Shamik Das

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Cricket corruption: From India, to the West Indies, to Hove, everywhere there is evil under the sun


“WHAT has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

The sky is blue, the sun is shining, the Ashes in full flow... yet the spectre of corruption haunts cricket once again.

This week, former India bowler Sreesanth was charged with spot-fixing, the highest-profile player to be pinched since the Pakistan Three - exposed in an undercover sting during the 2010 Lord’s Test - and gaoled two years ago; an English county game between Sussex and Kent is under investigation; and last month’s West Indies-Pakistan ODI series is being probed.

Sreesanth and fellow Rajasthan Royals teammates Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan were arrested in May on suspicion of conceding runs to order for up to six million rupees (£70,000) each. Police say they have taped phone conversations with bookies and recovered INR2m from a kit bag belonging to Chandila, who they believe to be the main conduit between the bookies and the players.

The three are among 39 people - including notorious gangland fixer Dawood Ibrahim, India’s most wanted criminal - charged on Tuesday with criminal conspiracy, cheating and dishonesty under the Indian Penal Code and the much stricter Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), a special law passed by the state government to tackle organised crime syndicates and terrorism.

All three deny the charges.

As Cricinfo’s Sharda Ugra writes, the police have learnt from “mistakes and limitations” evident in the Hansie Cronje case more than a decade ago:

The archaic 1867 Public Gambling Act has been bypassed and the accused have been charged under criminal law. While invoking MCOCA is far too severe for those bowling no-balls for cash, cricketers remain high-profile media magnets, and the mention of MCOCA will surely send a shiver down a few pliable spines.

The scale of spot-fixing in the IPL could be widespread, and “getting even worse” according to Lalit Modi, the man who founded the competition, with former betting kingpin Dinesh Kagli telling CNN-IBN spot-fixing “wasn’t restricted to just [the] three matches [under investigation], but occurred in at least 15 matches in the current IPL season”. London is the nerve-centre for spot-fixing allegations, he added, with Delhi Police only uncovering “a minor, amateur spot-fixing operation”.

Only last year the IPL suspended five domestic players for corruption following a sting operation, with fixing stories, though not, thankfully, omnipresent, are seldom too far from rearing their heads.

We all know the template: player gets serenaded by an underworld goon, lavished with gifts, money, attention; asked for ‘harmless’ information (pitch condition, team selection); then, the ask is upped to getting the player to bowl a wide, no ball, block out a delivery for reward under implicit threat of being exposed or explicit menace of force against himself or his family; now firmly in the fixer’s pocket, more and more is asked, spot fix some more, bring in other players, graduating from mere spot-fixing to fixing a match.

It’s difficult to know how many have succumbed thus, or indeed those who have fixed for small stakes, legalised betting given the almost infinite and largely undetectable ways to in-play spot fix.

Take the recent Rajasthan Royals v Sunrisers Hyderabad IPL Eliminator: online, at legal, UK-based betting sites, anyone in the world could lay a wager on anything from runs scored in a specific over or set of overs and the method of the first dismissal to the outcome of the first ball - with a wide at 18/1 and a no ball at 50/1 - surely the easiest of spots for a bent bowler, opening with a ‘loosener’, to fix, in league with a lone punter or organised gangster, with no immediate, obvious impact on the match result.

However, as always, it is to the illegal Indian market, as much due to the greed of ‘ordinary punters’ as underworld criminals, that we must turn for an explanation for the latest scandal, as Ed Hawkins, author of the brilliant “Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld”, wrote on Cricinfo:

To understand why spot-fixing can be so easy to organise is to understand how the illegal Indian gambling market operates, and therefore how it can be manipulated.

There are estimated to be more than 70,000 bookmakers in India. Despite it being unregulated, it is highly organised and works much like a legalised system. In England the big four bookmakers might be considered to be William Hill, Ladbrokes, Bet365 and Coral. Each of those bookies sets their own odds, and supplies them to the managers of their shops dotted all around the country.

In India there are four big bookmakers, known as the syndicates. Two have their roots in Delhi and the others in Mumbai and Nagpur. Each of those bookies sets their own odds and supplies them to managers around the country. These “managers” - in actual fact they are bookmakers themselves - who take bets from their customers are ranked by the size of their customer base. First-tier bookmakers have up to or more than 1000. A fourth-tier bookmaker might have only 20 or 30. Like a franchise arrangement, the “managers” pay for the goods supplied.

There are, though, “two significant differences” between the English and Indian models, explains Hawkins:

The first is that whereas Hill’s and Ladbrokes might offer a wide variety of bets, in India you can only bet on four outcomes: the match result, the innings runs, brackets (a certain number of runs to be scored in a certain number of overs), and what is known as the lunch favourite. The lunch favourite is where the customer is offered a bet on following the team that is the favourite at the lunch break or innings break.

The second is that where Hill’s will offer different prices from Ladbrokes for each of their various segments in an IPL match, the Indian system will be almost uniform; the majority of bookmakers will be using the same prices. One set of odds for only four markets, with each syndicate doing its share of the work.

Each of those four syndicates has their own area of expertise. The top Delhi syndicate will look after betting before a ball has been bowled, providing odds pre-match. When the game starts, its work generally stops. The other syndicate connected to Delhi, known as the Shibu, operates the brackets odds. The Mumbai syndicate will take care of the ball-by-ball betting for match odds and innings runs. The fourth, the Nagpur syndicate, is a rival to the Mumbai operation.

As Hawkins concludes, this results in us having:

...a swath of bookmakers all using the same odds; it is the perfect environment for corruption.

All that said, it would be a mistake to believe this is solely an Indian or IPL problem.

The Mervyn Westfield affair shone the light on corruption in the English game, highlighting the temptations on offer to journeyman non-internationals in low-interest, relatively insignificant though televised domestic games. And just this week, the spotlight was shone on another county scandal, with the ECB reopening investigations into a Kent-Sussex one-day match from three years ago, a game previously probed (and cleared) by the ICC’s Anti Corruption Unit (ACU).

That match came to attention in “Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy”:

Rattan Mehta, the punter from Delhi, laughed at my feigned wide-eyed ignorance when I balked at his suggestion that county cricket was fixed. It was all the prompting he needed. “They are coming live in India now,” he laughed. “Twenty20 matches, 40-over matches. All 40-over matches are live. Every Ten Sport match you watch how the odds swing. I know one county player who had £100,000 deposited into a Dubai account. He had a big party.”

[Bhopal-based bookie] Vinay, too, had warned of corruption in the county game, revealing that in 2008 he had been offered the results of three matches in the 40-over league before they happened for three lakh (£3,800) by a Delhi-based bookmaker. “I thought this was too much, too much of a sum to pay... it could go wrong. So I said no. He said I could have the information for free. He was right. And he was right for the next three games in England.”

On my first trip to see Vinay he alleged that a 40-over match between Sussex and Kent at Hove in August 2011 was fixed. “It was fixed,” he said. I can bet on that. Kent won the match, 40-40 domestic. That was a fixed match. One of our bookmakers called me in the match telling me to leave it, don’t bet on it, don’t take bets. I ask if there was a problem with the police. He said: ‘It’s a fixed match. Kent will surely win.’” Kent won by 14 runs. The match was televised, although it was far from irrelevant for Sussex, who would have guaranteed qualification for the semi-finals of the tournament with victory.

It is understood that a bookmaker from Mumbai was involved in the ‘fixing’ of this match. He has now left the bookmaking industry, trying his luck in the casinos of America after he was arrested by police in India under the foreign exchange and regulatory act.

Adds Hawkins:

The ECB, it is known, had started investigations into this match in the summer of 2012. The PCA (Professional Cricketers Association) are understood to be aware of the reports surrounding the game, which attracted almost £14 million of turnover on Betfair when a televised county match may average normally half that. So, too, are Sussex, who are believed to have informed those two bodies about the potential for corruption. They did not, however, at that time inform the ECB or PCA of the names of the players who were alleged to have been involved.

Such stories give credence to the suspicion that the Mervyn Westfield incident was the tip of the iceberg...

The probity of ODIs has also come under renewed scrutiny this week, with the ACU investigating the recent West Indies v Pakistan series, as the Mail on Sunday revealed:

Suspicious betting patterns were identified during the low-profile five-match series, which concluded on Thursday, while unusually slow run-rates during certain overs followed by bursts of high scoring have “set alarm bells ringing”, according to industry experts.

Concerns have been raised, in particular, around the tied third match of the series played in St Lucia a week ago on Friday, as well as the final game, which resulted in a last-ball win for Pakistan on Thursday.

The second ODI, which saw Pakistan fail to score a run off the bat in the first five overs after being set 233 to win, will also be looked at...

The fifth ODI, which saw Pakistan win by four wickets off the final ball, is also to be scrutinised. ACSU officers will also analyse patterns on spread-betting sites around the first 18 balls of the West Indies innings when only one run was scored.

The MoS adds:

One betting website reported unusually large sums of money - said to run into several millions of pounds - being wagered between innings on a tied result during the third ODI after the West Indies were set 230 to win from 50 overs.

Pakistan appeared to be cruising to victory, with their opponents still requiring 45 off the last 21 balls and only three wickets left. But with the tail-enders scoring at more than four times the rate of most of their team-mates, West Indies scraped the unlikeliest of ties.

Field placings for the final over, when No 11 Jason Holder and fellow tail-ender Kemar Roach crashed 14 off six balls from Wahab Riaz, will be scrutinised by officers of the ICC Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU), along with a failed run-out bid off the last delivery...

Another passage of play, between the 29th and 34th overs, when experienced West Indies batsmen Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels were at the crease, will also be analysed in an effort to understand why just two runs were scored from five overs before 16 were hit off the 35th over.

With Hawkins explaining:

“There were suspicious betting patterns on a betting exchange.

“A suspicious pattern, simply, is a flood of money wagered on an outcome just before it happens. There were some noticeable examples of this during the West Indies-Pakistan series. In the tied match, a weight of cash arrived on the tie market before Pakistan’s innings.”

Fixers are even using a variant of the ‘wire’ con, being relayed the result of an event from ‘court-siders’ at the game before it’s broadcast (thanks to a ridiculously long nine-second time delay), betting big or changing odds. The ECB say there have been 17 incidents this season, with 14 individuals removed from 13 different grounds.

For all the purity of the current Ashes series - the third Test of which began today under glorious midsummer skies at Old Trafford - cricket remains susceptible to scandal, shame and sickness, at county, IPL and international level.

As Reverend Pycroft wrote in “The Cricketer’s Fields”, one hundred and sixty two years ago, ’twas ever thus:

“The temptation was really very great - too great by far for any poor man to be exposed to.”

Cricinfo: In Focus: Spot fixing
Cricinfo: In Focus: The IPL mess

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Just how good was England’s win in India?


CAPTAIN COOK and his crew returned home today from one of England’s greatest series of modern times, the come-from-behind 2-1 Test win in India - their first for 28 years.

The win completes the sweep of away successes against all their leading Test opponents since the turn of the century after decades of defeat.

Though they have yet to add to any of the wins, the successes of the present (and their most recent Hussain/Vaughan, Fletcher-coached predecessor) generation of England cricketers - after droughts of 24, 39, 19, 40 and 36 years, respectively, against Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa and West Indies - augurs well for future tours and the health of the Test game globally.

As the chart below shows, it’s quite a turnaround from the repeated failures of England teams from the late eighties to the early 2000s:


So, compared to that Ashes triumph of 2010/11 and other away successes, how does the win in India rank?

The Guardian’s Mike Selvey declares it “among the best of modern times” and “a gargantuan achievement”:

“Placing this win in the pantheon of England successes abroad is not easy. Hyperbole can take over in the understandable euphoria of the moment. But it must surely rank with their best of modern times.

“Maybe two wins at the turn of the millennium, against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, both under Nasser Hussain, the first against a powerful batting side backed by Wasim Akram, Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed and the second against Muttiah Muralitharan on his own stamping grounds, and having lost the first match, would be right up there. So, of course, would be the Ashes win of 2010-11.

“But it is the back story that makes this such a special victory for them.

“A year ago, England were being trounced by India in a one-day series by five matches to nil, on turning pitches. At the start of the year, against Pakistan in the UAE, they contrived to be whitewashed in a three-match Test series, the batsmen hapless against Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman. Finally in Galle, they lost the first match of a two-match series, with desperate batting once more.

“That Kevin Pietersen’s brilliance helped them claw back a draw in that series could not camouflage the fact that England batsmen, almost as if it was in the genes, could not cope with spin and the hammering they received in the first Test of this series in Ahmedabad did little to dispel that notion.

“So to turn that round, on a variety of different pitches, having lost two tosses out of the three that followed and emerge so emphatically as the better side in every aspect of the game, including the level of fitness in which there is no side better in the world, represents a gargantuan achievement.”

Cricinfo’s George Dobell concurs:

“This series victory represents one of the finest in England’s history. It will not make the impact of an Ashes victory - it does not have the history or capture the British public imagination in the same way - but, in the circumstances, this is as least as impressive an achievement as winning the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years in 2010-11 and winning the World T20 in the Caribbean in 2010.

“Everything was weighted against them: India’s home record; England’s record in Asia and India in particular; England’s record against spin; the loss of Steven Finn; the loss of three important tosses; the preparation of the pitches; the lack of spin provided to them in the warm-up games; and defeat in the first Test of the series.

“And yet England won. They won a series in India for the first time since 1984-85; they won a series in Asia (excluding those in Bangladesh) for the first time since 2001; they won in a country where they had won just one Test since 1985; their batsmen showed they had learned to play spin; their bowlers proved more adept than the hosts’ on pitches made to suit India; and they showed the spirit to fight back from the loss in Ahmedabad.

“A series that began under the cloud of Pietersen-gate, ended with a unified team dealing calmly and positively with every obstacle placed in their way. In stark contrast to earlier tours, not once did an England player complain about the pitches, the hotels, the heat or the tactics.

“They simply embraced a no-excuse environment and got on with it.”

Geoffrey Boycott, meanwhile, says the win is “particularly special” because of England’s recent “history of failure” in subcontinent conditions.

Writing in the Telegraph, the England legend says it can also be a “platform for Ashes success”:

“I accept that India are not the force they have been in the past. Two great batsmen have retired in VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid while Sachin Tendulkar is no longer the great player he once was. Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan have been fine bowlers but are past their best. You could say touring India is a bit easier now because the hotels are better, English food in the big cities is excellent and travelling is so much easier.

“So if you wanted to undermine the victory you could but, quite frankly, of recent performances this ranks second only to winning in Australia two years ago.

“Nobody should try to belittle what England have achieved. You can only play against the team selected and, in the past, even average Indian sides have been difficult to beat at home. To put it into context, this is only the fifth time England have won a series in India in 14 attempts.

“Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Anderson have been outstanding. We have seen a true world-class performance from each of them. Our two spinners, Swann and Panesar, outbowled the two Indian spinners. Even famous former Indian cricketers have accepted our two spinners are much better than theirs. That is a real compliment.”

Looking ahead, Boycs adds:

“There are areas we should improve on the trip coming up to New Zealand, when we will begin to focus on the Ashes in England next year... Like all great winning teams, England should enjoy the spoils of victory but also look on this as a time to improve. Do not court complacency. Prepare for the next challenge.”

As for the reaction of the Indian press, the main focus, understandably, is the shocking home form of the world champions and former world number one’s, with the question of Sachin Tendulkar’s future once more rearing its head (see my blog yesterday) - though there are some, like The Times of India’s Nitin Naik, who’ve forsaken the navel gazing to praise England.

Naik compares this winning team to Gower’s 1984/85 tourists, drawing parallels over the two sides’ left-handed captains; similar victory margins; come-from-behind heroics; spin-twins; problems with personnel; top-class seamers (which India lacked); and rifts in the Indian team.

And of India’s demise, he devotes just the one line, succinctly noting they:

“...have more reason to look into the mirror and face some harsh truths.”

With the resurgent Aussies coming in February, it’s to be hoped reality dawns, and quick, while for England, the ODI series awaits, followed by a tour of New Zealand, and further field, the Ashes; for now, though, they can deservedly enjoy their Christmases back home with their families - just so long as there’s no hangover.

Cricinfo: Full fourth Test scorecard
Cricinfo: India-England series home

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sachin Tendulkar: Is now the time for him to retire?


14*, 34, 12, 16, 56, 1, 40, 23, 91, 7, 76, 38, 94, 3, 73, 32, 41, 80, 15, 8, 25, 13, 19, 17, 27, 13, 8, 8, 76, 5, 2... the score that comes next in this sequence, in a few hours’ time in Nagpur, could determine the future of one of the greatest cricketers ever.

It’s the topic that daren’t rear its head, the subject everyone’s scared to mention for fear of talking into reality, though conversely one that’s been dragged centre stage and got everyone talking about; I speak, of course, of the possible retirement of Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, which looms large over the current India-England series, with each failure - and there’ve been far too many over the past two years - bringing that prospect ever closer.

Amarnath, Sourav and Vengsarkar all say the time has come; Geoffrey, and now Sir Viv, think otherwise, the Master Blaster telling the BBC yesterday:

“Nobody is qualified enough to tell him when they think he should go...

“When you’re retired, you’re retired for a very, very long time... It’s like being dead to some degree, so while you’re alive and still up for it and still enjoying what you’re doing, to me that’s what it’s all about.”

While former England quick Mike Selvey believes “the finishing line is approaching” and it may be time for the men in grey tracksuits to have a word, writing in The Guardian:


“In the split second that he heard the death rattle behind him as the ball careered from his inside edge and into his middle stump, Sachin Tendulkar surely will have known that the game is up.

“He has one more innings in this series in which to find a spark, but India needed him first time round and he was unable to deliver. Too late now. It was genuinely painful to watch, for no one with a heart or a love of the game for its own sake can have taken pleasure from the way he played...

“He was once the most revered man in India but the worm is starting to turn. The noise levels still rise when he takes the field and his dismissals bring a deafening silence. But it is almost ritualistic now, a process that has to be gone through. No longer does his image seem to dominate the billboards across India. His own media are starting to question his value and so are India’s cricket fans.

“The problem is one common to all great champions, though: the refusal to accept that, rather than there being another innings of substance waiting round the corner to kickstart a renaissance, there may actually be no more corners and the road to the finish line is a straight one.”

Selvey concludes:

“There is a common belief that sportsmen of the status of Tendulkar - and they come no higher in that regard - earn the right to choose the time of their departure. Personally I take issue with this in the context of a team sport and a player whose star is fading. What a great player does is earn the right to a dignified departure but they cannot be allowed to outstay their time if it is to the detriment of the side and its development simply because of who they are.

“Would Tendulkar be allowed such a departure, though, or would there be an insistence, a public clamour, on a valedictory series, a grand tour of the country, something that would inevitably dominate proceedings? Who indeed if necessary would be the person to try to nudge him in the direction of retirement instead? Would anyone dare?

“Perhaps the great Rahul Dravid, as dignified as any cricketer has been, should have a word. Perhaps he already has.”

The numbers, the cold, cruel stats, damned stats and averages illustrate the problem: four single-figure dismissals in his last five innings, just one half-century in his last 13...


... no centuries in his past 31 innings, the longest he’s gone without one (smashing his previous highest ton-drought of 17 from December 2005 to May 2007):


It’s most rare for a sportsman to choose the exact manner of his departure, going out on a high high very much the exception - think Zidane in the 2006 World Cup Final; Schumacher’s pitiful second retirement; Ponting’s hastened demise...

As Andy Zaltzman put it, it’s not logical:

“He deserves some kind of glorious ending, but the mysterious sporting scriptwriters about whom commentators are so fond of inquiring have an irritating habit of writing a dull, anti-climactic, inappropriate or rubbish final chapter. Bradman scored a duck in his last Test innings. Nasser Hussain blasted a match-clinching hundred and hit the winning runs. Jason Gillespie scored a double-century.

“Cricketing retirements are like Stalinist Russia - devoid of logic and justice.”

In July he said he had no plans to retire from ODIs, though more recently he has said he knows he can’t “go on and on” and would “have to look at it series by series”, with the BCCI last night confirming he “will certainly discuss his retirement with top BCCI officials” and “everyone will know when that will happen”.

Sachin deserves to be remembered for the magic, those unforgettable moments, not for his recent poor form (if this is to be the end), so let me leave you with my favourite memory - and it really is a tough call - an innings which, even though I could have selected one of the many times I’ve had the privilege to witness him live, I didn’t see in person - an occasion of such great significance above and beyond just cricket, a Test to unite the nation at a time of one its greatest crises, a match that mightn’t even taken place...

Chennai, Monday, December 15th, 2008, India v England, 5th day, 1st Test:

“This was an innings once and for all to silence all the doubters, those "ignoramuses" as Sunny Gavaskar had described them, all those who believed Sachin lacked bottle, lacked the character for a fight, to lead from the front and finish off a match, working for each run on a tricky last day pitch.

“Praise also must go to Virender Sehwag, without whose thunderous assault on England's bowling the previous evening none of this would have been possible, and Yuvraj Singh, who came to the crease with 163 runs still needed and only MS Dhoni and the tail to follow.

“His was an innings of great maturity, discarding the one-day form which had brought him two centuries earlier in the tour and playing a real Test innings, showing great patience and a cool head, ignoring the barbs and picking off the runs with ease.

“Then, as the winning post came within sight, he even eschewed the chance of another century and forsook the glory of the winning hit, blocking balls to the crowd's delight - never in all my years of watching cricket have I ever heard such deafening applause for a straight bat - and leaving the Little Master to hit the winning runs.

“And hit them he did, paddle-sweeping Swann round the corner to bring up his 41st Test century, win the match and complete, by some distance, the highest successful fourth innings chase in Asia and the fourth highest anywhere, punching the air in delight as he was lifted up by Yuvraj with the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears.

“Seldom can the mood of a whole nation have been transformed so quickly by so few, illustrating most vividly the tremendous power of sport, to heal wounds, raise morale and showcase the very best of the human spirit, and in so doing fully justifying the decision to play.

“It may have finished India 1-0 England but the real score was Cricketers 1-0 Terrorists.”

December 2010: Tendulkar dedicates Centurion century to his father and says “it’s the hunger which keeps me going”
December 2009: 20 years of Tendulkar: the stats
December 2008: Helps India to dramatic win
October 2008: Helps India thrash Australia
October 2008: Breaks Test run-scoring record
July 2007: Little Master looks ahead to Lord’s Test

Monday, June 25, 2012

England’s Euro 2012 debacle: My five-point plan to bring football home


AND so, once again, England exit a major tournament, outplayed, outpenaltied, outthought... the pain goes on, and on, and on - and the lessons from those 46 years of hurt fail, fail, and fail again to get learnt.

But, as in politics, as in economics, there is another way, there is an alternative, a Plan B to get the Three Lions roaring again, if only the FA would listen.

To the plan in a minute, then, but first to the best of the reaction to last night’s defeat, starting with the refreshingly realistic response of the English press boys:

“England here proved themselves a Scott Parker of a team, stretching and straining themselves to overcome limitations that are not just rooted in these players but an entire footballing culture. We will be back to debates about grass roots and youth academies.

“England displayed a graft and obduracy which was enough, given pre-tournament upheaval and paltry expectations, to see the country grow to like its football team again... England have very good reasons to stay humble for a long while yet.”

- Matt Dickinson, The Times (£)

“What cannot be denied, or indeed ignored, was the chasm in class between the sides. England had no-one to match Pirlo’s ability to dictate, to treat the ball as his closest friend.

“England have been guilty of squandering possession in recent times but this was different. They did not have possession as they were manoeuvred about by master manipulator Pirlo in such a manner that Italy would never have forgiven themselves had they not gone forward to meet Germany in Warsaw on Friday.”

- Phil McNulty, BBC Sport

“Throughout the tournament, for richer and poorer, their humanity was apparent, and there was none of the tedious hubris and entitlement of the Golden Generation. For the first time in at least a decade, England at a major tournament were more than the sum of their parts.

“The cliche of England losing on penalties thus had a new twist. In most cases, from 1990 to 2006, there was regret and a legitimate if not always persuasive argument that England deserved to go through. This time only the most intractable nationalist would suggest that justice was not done.”

- Rob Smyth, The Guardian

“Hodgson had been trying to make a new team from the broken culture of England's international football and in this European Championship he had succeeded in some ways better than he could have dreamed.

“Here though, as the minutes ticked away, one of Europe's master players, Andrea Pirlo, worked relentlessly to destroy his work...

“And then we had the recurring curse of England, the spectre that before last night had consumed them five times in major tournaments over the last 22 years. For Hodgson, so early in his watch, it must have been almost too much. It proved so as the Italians, buoyed by a penalty of outrageous nerve from Pirlo, made it to the semi-final against Germany.”

- James Lawton, The Independent

“This was a chronicle of a death foretold, of a failure to prepare properly. This deserved defeat on penalties, England’s sixth reverse in seven shoot-outs, highlighted technical deficiencies also painfully apparent during the two hours of football. Italy, and Andrea Pirlo in particular, were vastly superior.

“Italy deserved to progress to a Euro 2012 semi-final with Germany in Warsaw on Thursday. Some of Pirlo’s passing was sumptuous; he guided the ball around England’s half as if using satnav. He cherished the ball’s company whereas England, following a deceptively promising start, continued to surrender it cheaply...

“This is not simply the extension of a curse. This was a problem with a footballing culture. England should have practised penalties more but the flaws run deeper. England showed resilience and organisation, especially defensively, where John Terry was immense but more guile was required. England need a Pirlo or a new Paul Scholes.”

- Henry Winter, The Daily Telegraph

“Forget the penalty shoot-out. It’s irrelevant. Flee from comparisons with the end of the doomed epics in Turin and St Etienne. They don't work. And don’t kid yourself England are out of Euro 2012 because Ashley Young hit a crossbar. Or because Gianluigi Buffon made a save.

“No, let’s be honest. England shouldn’t have got anywhere near a penalty shoot-out here at the Olympic Stadium last night. It was a miracle they even took their quarter-final against Italy to extra-time. They had no answer to the sweet passing of Andrea Pirlo. And the only answer to the forward play of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano was to form a human barricade.

“The truth hurts but the truth is England should have been beaten out of sight within 90 minutes. Only woeful Italian finishing, the woodwork and a heroic, doomed defence kept England alive for so long.”

- Olly Holt, The Mirror


“For England to have progressed last night, Andrea Pirlo would have to have lost. So the providence of penalties seemed, for once, divine.

“While England failed to deliver the improvement required by the knockout stages, Italy rose to the occasion through the finest individual performance of the tournament so far. Even Pirlo’s penalty was a work of art: derivative, perhaps, but every bit as beautiful as the gentle chip through space vacated by a goalkeeper’s dive with which Antonin Panenka won this competition for Czechoslovakia in 1976...

“Sooner or later, England are going to have to develop a player of Pirlo’s personal calibre and Roy Hodgson can start with the promising material known as Jack Wilshere. In an ideal world, Hodgson would have a DVD made of Pirlo’s performance last night and hand it to Arsenal’s richly gifted midfielder with advice to watch it every day for 10 years.”

- Paddy Barclay, Evening Standard

“England started well, then, even though they remained organised, they gradually faded away on the pitch. They held on for penalties but it didn't go well for them. The laws of football could not allow for a triumph of another English 'catenaccio' after that of Chelsea that won the Champions League.”

“Old Roy, knowing the limits of his team, ordered everyone back. This was an embarrassing England for its lack of ideas and decent feet... England’s paltry possession and reliance on improbable long balls left Wayne Rooney flying from one side of the pitch to the other like a mad butterfly.”

“England wanted to pull a Chelsea. They failed. We knew that they were going to wait for us and try to hurt us on the break but we came here to play our game. The penalties did justice.”

“The cool, calculated way Pirlo chipped it, that is something you have or you don’t have as a player.”

“On a pure footballing note Pirlo just put on a pure footballing master class + the penalty was too much.”

Most on-the-money of all, however, were the ITV Sport panel; not for them the hallucinatory hero-worship of the BBC’s Gabby Logan - all ‘the guys were so brave’ and ‘we were really unlucky, weren’t we?’ - no, what Keano, Carra and Southgate spoke forth with was the brutal, honest truth: that England were utterly outclassed and had no right to win:

“They rode their luck. The further you go in tournaments, the more it’ll catch up with you.”

- Roy Keane

“The same things have been said for so long about the team’s poor ball retention. When’s it ever going to change?”

- Jamie Carragher

“With the group we had this time, we’re never going to outplay the Germans, the Spanish.”

- Gareth Southgate

What’s needed is radical change, the kind of change that’s been called for and promised after exits past, change that surely cannot wait much longer - how many more humiliations must be endured?

Here is my five-point plan to get the FA thinking:


Time and again at tournaments, England players turn up jaded at the end of a long season. The tiredness factor could be reduced with a downsizing of the Premier League. Though the Primera Liga, Serie A and Le Championnat all have 20 teams like our own, they’re nowhere near as physical or taxing - and the Bundesliga has only 18 teams in its top flight. The DFB seems to be doing alright.

Given the recent megabucks TV deal, in which the team that finishes bottom of the league earns more in prize money than Manchester City did for winning the competition, it seems highly doubtful the turkeys will ever vote for this Christmas, whatever the manifest benefits to England. Clubs nowadays, especially one would imagine those foreign-owned, and probably most fans, would be unwilling to ever sacrifice their place at the top table.


The most contentious policy. It would be nigh on impossible to impose central contracts, as deployed in cricket, but semi-central contracts, where the national board has a say in how players’ workloads are managed, could be viable - and would almost certainly benefit the national team.

As with culling the size of the top division, this will invariably help reduce the stress load of the leading players, but the opening up of a legal minefield makes it unlikely to ever see the light of day.


An increase in the number of friendlies will be resisted by the clubs but this surely essential in building a cohesive team. It goes without saying the more players play with each other, the better they’ll get at playing together, the better England will be. England looked like a team who’d never played with each other before - to their which dire Euro 2012 possession and passing stats attest.

If England are to ever win a tournament, to even make another semi-final abroad, to record a maiden away knockout win against a major power, they will need to get used to conditions abroad. Europe isn’t so much of a problem, with away friendlies, Euro and World Cup qualifiers and the Champions and Europa League; however, the world is bigger than just Europe, and if England are to succeed in Brazil in two years, or in subsequent intercontinental World Cups, they need to be acclimatised to playing in such conditions.

There will also, surely, be a monetary boost to having England reach out to and play in the corners of the globe - money which could be ploughed into youth development or used to fund future theoretical semi-central contracts.


This is the most likely (one would hope) policy to receive serious consideration from the suits, for it is the one least prone to irk the clubs, to cost the least and to reap the greatest reward... in a nutshell, we need a revolution in the way English youth and schools football is played, perceived and administrated.

English footballers need to learn tika-taka, to hold the ball, to pass to one another. Dead simple. From school all the way up to under-21 level, 5-a-side rules should be imposed. No long balls, no high balls - no hoofing it up to the big man - no obscene tackles, just short passes, building possession, playing it along the grass, learning to love the ball.

At present, ball control and skill, embodied in the lithe little man beloved of Barça and Spain, is akin to haraam in English boys’ football, from primary school upwards. As Chris Waddle said last night (and after our World Cup 2010 exit, and on numerous occasions elsewhere), we’ve got to learn how to pass. It was embarrassing watching England lose the ball again and again and again, lumping it up forward, out of defence, surrendering possession, inviting wave after wave of attack.

This new way has to be learnt early, it has to be learnt young, be drilled into our youngsters - enforcing this law at sub-pro level would reap dividends in years to come. More than any other policy, this is key to producing an England team of the future capable of carassing the ball, dictating play and winning.


Compared to other nations, the record of Englishmen abroad is abysmal. Though it’s great for our national league to have all England’s stars plying their trade at home, it cannot be healthy for the national team - especially with the technical level of the Premier League on a lower plane than witnessed in Italy, Spain or Germany.

No levers can be pulled, no legislation enacted to achieve this aim - yet, in the short- to medium-term, having England players playing abroad is every bit as important as any of the above to securing success on the big stage.

Contrary to what Roy Hodgson says, the stats do matter, self-evidently they tell a story, none more so than the figures for possession, passing and shots on- and off-target. Not once in four games did England dominate possession, mustering a paltry 11 shots in six-and-a-half hours of action - of the quarter-finalists, only Greece had fewer.

As Telegraph Sport explained:

“England managed just one shot on target as Italy dominated over 120 minutes, twice hitting the woodwork. Ashley Cole and Ashley Young missed in the shoot-out, but what happened before the penalty roulette was the real concern.”

A point echoed by James Olley in tonight’s Standard:


“England rode their luck, as they had done throughout the tournament, to the extent that Italy’s shoot-out success was not a travesty of justice but instead the right outcome on balance for a superior team.

“The idea that England could somehow ‘Chelsea their way’ to glory relied on a succession of improbable triumphs that would have created an accumulator only the most myopic of punters would have backed.

“England were better in possession than they have been in previous tournaments but teams simply do not have 36 per cent of the ball at international level and succeed.

“Italy completed 815 out of 1,003 passes - a success rate of 81 per cent - compared to England’s 320 from 522 which equates to 61 per cent.

“Their most regular combination was the 15 occasions Joe Hart searched out Andy Carroll. This statistic encapsulates that while England’s football, particularly against Sweden, was encouraging, they still rely on a technically primitive style to stay competitive.”

We can’t go on like this. It’s time for change - from Team England right the way down to the reeds; there’d’ve been no dishonour in losing having played the right way, kept hold of the ball, passed it around, attacked, attacked, attacked. The days of the Stoke approach must be consigned to history: anti-football must be slayed, football must out.

As Guillem Balague tweeted:

“It is not all about winning or losing, only 1 team wins a tournament. Wouldn’t it be better 2 find a style that leaves less of a bitter taste?”

Given we invented the game, we can sure as Hell reinvent the way we play; the rest of the world’s moved on - it’s time the founding fathers caught up.

UEFA: Euro 2012 Official Website
June 2010: Bloemfontein or bust as England take the hard road to Johannesburg

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

After cricket’s match-fixing Hell, is football now the world’s most corrupt game?


TONIGHT on BBC Radio Five Live, the subject of cricket corruption will be to the fore once more - but it is the widely under-reported (at least in England) issue of football match-fixing that should be of greater concern.

Cricket, which was shaken to its core by the Hansie Cronje scandal of 2000, and reached a nadir with the Pakistan spot-fixing scandal of 2010, looks to have got its house in order - though problems, of course, remain, most notably with the IPL.

Indeed, it is the “Hansie Cronje Story” that is under the spotlight on Five Live this evening, so before venturing into the current football scandals, let us rewind to the start of the millennium and recall just what a seismic shock it was.

Here’s the BBC’s Mark Chapman, tonight’s presenter:

Marlon Aronstam dialled Hansie Cronje’s mobile on 17 January 2000. He told him he had a negative image and was perceived as conservative. They had never spoken before. Aronstam, a bookmaker, was cold calling the South African captain and yet, within hours, he was in a hotel room with him and offering 500,000 rand to a charity of Cronje's choice and “a gift”.

All Cronje had to do was to persuade Nasser Hussain and England to make a game of it on the final day of a Test ruined by the weather. Both sides were to forfeit an innings to give England a run chase. The following morning Hussain, unaware of the meeting, agreed.

Alec Stewart remembers a “tough run chase” as England won by two wickets. He doesn’t remember his exact score but he does remember the “bitter, bitter taste” when they found out just months later what Cronje had done.

Aronstam didn’t remember too much either as he sat across from me in a central London hotel room, more out of convenience I feel than the passing of time. “Cronje loved cricket but the money was a bonus...

“Without money the world doesn't run,” said the man who had asked for FA Cup final tickets to speak to me. Thickset physically and with even thicker skin metaphorically, I asked him if he felt guilty: “Nah, I don't believe I did anything wrong.”

Cronje knew he had sinned. “I could no longer live with myself or with the situation I had created,” he told the King Commission, an inquiry set up by the South African government into match fixing. There were around 40 people subpoenaed to give evidence.

Cronje’s statement was the only one televised. He ended his evidence in tears, a crumpled, broken, exhausted man who had to be helped out of the room.

To football, then - in particular Italian football, though, as we’ll see later, it’s a worldwide problem, if not yet, thankfully, an English one.

Today, Italy’s prime minister Mario Monti suggested Serie A take a three-year break to cleanse itself of shame, the spectre of corruption looming ever larger in the football-obsessed four-time World Cup-winning nation, six years on from the Calcio scandal and on the eve of Euro 2012.

Monti said:

“It’s particularly sad when a world which should be an expression of the highest values - sport, youth, competition, fairness - turns out to be a mass of foul play, falsehood and demagoguery.

“This isn’t a government proposal, but I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea to suspend the game for two or three years.”

As I said previously, this is by no means solely an Italian problem - to which this extraordinary roll-call of shame on ESPN SoccerNet will attest:

The world’s most popular game is also its most corrupt, with investigations into match fixing ongoing in more than 25 countries.

Here’s a mere sampling of events since the beginning of last year:

• Operation Last Bet rocked the Italian Football Federation, with 22 clubs and 52 players awaiting trial for fixing matches;

• The Zimbabwe Football Association banned 80 players from its national-team selection due to similar accusations;

• Lu Jun, the first Chinese referee of a World Cup match, was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison for taking more than $128,000 in bribes to fix outcomes in the Chinese Super League;

• Prosecutors charged 57 people with match fixing in the South Korean K-League, four of whom later died in suspected suicides;

• The team director of second-division Hungarian club REAC Budapest jumped off a building after six of his players were arrested for fixing games; and

• In an under-21 friendly, Turkmenistan reportedly beat Maldives 3-2 in a “ghost match” - neither country knew about the contest because it never actually happened, yet bookmakers still took action and fixers still profited.

Soccer match fixing has become a massive worldwide crime, on par with drug trafficking, prostitution and the trade in illegal weapons.

Utterly incredible.

So what, then, is to be done?

I can do no better than quote you at length the wise words of CNN World Sport Anchor Pedro Pinto, who today blogged:

“In my mind, after what happened this week in Italy, it is clear that the future of football is at stake. Either something is done to clean up the sport, or fans will simply stop caring about what is still known as ‘the beautiful game’.

“I will be honest with you, I was shocked when 19 people, including Lazio captain Stefano Mauri, were arrested on Monday. Trust me, I am not so naive to think football is perfect. I have seen how corruption has tainted the game in various countries.

“Italy is not the exception, far from it. There have been cases of match fixing in Portugal, Germany, Greece, South Korea, Brazil and Turkey among other nations in recent years.

“However, what happened this week was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was not expecting to see the captain of a top Serie A team arrested in public.

“Furthermore, I was also stunned to see police forces raid the training centre of Italy’s national team looking for evidence linking international defender Domenico Criscito to the ongoing investigation. The whole scene was for me, honestly, quite simply shocking.

“So where do we stand? What can be done? There is no doubt that football’s governing bodies have to find a way to regulate the behavior of players, coaches, referees and officials.

“Can everyone’s phones be tapped? No, that is impossible, but authorities need to do more to ensure there is no foul play.

“What FIFA and UEFA need to do right now is invest heavily in their anti-corruption task forces and make sure they have the resources and the power to investigate the relationships between people in the game and betting syndicates and organized crime gangs.

“Football’s governing bodies make hundreds of millions of dollars every year. There is no excuse not to spend a large chunk of that cash on something which is threatening the integrity and future of the game. Action is needed, and it is needed now.”

Spot. On. I really couldn’t have put it better myself.

Without fair competition, without players performing to their best, their total, absolute best, each time they step out to play - if sportsmen take to the field of play and deliberately underperform, concede runs, get out, let in a goal, miss an open goal, sport, life itself loses all meaning, you lose faith in what you’re seeing; put bluntly: there is no point in continuing to watch, in the clean players continuing to play, in sports fans continuing to dream.

That, in a nutshell, is the real crime: the killing of hope. And it is that shame the cheats will have to live with.

May 2011: Champions League Final 2011 report
April 2011: World Cup Final 2011 preview

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Imagine if the BBC allowed animals to enter Sports Personality of the Year...


CONTROVERSY raged today over the BBC’s latest act of obvious if unintended sexism, following up their ‘no girls, no females, no womenSports Personality of the Year shortlist by naming a panda (yes panda) as their December female face of the year.

Not just that, but of the 11 humans they named, as the New Statesman’s Laurie Penny rightly puts it, more than half are less than inspiring (especially when compared to the male faces of the year):

“Newsworthy male feats in 2011 include, apparently, being a politician (3), being a police officer, being a soldier (3), being an Oscar-winning screenwriter, being an athlete, being a revolutionary martyr, being a fascist mass-murderer who definitely shouldn't have any more sodding publicity, and being shot by the Metropolitan police.

“To be considered a newsworthy woman in 2011, meanwhile, you have to make an allegation of rape, be a pop star, go on a date with a pop star, get married to a royal, be the sister of someone who got married to a royal, be a royal and get married to someone who isn't a royal, or be a panda called Sweetie.”

Leaving aside her implicit call for pandacide - saying of them “sometimes, it’s just best to let nature take its course” - she pretty much hits the nail on the head; not much one can add on the sexism point.

However, taking the equality of species angle, and with regard to SPOTY, what might have happened had the BBC chosen to apply this principle to this year’s competition? Imagine if male and female humans were excluded, and it was an all-animal affair?

Now, my knowledge of horses and greyhounds, who would inevitably dominate such a spectacle, is next to nothing, and Wiki’s not much help either, throwing up this and this, but with what little I do know about this field, the aid of Google and a bit of imagination we might come up with a show that goes a little something like this:


Bryan Habana’s cheetah. The Springbok flyer raced the spotted speedster in the run-up to South Africa’s victorious 2007 World Cup campaign and is rumoured to have done so for the Boks’ title defence this year. If the job of a coach is to push his charges to the limit surely the lithe, loping little big cat has no peers. The RFU should take note.


The unknown bull. If bullfighting can be called a sport it would be nothing without the vanquished, the real star of the show, more so than the prancing matador, in the most consistently one-sided (more one-sided than even the duopoly of the Scottish Premier League) contest in the history of sport.


The classic picture of the dogs playing pool. As with the bull, it’s a shoo in every year. A work of genius. On so many levels.



The King’s Cup-winning Audemars Piguet elephant polo champions. The elephants not the men that is. And that’s elephant polo - not elephant water polo, but man, what a sight that would be!


Yang Guang, Tian Tian’s mate. We can’t leave him out - the pair can show off their awards to the Edinburgh public together; just imagine the stick he’ll get from Tian if he goes to the enclosure empty-pawed... Besides, if the slothish, chilled-out Dimitar Berbatov can cut it, there’s no reason why the equally unathletic Yang can’t.


Siku, the newborn polar bear cub being hand-reared in Denmark. Like Yang, no sporting ability’s yet been demonstrated, but this award’s all about promise, and boy does Siku have it in him to be the new Knut, performing for thousands of adoring fans week in, week out.



Awarded posthumously to Red Rum, quite simply the greatest horse who ever lived, three-time winner of the Grand National and runner-up in his other two attempts. A fitting tribute in the year his legendary trainer Ginger McCain joined him in the winner’s enclosure in the sky.

And finally...


Kauto Star, who on Monday won his fifth King George VI Chase, described by the Guardian as “record-breaking, history-making breathtaking... one of the most memorable performances in the history of jumps racing”. With that win, Kauto overtook Desert Orchid as the most successful horse in the history of the race.

So there we have it, surreal, (surprising? - lemme know in the comments), strange, but no less bizarre than the nomination of Sweetie as female face of December that got us here in the first place. Joking aside, it would almost be worth it just to see all the old dinosaurs from the Keys-Gray school - who saw no problem with an all-male shortlist - protesting about a no-bloke shortlist...

Anger as BBC chooses Tian Tian as December woman 2011
New Statesman: What “panda-gate” tells us about sexism
BBC News: Faces of the year 2011 - the women
BBC News: Faces of the year 2011 - the men
LFF: Why is there such little coverage of women’s sport?
LFF: And the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011 could have been...

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff: A Bright New Show of Class!


TONIGHT showed the BBC at its best, with an hour-long Dickensian Mistletime comedy, beautifully costumed, imaginatively written and well acted, led by a stellar cast including Robert Webb, Stephen Fry, David Mitchell and Johnny Vegas.

But don’t just take my word for it; if you haven’t already seen it, you can watch it again on the iPlayer and on Thursday, December 29th at 10:00pm on BBC Two.

Here’s the blurb (featuring some faaaaaaaaantastic names!):

“A Victorian comedy adventure in the style of Charles Dickens.

“Jedrington Secret-Past is a happy family man with a successful business until on Christmas Eve Malifax Skulkingworm, a lawyer with a flinty heart and an evil hat, tells him he owes a massive debt he never knew of, and imprisons his family and shop in London's most notorious debtors prison, the Skint.

“What is behind Skulkingworm’s sinister plan? Will Jedrington rescue his family in time for Christmas? And is there more to the name of Secret-Past than meets the eye? All will be revealed in a tale of hidden wills, brave urchins, giant clocks, misery, joy and treacle.”

And here’s some clips, first an introduction to the Secret-Past family:

Followed by Mister Jolliforth Jollington unveiling his amazing technicolor inflatocoat:

It’s even got a Mr Fruitcake!


BBC: The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Wanna choke off Cowell’s X Factor single from the Xmas number one? Here’s how!

Simon-Cowell-gimpANOTHER Christmas, another seemingly inexorable march to the number one slot for Simon Cowell’s latest fame-hungry karaoke coverer, with the winner of X Factor 2011 set to be unveiled tonight.

But it doesn’t have to be this way - the man who’s ruining music was knocked off his perch in 2009 and can be beaten again.

This year, following in the beats of Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name is the Nirvana classic Smells Like Teen Spirit, as 21st-century anti-Cowell hero John Morter - the man behind the campaign to get Rage to the number one two years ago - explained on Radio Five Live last night, on the eve of the X Factor dénouement.

Listen to the interview, with Saturday Edition’s Chris Warburton:

Xmas No 1 X Factor alternatives (mp3)

This year’s campaign, though, is slightly different, as Morter explains:

“There’s a lot of differences really, it's not really the same sort of campaign, to be honest with you, it doesn’t feel the same, it feels very different in a good way. The Rage campaign was really, you know, a ‘have a go’, this monopoly had kept on keeping our Christmas number ones every year and we stopped that, which was brilliant, and...”

But it doesn’t say anything about the might and power of the pop music industry, does it, that you’re able to then have a campaign to get something else to number one, it’s not done organically, I don’t think it kind of redresses what you see as a bigger problem does it?

“Well, it depends how you mean, in the very long term, possibly not, it's one minor event on a massive, massive spectrum of musical history, so, to answer that, probably no, but, y’know, it was something that, that people could get hold of and could get behind and say, ‘look, we’ve had enough of this’, and that was a tangible way of doing it, and it also, it was a way of hitting them where it hurt, because the Chrismas Number One, to all intents and purposes, is the big one, y’know, it's the one that they all wanna go for.”

And, even better, even more than the satisfaction of getting one over on Cowell and propelling a proper tune to the number one slot, the Nirvana campaign is raising money for Rhythmix, which, as we reported on Left Foot Forward last month, is the music charity that’s being screwed by Cowell and his Big Music overlords.

In his interview, Morter adds:

“The Nirvana campaign is also raising money for the charity Rhythmix, which is a children’s charity, does a lot of great work for bereaved children, and for children with music as well, and, erm, yeah, they’re doing quite a bit for that too, so, y’know, would I feel bad, well no, not really, cos it’s still doing some good...

Rhythmix was the one, Rhythmix was - there’s no coincidence here is there? Cos Rhythmix was the name of the band that had to change their name in X Factor cos it shared the same name as the charity and then they had to change their name to Little Mix on the show, etc, etc...

“That’s the one, yes, that's correct.”

It’s a no-brainer, right? Surely there is no competition, either line Cowell’s pockets and buy the X Factor winner’s cover of Damien Rice’s Cannonball, or help out a music charity, turn the screw on Cowell and buy Nirvana, which you should do anyway ’cos it’s by far the better tune!

Don’t believe me?!

Hello, hello, hello, how low?
Hello, hello, hello, how low?
Hello, hello, hello, how low?
Hello, hello, hello...

The story of Rhythmix and the corporate greed of S. Cowell
Anti-cuts song battles X Factor winner for Christmas No. 1
Facebook: The Nirvana For Christmas No.1 campaign
July 2011: Amy Jade Winehouse, 1983-2011, RIP
June 2011: Ed Sheeran shows ’em how to strum
February 2010: Rowntree savages the BRITS
December 2008: Hallelujah: It’s showtime!

Friday, July 29, 2011

The case against substitutes in cricket


THERE has been much debate recently about the use of substitutes in cricket, from the forthcoming outlawing of runners, to the tightening up of fielding subs post-05, and now a suggestion on Cricinfo for tactical replacements to be allowed.

We’ll come to the wider debate later, but first to Rob Steen’s article on Cricinfo this week making “the case for substitutes”, in which he asks why cricket is “so resistant to permitting like-for-like replacements for players who are under-par and underperforming”.

At the beginning, he writes:

“Condensed matches, fielding restrictions, Powerplays, arbitration by TV replay, ‘super’ overs. We could while away a lunch interval counting the ways in which cricket, more than any other sport, has been open to flexibility, remaking and remodelling itself to meet the challenges of fickle fashion and a fast-forward planet.

“Objectionable and irrelevant as some have been, this approach to innovation has achieved the desired means, namely survival, even prosperity.

“If it hadn’t, there would have been no queue snaking around Lord’s on Monday, let alone one of such inordinate length that my son and I couldn't find the end of it.”

This attempt to suggest the one day innovations led to the five day final day clamour is as wilfully ignorant as it is misleading. The Lord’s Test was not a “condensed match” and did not feature “fielding restrictions” or “‘super’ overs”, and even the “arbitration by TV replay” was DRS lite - no LBs could be referred to the third umpire, as well Rob knows.

There is no causal relationship between the one day modernisations and the fifth day lust for pure, old skool class. The queues would have been “snaking around Lord’s on Monday” regardless.

Onto the substance of his plans, let’s first look at what the laws of cricket (pdf) currently say.

Law 2.1 (a) (i) states:

“If the umpires are satisfied that a player has been injured or become ill after the nomination of the players, they shall allow that player to have a substitute acting instead of him in the field.”

With Law 2.3 specifying:

“A substitute shall not be allowed to bat or bowl nor to act as wicket-keeper or as captain on the field of play.”

Rule 2.1.3 of the ICC’s Standard Test Match Playing Conditions (pdf) adds:

“Substitute fielders shall only be permitted in cases of injury, illness or other wholly acceptable reasons. ‘Wholly acceptable reasons’ should be limited to extreme circumstances and should not include what is commonly referred to as a ‘comfort break’.”

That ruling tightens up the system, dealing at a stroke with abuses of the present subs system, most notably during the 2005 Ashes in which England players were on and off like a light switch, nipping off for a wizz or towel-down... though it should be remembered that Gary Pratt, when running out Ricky Ponting at Trent Bridge that memorable summer, was very much a legitimate replacement.

Steen’s desire to amend these laws, allowing current substitutes to become players, and permitting tactical substitutions, would fundamentally alter the game, turning it from the last true 11v11 into a 12- 13- (why not 14- or 15-) a-side contest, diluting the talent level, and descending the game into farce.

In the case of the former, what would stop a ‘bloodgate’-style fake injury scenario, or football-style feigned writhing around on the floor in agony, in order to bring on a new player who’d be permitted to do everything; in the case of the latter, there’d be nothing preventing teams, for example, packing fourth innings line ups with batsmen/bowlers, or third innings’ in the case of follow-ons/game-saving situations.

More draws would most likely result.

Then, there’s the question, in the case of permitting full replacements for injuries, from where one would summon up a 12th or 13th man, unless one were to propose they wile away the five days on the balcony in the vain hope of an injury. It’s fine for touring teams, but is it really feasible for the home side?

And on tactical subs, wither the all-rounder; why have a Hadlee or Sobers or Kapil or Flintoff when you can pack the squad with pure bowlers and pure batsmen.

As Simon Briggs wrote in the Telegraph:

“...let other sports shuffle people on and off the field like Shane Warne changing his poker hand. In cricket, the same team that starts the match must finish the match - minus any casualties sustained along the way.

“It is a tough school, admittedly, but the status quo favours the teams with the most exacting fitness standards and the most brave and resourceful individuals.

“Some of cricket’s greatest legends tell of incapacitated batsmen who shrugged off the pain of broken fingers, or bowlers who kept running in when lesser men (can we avoid another football parallel here?) would call for the stretcher.

“Think of Malcolm Marshall skittling England with a plaster cast on his left arm in 1984, or Colin Cowdrey defying Wes Hall with one hand in 1963...”

Onto the change in the rules on runners, which are to be banned in all international cricket from September/October, at the end of the English season. Even allowing for the ICC’s claim “there has been a strong feeling that runners were used not in the right spirit”, their complete abolition does seem overly disproportionate.

ICC chief Haroon Lorgat says:

“It’s quite a difficult one for umpires to determine whether there has been a real injury to batsmen or whether it was a tactical use of runners...

“If a bowler gets injured you can't continue bowling for the rest of the day and the feeling was that it would be better to not allow the use of runners because there has been abuse in the past.”

As I said, even allowing for this, it’s easily got round, with a firm ‘No’, or maybe even the corroboration of the opposition physio if in doubt, someone who, despite their colours, owes their first allegiance to their oath and is unlikely to give false advice - and neither will players be willing to chance it if they knew that could be humiliatingly rebuffed.

Under the new rules, you may end up with a crooked batsman hobbling out to the middle and both he and his partner blocking or boundarying, with no running whatsoever. Or, if we’re getting real farcical, the fit batsman running two and getting one; one short is short whether the batsman is 21 yards shy or 21 milimetres short.

But back to the primary point, about tactical subs and full subs for injuries. If we aren’t careful, we may end up with 16-man squads, or, the nightmare vision, specialist teams as in American Football, and if there’s one thing cricket ain’t, it ain’t American.

As Michael Atherton wrote (£) so brilliantly on the eve of the 2,000th Test:

“It is, though, only the rhythms of Test cricket, the ebb and flow, the peculiar challenge offered by the changing conditions over five days and the mental and physical questions that the long game asks of the players, that marks cricket out as a special game.

“Otherwise, you might as well watch baseball.”

The Times: A brief history of Test cricket
Cricinfo: England v India, 2nd Test live

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Amy Winehouse, 1983-2011, RIP


AMY WINEHOUSE was cremated today, three days after she died, suddenly, at her home in Camden. Only 27 years young. Twenty seven. So young, too young, too soon.

The funeral in Golders Green followed a private service in Edgware, and will be followed by a private remembrance in Southgate. Hundreds of mourners attended the services, with thousands more gathering round her home, laying flowers, cards and memories at the ad hoc shrine.

I only met Amy once, well I say ‘met’, it was only a brief acquaintance, on a typically mental raaaaandom Camden eve barely five months ago, on the High Street and then in Proud, where she was chillin’ and spinnin’, lookin’ fiiiine, good drunk and unhigh...


You’d imagine stars wouldn’t have to buy their own drinks, or at least get a lackey to fetch them. Not Amy, queuing up with us mortals, paying with her own money, from her own purse, and happy to acknowledge the crowd with a shy smile and a “hi”.

To her music, then, so many tunez to choose from, all good, unique, a true talent; my faves are the biggies, Valerie, Rehab, and alongside the latter the most haunting now she’s no longer amongst us, Back to Black:

The 27 Club has a new member; their gain is Earth’s loss. Picture the scene and smile... Hendrix, Jones and Kobain on the harps, Amy belting out the hits, forever young, forever in music’s heart, singing out the skies forever more.

Amy Jade Winehouse, 1983-2011, RIP