Forget 1981, 2005 and 2010/11 – 2013 is going to be the best yet

Over the years there have been some truly amazing and career-defining Ashes series – from Botham’s Ashes at the start of the ‘80s to England’s first win Down Under for 24 years, England v Australia is a rivalry that sets a precedent for world cricket. However, I think that the 2013 series over here may just eclipse that, and here are the 4 reasons why I think this.

1.  Revenge

Beating the Aussies is one thing, defeating them on their own turf another, but publically humiliating them in their own backyard… That’s just crossing the line! The Australian public were so outraged at their team’s shambolic display two years ago that they even went so far as to praise England (I know, I couldn’t believe it either!). Add to that the fact that they have lost 3 of the previous 4 Ashes contests and the boys from Down Under are going to be fully pumped up to atone for this next summer. Expect fire, tantrums, gamesmanship and a display of Bush Culture never seen before on these shores from the wounded beast in order to regain what they feel is rightfully theirs.

2. The battle of the quickies

Earlier this summer, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander proved that you don’t have to hurt batsmen in order to get wickets on our shores and, with these two rivals boasting some of the greatest seamers in the world at the time of speaking, I feel that success is going to be all down to can bowl the most consistently. For England, James Anderson has proved that he should be recognised amongst the greats, including Steyn himself, after some masterful performances with the ball both in and out of his favoured conditions. In Australia, where the ball isn’t supposed to swing much, he was by far the best bowler in the series with 24 wickets, 7 ahead of anyone else, while in the recent tour of India he bagged 12 wickets, 8 more than any other seam bowler. He leads the attack with authority and skill and should be feared by all Aussies.

England boasts a fantastic stock of seamers to play alongside Anderson but there is one fundamental problem – they all have horrible injury records. Stuart Broad has been hampered by niggles over the last 2/3 years and this has caused him to drastically lose form, while Tim Bresnan has been nowhere near the bowler he was since his elbow operation a few months back. Steve Finn is looking every inch a top-class international seamer but his body is also starting to fail him, while both Chris Tremlett and Graham Onions both have serious back injuries to thank for stalling promising England careers. For England to win the series at least two of these bowlers have to be fighting fit and near, if not at, the top of their game.

Meanwhile, Australia’s quota of fast bowlers has risen from not enough to far too many since the end of that horror show 2 years ago. Alongside the veterans of Peter Siddle, Mitch Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus are the wily John Hastings and youngsters Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Mitch Starc, Trent Copeland and Jackson Bird, who impressed on debut against Sri Lanka just the other day. Like England, they are also struggling with the battle to stay fit but any one of these bowlers can turn a game on its head. Personally, I think Starc is the one to watch – he had a successful period over here last summer with Yorkshire so will know the conditions well and destroyed the South Africans with his pace and tenacity just a couple of months ago. Provided he can stay off the physio table long enough, he may just be the breakthrough act of 2013.

3. ‘My gloves are nicer than yours…’

With wicketkeeper-batsmen coming back into fashion I think the battle between Matt Prior and Matthew Wade will be a fascinating one come next summer. Prior has firmly established himself as one of the greatest ‘keeper-batsmen of the modern era, not far behind the legendary Kumar Sangakkara, after a slightly shaky start to his England career. He has undoubtedly been the country’s most consistent performer on the sub-continent in the last 2 years, shining against Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India, and his ability behind the stumps is unrivalled by anyone else. He has the ability to take amazing one-handed diving catches, score at a run-a-ball and even stick it out and play the long game if necessary and he has been vital to England’s success in recent years.

Wade, however, is a relative newcomer to international cricket. Having played just 8 tests at the time of speaking he has much to learn in international cricket but his statistics firmly show that he is a talented man. A batting average of 36.27 with two fifties and a maiden Test hundred coming against a tough South African attack is a solid foundation to build on, while he has also snared 25 catches and 2 stumpings with the gloves. But it is his inconsistency that means he is not guaranteed a place on the tour here next year. With the bat he will either get out for under 15 or over 65, while with behind the stumps he sometimes misses regulation chances yet can then follow that up with the most spectacular diving catches, including the one-handed special to dismiss Sangakkara during the Boxing Day Test. If he can use the rest of the Sri Lankan series to cement his place in the Test side then expect a strong fight from the small Tasmanian next summer.

4. Captains Marvellous

They have reinvented themselves as players after periods of horrific form during which they were almost dropped and are now two of the greatest batsmen in the world, as well as captains of their countries. In fact, the stories for both Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke are highly similar. Both burst onto the Test scene at a young age before their faults were discovered and exploited by ruthless opposition bowlers. Cook, however, is a man who has kept himself to himself over the years, grafting away at his game silently while certain other players take the headlines. He is loved by the entire nation for his hard work and dedication, but Clarke has a slightly different image in his homeland. He was a bit of a lad, if you see what I mean, and liked to party and get in the news. He had a model girlfriend and numerous spats with teammates and the Aussie cricket board. He was a talented troublemaker (remind you of someone else?) who almost became the pantomime villain of Australian cricket. The decision to appoint him as Ricky Ponting’s successor was not initially taken well by the public, but those feelings of resentment are long gone.

A whitewash of India started the year nicely for Clarke before a resounding 2-0 win against the West Indies followed. The 3-match Test series against was full of astonishing and exciting cricket, with Australia narrowly losing 1-0, before two obliterations of Sri Lanka in the last few weeks. Couple that with 4 double centuries in 2012, including 2 against South Africa, and becoming his country’s highest run scorer in a calendar year with 1595 runs in just 18 innings and, helped by a change in personality, he is now absolutely adored by the nation.

These are the men who will make the key differences next summer. They are the ones who are going to have to lead from the front, use what they have at their disposal to the best affect and create plans to get each other out. One thing is for certain – the 2013 Ashes series is going to be enthralling!

The Great Game – really?

What is up with football at the moment? Diving, cheating and players being racially, verbally and even physically abused by fellow stars and fans alike – I thought we’d left this all behind in the ‘70s!

Watching a Premier League match should be a treat, a reward after a long week at school or work.  90% of the time it is, with free-flowing attacking football and plenty of goals. But the remaining 10% of the time is spent cringing while players roll around on the floor or steal a cheeky few yards to take a throw-in. It really is pathetic and detracts from a game that should be known for its aesthetic beauty rather than its lack of sportsmanship.

Many fans like to believe that this influx of cheating has correlated with the rising importation of foreign players and that good old English stalwarts stay on their feet. This may be true as diving is even worse in Serie A and La Liga than over here but then you look at players like Ashley Young and see they are no different. Diving is a trait installed by managers to make sure their players win no matter what and they then make the hypocritical comments when someone dives against their team that cheating has no place in football. If you feel that is the case then do something about it and stop your players from doing the same! I’m not saying that all managers tell their players to fall on the floor to make it look like they have been scythed down by a sniper but there are certain teams who’s players seem to spend more time flying through the air than they do in possession of the ball.

It’s not just diving that riles me but the way in which the players protest to the referee to try and get opposition players booked or sent off or argue with them if they feel aggrieved by a decision. There is no respect for anyone in football except yourself and your team and the referee is often, rather unfairly, on the receiving end of the flack. This is something that is not seen in rugby – last weekend London Irish No. 8 Chris Hala’ufia was red carded by the ref after he was alleged to have spear-tackled a London Welsh player, who got straight up after the tackle and made no complaints. Although I think a permanent dismissal was very harsh, the Tongan took his punishment with no arguments from either side and some of the Welsh players gave him some sympathy as they also felt a red card was harsh. I’m not saying that rugby is the perfect sport to follow – especially in light of the unsavoury brawl at Welford Road last weekend in which resulted in red cards for Matt Banahan and Brett Deacon – but when do you ever see a player argue with the referee about a decision? Both of the aforementioned players accepted their fates with no qualms and even shook hands less than 3 minutes after they were punching each other in the face. Footballers need to have some respect installed back into their system and learn that the referee is of higher authority than them, not someone who can be bullied.

And it’s not just the players who have a lack of respect for the opposition but the fans too. I walked past a young rugby player earlier asking his dad why football fans feel the need to get up and hurl abuse at opposition players whenever they come near them and his dad couldn’t come up with a proper answer. Why the fans feel it necessary to insult and gesture at someone who they don’t know, will never know and has not really done anything to them personally is one thing, but to racially abuse them… That’s not just crossing the line but planting great big size 12 feet about half a mile over it. There really is no excuse for insulting a footballer about the colour of their skin or their heritage just because they are playing against a different team to the one you support. In games such as rugby and cricket there is no such abuse towards players, as well as other fans. Supporters of opposing teams are often mixed together as they can be trusted to get along well and not break out into fights every 5 minutes. This mob culture that football fans seem to have was supposed to have been eradicated from football 30-40 years ago and, although that it is nowhere near as bad as it once was, it does still exist and needs to be addressed if football wants to be recognised as a game for everyone and not just those with a love for pies and hurling insults at innocent people.

Wrong man, wrong job

He won the Champions League in his first season as manager of a new club, an FA Cup… a Community Shield and the European Super Cup and now it has been decided that former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is the man to guide Chelsea back to their ‘former glory days’ after the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo after the ‘Blues’ won just 1 of 5 games in November. That’s a bit ridiculous isn’t it – just 6 months ago the club was celebrating winning Europe’s most prestigious domestic title as well as the greatest cup competition in the world under the guidance of  Di Matteo, yet owner Roman Abramovich suddenly felt that the Italian wasn’t the man for the job just because they hadn’t guaranteed their place in the next round of the Champions League and were only third in the Premier League. The sacking was a bizarre and unpopular decision but the appointment of Benitez was incomprehensible. The Russian billionaire must have been extremely drunk on some of his country’s famous vodka while making these decisions!

Just 5 years ago Benitez said he would never manage Chelsea because of his respect for Liverpool and yet now he couldn’t wait to take the job. Football managers are almost as hypocritical as politicians aren’t they! However it seems as though the only reason he has gone to manage Chelsea is to hang out with their rather large Spanish contingent as there aren’t many in the north west at the moment. Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Cesar Azpilicueta and Oriel Romeu are all citizens of the greatest international football team at the time of writing and this must have been the major influence for the 52 year-old’s decision to take up the reins at Stamford Bridge. When he was manager of ‘The Reds,’ Benitez was the man who brought Torres over to this country and immediately made him a favourite of the Kopites, but his departure Anfield coincided with his fellow Spaniard’s form going down the drain and his injury count rising rather rapidly. Torres has not been the same player since and one of the conspiracies behind Benitez’s appointment is the hope that he can get the striker playing like he used to. But even Benitez seems to have written the striker off, saying that he may never be the player he was at Liverpool due to his lengthy list of problems – not something the fans or the owner wanted to hear!

If he thinks Torres will never be the same player again then it will be interesting to see what Benitez does in the forthcoming transfer window to address Chelsea’s striker shortage. His transfer policy at Liverpool was inconsistent to say the least – from 2004-2009 he bought 76 players and spent just under £230 million. This included the acquisition of now-Anfield favourites such as Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia as well as current players Daniel Agger, Lucas, Glen Johnson, Pepe Reina and Martin Skrtel but he also invested in some absolute donkeys – £8 million was spent on Alberto Riera, £20 million on Alberto Acquilani and £19 million on Robbie Keane – while he also brought in players such as Andrea Dossena, Josemi, Charles Itjande and Nabile El Zhar who would do well to make it into teams in the EvoStik Southern Division nowadays. The fact is that Chelsea need a decent striker either to play alongside Torres or take his place in the team, which will hopefully give him a royal kick up the backside and force him to start actually trying again. At the moment Falcao is the player linked with the Blues and I think his acquisition will be hugely beneficial for them. With 22 goals for club and country already this season he seems the obvious affordable choice but the question is whether Benitez will feel it necessary to invest in him or try someone else who isn’t as good, or just someone Spanish with a cool name.

Another of Benitez’s favourite traits as Liverpool manager was to insult other managers for no apparent reason and declare a verbal war on them, with famous examples being Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. This time around it is not other bosses he has been criticising but players currently playing – he has been in charge for less than 2 weeks and he has already told David Beckham he is ‘too slow’ to return to the Premiership and his whole team that they aren’t fit enough to win matches. He needs to calm down and focus on the job in hand rather than fight with people he will never win an argument with.

So, is Benitez the right man for the Chelsea job? I don’t really think I need to answer that one. The real question is who is and I feel there is only 1 answer. As a manager he has a 51.41% winning ratio as a manager, just 0.6% less than Benitez, has won a Champions League and an FA Cup and is a Blues legend. The man I feel should be in charge of Chelsea FC is… Roberto Di Matteo. He did nothing wrong when he was manager – everyone has bad patches, Sir Alex Ferguson would have been out of the Manchester United Job a long time ago if he was sacked due to a poor run of form – and won Chelsea their first ever European trophy and is loved by the fans. The Russian needs to get off his high horse, admit he is wrong and bring back the man with whom Blues fans have fallen in love with.

You should be dancing – it may just save your life

It’s the age-old question – is dance a sport? Having recently been a part of the backstage crew for my school’s dance production I think I have the answer…
According to the dictionary a sport is ‘an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature,’ while dance is classified as an ‘art.’ This is very true as it is a very representative art, but find something in the definition that dance isn’t! Judging by how physically drained some of the performers were after 3 solid nights of high intensity dancing I think it is fair to say that it is very athletic, while it is plain to see that a good dancer has to be extremely skillful. Rather than just using certain parts of their body to execute a set few skills that are practiced every day and used for a whole career, as seen in cricket, dancers have to learn new routines for every dance they do, each with varying patterns and steps , not just using their feet but the whole body – the coordination a good dancer requires is absolutely phenomenal. And most dancers don’t just specialise in one type of dance but in several – there were some girls in the aforementioned dance production who were involved in six or seven dances, from tap to Irish to contemporary, each different style requiring a different set of skills. There is no other example of a sport where there is such a diversity of skillfulness that performers are required to master.
   And in terms of dancing competitions, there are a number of different events every week in the UK and across the world for children, amateurs and professionals alike. There are even several categories of dance competition, including Open competitions where all types of dancing can be exhibited or Dancesport competitions such as Strictly Come Dancing where only a couple of disciplines are on show. Events can be regional, national or international, are very well structured with well-defined rules and attract hundreds or thousands of spectators, while there are actually 8 National Governing Bodies for the different dance disciplines. Not everyone wants to dance for competition but there are an increasing number who do and the provisions are all in place for those people.
Dance can, therefore, be classified as a sport but it can also be put under other headings. It can also be a performing art, where it is used to represent an image or a person, a cultural ritual and a leisure activity to boost health and fitness among others. I think it is this that questions whether dance is really a true sport. While most games such as rugby and football can be used to boost the physical and mental wellness of a participant the main aim is competition, but with dance this isn’t always the case. People don’t always dance to win trophies and for some this means that dance cannot be classified alongside the likes of cricket and netball.
   The stereotypical view of dancers also doesn’t help the argument. For some dancing is only associated with girls and they ‘don’t do sport’ so therefore dance cannot be one, while ballroom dancers are often classified as being old and retired so they cannot be competitive. Dancing is also seen as very uncool, especially for men. But this is far from the case; for starters it is claimed by some that up to 50% of dancers are males, so if you are old-fashioned in your views and feel that only men can play sport then this shows that dance can be classified as one, while men who dance are often cooler than those who don’t. They have pretty girls all around them and at parties they can throw amazing moves even when they’re drunk without embarrassing themselves while having the rhythm, flexibility and coordination that most of us can only dream of. And in terms of ballroom dancers, if you watch ‘Strictly’ you will notice that all of the pro dancers are young, cool and rather attractive, as well as being arguably fitter than most other professional sportsmen and women due to the very physical nature of their activity. Fourthly, the idea that only men can do sport is crazy. Looking at the recent Olympics and Paralympics, the standard of female sport is rapidly rising and they are becoming as good as men in many events, so even if it is only women who dance that in no way means it isn’t a sport.
Finally, with the alarming rise in obesity levels in Great Britain I think dance should be used as one of the main ways to combat the problem. The fact it is so physically demanding means that in just a few sessions a performer can easily burn off more excess fat than they would do following a diet over a number of months. By decreasing your weight, the vital organs are under much less pressure to keep the body working so are less likely to fail, while also increasing the efficiency of both the CV and respiratory systems. Looking at all the performers in the dance production they were all very athletic and slim, while I have a couple of friends who are extremely good ballroom dancers and at the peak of their physical condition. It can significantly increase your health and reduce the risk of potential problems such as heart attacks or strokes. Zumba, for example, is a fantastic way of losing weight – it is a fun session that pushes you very hard – while taking up dance competitively means you have to be extremely fit in order to be swift across the dance floor.
   The government really need to plug dance as a physical activity in order to keep our nation healthy, and hopefully in turn the population will realise that dance is as much a sport is everyone else and dispel all the unfair and untrue stereotypes it has.

The ultimate farce

The unforgettable 2012 Olympics have given our nation an amazing legacy and also seem to have cured the problem (at least short-term) of a lack of youngesters participating in sport. The Games, however, have created a big dilemma – what on earth is going to happen with the stadium?

So far the suggestions have been it could host football, F1 or NFL, but everyone seems to have ignored what I think is the perfect solution – athletics! Why build a stadium with a running track and sandpits if you’re not going to use them? They say that this idea isn’t feasible but surely the greatest Games ever (not debatable) must have gone a fair way to paying it off… It should be used to host the British leg of the Diamond League every season instead of going up to Birmingham where all it does is rain. It could also play host to national championships and suchlike to give youngsters a feel of what they could be doing in the future. Also, there will be loads of people who will want to visit it having not got tickets and visit the place where Mo, Jess and Greg took us by storm so why change its purpose?

But we decide to ignore the simple solution with least hassle and try to fit a round peg in a square hole as us British not having the same normal brain structure as everyone else! Tottenham, Leyton Orient and West Ham are the football teams who have all bidded but their plans all have significant flaws! To start with, Spurs are based in an entirely different part of London so every home fixture will feel like an away game while Leyton Orient struggle to attract more than 2 fans so will bankrupt themselves and the nation! West Ham seem the best option because of the proximity but does their football deserve such a great arena?

Still, at least football is a relatively logical solution. Bernie Ecclestone finally seems to have lost it – he thinks London’s streets could play host to an F1 race with the stadium incorporated in it somewhere! That final part is so vague though – does he mean drive through the stadium itself or drive along a section of the circuit where drivers can see it for about a second? It would also mean having to close some of London’s roads, which really isn’t sensible as the they are already a nightmare (hence the Congestion Charge Bernie). By closing them all you are doing is turning more commuters into miserable and angry people. What I would like to see, though, is an F1 race with traffic still flowing through the circuit – now that would be entertainment!

And finally, even thinking about hosting NFL games in the stadium is an insult! How can a stadium that played host to some of the greatest sporting moments ever, where every athlete was participating for their nation, now be a home for a sport where nationality doesn’t exist and a player’s bank balance is the size of Luxembourg? Despite the fact that I was impressed that Boris knew what American Football was, his suggestion is rather worrying? Can he not see that this is the USA’s final step towards colonising us? Firstly, they gave us McDonalds to make us fat and slow, then it was Apple to bamboozle our poor minds and now they’re sending their ‘beefcakes’ over to finish the job!

Over to you chef…

So, Alistair Cook is the new England Test captain with the job of taking England back to the number 1 spot in the long format. But I think he has a greater job in trying to stop the team becoming the laughing stock of international cricket, where we are currently heading. This isn’t a criticism of anyone in particular but there are a number of factors that seriously need to be addressed.

The first is that England fans need to stop moaning about other teams and focus on their own. Yes, India have taken a slightly cheeky step in that they have not played any out-and-out spin bowlers in the recent warm-up match so England will be under-prepared going into the first Test, but surely that’s England’s own fault for making it so plainly obvious that they rubbish against spin? Having said that, why is it that our batsmen can make spinners such as Saeed Ajmal look like an absolute donkey one minute and then make him look like an Asian terminator the next? Just because he has a bent elbow when he bowls it doesn’t mean that he has turned into Murali overnight! And it’s not as if we don’t exploit home advantages during our summer of cricket by making maximum use of swing bowling against sides who come from countries where wind and clouds are as rare as a sunny day is over here, therefore putting them at a disadvantage. All India are trying to do is win a series against a team who they see as a massive threat, so we as fans should stop being bigger hypocrites than our government and do all we can to help our players do the impossible and actually win down in India.

England’s deficiency against spin is very worrying, however, and Kevin Pietersen has inadvertently not helped the situation in any way. In 2008 he branded India’s Yuvraj Singh a ‘piechucker,’ which is quite an insult for a spinner (I know this from personal experience having been called it a few times), yet just yesterday he took 5 wickets for an India A side against a full strength England XI, including KP. We have recalled the man, arguably the best batsman in the country, to bolster an inexperienced batting line up and he is getting out to a bowler who he reckons shouldn’t be playing Sunday League cricket – what on earth is this saying about our side? If our best player is getting out to a second-rate, part-time bowler then we are well and truly stuffed when the Test series starts in two weeks, with Ravi Ashwin and Praveen Ojha picking up 15 out of 20 New Zealand wickets not long ago. Cook needs to tell his players to keep quiet to avoid any more embarrassing situations such as this!

Finally, Cook and the selectors need to stop picking players with ridiculous names if we want to reverse our fortunes! There are so many English players whose names are also nouns and verbs – Cook, Trott, Bell, Onions, Swann… Thank God Phil Mustard isn’t in the team anymore otherwise we’d have most of the ingredients for a hot dog rather than a cricket team! Some of the names are highly appropriate though – Jonathon Trott rarely bats with any intensity while Stephen Finn can scare opponents like a great white when he feels like it, which isn’t seemingly going to be soon after he hurt his thigh over-stretching his ostrich-like legs trying to stop the ball. Even head coach Andy Flower’s name reflects his tenure in charge – he took over the team from the bottom, set some really strong foundations and made them big and strong before they have wilted away recently. And with Joe Root looking to firmly set himself at the top of the England order and Jos Buttler opening a door for himself in the middle order the trend that has spanned decades looks set to continue. In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s Geoffrey Boycott seemed to think that running would get him nowhere except for the local A&E department so avoided it like the Plague while ‘keeper-bastman Alan Knott used to bamboozle opponents with his extravagance in front and behind the stumps. Yet England have never had any real long-term cricketing success and I think this could be why!  Our players need sexy, stylish names such as AB de Villiers or Shane Watson, not Graeme Swann, if we want to dominate the world! Still, I suppose the name Pat Cummins could worse…

So, here we go then…

My first post then – it’s much more daunting than it seems! I am here to offer a light-hearted and witty insight into some sporting issues that people take way too seriously. However, although I like to think I am, many people I know would like to argue that I am in fact not witty but just very immature… Anyway I hope you all enjoy my blog and please feel free to leave constructive comments if you want, or even make suggestions as to what you may like me to talk about. First real post should be up by the end of the week!