Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What in God's name have I done to deserve this?

Recently, I wrote a post about, 'Why Iam NOT watching the Tour de France '. A few people were not convinced with my argument.So all you people take this. Race favourite and winner of two stages in this years tour, Alexander Vinokourov has tested positive and been banned from the race, prompting his Astana team to pull out of the race. This comes on the heels of race leader Rasmussen being banned by the Danish national team for failing to comply with their drug-testing norms. In the aftermath of the Tour's growing 'popularity' the American Discovery Channel team is now without a sponsor for next year. Are you guys still thumping your chests and rooting for the cyclists? If you are, Iam sure you are on some kind of drug yourself!

In another drug related story, former golf great Gary Player has come out and claimed that steroids are rife in golf and he knows at least ten current players who are using them. This one really baffles me. Golf is a game of portly middle-aged men who need a guy to lug their gear. Players have been known to use pills to steady their nerves but so far the sport has been totally untouched by the menace of drugs. The only 'performance enhancement' I can foresee is in increasing your driving distance; an improvement already made possible by advancements in golf equipment. Player's claim has been rebuffed and rebuked as an attention seeking stunt and I hope it was a false alarm.

But the most disturbing recent development, largely from a personal standpoint (because I love basketball)has been the news of match-fixing by an NBA referee. This guy, Tim Donaghy has been betting on key games, including ones he was officiating. He was part of the crew, which officiated game 3 of the Spurs-Suns series; a game which eventually determined the NBA champions. The refereeing in this game was so horrendous that even the most sedate of commentators had launched a tirade of criticism. In hindsight, what was believed to be the nadir of incompetent officiating was actually one crooked guy earning his gambling dollars. The sport is in complete turmoil and the fans are in a state of shock. We all know what match-fixing can do to a sport. The FBI is on the job and this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Where does this leave the common fan? Already, cycling's off the calendar, boxing is dead and KPS Gill is taking hockey to ruin. Add golf and basketball to the list. Its like asking a foodie to to give up Chinese, Continental, Italian and American fast-food. What in God's name have I done to deserve this?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A spinners second home and making the Mahatma smile

This is part 2 of my peek into county cricket. Part 1 was about the batsmen and so here's the latest on the bowlers in county cricket.

We first look at the top wicket -takers. There's Danish Kaneria at 3, Mushtaq Ahmed at 4 and Monty Panesar at 5. A classic case of a Hindu, Muslim and Sikh weaving magic together. Not since the the freedom struggle have all the communities ( from both nations) gotten together to wreak such havoc on the English. I'am sure Mahatma Gandhi is smiling to himself .

There's a lot more of Pakistan as well. We saw in the first part that their batsmen are not up to much but the bowlers are making all the noises. Apart from Kaneria and Mushtaq , who by the way is old enough to be a cricket coach at international level, there's also Rana Naved and Yasir Arafat in the list of top wicket-takers.

Mushtaq is a case of what might have been. At his best, he was a true match-winner and spoken in the same breadth as Warne, Murli and Kumble. Sadly, he's been a victim of the Pakistani cricket system and limited to just 50 odd tests, the last of which came in 2000-01. England has been kinder and more fulfilling for him. He's single-handedly taken Sussex to two county titles in 4 years, something which the likes of Ranjitsinhji, Duleepsinhji, CB Fry, the Pataudis and Imran Khan couldn't do even once. Already a county legend, he will continue to play on even if he needs a wheel-chair to complete his run-up.

Mushtaq's spin-twin at Sussex this season is another long-forgotten Pakistani, Saqlain Mushtaq. The inventor of the fabled 'Doosra', his promising career has been cut short by knee operations and the apathy of the Pakistan board. He is just 30 and has sufficient cricket left in him. There is talk of him qualifying to play for England soon. Both Mushtaq's have discovered a second home in England.

This English season seems to be the year of the 'Spinner' and there's a complete exhibition of spin bowling in England with all the top names involved. There' s Warne for Hants, Murali for Lancs and Kumble with the visiting Indians. But the Lord and Master is surely Monty Panesar. His rise has seen spin bowling attain previously unimaginable heights. Harbhajan Singh and Murali Kartik are the other Indians reaping this harvest in England.

And if you thought England had had more than enough of Indian spinners, think again. Four other counties have an Indian spinner in their ranks. Most promising is Vikram Banerjee at Gloucester; a lad experts are backing to follow Monty in the England squad. Others include former England player Min Patel at Kent, former Indian spinner Dilip Doshi's son Nayan at Surrey and Akhil Patel at Nottingham.

English commentators have laughed at the sub-continent's pitches, calling them dust-bowls. With a rich crop of Indian-origin spinners raring to go, a dust-bowl at Lords is not far away.

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Man United build 4 teams for the coming season...

Norman Hubbard has written a very informative piece on the soccernet website, where he claims that Sir Alex Ferguson has stockpiled enough players this season to form four sides.He even lists out the four sides.The sides are not just a collection of eleven players but complete playing elevens with all the position players. So how good are these teams?

The summer spending has ensured that first team will be strong contenders to defend their title this season. The second team comprising some regulars from last season is also strong enough to finish in the top 6 of the premiership. The third team has Alan Smith, Park Ji Sung, Mikael Silvestre and a good keeper in Tomas Kuszczak. Enough pieces to avoid getting relegated to a lower division. As for the fourth team, lets forget about it. Most of these guys will not even be in a United shirt for long.

This embarrassment of riches has been brought about by signings, returning loaned out players and the development of young players. The signings have addressed the issues of adding steel in midfield and cutting edge upfront. Nani and Anderson will also be the long-term replacements for Giggs and Scholes - two long standing stalwarts who will not be around for long. Giuseppe Rossi also returns after a fine loan season in Italy and is ready to shine in England. Together they will ensure that Man United are no longer vulnerable to being taken apart; the way Milan did it in last season's Champions League semis.

Most fans will argue that Fergie hasn't done anything to shore up the defense this year. After all, last year's defensive improvement was courtesy of two new signings - Vidic and Evra. Well, he didn't need to. Two loanees last year - Gerhard Pique at Real Zaragoza and Johnny Evans at Sunderland return with highly impressive credentials and will be high quality additions to the defensive ranks. The right-back position was especially dodgy with Gary Neville nearing retirement and the likes of O'Shea and Fletcher being inadequate replacements. No such concerns now.

Man United's title run benefited from a mostly injury-free season last year, more so considering the number of veterans in the side. They were thin in squad depth but soldiered home even as the seams were coming apart towards the end of the season . Fergie knows that they will not be so lucky this year and has planned accordingly. He has high quality cover for all positions and should not lose sleep over missing key players due to injury. As highlighted the last two years, the key to winning the premiership is maintaining a high level of performance from start to finish. There can be absolutely no slip-ups and United's ability to put out a high-quality side for every encounter on the back of their squad depth will hold them well.

The other important benefit will be in terms of less wear and tear for the players. Liverpool and AC Milan were competing on only one front last year and their players were fresher than those of Chelsea and Man United in the Champions League semis. They were out of the league race very early on and could afford to sufficiently rest their key players for the European nights. Having a second team capable of finishing in the top 6 in the premiership will give United's first team a similar advantage.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Catching up on Copa

Once again, I have to thank my friend for reminding me that I completely forgot about the Copa America. I was following the tournament and catching the occasional highlights package, but no mention on the blog. I think that I have been too caught up in the ‘Carlos Tevez to Man United’ transfer saga and the football cells in my brain have not found the time to think about the Copa America.

The transfer is still unresolved but enough of it now. The Copa is second only to the World Cup in terms of assembling talent and far better in terms of the football on display. Now that I think about it, there was so much to talk about.

Firstly and most importantly, how good are Brazil? Any team which can wallop Argentina 3-0 without bothering to call upon the likes of Kaka, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Adriano, Roberto Carlos, Cicinho, Emerson, Lucio and Juninho has to be frighteningly good. Imagine Brazil sending two squads to the tournament. The two sides could end up meeting in the finals. On top of that, there is a whole bunch of Brazilians who turn out for other nations like Deco for Portugal. Can’t we just get some pretty Indian girls to marry Brazilian footballers? Let’s all pray for Bipasha to marry Cristiano Ronaldo. Twenty years from today, we could have a side in the world cup composed entirely of players with dual citizenships.

What is Juan Roman Riquelme doing playing in Argentina? This guy suffers from being too much of a nice guy. Needs to stay with his sick mother. Surely, one of the big clubs could bring both mother and son to Europe. And pack in some uncles, aunties, cousins and other family as well. That would make them feel at home in Europe. Undoubtedly, there is no one in the world better at orchestrating an attack than Riquelme. He’s also a prolific goal scorer and still young.

Argentina’s inability to win any major tournament reminds me of Brazil’s predicament in the 80’s. Back then, they had a dazzling array of attacking players- Socrates, Zico, Junior, Careca, Falcao and a great coach in Tele Santana but no titles. Argentina on the other hand was winning with a one-man team. Seems, the Argentines used up all their luck in the three Junior World cup wins.

If you an Argentine, there is no fun being a defender. Looks like all the kids in the country want to be like Messi and Tevez. What else can you say when the national team has to depend on two 34 year olds (Ayala and Zanetti) to shore up the defense. Brazil has no such issues. Full –back Daniel Alves, one of the hottest transfer targets in Europe was a mere substitute in what was a second string side.

What would happen if the Copa coincided with the major European leagues? That is the case with the African Nations Cup, and most clubs have to do without their African stars but the football goes on. However, there would be no football in Europe if the South Americans were to be absent.

Two guys who made a good impression in the Copa were huge flops in the premiership. Diego Forlan at Man United and Julio Baptista at Arsenal. Does it have to do with the gloomy British weather or the tough tackling English defenses? Maybe both.

Lastly, I was reminded once again, why I love Football. Long live the South Americans

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Why Iam NOT watching the Tour de France

A good friend of mine responded to my last post, saying that I was wrong when I mentioned there was ‘inactivity’ on the sports front. The Tour de France was on. He had been watching the cycle race and had become a major fan.

I ask my friend just one question. Is this your first Tour? I guess the answer is yes, and that is precisely the reason why, you have become a fan.

Let me ask you a few questions.

What is common to Bjarne Riis and Floyd Landis, apart from being former winners of the Tour?

They have also been caught doping. While Bjarne has already admitted to cheating, Floyd is fighting a losing battle to prove his innocence. Riis has already been asked to return his yellow jersey and Floyd will have to do the same soon.

Now, tell me why was the famous Phonak racing team disbanded and why is German television not broadcasting the race anymore? Remember cycling is hugely popular in Germany and former Tour champion Jan Ullrich was one of the most popular athletes in the country.

Because, the Tour has become the most drug tainted event in the history of sport. It’s no longer a competition between racers but one between chemists. The cocktail of drugs taken by some of the cyclists makes other drug cheats like Ben Johnson look like a school boy taking vitamin pills for his school race. As a matter of fact, the usage of drugs is so widely prevalent, that as a racer you are no longer cheating if you are taking drugs. Because everyone else is taking them. Let’s face it, the chemists will always stay ahead of the testers and cyclists will continue to inject themselves. It’s so bad that drugs in cycling is no longer an issue.

So my ‘first time Tour de France watching’ friend, enjoy the race if the history of the sport doesn’t bother you.

On a more somber note, it’s a very sad development because once upon a time, the Tour was the face of the sport; a household name across the globe, known even to those generally not interested in cycling.

I have followed each of Armstrong’s seven wins and spent hours watching lots of grown men pedaling away for hours. Iam an ‘old’ Tour de France fan and hence Iam no longer watching.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Peeking into county cricket – Part 1

I have been really bored with the current sporting inactivity. And so, in an effort to kill time, I decided to check out the latest happenings in county cricket. After all, it’s the closest thing in cricket to premiership football; for which I have been waiting like a Christian kid waits for Christmas.

I sifted through cricinfo and found lots of interesting county cricket news. I did not bother to trawl the ocean of numerous limited over competitions and focused my attentions only on the main four day county championships. And yes, I was biased and looking mostly for Indians –related information. So here’s my own version of the latest county round- news.

A list of the top batsmen (in terms of batting averages) has Sachin Tendulkar on top after his century against the English Lions, and an unknown AV Suppiah at number ten. But these guys have just played one great innings each. Far creditable is the performance of former Australian bowlers; Andy Bichel (fifth) and Ian Harvey (fourth), both of whom have scored centuries in each of their two completed innings! However, my greatest delight comes in finding the names of future England prospect Samit Patel and current one-day player Ravi Bopara with averages of 73.66 and 63.54 after 8 and 9 games respectively. Iam like a Brazilian in Rio watching Deco win the Champions League for Porto.

The list has the usual heavy share of Australians; discards, retirees and prospects. In the old days the English went to Australia to start a new life. Now county cricket is the land of opportunities for any half decent Australian cricketer. In fact, former player Stuart Law is now a British citizen. I have great sympathy for him. He got just one test, where he debuted alongside Ricky Ponting and both guys got unbeaten half- centuries. And see where they stand today. His name is missing in the averages list but finds a place in the top batsmen list by runs scored.

This list also has some other sentimental and emotional favorites. Zimbabweans - Murray Goodwin, Grant Flower and Graeme Hick- each in England for a reason of his own. You also find in there Amrita Arora’s beau – Usman Afzaal. He happens to be the top Pakistani on the list. The only other Pakistani (and someone who is actually a Pakistani International) is Younis Khan. Pretty bad show by our neighbours, right? Wait till you read about the bowlers.

Coming soon. Part 2 about the bowlers.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

See, I told you so!!!

It’s confirmed now. Our very own Michael Chopra has been signed by newly promoted Sunderland to be part of their strike force for the coming season. Iam super excited about it. I had been counting on his move to the premiership and now I can root for one of my own. (And before you say Sunderland, who, remember that our previous best was Baichung Bhutia being a substitute for Bury FC, which plays two divisions lower than Sunderland)

I know his first stint in the premiership with Newcastle was a disaster. But he is a much better player and a far mature human being now. Expect a much better season from him this time round. Roy Keane has signed him for £5M. That’s a lot of money for a newly promoted club and surely Keane rates him highly.

And come on guys; let’s go all out to cheer for him. Please take a cue from the Chinese. When Yao Ming went to the NBA, his countrymen voted him to the top of the all-star fan ballot. The NBA’s popularity is growing in China and lots of NBA teams are touring the country. The premiership is pretty popular in India and we could see some of the sides visit our country soon.

Mr. Mittal seems to have put on hold his plans to buy Birmingham City FC, but Chopra’s move will definitely gladden the hearts of all Indian football lovers.

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