifying games would fall from a bloated 126 to a more sensible 72.

Secondly T20 has to be played in a single block in the season. India, Australia, South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand all do this. England do not. This causes two problems. It is hard to attract T20 specialists to England when the tournament is so long and there are long gaps between games. It also means that players have to switch from four day cricket to T20 cricket and vice versa which is ridiculous as they are totally different forms of the game. It is like playing tennis on clay, then grass, then back to clay then back to grass and here we go round the mulberry bush…

Some might say when do you play the T20 block? Easy. T20 is meant to bring to cricket the whole family especially school children. So why not hold T20 when school children are on holiday? They do this in Australia – the Big Bash is played in December/January which is summer holiday time down under – and England should do the same. In which case T20 would be played in late July/August (the T20 Blast group stage this year, as you might recall finishes on July 29th just as the school holidays are starting – genius by the ECB!)

Another problem is TV coverage. T20 in the UK is only on Sky Sports – a subscription channel. In Australia the Big Bash is on Channel Ten – a free-to-air (FTA) channel. Now one problem in the UK is that the five main FTA channels – BBC 1 and 2, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5 – will not alter prime time schedules of soap operas and reality TV in favour of cricket. But there is a way round this. Sky has a FTA channel – called Pick. If I was running the ECB I would encourage Sky to show one T20 game per round (a total of eight) on FTA Pick. In return Sky would be allowed to show all 72 games on their subscription service Sky Sports. Subscribers would be able to press the red button and choose which game they want to see – as Sky and BT Sport do with football ‘s Champions League. This gives cricket a FTA platform while also giving people an incentive to subscribe to Sky.

A T20 tournament played in a short block where children can watch and some games are on FTA TV is far better than the convoluted shambolic mess we have now. If they have the sense to get rid of Finals Day – when the Semi Finals and the Final are played on the same day which is far too long for the attention span of children who I repeat again should be the target audience of T20 – and replace it with a best of three Final series – that would be even better.

T20 cricket will never be as big as it is in India or Australia simply because the UK cricket fan prefers Test cricket plus the fact that unlike India and Australia cricket is not the number 1 sport here. But we can do better than the shambles of a tournament we have now. My plan would both preserve the current 18 first class counties while giving England a better chance of attracting the elite T20 specialists and producing a game that children – who I repeat should be the targeted audience – can watch during their school holidays. It is not perfect. But it is far far better than what we currently have.