Tag Archives: Cricket

Role reversal makes England Ashes favourites

Whisper it quietly but, the way this Ashes series seems to be developing, Andrew Strauss’ England team look like strong favourites to record a series win in Australia for the first time in 24 years.

Predicting success in Australia is one of the most notoriously optimistic traits an England cricket fan can have. The hype preceding tour after tour down under has promised much only for England to find themselves overmatched once the action commences on the field.

But there’s something different about this particular Ashes tour. Defeat in India reinforced the belief that Australia, now slumped to a previously unfathomable fifth place in the world rankings, were more vulnerable than they had been in England in 2009.

Then came the first test in Brisbane and, aside from the brilliant second innings batting of Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, an odd, disquieting pattern began to emerge.

Previous England tours of Australia have been characterised by the tourist’s leftfield selections, the fielding of half-fit players and established players clinging for dear life to their international careers.

In 2010, the boot is on the other foot. This time Australia are in turmoil and Strauss’ professional, well-drilled, efficient England team are positioned to reap the rewards.

England walked into Brisbane well prepared. They had three tour matches under their belt. They even had the foresight to send their first choice bowling unit up to Brisbane early when they realized the Hobart pitch bore no resemblance to the strip they would play on at the Gabba.

All was not well with the hosts. The media questioned whether Michael Hussey should be in the team at all. In typical fashion, Mr Cricket responded with a timely – if slightly fortunate – hundred.

Vice-captain Michael Clarke’s fitness was an issue but they played him anyway. His reward? Getting peppered by England’s quick men for 45 minutes before eventually being dismissed.

Things were just as bad for the Aussie bowlers. Peter Siddle’s excellent six-wicket haul on his birthday masked the overall ineffectiveness of Ricky Ponting’s attack in England’s first innings. Second time around, they had no answer to the patient batting of England’s top order.

With Strauss effectively limiting himself to three attacking shots (the cut, the drive and the leg-side nurdle) and Cook and Trott refusing to waft their bats outside off stump, it was hard to see how Australia would take a wicket. As we now know, they only managed one in 170 overs.

The ongoing struggles of Ponting’s bowlers are another example of how English and Australian fortunes have reversed. In the past, bringing in an inexperienced player like spinner Xavier Doherty (never played in a test match, first class bowling average of 48) would be a typically straw-clutching English move.

Not any more. It is England who boast with the settled and experienced attack while the Aussies futile search for the next Shane Warne (or indeed the next Stuart MacGill) ambles on.

Then there’s Mitchell Johnson, axed one game into the series after spraying the ball around like a lefty Steve Harmison. Johnson was disappointing enough in England in 2009 but 18 months on he seems to have regressed even further, shorn of confidence and accuracy.

Dropping a player one game into a series is the least Australian move I can think of. Jeez, in 2005, they even carried Jason Gillespie for most of the series.

If Ashes history tells us anything, it’s that panic moves and desperation selections rarely work. England’s success in 2005 was built on stability. Their ignominious failure in 2006 (and many Ashes tours before that) was founded on incoherent team selection and poor captaincy.

Talking of which, the first test in Brisbane highlighted again how anemic Ricky Ponting is as a leader. Captaincy certainly came a lot easier to him when he could throw the ball to Warne, Glenn McGrath or Brett Lee and watch opponents crumble under the onslaught.

Ponting’s squarely unimaginative field placings on the final day in Brisbane were those of a man happy to display the most un-Australian quality of all: he was happy to settle for a draw – even though three quick wickets would have put his team on top against opponents notorious for batting collapses.

Not only did Ponting seem bereft of ideas, even worse, he seemed to have no inclination to attack. Previous Australian sides could force a win from almost any position – remember Adelaide in 2006?

Now, with a toothless and wayward attack at his disposal, he was happy with one slip and no bat-pad men in close. The shoulders of the Aussie fielders slumped when catches were put down. When has that ever happened before?

So Australia are old England, but are England able to be old Australia? The foundations are in place. A settled side, good preparation and disciplined leadership from Andys Flower and Strauss.

Can they dominate the opposition in this Ashes series? Pundits, pointing to Adelaide’s reputation as a batsman’s paradise, believe England will struggle to take 20 wickets there.

That’s a fair argument but the pitch isn’t the only variable in play. What about scoreboard pressure? If England bat first and grind the Aussie bowlers into the dust a la Brisbane, how will Ponting, Clarke and co go about their business facing a 500-run deficit?

Going into the second test, England have the momentum, but that counts for nothing when they take the field at Adelaide.

If the roles of England and Australia have truly been reversed, Strauss’ men must demonstrate the characteristically Australian professionalism, ruthless efficiency and unfailing belief in themselves if they are to take control of this Ashes series.

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The lamest excuses in sport

After turning in one of their worst performances of the season, the New York Knicks offered up a bizarre excuse for their 106-88 loss to the blossoming Oklahoma City Thunder.

Why did they succumb to the 30 points poured in by superstar-in-waiting Kevin Durant and the athleticism of rising tyros Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green? It was the coaching schemes or dodgy rims. No, the Knicks players blamed the loss on the fact that their game preparation had been disturbed by staying in a haunted hotel.

There might even be a shred of merit to their claim. For years, guests at Oklahoma’s Skirvin Hilton have reported ghost sightings and strange noises. Legend has it that sometime in the 1930s, a woman jumped to her death while holding her baby in her hands.

It was all too much for 7ft, 300-pound center Eddy Curry. The seldom-used big man fled his 10th floor room in terror, seeking sanctuary in guard Nate Robinson’s quarters. Another Knicks player, Jared Jeffries, described the hotel as scary and said he definitely believed in the ghostly legend.

Odd excuses have been a staple of defending poor performances for many years. So much so, that the Sports Bloke decided to list his own particular favourites.

1996 – Manchester United’s grey shirt problem
Managers in the English Premier League are never shy when it comes to making excuses for poor showings by their teams. Inevitably, it’s never their fault. In his 23 years in charge at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson has become a past master of explaining away defeat. His most famous excuse came in 1996 when, trailing 3-0 at half-time to Southampton, Ferguson ordered his players to change from the grey strip  they had been wearing to an alternate blue kit. Ferguson later explained the grey kits had ruined his team’s passing game because they were having trouble seeing each other on the pitch. As bizarre as this sounds, statistics suggest Fergie may have had a point. United lost four of the five games they played wearing the grey kit before it was retired from use.

2001 – Tight slacks and shirts ruin Sri Lanka’s big day
When Sri Lanka lost the ICC Champions Trophy final to Pakistan they didn’t blame the defeat on their batting, bowling or fielding. No, their loss was due to their tight-fitting clothing. According to captain Sanath Jayasuria, their kit was too small and restricted their movement and mobility in the field. He described the team’s shirts as tight-fitting women’s blouses. The team’s tailor was subsequently instructed to make their kits one size larger but it was too late to avert defeat in the showpiece final.

2007 – Stephen Ireland’s “dead” grandmother
Manchester City midfielder Stephen Ireland pulled out of a crucial Euro 2008 qualifier for the Republic of Ireland after claiming his maternal grandmother had died. Unfortunately, the media discovered Ireland’s nan was alive and well. Ireland then changed his story, claiming it was in fact his paternal grandmother who had shaken off this mortal coil. It was then revealed that this nan was also very much alive. Eventually, Ireland came clean and admitted he simply missed his girlfriend and wanted to go home.

1992 – Lighton Ndefwayl goes on the offensive
Zambian tennis player Lighton Ndefwayl could have easily reacted to defeat in a local tournament in a mature, considered way. Luckily for this particular article, he singularly failed to do so. After falling to defeat against compatriot Musumba Bwayla, Ndefwayl described his opponent as a stupid man and a hopeless player who sported a big nose and cross-eyes. He added for good measure “Girls hate him. He beat me because my jock strap was too tight and because he farts when he serves. This made me lose my concentration, for which I am famous throughout Zambia”. ‘Nuff said!

2003 – Mervyn King and the air conditioning
Darts stars Mervyn “The King” King and Raymond “Barney” van Barneveld faced off in the semi-final of the 2003 BDO World Darts Championships. When Barney prevailed, King blamed the loss on the air conditioning in the areana. King said he has asked for it to be turned off once he had taken the stage. Surely the pumped-in breeze would affect both players ability to punish the 60 and hit their doubles. Not so, claimed King. He explained that “the air conditioning doesn’t affect Raymond because he throws a heavier dart and a very flat dart”. For the record, the tournament organisers confirmed that the air conditioning had been switched off for the entire match.

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The Sports Bloke’s Top 10 sporting moments of the decade

As the noughties (officially the worst decade name EVER) draw to a close, it’s the perfect time to consider the most magical, unforgettable, outstanding moments of the last 10 years.

It’s a given there will be a rash of these lists in newspapers and online and there’ll no doubt be a a vague consensus as to which moments are the most memorable. You can expect Kelly Holmes’ golden Olympic double, Lennox Lewis’ knockout of a faded Mike Tyson and Liverpool’s Champions League final comeback to feature prominently. None of these moments make my list, and here’s why.

When I thought about the most personally compelling sporting moments of the last decade, I was drawn to memories of utterly unbridled joy, sadness or exhilaration. With the three examples above, I didn’t see Kelly Holmes’ wins live, I don’t care whether Liverpool win or lose and Lewis’ win against Iron Mike was completely one-sided and nowhere near as memorable as his battles with Evander Holyfield. None of these achievements made me scream, shout, punch the air or even exhale with the release of tension.

The moments I’ve chosen are strictly personal. I either witnessed them live in person or was 100% emotionally invested in them when I watched them live on TV. All 10 took my breath away. So, without further ado, here’s the Sports Bloke’s Top 10 sporting moments of the decade.

Cricket: England vs Australia, 2nd Test, Edgbaston, July 2005
It should have been easy. It turned into the most tense, desperate and ultimately joyous conclusion to a test match. England needed two wickets to draw level in the Ashes. Australia needed an unlikely 107 runs for a series-killing 2-0 lead. On the way to the ground we all felt we’d only see half an hour of play. But Shane Warne and fellow tail-ender Brett Lee had other ideas, carving the English bowling to all parts in a desperate effort to reach their unlikely target. When Flintoff forced Warne to tread on his stumps, the target was down to 62. The partisan Edgbaston crowd breathed an epic sigh of relief. Just one wicket to go. But it didn’t come. the confidence of Lee and last man Michael Kasprowicz grew. The target continued to wittle away. Tension enveloped the ground and was made worse by the group of 50 or so Aussie “Fanatics” chanting “(insert number here) runs to go, (insert number here) runs to go” each time a run was scored.

England were going to blow their chance. I had predicted an English Ashes win about six months before the series and started to receive texts from friends blaming me for getting their hopes up. In the ground, people sat with transfixed looks of horror etched on their faces. The target was down to four. Steve Harmison searched for a yorker but produced a full toss. Lee carved it towards the boundary. It should have been the winning runs. But it went straight to the only English fielder in the area for a single. Then came the moment. Kasprowicz gloved a Steve Harmison bouncer. Wicketkeeper Geraint Jones claimed the catch. And oh-so-crucially, umpire Billy Bowden raised his finger. Pandemonium does not describe the crowd reaction accurately enough. Roll unbridled joy, unparalleled relief and emotional exhaustion into one and you might be close. England won by 2 runs and would go on to win the Ashes for the first time in 19 years. Simply the most amazing sporting moment I have ever witnessed in person.

Usain Bolt Olympic 100 metre final, Beijing 2008
If I was totally objective and not obsessed with cricket, Usain Bolt’s devastating performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics 100 metres final would have been a clear No 1 on this list. Bolt’s effort was, in equal measure, breathtaking, awe-inspiring, supremely arrogant and uniquely entertaining as he effortlessly powered his way to a previously unfathomable world record time of 9.69 seconds. Knowing he had left the rest of the field in his wake, Bolt extended his arms and eased up with around 30 metres to go as if to say “look how easily I can do this”. He emphasized his dominance of the event one year later at the World Championships lowering the world record to 9.58 seconds, a time that had only seemed possible on 1980s video game Track and Field. I was at a wedding on the day of the Olympic 100 metre final and, at the reception, deliberately spilt food over myself to create an excuse to go to my room to get a change of tie whereupon I watched Bolt’s record-shattering race live. There was no way I was going to miss it.

NFL: NY Giants win the Super Bowl
On their way to a perfect 19-0 season, the New England Patriots didn’t even consider the possibility of losing Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants. They’d even printed up 19-0 t-shirts to wear after they’d cruised to victory. But Belicheck, Brady, Moss and Co reckoned without the grit of Big Blue. People will always talk about David Tyree’s amazing one-handed catch or Eli Manning’s Houdini act that help him evade the Pats defence and make the pass to Tyree. For me, Manning’s winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress is the memory that I treaure most. Riveted on a sofa at 3am in London, I saw the pass in slow motion, floating into the end zone with Burress closing in on it and found time to wake up my neighbours by shrieking “CATCH IT, PLAXICO” at the top of my lungs. Plax obliged, the Giants led and there was nothing the Pats could do.

Football: Germany 1 England 5
The result that fooled a nation into thinking Sven Goran-Eriksson was a genius and prompted the classic News of the World headline “Don’t Mention The Score”. An historically emphatic win over Germany shouldn’t have eradicated the pain of losing to them on penalties in Italia 90 and Euro 1996. After all, this was a qualifier and those were semi-finals. The smug Matthaus and Moller were long gone and Germany were a much weaker team then when they dominated international tournament football in the 1990s. But, but, but…… WE BEAT GERMANY FIVE ONE AWAY!!!! Michael Owen’s hat trick, Steven Gerrard’s late first half thunderbolt, Emile Heskey’s golf putt celebration, Sven laughing when the fifth goal went in. Up to this point, I don’t think I’d ever witnessed a sporting event that made me this deliriously happy. In the long run, normal service was resumed. Months later, England were dumped out of the World Cup at the quarter final stage while the German team they thrashed went to the final proving my Dad’s only football mantra: never bet against the Germans.

Boxing: Marco Antonio Barrera vs Erik Morales I
I came very close to including the first Arturo Gatti vs Mickey Ward fight over this but, in terms of excitement, I think Barrera vs Morales I just edges it for me. I had this fight on a video with a Barcelona vs Deportivo la Coruna in La Liga. Depor came from two nil down to win in the Nou Camp in what was one of the best football matches I’ve seen. It was only fitting that Barrera vs Morales I found a home alongside it. The February 2000 showdown was so ferocious it signalled a shift in the focus on boxing from the heavyweights to the little men. I had seen Morales dismantle an opponent in two rounds on the undercard of a Lennox Lewis pay per view in 1999. I knew nothing about Barrera. So what I witnessed in that first fight had elements of surprise and discovery about it.

Fighting for Morales’ WBC Super Bantamweight title, both Mexcian warriors displayed masses of heart and machismo in addition to iron chins concussive punching power. Pride meant neither men would yield the advantage for more than a few seconds. Throughout the fight, they stood toe to toe exchanging haymakers. There was no let-up in the intensity at any point in the 12-round battle. Both men emerged cut and battered after the final bell. Barrera probably edged it on points. Morales won on a split decision. It was voted Ring magazine’s fight of the year. In my mind, it was the fight of the decade.

PDC World Darts Final 2003: John Part vs Phil Taylor
Darts may be criticised for not being a real sport but I would defy anybody holding that opinion to not be utterly enthralled by John Part’s defeat of Phil Taylor in the 2003 PDC final. Darts purists may point to Raymond van Barneveld beating Taylor a few years later as a better match. For me, Part’s win ranks higher because at the time of his victory, Taylor looked utterly invincible. Relying on 100-120-range three dart checkouts, Part built a 4-1 lead before Taylor won 11 straight legs and roared back into 5-4 lead. The Power seemed certain to bully his way to yet another world title but Part sank pressure doubles to retake the lead six sets to five. Taylor broke back to send the final to a deciding set and again looked favourite to win. But Darth Maple again wound up the pressure on Taylor who, for the first time in nearly 10 years, had no response. Part stayed calm, sank his doubles and slayed the giant of darts to win his second world title.

England vs Australia, Rugby World Cup Final 2003
I’m not going to pretend I’m a huge rugby enthusiast. I watch the England internationals and, like most of the country, fell in love with Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson for six weeks at the end of 2003. If you take cycling and rowing out of the equation, English victories in world cups are extremely rare and should be celebrated accordingly. The 2003 rugby world cup final remains memorable as it was the only time in my life I got drunk three times in 24 hours. The night before the game I nervously hit the sauce with my mate Herman. It was only supposed to be a couple of gentle beers but got out of hand.

The next morning we headed to the then Australian enclave of Shepherd’s Bush for 7am and got on the beers in a pub full of Aussies. Watching this game was one of the last times I truly enjoyed watching sport in the boozer. England dominated the game from the scrum but were stymied by some dodgy refereeing. With the game in the dying seconds of extra time and the game poised to be decided on a drop goal shootout, Jonny Wilkinson stepped up and won the game with that drop goal. I remember almost crying and repeating the phrase “we never win anything” over and over again. We then went to Clapham to meet some mates where I ate a fry-up (it was nearly midday by now) and fell asleep in a pub. When I woke up, we drank in celebration of a rare England world cup victory.

Steve Redgrave’s fifth gold medal, Sydney Olympics
This historic moment happened at around midnight UK time. I had the TV on mute and Alan Green’s commentary on Radio Five. I don’t remember much about the race other than Redgrave, Pinsent, Cracknell and the bloke who looked a bit like Emmanuel Petit starting quickly and hanging on for grim death at the end. What lingers in my mind is Green’s manic Irish intonations, urging a nation of listeners to “get up on your feet and salute the greatest Olympian of all time”. I have goose bumps from typing those words. One of the rare times when a commentator dealt with the moment in the most perfect way.

South Africa beat Australia by one wicket, ODI, March 2006
Sometimes, like with Usain Bolt, you watch sport because you know something great is going to happen. Other times, you stumble on great sporting moments by mistake. I’m still not entirely sure why Sky were televising this game but I’m really glad they did. If the 2005 Ashes was the pinnacle of test cricket, this match was definitely the greatest one day international ever played. Ricky Ponting smashed 164 of 105 balls as Australia set a record one day score of 434 of their 50 overs. Surely there was no way back for South Africa.

Undaunted by the mammoth target, Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith set about the Australian bowling. Smith was eventually dismissed ten runs shrt of his hundred but it was Gibbs who ultimately made the impossible possible. He battered 175 runs in just 111 balls and, by the time he was out, had made South Africa favourites for the win. In typical fashion, the Aussies fought back. When Nathan Bracken dismissed Justin Kemp, South Africa needed 77 of the last seven overs. The teams traded wickets and boundaries until, with one wicket left, Mark Boucher struck the winning boundary off the game’s penultimate delivery. 872 runs had been scored off 99.5 overs. That wasn’t the only record set in this match. Aussie bowler Mick Lewis’ 10 over cost him 113 runs, the worst ever figures in a 50-over game.

New York Knicks vs Phoenix Suns, January 2006
This one was very personal to me. It was the best basketball game I’ve ever seen in person pitting my team (New York) against my favourite player (Steve Nash) in my favourite sporting arena (Madison Square Garden). The Suns were (and might still be) the most entertaining team in the NBA at this time. New York were (and still are) mediocre at best. On this night, Stephon Marbury and Co came to compete. Nash turned in a 22-assist performance featuring a handful of alley-oop passes to Shawn Marion. For the Knicks, David Lee had a coming out party, scoring 23 points and hauling down 15 rebounds. Eddy Curry had a 20-10 game too.

The Knicks blew a fourth quarter lead and the game went into overtime. In the end, the Suns wilted in the third extra period and the Knicks, led to Marbury’s 32 points, eventually prevailed 140-133. What stays with me about this game is the way that the play of boths teams bought the MSG crowd to life. By the third overtime, people all over the arena were utterly sucked in to what, in the grand scheme of things, was just another regular season game. My favourite player battling my favourite team in a triple overtime classic at the world’s most famous arena with a sold-out crowd going out of their minds. This was the day I properly gave my heart to basketball.

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The most dubious distinctions and unwanted records in sport

The New Jersey Nets have lost their first 16 games of the NBA season and, with one road game left on a devilish West Coast swing, look like a mortal lock to match the 0 and 17 landmark of early season futility set in 1988/89 by the Miami Heat and equalled by the ever-hapless Los Angeles Clippers ten years later.

The Nets are not poorly coached and the roster has clearly not quit on Lawrence Frank. However, injuries to guards Devin Harris and Courtney Lee and overall “talent issues” have sent them spiralling on a losing skid that may well see them surpass the unwanted record. Simply put, the likes of starters Trenton Hassell and Josh Boone don’t have the quality required to come out on top, however infrequently, against their opponents. Things have got so bad that they recently lost at home to the arguably-more-hapless New York Knicks.

The Nets’ descent into potentially precedent-setting ignominy is just one of many of sport’s dubious distinctions. From the NFL and MLB to the English Premier League, Formula 1 and boxing, the owners of such unwanted records become part of the folklore of their respective sports and, in the case of some, almost a comical euphemism for continued miserable failure and bad luck. Read on as the Sports Bloke examines 10 of the most dubious distinctions in sport.

Major League Baseball
Although there’s never a shortage of struggling MLB teams, none can match the horrific record of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On September 7 2009, the Pirates lost to the Chicago Cubs. It was their 82nd game of the season and condemned them to a 17th successive sub-500 season. No team in MLB history (or any American sports franchise) has ever matched Pittsburgh’s losing streak.

NBA
There isn’t a single NBA diehard who doubts that the Los Angeles Clippers are jinxed. Take this season for example. Armed with the No 1 pick, they made the correct selection in Blake Griffin only for their new signing to blow his knee out on a dunk in a pre-season game. At the time of writing, Griffin has yet to play for the Clippers. Although the Nets may surpass the Clippers 0 and 17 mark for consecutive early season losses, the franchise holds so many unwanted records that it has become a by-word for futility. To save time and space, I’ll only cite two. The Clippers are the oldest NBA team never to appear in the NBA finals. They are one of three teams (Memphis and Charlotte are the others) to have never won a Conference Championship or Division Title in their history.

Boxing
Far away from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and Caesers Palace, British boxer Peter Buckley carved out his own particular niche in boxing. He lost more fights than any other boxer in history. The Birmingham welterweight lost 256 of this 300 professional bouts, making a living as a durable punching bag for up-and-coming fighters including Prince Naseem Hamed, Duke McKenzie, Scott Harrison and Kell Brook. At one point, he lost 88 consecutive fights. Regardless of their record, anyone prepared to make a living as a boxer deserves respect. It was fitting, if a little unexpected, that Buckley won his 300th and final fight when he scored a four round points victory over Matin Muhammad in his hometown in October 2008.

Cricket
Former England captain Mike Atherton always struck a lonely figure, an obdurate leader hamstrung by the ineptitude of national selectors and surrounded by mediocre teammates unable to stand up to superior Australian, Pakistani and Indian teams. Although Atherton led his country with stoicism and made big scores against most countries, he was regularly tormented by metronomic Aussie opening bowler Glenn McGrath. Over the years, Atherton was dismissed 19 times by McGrath in test matches, a record for any bowler against one batsman.

Football
You have to feel sympathy with fans of perennial League Two strugglers Rochdale. The Greater Manchester club were relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League in 1974 and have remained there ever since. At the time of writing, Spotland’s finest have spent 35 years in the basement of English football, longer than any other English club.

NFL
The NFL prides itself on the “Any Given Sunday” principle that preaches league-wide parity and the fact that any outcome is possible in any game. Sadly, the Detroit Lions spent the entire 2008 season disproving this theory. With inferior offence, defence and special teams, the hapless Lions conspired to lose all 16 of their regular season games. Their futility surpassed that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who, in 1976, went 0 and 14 in their first season in the league.

FA Cup
The historical showpiece of the English football season has provided a seemingly endless stream of memorable moments over the last 120 years. Until 1985, no player had suffered the shame of being sent off in an FA Cup final. Manchester United defender etched his name into FA Cup history when he scythed down Everton’s Peter Reid in the 1985 final and was deservedly dismissed from the field. Down to 10 men, the Reds forced extra time and secured victory when Norman Whiteside curled a delicate left footed shot past Neville Seville and inside the far post to score the only goal of the game.

Formula 1
It might be a little bit harsh to label a driver who only appeared in three Grands Prix as the worst racer Formula 1 has ever seen but Jean-Denis Deletraz’s efforts were so poor that he is definitely in the conversation. For example, in his debut race, the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, the Swiss driver qualified 25th out of 26 cars and was lapped by leader Michael Schumacher after 10 laps. Deletraz did manage to find some speed at one stage. Unfortunately, this burst of pace came in the pit lane and he was penalised as a consequence. When his gear box finally failed after 57 laps, he had been lapped 10 times and was approximately 13 minutes behind the race leader.

Baseball
The Philadelphia Phillies may have contested the last two World Series but they also hold one of the most unwanted records in American sport. Although they’ve never been lovable losers and cursed by bad luck, no team has ever lost quite like the Phillies. A lot of this is down to the fact that they’ve existed since 1883. In July 2007, the Phillies were routed 10-2 by the St Louis Cardinals. It was a landmark defeat that condemned them to becoming the first American sports team to lose 10,000 games.

English Premier League
In July 2007, a poll in The Times newspaper labelled Southampton’s one-game wonder Ali Dia as the worst footballer ever to play in the Premier League. Saints manager Graeme Souness had been led to belive Dia was the cousin of World Footballer of the Year George Weah. He was also told the player had played for Paris St Germain and won 12 international caps for Senegal. None of this was true. When Dia replaced Saints legend Matt le Tissier in a 1996 game against Leeds United, everyone realised the awful truth. His performance, described by Le Tissier as “embarrassing to watch”, was mercifully cut short after 52 minutes when Souness cottoned on to the fact he had been duped about Dia’s credentials.

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England expects: the return of Kevin Pietersen

A good mate of mine refers to England cricketer Kevin Pietersen as “Big Prinz”, a song from The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj album which features the classic Mark E Smith lyrical refrain “He is nuts-ah!” (KP, nuts, geddit?). It’s an appropriate nickname for reasons that go beyond the obvious nutty bar snack association with Pietersen’s initials.

From the moment Pietersen made his test match debut at Lord’s against Australia in 2005, he dominated the crease with his Botham-esque self-belief and imposing Flintoff-ian physical stature. While supporters could sense the pride he took in representing his adopted country, they also enjoyed the fact that there was something wholly un-English about his behaviour. He refused to be intimidated by the sense of occasion. He dished out the abuse when opponents dared to sledge him. He regally counter-attacked against the best bowlers in the world. And, most importantly, he made big match-winning innings when it counted. Almost instantly, he became the biggest figure in English cricket. That is, until someone at the ECB decided he needed taking down a peg or two.

Dressing room leaks have seen him labelled a loner and were responsible for the decision to take the England captaincy from him after just six turbulent months.

Pietersen spent the first half of 2009 looking, in the words of Avon Barksdale, like a man without a country. Separated from his teammates by his own talent and the circus that surrounded him, it was almost a relief when he succumbed to an achilles injury that gave him a much-needed break from the game.

Fit again, Pietersen has rejoined England as they embark on their tour of South Africa. Only a fool would believe he won’t walk straight back into the team when the one day series begins. But while many believe we will see characteristic bombast when he walks out to bat in South Africa, I wonder if Pietersen’s experiences over the last 18 months have left him emotionally scarred.

Look at it this way, Pietersen’s technique is idiosyncratic. Although he bats with intelligence and thought – witness his ability to use his crease and alter his stance when troubled by pace or spin – Pietersen’s unique shot-making and dominant batting style relies, at least to some degree, on boundless self-belief. Up until the point where he accepted the England captaincy, it’s a good bet he’d never questioned or compromised himself in any way as a cricketer. I believe being deposed as England captain left deeper scars on Pietersen’s psyche than anyone will ever realise. It was the first time he hadn’t made a success of a situation he believed to be under his control (remember, it was the quota system that stopped him from being a star for South Africa). It was the first time he had openly and embarrassingly failed.

For this, the ECB must take the blame. They fudged the captaincy issue in the autumn of 2006 when, with Michael Vaughan injured, they passed over Andrew Strauss, who had just guided England to a home series victory against Pakistan, and made Andrew Flintoff skipper for the ill-fated Ashes tour. They overburdened Flintoff, the team’s best player, and lost the series 5-0.

In the summer of 2008, when the captaincy issue rose again following the retirement of Michael Vaughan, the ECB failed to heed the lesson and handed the reins to KP. At that time, there were no other choices as Strauss was out of the one day side and going through a terrible run of form in the test arena. Had Strauss been appointed in late 2006, the England team would have enjoyed the stable leadership that led to this summer’s Ashes victory. Plus, their two most talented players, Flintoff and Pietersen, would have been left free to perform without the pressure of the captaincy.

The ECB must have known that Pietersen as captain would lead to problems. For his part, KP looked like a man out of his depth, immediately insisting on the appointment of a new coach (tellingly, Kent’s South African coach Graham Ford who he had worked with before) and demanding former skipper Michael Vaughan be included in the tour party for the 2009 West Indies tour. He wanted expertise around him because he was already unsure of his ability to lead. As things turned out, he would lose the captaincy before setting foot on the plane.

Did being ousted as captain hamper Pietersen’s performance when he returned to the ranks of England’s middle order in the spring of 2009? Although he made a few forties and fifties against the West Indies and in the Twenty20 World Cup, the sense of dominance and permanance at the crease were gone. The achilles injury did play a part, but so did the fact that he had been betrayed by his employers. Losing the captaincy through no fault of his own (the ECB later went on record backing up Pietersen’s assertion that he did not leak the story of his rift with coach Peter Moores to the media) robbed Pietersen of his instinctive and domineering South African style of play. Thanks to the ECB, he suddenly looked like a typical English batter, reactive and riddled with self-doubt.

If England are to be successful in South Africa, Andrew Strauss needs Kevin Pietersen to come back having used his six-month break from cricket to allow his psychological scars to heal. With Strauss and new coach Andy Flower flush from Ashes victory, Pietersen’s return to the England dressing room should be a smooth one. This is no longer a one or two man team. Flintoff is gone. The likes of Strauss, Graeme Swann and (on occasion) Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad have announced themselves on the international stage. The success or failure of the England team no longer depends on whether Pietersen flays the opposition bowling to every corner of the ground or gets out first ball to a good delivery. To help England be successul in South Africa, all Kevin Pietersen needs to do is rediscover how to be himself.

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Brett Favre and the most infamous traitors in sport

NFL legend Brett Favre was subjected to a cathedral of catcalls and jeers when he took the field for the Minnesota Vikings against the Green Bay Packers, the team with whom he made his name. The fans at Lambeau Field had waited two years and two aborted retirements to vent their frustrations over the way Favre seemingly extricated himself from Green Bay after the 2007 season.

Favre was Green Bay’s favourite son. He bought the city a Super Bowl triumph in 1996, broke numerous NFL records as a Packer and provided more dramatic finishes and comebacks than any other NFL player. But when he retired in tears in 2007 only to unretire within weeks to play for the New York Jets, some of that goodwill was extinguished. Yesterday we found out just how much. While there were pockets of appreciation for Favre when he took the field, they were drowned out by swathes of booing each time he was involved in the action.

Always one for a flair for the dramatic, Favre got the last laugh, throwing for 244 yards and four touchdowns as the Vikings triumphed 38-26 over his former team. In honour of Favre’s return to Green Bay, the Sports Bloke takes a look at more sporting stars who turned their backs on their teams and examines what happened when they returned to their former homes.

Paul Ince
Say what you like about fans of Premier League football club West Ham United, but don’t deny they have any competition when it comes to holding grudges. Self-styled ‘Guv’nor’ Paul Ince was a product of the club’s youth academy and an England star in the making. In 1988, he decided he wanted to play for a bigger club. Rather than go the traditional route of lodging a transfer request, Ince instead chose to pose for the newspapers in a Man U shirt long before the deal had been finalised. Having forced West Ham’s hand, Ince got his big money move to Old Trafford. He probably didn’t anticipate the two decades of dogs abuse, incessant booing and Judas chants he faced whenever he played against West Ham for Manchester United, Liverpool and Wolves.
Hammers fans didn’t even let it go after Ince retired as a player. He received his now-traditional welcome as manager of Blackburn Rovers when he bought his team to Upton Park in 2008. Before this game, Ince commented that he felt, 20 years after his minor indiscretion, that the abuse was almost good-natured now. Sorry Paul, you’re wrong. You’re still hated at West Ham and here’s a measure of how much. When I was last betrayed by a good friend, I changed his name in my mobile to Ince. And it stayed that way for two years until things got sorted out.

Kevin Pietersen
Some players are reviled for turning against their clubs, cricketer Kevin Pietersen was accused of turning against his own country. Frustrated by the lack of international opportunities available to him in his native South Africa, KP moved to Nottinghamshire to play county cricket. Once he qualified to represent England, it seemed fitting his first major one day series came in his homeland. Every time Pietersen walked out to bat in the series, he received a barrage of boos, jeers and catcalls by sell out crowds of up to 50,000 angry South African fans. It was his reaction to the abuse marked him out as a special player. The caludron of hate didn’t make him quake, it merely strengthened his resolve. Pietersen reeled off scores of 108 in Bloemfontein (where the crowd turned their backs to him when he returned to the pavilion), 75 in Cape Town, 100 of 69 balls in East London and 116 at Centurion.

Sol Campbell
Sol Campbell was so revered by Tottenham Hotpsur fans that it’s probably fair to say that, faced with staying with the under-achieving North London side or moving to a more successful team playing Champions League football when his contract expired, there wouldn’t have been too many complaints if he’d chosen to leave. After all, he’d given Spurs over a decade of loyal service. He could have gone to Italy or Spain and Tottenham fans would have wished him well. They might have grumbled a bit if he’d signed with Manchester United or Liverpool. The only move that would provoke anger would be if he signed with London rivals Arsenal. But that wasn’t an issue because Sol had already said there was no way he could ever play for the Gunners given his long history with Spurs.
And then he signed for Arsenal. The reaction to Campbell when he returned to White Hart Lane as an Arsenal player was bitter and abusive. It continued whenever he went back, culminating in fan arrests over a chant directed at the England star which contained the delightful rhyming of the phrase ‘swinging from a tree’ with the insult ‘Judas C*** with HIV’. Campbell is a lying traitor to Spurs fans, but that chant is all kinds of wrong.

Roger Clemens
In 2001, Bill Simmons wrote an ESPN column explaining why, in the eyes of Boston Red Sox fans, pitcher Roger Clemens was the antichrist. After 12 seasons in Boston, Clemens slapped Red Sox in the face by moving to Toronto for money and then holding a press conference in which he failed to make a single reference to his former club. The slap in the face became a full boot to the nether-regions when he forced Toronto to trade him to New York in 1999 to play for Boston’s hated rivals the Yankees. And don’t forget, when the 2000 MLB All-Star game was played at Fenway Park, Clemens again ignored the obvious chance to pay tribute to his former fans, choosing to wear a Yankee cap instead of a Red Sox one. And so, Clemens was given the bird by Boston fans every time he stepped foot in Fenway over the next eight years. Post-retirement steroid and adultery accusations ensured they got the last laugh.
Simmons sums up the feelings to Clemens by saying “No athlete ever let me down quite like Roger Clemens did. Fortunately, we can take solace at the potential sight of Clemens standing on the field at New Fenway, maybe 40 years from now, being introduced on Old Timer’s Day 2041 … and getting showered with boos from Red Sox fans. “I can’t believe they still haven’t let this go,” he’ll mumble to himself, a thin smile spread across his face, oblivious to the bitter end, still waiting for the fans to come around. Not a chance.”

Elton Brand
It remains to be seen what kind of reaction NBA star Elton Brand will get when he eventually returns to Los Angeles to play against his former team the Clippers. It’s probably a good bet he’ll get booed out of the building. Here’s why. Brand was instrumental in convincing Baron Davis, then starring for the running and gunning Golden State Warriors, to move to LA. As soon as Davis inked his new contract, Brand announced he was off to Philadelphia to play for the 76ers after his negotiations with the Clippers broke down for vague, unspecified reasons, leaving Baron without help on one of the NBA’s most cursed and under-achieveing rosters.
Is there karma at work on this one? Maybe? After a rickety start with Philly, Brand went down injured and disappeared for the season. The 76ers played better without him. The Clippers recorded just 19 wins but won the draft lottery and picked up college phenom Blake Griffin. Of course, it being the Clippers, Griffin was injured in pre-season and is currently on the DL for the next 20 games.

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The end of the enigmatic Steve Harmison era

Durham fast bowler Steve Harmison has been left out of the squad for the England team’s tour of South Africa this winter. The omission of the Geordie paceman will, in all probability, result in him announcing his retirement from international cricket. The South Africa tour now will mark the first time England have toured without either Harmison or his great friend Andrew Flintoff in the last ten years.

If Harmison does choose to retire from the international game, he will leave a bewildering legacy. While he has attracted his fair share of criticism over the years, I feel it’s harsh to say that he never reached his potential. He was once ranked as the world’s number one bowler. He proved his ability at the top level. The problem came when he was never able to sustain the form that made him the most feared bowler in world cricket.

Harmison also incurred the wrath of the national press with his apparent reluctance to tour. Stories of homesickness and turning up for tours out of form and unprepared have dogged him throughout his career. Yet his importance to the England team was never in question. The selectors chose Flintoff over Andrew Strauss as captain for the dismal 2005/6 Ashes tour on the basis that Freddie would get the best out of Harmy. When Kevin Pietersen’s brief tenure as skipper began, his first move was to coax the Geordie out of one day international retirement to unleash some Grievous Bodily Harmison on the South African tourists.

So, how did a bowler with the height, pace and bounce to terrorise batsmen all over the world only realise his full potential in a golden 12-month period in 2003/4? The key to the mercurial Harmison lies in the circumstances in which the paceman produced his best performances for his country and offers a possible window into the character of a cricketer who will end his career with a creditable record but ultimately could have done so much more.

Harmison’s most memorable bowling spells came when conditions were in his favour. In 2004, he demolished the West Indies with a devastating burst of seven for 12 on a pacy wicket in Kingston, Jamaica, reducing the hosts to 47 all out and propelling England to a famous win. With his confidence up, he went on to take 23 wickets at 14.87 on that tour and was named man of the series. In July 2006, Harmison took full advantage of a quick and uneven Old Trafford surface to return match figures of 11 for 76 as England skittled Pakistan.

Yet against better teams, Harmison’s bowling figures were nowhere near as impressive. On the 2004/5 tour to South Africa, he took just nine wickets at an average of 73 and later admitted being affected by homesickness. Were his performances purely reliant on self-confidence? Was he only able to produce his best form when everything was in his favour? Do these stats reveal a character unable to raise his game when it truly mattered?

I can see why people would answer yes to these questions but I’d ultimately disagree. It’s easy to forget Harmison travelled to Bangladesh with England and took nine for 79 on a flat wicket in stiffling conditions. He also set the tone for the 2005 Ashes when he roughed Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting on that electric first morning at Lord’s. In the same series, he produced the ball of the series, his slower ball that bowled Michael Clarke on the third evening at Edgbaston. He even joined a South African state side so he could prepare for England’s 2007 tour to India, something he would not have done if, as suggested by some, he didn’t care about representing his country.

Yet despite these efforts, Harmison’s poor performances seem to provoke greater interest than his most memorable ones. He’ll probably never live down bowling the first ball of the 2006 Ashes to his mate Flintoff at second slip. Yes, it was one of the biggest wides anyone had ever seen but it was just one ball. Surely match-winning spells are more important? Struggling on flat wickets and bad luck afflict every bowler but, when they hurt Harmison’s figures, eyes were rolled and tutting eminated from pavilions. Why was he judged more harshly than  other bowlers?

The answer lies in the glimpses of brilliance scattered throughout his long career. Every England fan rememebered Harmison destroying the West Indies or making Ricky Ponting bleed. Maybe they expected him to do that every time he bowled. That’s unrealistic for any bowler, especially on the flat wickets that seem to dominate test cricket. It was the promise of what Harmison might do in any given spell that made people so disappointed when he didn’t deliver. No other England bowler has had to endure such weight of expectation.

In some ways, Harmison’s bowling career mirrors the batting career of Michael Vaughan. The former England skipper enjoyed his own purple patch where he stroked a steady stream of centuries that propelled him to the top of the world batting rankings. Yet after that, possibly due to his injuries and the pressure of captaincy, he understandably could not sustain that level of form. There were at least three occasions where Vaughan, amid heavy criticism over his lack of runs, produced centuries to put an end to the debate. But, like Harmison’s 10-for against Pakistan, they were sporadic echoes of a golden period of form he would never consistently regain.

If Harmison’s omission from the South Africa tour does indeed signal the end of his international career, I hope people look beyond his statistics and, at the very least, concentrate on what he did achieve rather than focus on the things he failed to do. Look at the last thirty years of England bowling, only Bob Willis matched Harmison’s pace and ferocity. Yes, he could have done more. But who couldn’t? There’s no need to judge him more harshly than his peers. Briefly, he was the world’s best bowler. He played in two Ashes winning teams. Sometimes his bowling won test matches for England. Sometimes he failed to perform. He answered England’s call for a genuine fast bowler. He is counted.

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