Archive for the ‘cricket’ Category

Summer sport: when pre-season feels like mid-season

April traditionally marks the start of the summer sporting season in the northern hemisphere: cricket in England, the Masters Golf tournament in the US, the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. Now that so many sports operate all year, the excitement of a new season risks being lost.

The burden of constant competition takes its toll on athletes too. Rafael Nadal had to withdraw from a semi-final match in Miami last week due to injury; England cricketer Stuart Broad may miss the next match in Sri Lanka; and Tiger Woods pulled out of a tournament two weeks ago. All of them want to make sure they are fit for high profile events coming up in the next few weeks.

There are significant debates going on in several sports between competing interest groups about how to manage the calendar (see, for example, FIFA trying to force clubs to release footballers for Olympic competitionNadal resigning from the ATP players’ council due to lack of agreement in changing the ranking system to give players more flexibility in their schedules; and proposals to establish a multi-sport European Games). The federations and leagues in each sport all want access to the best players and to stage events in as many markets as possible but the calendar is crowded.

Sports competitions have proved fairly resilient in tough economic times. Although some lower level tournaments disappeared from the calendar in golf, tennis and other sports, the higher profile events have kept going, even if they have had to cut costs. Quite a few world and continental championships rely on a hefty subsidy from host cities but still manage to attract bids from cities hoping to attract other events in future. Commercial considerations therefore have only a limited restraining effect on the ambitions of federations and leagues.

The disputes about competition calendars tend to involve player unions or representatives, leagues and governing bodies. Leagues and governing bodies often have competing interests (such as the “club v country” debate) and resolve their differences through a power struggle. In individual sports, athletes are probably in a stronger bargaining position to determine how often they compete because they are more difficult to replace. In team sports it is of course possible to solve the problem of player burn-out by having bigger squads. The logical consequence of this is that top European football clubs pay some international standard players vast amounts of money to play a handful of games a season.

As interest in professional sport develops in more and more markets, the pressure on athletes to perform all year round looks set to increase. Clashes between competing competitions (such as the Indian Premier League and English domestic cricket or between Olympic football and pre-season tournaments) will become more common. Unfortunately, athletes will sometimes be forced into making a decision which is not in their best interests: playing when half-fit, or choosing one competition above another due to external pressure. Legal clashes are inevitable.

Athletes in spring training are looking forward to the opportunities of the new season. No doubt the sports lawyers are limbering up too.

Introduction of goal-line technology could have wider implications

Football has made a tentative step towards ending its long-standing resistance to the use of technology in assisting referees. It’s a significant move and I believe that increased use of technology could eventually result in better behaviour by players and managers, as well as more accurate decisions.

On 3 March the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which sets the rules of football worldwide, approved two types of goal-line technology for further testing. The technology determines whether or not the ball has crossed the line into the goal, ending refereeing mistakes which occur several times a season. Trials will take place between now and June with possible implementation to be approved at the start of July, probably too late for the 2012/13 season.

As goals are what really matter in football and because the location of the ball is an objective measurement, it makes sense for this specific technology to be tested before any others. However, once the principle has been accepted, there is scope to do much more.

One of the companies being evaluated, Hawk-Eye, will be familiar to cricket and tennis fans. Only the most staunchly traditional would argue that Hawk-Eye’s introduction has not had a positive effect on the umpiring of those sports. In addition, the technology has opened up various new types of analysis which are interesting for spectators and useful for coaches. In both cricket and tennis Hawk-Eye has reduced the number of disputes between players and umpires. Players are quickly learning when it is worth using one of a limited number of appeals to review an umpire’s call and when to accept the original decision. While video reviews do cause a short delay, they add to the drama. Technology admittedly reduces the role of the on-field referee or umpire but almost everybody accepts that increased accuracy is more important.

In football many of the important refereeing decisions are subjective, such as the awarding of a penalty. There are often claimed to be differences in the interpretation between individual referees and between leagues in different countries. While this may be partially true, with some sensible statistical analysis and sufficient political will it would be possible to use technology to improve the consistency of decisions significantly.

Eventually, players and managers should learn that their repeated and tiresome attempts to influence almost every decision will not work and they should devote their energy to playing more effectively instead.

There are those who argue that goal-line technology is expensive, that it is unproven and that not everybody will be able to use it at first. I remember citing similar reasons for not buying a mobile phone some years ago. I soon changed my mind.

Basil d’Oliveira – a life to prove the absurdity of racism in sport

Cricketer Basil d’Oliveira, who had a significant impact on the modern history of South Africa, has died in his 80s. Through his achievements he single-handedly demonstrated the absurdity of racist beliefs, particularly in relation to sport.

The dramatic story of his career is covered in numerous obituaries (see for example the BBC and Daily Telegraph online) but it’s worth a short summary here:

Growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era, d’Oliveira was denied the opportunity to play cricket at the top level due to the colour of his skin. Determined and ambitious to prove his ability, he managed to move to England in 1960 where he progressed through club cricket to the professional game. In 1968, two years after his England debut, he scored 158 in a famous victory against Australia. He should have been a natural choice for selection in the England team to tour South Africa shortly afterwards.

Shamefully, he was omitted from the squad because the South African government had warned that he was not welcome. Following injuries, however, he was later called up as a replacement, which led to the cancellation of the tour. This was one of the key incidents that led to the sporting isolation of South Africa which lasted until 1991.

D’Oliveira had a distinguished cricketing career, despite the late start, and coached successfully for many years afterwards. By all accounts he seems to have been a remarkable man who made a great impact on everybody he met.

At a time when several unpleasant stories about racism in sport are circulating, d’Oliveira’s death is a reminder that pioneers in a number of sports battled against great odds to overcome discrimination at different times over the last century. Sports fans and the current generation of athletes owe much to their achievements for the opportunities that exist today.

While progress towards genuine equality in sport is not always visible from year to year, over decades the pattern is clear. The simple truth of sport is that world-class talent is unambiguous, wherever it comes from. The fact that fans want to see the best athletes and coaches want to win is a powerful incentive to challenge discrimination.

With courage, dignity and determination, Basil d’Oliveira created a chance for himself then seized it, inspiring millions in the process. If you want a demonstration of the power of sport, look no further.

England cricket team number 1 in the world: how?

The England cricket team beat India comprehensively on 13 August for the third time in three matches and has now taken over top spot in the official world rankings for the five day format of the game. Long-suffering England fans should rejoice and be thankful for central contracts.

Throughout sporting history, world-leading teams have needed a combination of talented players in form, good leadership and coaching, a harmonious team dynamic and some luck. In more recent years funding and scientific back-up have also become crucial elements. The England team has had all of these but the institution of central contracts for leading players in 2000 arguably made it all possible.

Humiliation has been a fairly regular experience for England cricket fans since 1882, when when Australia beat England at home for the first time and a mock obituary of English cricket was published in a newspaper called The Sporting Times.

Matthew Engel summed it up this weekend in the Financial Times, writing that English cricket has generally been “a standing national joke to rank alongside the weather and the railways”.

One of the low points was 1999 when England was ranked last among the nine test match playing nations. In the following year the newly appointed coach Duncan Fletcher successfully made the case for the governing body, the England and Wales Cricket Board to contract a squad of leading players directly. This took power away from the county sides who had previously been the main employers.

It was a vital step because it enabled the ECB much greater control over the development of players. Central contracts are significant for numerous reasons:

- The ECB can decide how often and in what matches cricketers play (important for reducing the risk of injury and ensuring players are ready for big matches)
- Incentive for players (few cricketers are rich by global sporting standards but a central contract is fairly lucrative)
- More training time together as a squad (which also helps attract the best coaches)
- Consistent selection (if you have contracted a group of players who have to be paid then the selectors are inclined to stick with them for longer)
- Sports science and medicine investment (it’s worth keeping centrally contracted players fit rather than just picking the next in line every time there is an injury. There is also now a very scientific approach to video analysis of technique and statistical analysis to determine tactics)
- More control over sponsorship (squad players have contractual commitments to sponsors, which increases the appeal of rights packages)

England’s recent success owes much to a talented crop of players with good management, leadership and coaching but of course the weakness of other teams has contributed: the Indian team had inadequate preparation before this current series and years of Australian dominance came to an end when several all-time greats retired in a short space of time.

The current England squad has strengh in depth and could stay at the top of their game for some time but their competitors will be looking to catch up. It surely won’t be long before the approach to sports science and medicine is adopted by other teams.

As it happens, central contracts in their current form are now under threat due to the success of the Indian Premier League. England fans would be well advised to enjoy the success while it lasts.

“Rain stops play” but should we let it?

The weather forecast for the start of the Wimbledon Championships on Monday 20 June is unsettled. Rain delays seem inevitable, much to the disappointment of spectators and TV viewers. Surely in this day and age something can be done?

Several of the outdoor sports have to suspend play when it rains, including cricket, baseball and tennis on some surfaces. Golf, football, rugby, Formula 1, road cycling, sailing and others are also disrupted by very bad weather.

Although there have been rain delays at sports events in the UK in recent days, such as the cricket Test Match between England and Sri Lanka and horse racing at Royal Ascot, overall significant progress has been made in the last few years.

The Centre Court at Wimbledon has had a retractable roof since 2009 which allows play to continue at least in one court in the event of rain or darkness. Drainage and covers at the leading cricket grounds are now so good that play can resume rapidly even after heavy rain that would have wiped out the rest of the day in years gone by. Meanwhile, horse racing has some all-weather artificial courses, field hockey is played on artificial turf and a handful of venues around the world can house football, rugby or American Football in a wholly enclosed space.

For sponsors and broadcasters, the threat of disruption due to bad weather is an occupational hazard which contrasts with the virtual certainty of indoor sport. You would think that it would be in their interests to focus more on events that are unlikely to be delayed or cancelled. However, sport’s original settings are more often outdoor than indoor and only basketball and ice hockey among leading spectator sports are always held indoors.

So what does the future hold? Research into artificial turf surfaces will no doubt continue with the eventual result that all sports played on grass will have an artificial option which is as good as grass. A few more venues like the Louisiana Superdome will be built to house team sports indoors, although the high cost will prevent more widespread adoption.

I think rain delays will continue to feature in sport because the institutions and fans enjoy belonging to a tradition. Part of the enjoyment of Wimbledon or attending a cricket match on a fine day stems from appreciating the sunshine in the knowledge that winter will arrive one day.

In any case the supporters of summer sports have it easy. Winter sport is the most vulnerable of all to the vagaries of the weather, as any ski fans will testify.

High stakes for India v Pakistan in Cricket World Cup

On Wednesday 30 March Pakistan plays India in the Cricket World Cup semi-final in the Indian city of Mohali in a match where more than pride and a place in the final are at stake.

The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has invited his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani to attend and India has issued 5,000 visas for visiting fans. Spectators will face an unprecedented level of security at the ground and a TV audience of 100m or more is possible.

For decades cricket has provided an outlet for the fierce rivalry between India and Pakistan but in the last two years the teams have played each other less frequently than usual as matches have been cancelled due to fears of violence.

A planned tour by the Indian team to Pakistan early in 2009 was cancelled after the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 in which over 170 people were killed.

Pakistan was also due to co-host the Cricket World Cup but following an attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore in 2009 the International Cricket Council took the decision to reallocate their share of matches to the other hosts India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

On the pitch the match is an enticing prospect with the quality and variety of the Pakistan bowling attack (Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq, Mohammad Hafeez and others)  up against India’s batting power (Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and more). Both teams suffered defeats earlier in the tournament but looked impressive in their quarter-final victories.

Numerous opinion pieces have already been published about the prospects for cricket diplomacy (see for example Soutik Biswas at the BBC,  Myra MacDonald at Reuters, S. Dinakar in The Hindu, and an editorial piece in Dawn). No doubt media reports of activity on and off the pitch on 30 March will go into exhaustive detail.

Amid all the hype about India v Pakistan it’s easy to forget that the winners will then face Sri Lanka or New Zealand in the final on 2 April.

Let us hope that any controversy is limited to activity on the field. Spare a thought for the umpires Simon Taufel and Ian Gould, whose performance will be scrutinised by tens of millions. This match provides ample justification of the need for video reviews as sanctioned by the Umpire Decision Review System.

Social media power: Egypt today, sports tomorrow?

The surest sign of the significance of social media in the revolution in Egypt is that the regime moved so quickly to disable it. Could the dramatic impact of social media in world affairs be replicated in some way in the less serious world of sport? I think it could.

Social media activity has caused minor controversies in sporting circles in the last couple of years, such as when junior British tennis players had their funding withdrawn after photos appeared online depicting “unprofessional behaviour”. More recently, any number of athletes have attracted criticism for undiplomatic tweets, such as footballer Jack Wilshere complaining about refereeing earlier this week.

But these are generally trivial. There have been few examples of the kind of mass activism in sport that social media can help to facilitate. I suspect that it may be only a matter of time.

So what sporting issue might inspire a major protest?

Football club ownership and management frequently riles supporters. The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, whose objective is to gain a significant level of ownership of the club, claims over 160,000 members.  They have already made their presence felt through their green and gold scarves and shirts.

Elections for sporting leaders generate interest and controversy but they are unlikely to capture the public imagination. Perhaps a more likely reason for a mass protest is a controversial decision in an important match.

The Cricket World Cup is about to get underway and will stir passions, particularly in the host countries of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Big domestic and international football matches also inspire very strong emotions.

Fans have always vented their anger through whatever means and media are available to them. However, occasional public campaigns to overturn judging decisions taken on the field of play have rarely yielded results.

One notorious example was an Australian rules football match in 1967 known as the Goalpost Final. The crowd invaded the pitch in protest at a crucial refereeing decision right at the end of the game and tore down the goal posts, preventing a kick being taken which could have changed the result. The match was abandoned and a couple of days later the governing body decided the match outcome was “no decision”.

If fans feel strongly enough that they have been wronged, social media provides useful tools for organising a campaign. The other essential ingredient is for fans to believe that their action could change a result. As has been seen in Egypt, once the movement has real momentum, it can be unstoppable.

For sports governing bodies and rights-holders there is now an even greater incentive to ensure that their judging procedure and appeals process stand up to scrutiny.

Winning the Ashes: how much celebration is too much?

Anybody in England or Australia who follows the news at all will be aware that the English cricket team has beaten Australia to retain the Ashes.

There has been blanket media coverage of the victory in recent days in print, broadcast and online media with the types of contrasting headlines you would expect:
England wrap up series win against Australia in style – Guardian
Fearless England have a ball as they pulverise Aussies – Daily Mail
Time for the axe, and chop from top down – Sydney Morning Herald
The pain of slow torture is almost over – Daily Telegraph Australia

Now that competition on the field is over, media analysis has quickly moved on to cover the celebrations.

When England beat Australia in 2005 for the first time in many years, the celebrations were legendary. Tens of thousands turned up to watch an open-top bus parade by the team in central London. However, the team then suffered a poor run of form, including a heavy defeat in the next series against Australia. Commentators claimed that the England team had become complacent, feeling they had achieved enough.

This time the tone is very different. Partly that is because the Cricket World Cup starts next month and partly because the Australian team is believed to have  declined: more challenges lie ahead. Apparently there is to be a reception with the Prime Minister but later in the year and it is clear that the kind of drunken antics seen in 2005 will not be welcomed.

The absence of high profile official revelry may open the way for sponsors to capitalise but careful judgement is required.

Planning celebrations is a difficult business. The Football Association faced an embarrassing situation in 2006 when plans for a victory parade in the event of England winning the World Cup leaked several weeks before the tournament started.  As football fans will recall, the Football Association’s advance planning was not enough to bring home the trophy.

On this occasion the England and Wales Cricket Board should be commended not only for their management and stewardship of the successful team, but also for judging the public mood. There is near consensus among media commentators that the right approach is for modest celebrations. By showing restraint in their moment of triumph, the governing body is demonstrating their long-term ambition.

‘The Dilshan’ and other cricketing lessons for a multi-ethnic society

As a long summer of cricket in England draws to its traditional close in September, after a memorable Ashes series and the Twenty20 World Cup, it is time to acknowledge cricket’s success in bring people together from a wide mix of ethnic backgrounds. There is a very positive message, which is not fully communicated.

Cricket, still sometimes perceived as a white, middle-class English pastime, is played at the top level by a geographically and culturally disparate set of countries for historical reasons:  India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the West Indes, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Most of these countries have produced renowned players and teams, with the consequence that any fan asked to name the best batsmen of the last 20 years would be likely to include an Indian (Sachin Tendulkar), a West Indian (Brian Lara) and an Australian (Ricky Ponting) as a minimum. Among bowlers such names as Wasim Akram (Pakistan), Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka), Shane Warne (Australia) and Anil Kumble (India) would be on the list. A brief glance at the statistics (for example, test match runs scored) shows that it would be absurd to try to argue that players from any country or specific ethnic origin are dominant.

The rise of the shortened form of the game, known as Twenty20, has led to significant innovations in the last two or three years as players try new techniques to gain advantage. Sri Lankan Tillakeratne Dilshan unveiled an audacious scoop shot earlier this year not seen in any coaching manual, now known as ‘the Dilshan’. Sri Lanka, a country which suffered a long and disastrous civil war, regularly produces talented and innovative cricketers.
It would be wrong to claim that cricket is colour-blind. In England it is still common enough for an amateur player to feel that their face doesn’t fit at a particular club but at professional level the need for results now seems to ensure that the most talented players break through. Cricket, like baseball, thrives on statistics so it is relatively easy to compare performances by individual players over a period of time.

At a South London cricket club where I play, one game we had a new player in the team whom we hadn’t seen before, recently arrived from South Asia. He was rather modest and, although he showed signs of athleticism in the warm-up,  we had little idea what to expect. When he went in to bat at number seven we all watched with interest. With one shot he changed the match completely. He played an effortless and immaculate on-drive for four which instantly said:
- It’s good to be on the cricket field again
- I’m pretty confident that I’m the best player on the pitch
- However, I haven’t played for a while so I’ll take it easy to begin with
- But just wait until I feel in form

The opposition captain immediately understood the situation and changed the team’s tactics but his field settings had as much impact as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Our new star smashed the ball all over the place and won us the match. Unfortunately we never saw him again – he was rightly moved up to a higher team.

In cricket, as with sport in general, a combination of talent and perseverance will generally shine through. In other walks of life it’s not as simple as that.

French Open Tennis: 1928 – ?

Most sports fans will have shared Roger Federer’s delight when he won his first French Open title today and so became only the sixth male player to win singles titles at all four Grand Slams.

Who might be the next player to achieve such a feat? Actually, there is a chance it will never be repeated in the same way because the French Open itself is said to be under threat.

There has been speculation in Spanish media that the new venue in Madrid could replace Roland-Garros as the venue for the Grand Slam played on clay. It was noticeable that the French organisers rushed to announce plans for developing their venue, including a retractable roof and new show court.

In an interview with Le Monde, the director of the French Open said he didn’t think the Madrid tournament posed a real danger because “what makes the tournament is its history, which cannot be bought”.

Tradition is immensely valuable for a sports venue because fans and athletes remember great encounters from their childhood. The dreams fostered by those experiences linger for many years so that the idea of moving an event can seem like sacrilege.

Traditional calendar events comprise part of the core script of sport: showpiece tournaments and finals which are held at the same venue or venues at the same time each year. Examples include national football cup finals, Formula 1 Grand Prix, cricket test matches and Grand Slam tennis tournaments. With interest from top athletes, fans and broadcasters virtually guaranteed, these are some of the most economically successful events in sport.

A separate category of sports competition is the franchise event, which is allocated by rightsholders to a venue and organising team based on a bidding process. Among these are the FIFA World Cup and many other individual sport world championships.

Nowadays the organisers of calendar events are increasingly facing bidding competitions. Formula 1 rightsholders, buoyed by the financial success of the series, have encouraged ambitious new entrants to build venues and challenge the incumbent hosts. For this reason the long-established Grand Prix in Britain and France have been threatened, among others. Similarly, the England and Wales Cricket Board instituted a bidding process for hosting financially lucrative test matches, resulting in a recent match against the West Indes being held at a new ground in Durham. When ticket sales were poor the choice of venue was criticised.

Although abandoning established venues for new markets is sometimes essential – no Arsenal supporter would now question the move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium - nevertheless there are significant risks. Owners of sports events can ill-afford to alienate their core market.

There is little hard evidence that the International Tennis Federation is about to abandon the French Open in favour of Madrid but managers of all established sports venues would be well-advised to make sure that the memory of a capacity crowd rising to acclaim the great Roger Federer is not the only reason to maintain the status quo.