Friday, 22 July 2011

SPL 2011/12: The Earliest Start To A Season Yet...

9 weeks after the Scottish Cup Final brought the curtain down on season 2010/11, the madness is about to descend once again as the curtain is about to go up on Season 2011/12.  A season one hopes will finish with the national team taking part in the finals of the European Championships in Poland & Ukraine.

Way before that though, the domestic season begins with Rangers unfurling the league championship flag before taking on Hearts at Saturday lunchtime.  New season, same old rubbish scheduling of matches by television companies.

Rangers have had the most interesting close season.  A new owner in the shape of Craig Whyte, who has wasted no time in trying to dispose of the old Rangers board, and a new manager in the shape of their former striker Ally McCoist.  While we haven’t seen the revolving door that accompanied the first days of Graeme Souness, Dick Advocaat or Paul Le Guen’s appointments, McCoist has set about making some changes.  The Spanish winger Ortiz has been brought in as has Hearts Lee Wallace, while McCoist is hoping to bring back Carlos Cuellar.  However key to McCoists bit to emulate Souness, Smith & Advocaat in winning the Championship in their first season in charge may well be the new contracts signed by McGregor & Davis.

Celtic’s close season could have been interesting, had the players supposedly agitating for improved terms not been placated.  As it is Celtic start on Sunday at Easter Road with essentially the same squad that came close to the Championship, but won the Scottish Cup.  Defenders Wilson (from Nottingham Forrest) and Matthews (Cardiff) were pre contract signings made in January, while the only close season signing to date is the midfielder Wanyama, they have lost Forster – his loan spell coming to an end.  With a years experience together in the bank and Neil Lennon actually turning out to be a surprise package as Celtic manager, I think Celtic will win the league by between 4 – 7 points.

Hearts should be favourites for third, they have added to their third place squad, John Sutton & Taouill have come west from Motherwell & Kilmarnock respectively, while options at the back have also been added with the acquisition of Hamill & Granger.  Dundee United have lost key men, and may still lose prised forward David Goodwillie before the transfer deadline.  They should be good enough to finish in the top 6 but not usurp Hearts for 3rd, even though they were not good enough to stay in Europe until the season stared properly.  I suspect that Hibernian & Aberdeen will make up the top six, Brown’s experience will help Aberdeen to go in the right direction, while Hibernian may well be boyed by the return of old boys O’Connor & Sproule.  So far so last season.

The tightest battle over the past few seasons has been the battle against the drop.  Last season however, Hamilton had an appalling season, finishing 7 points behind St Mirren.  Danny Lennon has taken the hint and reshaped his attacking options.  Paul McGowan is now a permanent player at St Mirren & has been joined by Nigel Hasselbaink & Steven Thompson, joining his boyhood heroes from Burnley.  Those three, plus the additions of Teale, Tesselaar & Carey, who impressed on loan at St Mirren during the second half of the 2009/10 season should mean that St Mirren finish out of trouble, so long as defensive options are strengthened. 

So who will go down?  Dunfermline are the favourites, though they have added experience in the shape of John Potter & Paul Gallacher from St Mirren.  They start on that coveted Monday night slot against St Mirren,  probably harbouring thoughts about their relegation from this league in May 2007.  Motherwell maybe look vulnerable as Stuart McCall begins his first full season in charge at Fir Park.  Inverness might suffer from second season syndrome, while St Johnstone will need to gel quickly.  Kilmarnock will need to arrest the poor finish to last season.  These teams have their own achillies heel, but have that quality that will keep them up, experience.  I think Dunfermline will finish between 5 - 9 points behind Motherwell.

By the end of last season, Scottish football was in the dock.  No one particularly covered themselves in glory, not Celtic, not Rangers and certainly not any of the fans who rose to the bait provided by Neil Lennon, pantomime villain (compared to…  oh take your pick of any of the board members of the Old Firm).  This season, those guilty parties need to show that lessons have been learned & that we can move on.  More than most, Scottish Football needs to turn the corner, and garner positive headlines rather than continue as the sick footballer of Europe.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Shooting For The Top

England’s 1-0 series win last month saw them consolidate their 3rd place in the Test rankings.  Starting on Thursday England will be up against the current top dogs in Test cricket.  India, for their faults, have a formidable batting line up, and will be the most formidable line up England have faced on home soil since the 2001 Ashes series.

31 July 2007: Dravid & Ganguly celebrate winning the 2nd Test at Trent Bridge
While India will be without the force of nature that is Virender Sehwag (missing untill possibly the third test), the Indian batting line up will still only consist of honorary Scotsman Rahul Dravid (12,314 test runs at an average of 52.40), Sachin Tendulkar (14,692 runs @ 56.94) and VVS Laxman (8,146 runs @ 47.36).  Tendulkar holds the record for most career Test runs, while Dravid needs 49 runs to move into second place (Laxman sits at 19 in the all time list, between Geoffrey Boycott & David Gower).  Oh and for all three, this may well be their last hurrah on English soil, a last chance then for the threesome to get themselves on the Lords Honours board.

Unlike Sri Lanka, India do have pace bowlers who have experience of English conditions.  Zaheer Khan & Sreesanth both played 4 years ago, when India’s win at Trent Bridge (above) was enough to win them the series (Khan took 4/59 and 5/75 in that victory).  Providing the spin options for India will be Harbhajan Singh, the right handed off-spinner who has taken 404 test wickets (just outside the top 10 on the all time list of test bowlers).  With all of that talent, India really should be comfortably wearing the mantle taken from Australia in the winter of 2008.

Yet India are still vulnerable away from home.  Their series win in the West Indies was not as dominant as you would expect.  Perhaps their eye has been on this tour and this test series.  England though are at the heels of India.

A series win for England will see them overtake South Africa as number 2 in the world, however a series win by two clear tests will see England dethrone India and see them occupy a position they have not been in since 1959, the best Test team in the world.  With the number 1 position to play for, and on the occasion of the 2000th Test match, this test series looks like being the most eagerly awaited test series since last winter’s Ashes series.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Botham's Ashes - 30 Years On

This summer sees the thirtieth anniversary of not just one of the most memorable test series of all time, but one of the key sporting moments of the post war years.  The 1981 Ashes series from the outset looked to be a close contest, but the reverses suffered by Australia in this series haunted them until the Mark Taylor/Steve Waugh lead teams became the best team in the cricketing world in 1995.

Australia started slight underdogs, entirely down to their inexperienced batting line up.  Greg Chappell was missing, his younger brother Trevor would play during this series.  Captaining the side would be Kim Hughes, three years before Brisbane & all that.  Graham Yallop was the other experienced batsman, while Alan Border was playing in his first Ashes tour (after making his debut during the 5-1 home defeat in 1978/79).  Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee were still there, Lillee was backed up by the inexperienced duo of Geoff Lawson & Terry Alderman, with Rodney Hogg making up the pace attack.  England had blooded lots of promising players during the Packer years, in particular Gooch, Gower, Gatting & Botham.  Botham started this series captaining the England side.

Trent Bridge hosted the First Test, a test that started badly for the favourites.  Australia skittled England out for 185, with the debutant Alderman taking 4 for 68, his away swingers immediately finding a home in English conditions.  England countered, by bowling Australia out for 179.  Border top scored with 63, with Dilley & Willis taking 3 wickets each.  Given the chance to set a tough target for Australia, England were then skittled out for 125, Lillie & Alderman taking 5 wickets each.  Australia won by 4 wickets, on what was the first time that play took place on a Sunday during a test match.

The Lords test was notable for two things.  Lawson’s 7 for 81 in England’s first innings, and Botham’s pair.  Botham was now under pressure, the headline in London’s Evening Standard said Botham Must Go.  After that test, he did.  Taking over was Mike Brearley, who Botham replaced the year previously.  His first Test back in charge would be the Third Test, taking place at Headingley, which would start thirty years ago tomorrow.

Things did not start well for the new regime.  Australia batted first and made 401 for 9 before declaring just before the end of the second day.  Opener John Dyson top scored with 102 (the first century of the series), the captain Hughes made 89.  Botham took 6 for 95.  England crumbled to 174 in their first innings, with Botham top scoring with 50, Dennis Lillee took 4 for 49.  The follow on was enforced, with England finishing day three on 7 for 1, losing Gooch for a duck.  At this point the scoreboard flashed up the latest odds, with an England win quoted at 500/1.  Lillee and Marsh took the bet, not knowing what would happen after the rest day.

England checked out of their hotels on the Monday morning thinking that they would go 2-0 down at some point.  Australia were certainly intent on making inroads, and did just that reducing England to 135 for 7.  With Botham & Dilley at the crease, both batsmen began to slash and to play shots.  At first it was to frustrate the Australian’s, to go down with a fight.  Both batsmen then began to mount a substantial partnership, as the 200 approached.  When they passed 227, Australia knew they had to bat again.  Dilley was out for 56, but the game had changed in the 80 minutes that both men were at the crease.  England were effectively 25 for 8.  Botham was still there and carried on apace, as steadily one of the great sporting moments was unfolding.  Just before reaching his century, Botham hit a shot over Alderman into the Football ground end, prompting the legendary piece of commentary from Richie Bennaud “Don't even bother looking for that. It's gone into the confectionery stall… and out again.”  By the end of day four, England led by 124 runs and maybe had something to play with depending on how long Botham stuck around.

England only put on a further 5 runs before being bowled out, setting Australia the relatively easy target of 130.  Botham nabbed the early wicket of Wood, but Australia then settled down, proceeding to 56.  Willis had been bowling from the Football stand end for 5 overs, and then Brearley switched Willis to the Kirkstall Lane end.  When Willis got Chappel to a rearing delivery, suddenly Australia started to collapse.  Hughes, Yallop, Border & Dyson fell in quick succession, while Marsh stuck around for a bit.  Bright & Lillee put on 35 before Willis broke through again.  Willis took 8 for 43 as England completed a remarkable turnaround to win by 18 runs.  The first time since 1895 that a side won after following on.
If England had though that they had turned the corner, they got a rude awakening during the next test, which took place at Edgebaston.  England were skittled out for 189, with Alderman taking 5/42.  A stand of 51 form Hughes & Yallop helped Australia to a first innings lead of 69.  Ray Bright’s 5/68 helped to restrict England to 219, which gave Australia a target of 151.  In short England found themselves in a similar hole to the one they found themselves in at Headingley.  Australia seemed to cope better advancing to 87/3 and then to 105/4 before disaster struck.  Border was caught off his gloves off Emburey just before Botham was given a spell bowling from the pavilion end.  Botham’s pitched up deliveries brought about another Australian collapse, as Botham took 5 wickets for 1 run in this spell (right) to win the match for England by 29 runs.

Australia were now behind in a series that they controlled for all bar 3 sessions.  It got much worse for them in the Fifth test at Old Trafford.  Batting first, England posted 231, with Chris Tavare top scoring with 69, which took 4 hours and 47 minutes to compile.  Lillee & Alderman took 4 wickets apiece.  In response England reduced Australia to 130, Willis taking 4/63.  England took a first innings lead of 101, but squandered that position as England lost 3 quick wickets on the third morning.  When Brearley went at 105 for 5, England were effectively at 206 for 5 and in a bit of trouble.  Enter Botham again, who once again took the fight to the Australian bowlers.  He smashed 6 sixes and 13 fours as he struck 118 in 123 minutes.  The sixth wicket stand of 149 between Botham and Tavare took England to a lead in excess of 350.  England were bowled out for 404, setting Australia 506 to win.  Australia showed fight, but were eventually bowled out for 404 half an hour into the final session of day five. Yallop made 114 in just under 3 hours, while Border top scored while struggling with a broken finger, making 123 in 7 hours.  England had retained the Ashes.

The sixth and final test at the Oval could have given Australia a consolation victory.  Batting first, Australia posted 352, Border scoring 106 not out.  In reply, a 115 run partnership between Boycott (137) and Gatting (53) helped England to 314, conceding a 38 run deficit to Australia.  Lillee taking 7/89.  Second time around Australia set a target of 383, declaring on 344/9 before the start of day five.  The debutante Dirk Wellham top scored on 103.  Mike Hendrick & Botham shared 4 wickets apiece.  England clung on to get to 261 for 7 before the close of play.  Gatting top scored with 56, while Brearley’s dismissal on 51 was the last time on English soil that the combination of c Marsh b Lilley  appeared on scoreboards.

It is interesting to note that the commercialisation of the sport is still in its infancy here, and that this series is sandwiched between the Packer years (which affected Australian cricket) and the rebel tours of South Africa (which would affect English Cricket the following year and Australian Cricket later on in the decade).  As I said above Australia were now a team in decline, though this did not appear visible until the West Indies visited Australia in the winter of 1984/5, England fared slightly better though they too suffered at the hands of a rampant West Indies team (who inflicted 5-0 “Blackwashes” in 1984 and in 1985/6).  This series showed two sides moving in opposite directions and because of the sporting theatre will live long in the memory.