Saturday, 17 December 2011

It's SPOTY Time All Over Again...

Next Thursday sees the BBC’s now annual smug-fest round-up of the Sporting year.  Except that this year should be slightly less of a smug-fest than usual because of the controversial list of nominees for Sports Personality of The Year.

When the list was announced at the end of November, there was immediate controversy as there were no sportswomen on the list – with the BBC receiving the most brickbats.  While the Beeb were undeserving of criticism about the makeup of the list, they should have been criticised much more for the make up of the electorate.  They’ve only chosen to canvas The Herald over The Scotsman and the Daily Record, yet have canvassed both the daily and the Sunday editions of The Telegraph, The Times, The Star The Daily/Sunday Mail and the Guardian/Observer. 

However the worst transgression was inviting the views of those well known dedicated “sports” magazines “Zoo” and “Nuts”.  Perhaps mindful of this, the votes cast by those magazines show a modicum of knowledge of sport outside the sphere of Football – with the vote for Judd Trump being maybe the one least justifiable.  At least they didn’t disgrace themselves…  unlike the Manchester Evening News who voted for those fine British sportsmen Dimitar Berbatov, Yaya Toure and Patrick Viera.

For my money, I’m not really surprised at there not being any women nominated.  Most of the sportswomen who garnered votes will have won championships without very much exposure, but will be looking for better performances come Olympic year next year when the exposure will be there.  However there are sportsmen who I am surprised that have made the final 10.  Amir Khan won the WBA Light Welterweight championship this year, but surely there are tougher opponents in Khan’s division as exemplified by his defeat to Lamont Peterson.  Both Andy Murray and Luke Donald have had excellent years, but both have Slam/Major sized holes in their locker.  As for Alastair Cook, I suspect that his nomination is more for his Ashes exploits last winter than his form during the summer, where apart from his 294 against India at Edgbaston, he didn’t make a century.  Andrew Strauss hasn’t hit a century since the first Ashes test at the Gabba last November, but he makes this list because of his captaincy of the best test cricket team in the world.

By the looks of things there are three frontrunners for this prize.  Mark Cavendish was nominated a couple of years ago after winning 6 stages of the Tour de France.  He only won four this year… but won the Green Jersey for the first time.  Cavendish also became the World Road Racing Champion, the first Brit to win it since 1965.  Cavendish’s strongest opponents for the prize come in the shape of two Northern Irish golfers.

Rory McIlroy made last years Ryder Cup team, but this year he truly arrived in the world of Golf.  Four shots ahead going into the last day of the Masters, McIlroy struggled before folding at the 10th on his way to an 80, finishing 10 shots behind Charl Schwartzel.  At the next major, the US Open, McIlroy put himself into a similar position, this time sealing the deal to become the youngest US Open Champion in 88 years, and the youngest major winner since Tiger Woods stormed to the Masters title in 1997.  If the rise of McIlroy is the story of future promise and the emergence of a new sports star, the story of countryman Daren Clarke is one of emotion and triumph against the odds.  Having been a mainstay of the European Ryder Cup team since the mid 90’s, many thought Clarke would never win a major – his best chance came at Troon in 1997 when Justin Leonard came through and beat both Clarke and Parnevik to the title.  Clarke’s first Indian summer came when his performances were key to Europe retaining the Ryder Cup at the K Club in 2006, months after the death of his wife Heather from Breast Cancer.  His second came this year when he landed the biggest Golfing Major of the lot – The Open Championship.

Both Dai Green and Mo Farrah would have expected to have been in the running had the three sportsmen mentioned above not had excellent years, and had their World Championship’s winning performance been broadcast on the BBC – not a sleight on Channel 4 who did an excellent job of broadcasting the World Championships meet in Daegu (as well as give an overdue promotion to TV for the former 5Live commentator John Rawling), more that the BBC would have been promoting their case slightly harder had they held the rights to the World Athletics Championships.  In truth, the contest will be between Cavendish, McIlroy and Clarke, with possibly Clarke winning – with the Golfing constituencies love of Clarke’s emotional back story pulling him through.  This year there will be no Tony McCoy (above) style left field winners.

Friday, 2 December 2011

"Gentlemen" And "Players" - Cricket At The Crossroads

In amongst the tributes to the England All-rounder Basil D’Olivera, there was the re-telling of one of the most shameful chapters in English cricket.  The behind the scenes campaign (by the South African authorities) for the MCC (as the England touring party were called at that time) to tour South Africa was bad enough, without the MCC’s own version of twisting in the wind.  That D’Olivera came out of that episode and played a further 5 years for England is a testament to his fortitude.

As a sort of coincidence, there is a book out at the moment which deals with English Cricket from 1967 to 1977 and looks into the huge controversies that rocked English Cricket during this period.  Yes, English Cricket in crisis.  There was me thinking that English Cricket was (at least until relatively recently) in perpetual crisis.  “Cricket At The Crossroads” by Guy Fraser Sampson tells the story of this period.  As well as detailing how England played during this period – a time when between January 1970 and February 1973, England would (it has been retrospectively calculated) be the worlds best test team.  The book focuses on the three big crises to hit English Cricket during this period, the (it is alleged) class motivated sacking of Brian Close as England captain, the afore mentioned D’Olivera affair and the rise of World Series Cricket – or as some other wag put it Kerry Packer’s Flying Circus.

The book starts off by explaining the world of 1960’s English cricket, where there were the players and there were the gentlemen.  And more often than not, the gentlemen more often than not were from an English Public School background.  As Fred Trueman put it, quoted in the book from his own biography “As It Was” -  “Those charged with running the game and selecting England teams…  were former schoolboys who went to Oxford or Cambridge…  They looked down on the pros and considered an amateur with a cricket blue from Oxford or Cambridge a much superior choice when it came to selecting the England teams”.

It was in this atmosphere that the “pro” Brian Close was appointed England captain, succeeding the “gentleman” Colin Cowdrey at the end of the West Indies 1966 tour.  Fraser-Sampson makes the case that the appointment was a temporary one making the point that “the England selectors found themselves in the position of having selected as captain someone whom they had already discarded as a player, and finding that he had the knack of winning matches”.  One of the hallmarks of this book is the logical and almost clinical manner that Fraser-Sampson makes his arguments and dispenses the revelations.

A case in point is with the sacking of Close.  Close had been involved in a couple of incidents during a County Championship match at Edgbaston, just before the selection meeting to decide the touring party for the 1967/68 series in the West Indies.  The incidents, alleged time wasting and a bit of a heated debate with a spectator, were small beer compared to the events in the lives of today’s sportsmen.  Yet as Fraser-Sampson points out, Close was picked as captain for the tour before the Edgbaston incident was brought up.  At this point, the selection committee backed away from Close, and backed an alternative candidate… one Colin Cowdry.  Of course the conflicts of interest at play in this decision never made the light of day at the time.  However Sampson does an excellent job in exposing them and the humbug surrounding English Cricket at that time.  The past, as is pointed out in this book, is another country.

If there are a few people who emerge from this episode with their reputations intact, then Sampson ensures that save the late D’Olivera, no one emerges with their reputation intact from the next episode.  Sampson not only details the vested interests at play, but also the foul play indulged by BOSS – the South African Security Police – at the behest of the South African government. All of whom had different motives for ensuring that D’Olivera was not picked to tour South Africa for the 1968/69 test series.  When D’Olivera was picked for the tour, not as a first pick but as a reserve and then making the tour party following the injury to Tom Cartwright, the tour was called off by South Africa.  The picture painted by Sampson is one of ineptitude mixed with vested interests, all cocooned within the old boy’s network.
England beat Australia at the Oval thanks to Basil D'Oliveira's 158 (top right)

This air of, what an England captain of another sport would describe as “57 old farts”, permeates this book.  It was the past, it leads to botched fudged decisions.  Like the fudged decision on D’Olivera – one which led indirectly to South Africa’s exclusion from Test Cricket.  Yet as the book details, there were people not prepared to put up with this attitude for much longer.  The surprise battleground was the 1970/1 Ashes tour.  Having replaced the injured Cowdrey at the start of the 1969 season, Illingworth had – with the same chagrin of the selectors as was displayed during Close’s tenor – obtained the knack of winning matches.  By the time of that Ashes tour, England were the best cricketing side in the world, so the MCC attempted to undermine that by appointing a team manager from the same school tie mould as Cowdrey, Smith and most of the selectors.

Sampson’s journal of how the Team Manager David Clark and Captain Ray Illingworth’s relationship deteriorated over the course of this tour again shows the clash between the old order and the new ways of doing things.  One of the key reasons that the tour was a success was the willingness of Illingworth to stand up for his players, D’Olivera would not have made the tour for Illingworth, while his man management skills did not go down well with people who thought of themselves as Illingworth’s superiors.  By the end of the tour, the “Gentlemen” were marginalised while the “Players” celebrated regaining the Ashes.  Ironically enough, Cowdrey had such a miserable tour, his dropped catches enabled several players – chiefly Ian Chappell – to make scores and keep their places.  Chappel would be particularly grateful as he would be installed as Australian captain by the end of the mammoth 7 test series.

If the first 2 thirds of the book is full of excellent articles and is well researched, then the last third is a slight disappointment.  Most of this third is taken up with narratives on England’s test matches from the end of the 1970/1 Ashes series up to the 1977 Ashes.  That’s not to take anything away from those narratives, but there does feel as if there is a lull – at least until the TCCB bungled again by sacking Illingworth and replacing him with another “Gentleman” in the shape of Mike Deness.

In fact the book does not really pick up again until the 1974/5 Ashes series comes into view.  With the TCCB making all the mistakes they made with Cowdrey again, and with the knowledge Samson has provided, the carnage inflicted by Australia is really like the sporting equivalent of “Lions lead by donkeys” – a critique of the British army from the First World War.  Yet unfortunately there is a slightly disapproving tone towards Chappell’s Australian side.  Most of this tone is directed towards the Australian pace pair of Lillee and Thompson – essentially because Sampson believes that the Australian pace-men to be the harbingers of the West Indies pace men (like Michael Holding and Andy Roberts who were already in the West Indies team, and latterly the likes of Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh & Curtley Ambrose – who were all “decedents” of the West Indies 1960’s attack of Charlie Griffiths and Wes Hall) that would dominate the next 20 years of Test Cricket.

Surprisingly enough, the last scandal to feature in this book I feel didn’t really receive the attention it should have.  The rise of World Series Cricket revolutionised the game.  Coloured clothing for limited over internationals, day/night games, drop in pitches (which was an additional aid to the rise of the fast bowlers) and protective clothing were all innovations that came from this period.  The biggest change was towards proper remuneration for cricket professionals.  The part World Series Cricket played here was the issue that eventually ended the Gentlemen & Players culture.  While Sampson was thorough about how World Series Cricket came about, that essentially it was an act of revenge by Kerry Packer for not getting the broadcast rights for Test Cricket, the ACB awarded them to the public broadcaster ABC, and also recommended to the TCCB that the rights to the 1977 Ashes series should be awarded to ABC as well.  Sampson was not so thorough about the innovations or about how compromise came about after such an acrimonious dispute, which came to court when players sued the TCCB for restraint of trade.

In 1979, when Cricket began to come to terms with the split and people were tentatively looking at ways to heal the split, the world was ready for the next paradigm shift in attitudes.  Yet despite being in the middle of the end-game of the left-wing post war consensus – a culture was ending within cricket.  The old order of Gentlemen and Players had been comprehensively routed at the player level.  However it would take another decade or so before this mindset would be gone from the highest level of the game in England.  What this book does well is that it tells the story of the end of the world of “Gentlemen” and “Players”, and the beginning of the professional era of English Cricket.  It does a very good job of showing how this old mindset contributed to the major crises that gripped English Cricket from 1967 to 1977. 

In spite of Sampson’s attempts to paint a picture of the mid 1960’s social and economic climate, which struck a clumsy and stridently Anglo-centric viewpoint, this book successfully tells the story of English Crickets painful transition from the time of “Gentlemen” and “Players” and explains in depth the myriad of vested interests and school tie links which would be on the run at the end of this book.  “Cricket at the Crossroads” is an interesting and well researched book that is detailed about this turbulent period in the history of English Cricket.