Thursday, June 29, 2006

The morons at Cricinfo

One of the websites that I frequent is Cricinfo, and that's not just for the live scores. Cricinfo, after the merger with Wisden, also has the best content of any cricket website that I can think of. The look and feel of the site is excellent, the content is generally edited very well and most of the articles are of a high standard. Which is why I was shocked to see an irresponsible comment such as this in the "Quote ... unquote", ostensibly in response to Malcolm Speed's thoughts on promoting the game in China. Speed: "China is the world's most populous country and the ICC would like to support cricket in China as much as possible." Cricinfo: "Malcolm Speed eyes up a lucrative and massive new market. Careful what you wish for, Malcolm. Look at the political mess Zimbabwe has landed the ICC in, and even their human rights record is not nearly as dubious as China's". What the fuck? Come again? So Cricinfo is now a moral authority pontificatin on human rights matters? Well, in case Cricinfo staff have shut themselves out of the world for the last few years, they should know China IS hosting the Olympics in 2008. Surely, they will be in the forefront of any protests against hosting the games in China? Well, I definitely didn't see anything of that sort. Frankly, the English media have taken the Zimbabwe issue too far, and Wisden has been espeically guilty in the context. As quite a few commentators have pointed out, Britain is happily trading with that country and has not broken diplomatic relations, or even registered the strongest protest. For the English cricket media to pick up this issue and thrust it on the entire cricketing world is just hypocritical. - NK

Monday, June 19, 2006

Different Worlds

Watching Switzerland play Togo, one cannot help feeling how different these two sides are. The Swiss are dour, well organised, methodical - the typical average European side sans the skill or technique of top sides like Spain or France (at their peak). Togo, on the other hand, are creative and play a boisterous brand of football that is so common to African sides. There is a deft touch here, a burst of athleticism there and now and then there is some method to the madness too. After all, the two nations are hardly like each other in any respect. To be honest, most of my knowledge about Togo's demographics or the socio-economic situation come from FIFA factfiles, hardly a fountain of knowledge. But here Togo are, competing, and competing well against the Swiss, a side with many who ply their trade in the better European club sides and whose World Cup campaign has been the culmination of a carefully considered programme. In contrast, Togo have been beset by internal wrangling about player remunerations and coaching issues, with the coach who actually guided them through qualifying being booted out four months before a ball was kicked in Germany 2006. The Swiss are a decent side, and yet have little to offer the football world by way of anything new or attractive. Togo have electrified with glorious skills and athleticism in the form of Adebayor, Kader and their cohorts. Yet they find themselves a goal down at the end of the first half and are looking like they may accompany Ivory Coast on their way out of the tournament. That would leave Ghana with the burden of carrying African hopes. With so much talent, somehow African sides find a way to squander all that. - NK

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Another opportunity lost

Brian Lara had to choose this Test, of all those he's played against India, to get a hundred (I reckon this was only his second against India). And rain had to play spoil sport too. It was as if it was all a cruel cosmic joke, such were the turn of events after the third day at St Lucia. But in the end, it was the inability to get the West Indian side out in an entire day, for the second time running, that keeps this series alive. That's not good news for India. What now? Well, ten more agonising days of Test cricket to find out if India can finally win in the West Indies after 35 years. It would help to 'rest' VRV Singh, who has been a passenger basically, especially if it's another slow wicket (are there any lively wickets left in the Caribbean?). When you're pressing for a win against time, you cannot afford to have one bowler who is just a filler. Reminds me of the pathetic Dodda Ganesh at Johannesburg about seven years ago. On that occasion, it was rain, Daryll Cullinan, Lance Klusener and a decision to award light early to the batsmen. Deja vu. - NK

Spain were irresistible

I cannot recall a team beginning on such a note in recent World Cups as Spain did against Ukraine last night. They basically killed Ukraine, even if the final nail was hammered by the Swiss referee when he handed out a red card in addition to a penalty for what was a routine challenge. There was not much evidence to suggest that Ukraine might have fared better without the setback, but all the fight left in them was snuffed. The only time Spain looked anything like threatened was when Andriy Shevchenko almost managed to beat the offside trap on a couple of occasions. I did think the assistant referee may have got it wrong on at least one occasion. The minor quibbles about refereeing aside, Spain just completely dominated the game and reduced a competent Ukraine side to tatters. This was without a doubt the most emphatic performance of the World Cup so far. Which got everyone asking the same old question: are Spain finally ready to put on a show at the biggest stage? They were cruelly eliminated on penalties the last time round, and the refereeing in that quarterfinal against the South Koreans was abysmal as Fernando Morientes was denied a winner. There is no Morientes in this side, and it has a youthful look, particularly the attacking part. Some of the defensive stalwarts have also bowed out of the international scene, and it was a strange feeling to not find Fernando Hierro in the back four. The talismanic figure of Raul Gonzalez was on the bench when the game got underway, but the David Villa and Fernando Torres took the opportunity to strut their own impressive talents. Torres was in blazing form and set the tone early on, and the creative engine of Xabi Alonso and Xavi were linking beautifully with Torres, Villa and Garcia. It was a surprise to see the first three goals come from dead ball situations but the issue was finally settled by Torres' magnificent strike following some delightful passing. Spain have promised a lot before and not delivered. Perhaps most famously in 1998, when they fell in the first around when they were in the group of death. I also remember their loss to Belgium in '86 after they trashed an impressive Danish side, with 'El Buitre' Butragueno scoring four. This time, the draw has been extremely kind to them and they should reach the second round with plenty of gas left in the tank. Along with the Czech, Italians and Argentineans, they are a team to watch (Brazil tops that list by default). - NK

Monday, June 12, 2006

Big day for Green and Gold

Qualifying for the World Cup is no mean achievement for Australia, a country that doesn't quite have a great football tradition or culture, except among the many immigrant communities primarily around Sydney and to a lesser extent, Melbourne (admittedly, my expertise in the area is limited). The Socceroos did take the right step in hiring the vastly experienced and successful Guus Hiddink, no stranger to the big stage, after homegrown coach Frank Farina quit with elimination looming. To be honest, I was not particularly enamoured of that move, given that Hiddink was still dividing his time between PSV and the Socceroos. Australia took the most tortuous path to the finals, culminating in a penalty shoot out in a play-off against Uruguay. All that seems like ages ago. Now Viduka, Bresciano and Kewell are household names, and not just among the Greek or Croatian or Italian communities. No doubt the brains at Nike and others have recognised this opportunity and an airwaves assault has been underway on SBS, the free-to-air channel that has rights to the World Cup. News reports about the Socceroos have preposterously begun referring to them as the "Mighty" Socceroos. Trust commerical interests to ruin the moment. That Australia has been paired with Brazil has upped the anticipation levels, and if the Socceroos do not progress beyond the opening round, the television ratings are set to go through the roof tonight, when they face-off against Japan and then against Brazil. It has been amusing to see Melbourne trams painted Green and Gold, but exhorting 'Brasil'. Aussies, understandably, are still in awe of the South Americans (who isn't?). Unlike the football lovers of Kolkata or Kochi however, Australians have their own team in the fray, and needless to say the entire nation is ready to throw its weight behind the team. The A-league launched last year is still a fledgling operation, and former German mid-fielder Pierre Littbarski's exit in a huff from the coaching job at Sydney FC, the champions, indicates that it could all unravel easily. If the Socceroos put on a decent show or go further, there will be no looking back for Australian football. Some may argue that is already on an irreversible growth path. Nike should be happy. - NK

Kaif arrives, finally!

How India managed to not win the first Test in the Caribbean is beyond me. Many, including one Sunny Gavaskar said it was perhaps the right result considering India was down in the dumps after the the first two days of the game. I agree in the context of the situation, but one has to look at the big picture - this is a team that has been repeatedly humiliated by most test nations except the punching bags. Even Bangladesh threatened to shame them, if I remember correctly, when three of their batsmen made hundreds on their maiden tour to the islands. It is quite heartening to see that finally India is playing like the team it is supposed to be, and dominating the West Indies. Wasim Jaffer's monumental innings has been the catalyst of the turnaround, even if the disappointment of the first test still rankles. Now Mohammed Kaif has also put a big step forward towards establishing himself in the line-up, something that was expected to happen a while ago. There were many calls for Kaif's head, especially in the wake of the Ganguly episode (if Ganguly is dropped, why not Kaif?). Thankfully, the selectors decided to persist with Kaif after his dismal one-day series in Pakistan and he did reasonably well against England and here in the disaster that was the one-day series. Personally, I have always thought of Kaif as Test match material, from the time he made his debut in Sri Lanka about five or so years ago. A set line-up meant that Kaif was always struggling to get in, and he did his chances no favour by getting modest scores. He did do extremely well in the ill-fated Australia series at home in late 2004, but somehow was still on the fringes. The West Indian bowling, especially minus Fidel Edwards, is hardly top class and a century on an apparently batsman friendly surface against such an attack should be no reason to assume that Kaif has 'cemented' his place. But for now, he can take credit for ensuring that India made use of the spectacular impetus provided by Virender Sehwag. The scorecard at the end of the first day's play instantly reminded me of a similar start in Melbourne a few years ago when India lost their last six weeks for just 37 runs. Now it is up to the bowlers to complete the job and take the side closer to a series win - anything less will be a complete disaster. The first blows have already been struck, and even if Brian Lara has never quite been the devastating batsmen against India that he is so often against more potent attacks, getting him out of the way is a psychological strike. Kumble and company smell blood, I'm sure, and they should waste no opportunity. - NK

Sunday, June 11, 2006

England, Argentina Unconvincing

By some coincidence, I managed to miss the opening World Cup game from 1990 thru 2002. I had to settle for witnessing the shock that Senegal handed France on a computer monitor in a Chennai cybercafe and I thought I'll do better this time. As it turned out, I was blissfully unaware of the exact date of the opening game and couldn't even catch the highlights of the Germany-Costa Rica game except for some grainy footage on the official FIFA site. That made it all the more imperative that I watched England and Argentina's opening games, even if the timings here in Melbourne are absolutely brutal. But that is an occupational hazard for a sports fan. In the event, only the Argentina-Ivory Coast game made it really worth my while, but the England game brought home the World Cup atmosphere for me. The Sweden - Trinidad and Tobago game was a blur between fitful naps, sandwiched as it was between the two games I really wanted to watch. England's display will have their manager and the legion of supporters (there are quite a few of them Down Under) worried no end. They did control proceedings for most of the game, particularly in the first half when the Paraguay defense was in shambles. But the fact that England got their winner from an own goal (cruelly, it had to be the experienced Gamarra) tells quite a bit of the story. Cole, Lampard and Beckham all had their moments of brilliance, but no one quite took charge of proceedings. John Terry was solid in central defence, but the recently rehabilitated Ashley Cole looked a touch slow and shaky. England did not create enough in the second half and looked content to be cruising against a below par Paraguay, but it could have so easily been a point shared had Nelson Valdez finished better early in the second half. Argentina fared better in making their intentions clear against the African Nations cup finalists, but they had perhaps not contended with such a stiff challenge. Ivory Coast may have lost and may bow out early (and that would be a shame), but their abundant talents were on display. A large part of the first timers' contingent are established European pros and so they are not the usual minnows. Apart from Didier Drogba and Kolo Toure who are virtual household names, Bonaventura Kalou and the diminutive Boka impressed a great deal. They did everything but score, and had Argentina scoring twice against the run of play, the first one an opportunistic strike from the predatory Crespo and the second one a brilliant through ball from Juan Riquelme that produced the silkiest of finishes from little Saviola. In the end Drogba's goal came too late to inject much needed confidence and the Argentineans were too determined to let slip three points in what has been termed the customary Group of Death. Argentina would be relieved no end considering their shock exit from a similarly ruthless group in the last edition. They seem to have a similar embarrassment of riches to Brazil, and the fact that Lionel Messi was just cooling his heels on the bench would be an unnerving thought for any opposition, but they need to much tighter in defence if they are to progress far. Ivory Coast managed to rip apart their defence on quite a few occasions and Pekerman should be concerned. As for Sven-Goran Eriksson, he has the world to worry about! - NK