Tag Archives: England

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 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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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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Sport’s most memorable David vs Goliath moments

British heavyweight boxer David Haye faces a mammoth task in Nuremberg tonight as he attempts to wrest the WBA Heavyweight title from the mountainous champion Nikolai Valuev. The Hayemaker is dwarfed by his 7ft 2in opponent to such a degree that the fight couldn’t possibly be billed as anything other than David vs Goliath.

The idea of the overmatched underdog taking on and beating an opponent with superior strength and talent is one of sport’s most compelling dreams. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And there’s more to the David and Goliath concept than seemingly mismatched individuals, sometimes it can relate to entire teams.

To mark David Haye’s world heavyweight title challenge, the Sports Bloke has compiled a short list of the most memorable David vs Goliath moments in sport.

1) Nate Robinson rejects Yao Ming
November 2006, Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks defending their homecourt against the Houston Rockets. Rockets all-star, 7ft 6in Yao Ming receives the ball in the low post and prepares to make a jump shot. From the weakside, the Knicks ever-energetic sixth man, 5ft 7in Nate Robinson goes airborne to swat Yao’s shot away, poking the “Great Wall” in the eye for good measure. You’d like to think Yao’s teammates ensured he never lived this down. Winner: David
Watch: Nate Robinson rejects Yao Ming

2) Jonah Lomu dominates Tony Underwood
New Zealander Jonah Lomu burst onto the world sports scene courtesy of his dominant performances at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Left-winger Lomu, described by England captain Will Carling as a physical “freak”, was the size of most forwards but with pace that would shame most backs. You had to feel for the opposition right wing who directly faced him.
When New Zealand faced England in the tounament’s semi-finals, Tony Underwood had this onerous task. He was dwarfed by Lomu’s size and destroyed by his strength. Lomu ran rings around him for 80 minutes, running in four tries as New Zealand cruised into the final. At one point, Lomu actually ran over Underwood and teammate Mike Catt before crossing the line. Winner: Goliath
Watch: Jonah Lomu destroys England

3) The ultimate act of FA Cup giantkilling
The 1988 FA Cup final proved beyond doubt that David can defeat Goliath in a team game. In the red corner, Liverpool, the finest team in the country, league champions with international class players throughout their squad. In the blue corner, Wimbledon, the team known as the Crazy Gang, a team of wind-up merchants renowned for their long ball tactics, who, 10 years previously, had been playing in non-league football.
For Goliath, read John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Alan Hansen. For David, read John Fashanu, Dave Beasant and Dennis Wise. In TV terms, it was the equivalent of the University Challenge episode of the Young Ones where Vivian, Neil, Mike and Rik represent Scumbag College against a team of Oxbridge toffs.
However they managed it, the Dons got under Liverpool’s collective skin. They had the temerity to take the lead when Lawrie Sanchez flicked Wise’s free kick inside Liverpool’s far post. When Beasant saved a John Aldridge penalty (the first in FA Cup final history), the game was up for Liverpool. They were the victims of the most famous FA Cup giantkilling. Winner: David

4) When Goliath squashed David
Whether or not you consider professional wrestling a sport, there’s no denying that Wrestlemania 3 provided the WWF’s ultimate David vs Goliath moment. And I’m not talking about the Hulk Hogan vs Andre The Giant main event. Cast your eye further down the card and you’ll see a six-man tag team match featuring King Kong Bundy and two midgets vs Hillbilly Jim and two midget partners.
Memorably described by commentator Gorilla Monsoon as “a condominium with legs”, the 440-pound Bundy made an ultimately forgettable (and possibly bad taste) match memorable when he was disqualified for body-slamming the 4ft 4in, 60-pound midget Little Beaver and followed it up with his trademark giant elbow drop. Winner beyond doubt: Goliath
Watch: King Kong Bundy marmelises midget at Wrestlemania 3

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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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Fabio Capello gives England every reason to believe

The dust has settled on England’s excellent performance against a disappointing Croatia at Wembley seven days ago. England’s five-star, five goal effort against a team who, less than two years ago, were considered the Three Lions’ nemesis-in-chief, secured World Cup qualification with two group games remaining.

It’s easy to get caught up in hysteria around the England football team. No sooner had the final whistle blown and journalists, pundits and fans were speculating on just how far Fabio Capello’s squad can go in South Africa in the
summer of 2010.

I don’t think we can draw any firm conclusions from the qualifying campaign. Many teams have dominated their groups in qualification only to flop in the finals. England in the 1988 European Championships immediately springs to mind. But England’s performance last week did provide firm evidence of the squad’s improvement under Fabio Capello and the methods the Italian has employed to get the most from his squad of highly paid superstars.

Capello described England’s performance in the first 30 minutes of the Croatia game as “perfect”. He praised his team’s passing, work-rate, pressing and movement. Contrast this with the nervous ineptitude of the same players under Steve McClaren against the same opposition two years before. Thanks to Capello, England are now a cohesive unit with a team ethos. Each player knows his role, understands his responsibilities and realises that any dip in performance will see him dropped. In short, Capello has made playing for England a privilege that must be earned and the players have responded.

Equally important is Capello’s relationship with his players. Unlike McClaren and Sven-Goran Erikkson, he has no interest in being their friend. He stands apart as their boss and his respect must be earned. After the final whistle against Croatia, skipper John Terry bounded towards Capello looking to put the Italian taskmaster in a celebratory bear hug. Don Fabio’s reaction? A simple, business-like handshake on a job well done. The England team is no longer the cosy club headed by JT, Stevie G and Wazzer or the better-to-be-lucky-than-good Eriksson regime where David Beckham received preferential treatment.

The dramatic two-year turnaround in the team’s fortunes has also confirmed one my own pet theories concerning the England team namely that there are just a handful of coaches able to successfully manage an elite group of English players. With wages and egos way out of control, any sign of weakness or ineptitude from an international manager is going to make these players switch off. Put it this way: who do you think has the gravitas and experience to make them listen and work? A man whose greatest achievement was to reach the UEFA Cup final and get thrashed or the man who has won league titles in Spain and Italy and a couple of European trophies to boot?

Aside from Capello, only Mourinho, Ferguson, Wenger, Hiddink and, at a stretch, Guardiola and Lippi, appear to have what it takes to command the respect and attention of a group of England players.

That aside, with qualification in the bag, what can we expect next summer? Anyone who tells you England will win the World Cup is a liar or at the very least a well-meaning optimist. England’s strong qualification puts them in a group of contenders trailing favourites Brazil and Spain. They number one of five or six teams who could win it if things go their way.

But predicting anything more than that is fanciful. And here’s why. Rooney, Gerrard et al are firing on all cylinders now. Next summer, they will have at least 60 more games in their legs. If recent seasons are anything to go by, most of England’s stars will see late season action at the latter stages of the Champions League. Come the World Cup, some will be knackered while other might not even be fit at all.

Secondly, there’s no telling how these players will respond to high-pressure situations. Can England win a game if they are reduced to ten men? How will they react if they fall victim to a chronic refereeing blunder? And what on earth will happen if the dreaded spectre of the penalty shootout appears on the horizon?

Capello’s England have not had the opportunity to answer these questions yet. We’ll only find out in South Africa. Yet, just two years on from McClaren and the most recent nadir of the England national team, Capello has instilled belief, passion, pride, skill and effort back into this side. Right now, expectations are rightfully high. Come next summer, we will be among the contenders. As for winning the World Cup, let’s be quietly confident, leave the WAGs at home and see how far this team can go.

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All in the game: sportsmen who could be characters in The Wire

A recent Guardian Football Weekly podcast suggested that The Wire’s Baltimorean drug lord Marlo Stanfield would be adept in the English Premier League owing to his uncanny ability to take corners.

The Wire is, in my humble opinion, the greatest TV show ever made. I love it almost as much as I love the sporting endeavours of Steve Nash, Tim Lincecum and Stuart Broad. So, with props to James Richardson and Co for getting the cogs of my brain to turn, the Sports Bloke presents a list of sportsmen who could be characters in The Wire.

Detective Jimmy McNulty is… Andrew Flintoff
McNulty, a supremely talented murder investigator acknowledged by his peers as “natural po-lice” but with an appetite for booze-based self-destruction. Sounds similar to a certain English cricketer we all know and love? Like McNulty, Flintoff has infuriated his bosses and colleagues at points of his career only to be welcomed back into the fold thanks to some superb individual efforts. Both men also ended up “riding the boat” or, in Fred’s case, a pedalo, after cracking under the pressure of their day jobs.

Avon Barksdale is…  Ricky Ponting
At one point, Avon ruled the Baltimore drug trade. His position was untouchable thanks to the support of Stringer Bell and his enforcers Wee-Bey, Stinkum and Bird. As captain of Australia, Ponting dominated world cricket thanks in part to his cricketing “muscle”. For Bell, Bey, Stinkum and Bird, read Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. When Barksdale lost his lieutenants, he lost control of the game and was jailed at the conclusion of series three. When Ponting attempted to regain the Ashes without his best players, he came up short too.

Bunny Colvin is…  Isiah Thomas
Colvin created Hamsterdam, a chaotic open drug market in which dealers and hoppers could operate free from the threat of arrest. In the world of sport, only Isiah’s tenure as New York Knicks general manager comes close to matching Colvin’s lunacy. Bad trades, horrific man management, a crippling wage bill and a well-publicised sexual harassment scandal all punctuated Zeke’s time in charge at the Garden. If anything, this comparison is unfair to Bunny Colvin.

Ellis Carver is…   Tony Adams
The Sports Lass is convinced the overriding theme of The Wire is the redemption and evolution of Ellis Carver. When we first meet Carver, he and partner Herc specialise in cracking heads of dealers “the Western District way”. As The Wire develops, so does Carver. Stung by his betrayal of Cedric Daniels in series one, he ultimately discovers a more cerebral approach to policing, softening to the point where he attempts to adopt young Randy Wagstaff in series four. In sport, only ex-gooner Tony Adams can rival such a transformation. In the early 1990s, Adams was a booze hound who spent Christmas in jail. Ten years later, he was quoting philosophy, earning a university degree and learning to play the piano.

Omar Little is…  Kobe Bryant
Prior to being gunned down by young Canard in series five, Omar scratched out a profitable living as a stick-up artist par excellence inhabiting a lonely world somewhere between the police and the street. Like Omar, Kobe is also an outsider. He grew up in Italy and entered the NBA aged 17, unable to relate to the locker room banter and bling. However, his solitary existence has never stopped him from excelling professionally. Omar’s focus in his vengeful pursuit of Avon Barkdale’s crew in series one is eerily reminiscent of Kobe’s cool detachment as he fired the Lakers to NBA championship victory over the Orlando Magic earlier this year.

Proposition Joe Stewart is…  Harry Redknapp
Prop Joe survived the ravaged Baltimore streets thanks to his ability to strike deals to save his skin. His “buy for a dollar, sell for two” ethos echoes that of Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, a man who cuts deals for football players as readily as Joe distributes dope. Like Joe, Redknapp has an ungrateful nephew which means Cheese – played by Staten Island’s streetwise troubadour Method Man – must be Chelsea’s Frank Lampard.

Marlo Stanfield is…  Kevin Garnett
After ousting Avon Barksdale as Baltimore’s drug kingpin, Marlo and his crew ruled the streets with a mix of cold-blooded intensity and instant vengeance. Like Marlo, KG is the most intimidating figure in his arena, instilling fear into opponents and teammates (remember when he made Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis cry on the bench) alike with his demands for 100% loyalty and effort. It’s no stretch to imagine Garnett evoking Marlo’s credo “my name is my name” in response to hecklers in opposition arenas.

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