Sunday, April 29, 2007

Absence makes the heart grow fonder...

You know you've missed me. Particular hellos go out to regular readers, my Mum, Mrs Bescott from next door, and AndrogynousMel64. Since KP's wall-flower hundred against Australia irritated the hell out of me a lot of water's passed round the U-bend. So, let's dip into a delightful bag of pic'n'mix, shall we...?

World Cup Washout
The ICC Cricket World Cup West Indies 2007 - a name eloquently derided in Lawrence Booth's fantastic The Spin column - ended up being almost as long, unwieldy and exasperating as the formulation ICC CWC WI 2007 itself. Fifty-odd games, almost seven weeks, less than a handful of exciting finishes, and almost limitless shovel-loads of opprobrium. The messy whimper which signalled its close (the teams mistakenly forced back onto the pitch to play a final three overs in near total darkness) fairly well summed the tournament up; Oliver Brett delivers a pretty damning report.

Almost as saddening was the West Indies' decline - although their contribution to a thrilling final Super Six match against England went some way to showing how entertaining the tournament could have been. Brian Charles Lara will of course be sorely missed from the international arena, and even though my favourite memory of the man is still his falling for a first golden duck to Craig White's right-arm-around in 2000, it is a shame that his singular abilities could not be matched by his team mates in the twilight of his career. It will be with a wistful sigh that I next boot up Brian Lara Cricket for the Playstation.

County On Regardless
There is some succour, however, for lovers of the thud of ball on bat: the County Championship season is well and truly underway. As a dyed-in-the-wool Essex boy, I shall be casting judgement on Ronnie and lads over the course of the season (hopefully with some boundary rope analysis to supplement my avid Ceefax/web score-watching), and hopefully celebrating more success at the County Ground, Chelmsford. After an underwhelming draw against Derbyshire, I had begun to fear that taking wickets was again going to be a problem; and with Andy McGarry (young Essex paceman, who seemed to have left the game) re-registered for the first time since 2003 before the Glamorgan fixture, things didn't look great. But thanks to to some Danish Kaneria magic - and a little assistance from God Almighty (see the news archive for an interview) - a first, and emphatic, CC victory of the season was garnered. That's 19 wickets from two games for Kaneria, and once he's joined by Andre 'Angry' Nel, we should be firmly in the groove - even on early season featherbeds!

NB. Just in case there are any partisan McGarry fans out there, it's not that I don't rate him (I can remember a few decent wicket-taking performances from the early '00s), more that his return signals just how threadbare our pace resources are at the moment. No offence intended...

Where Eagles Dares
A stunning finish by Chris Eagles capped Man U's stirring comeback against Everton, and seemingly wrecked the Special One's hopes of bringing a third title to Stamford Bridge. After Mourinho's recent dyspepsia, I am more than happy to root for Ferguson and his devilishly good squad, despite a historic antipathy for Manchester's red half. United have been this season's thoroughbreds, playing the best football the Premiership has seen since Arsenal's invincible campaign three years back, and while Chelsea's indefatigable spirit is praiseworthy, their manager's increasing petulance is less so. A spate of unedifying rants has seen Mourinho stand accused of 'doing a Keegan'; and it looks like Ferguson's mental resilience has done for his challenger once again. And who says he doesn't have the prettiest wife at home?

Which Leeds me onto...
Whilst Newcastle have at least retained top-flight status since their spontaneous combustion under Keegan, another former giant, who transformed Yorkshire grit into Champions League glamour, is on the verge of a catastrophic slide into English football's third tier. Leeds United were as good as handed their League One (old Division 2, old-old Division 3) registration forms yesterday, as a late equaliser for Ipswich left the White Rose three points and nine goals from safety, with just a game to play.

A school friend of mine - stand up Safari Dan - is a Leeds man, and for that reason alone I willed them not to fall out of the Premiership. Big spending during their brief tilt at Champions League glory had left them drastically top-heavy, and relegation saw them slowly dismembered by the bean counters. Their quixotic rise to the top unravelled as fast as the likes of Kewell, Viduka, Robinson and Bowyer could say 'pack my bags'. It's a harsh tale for Yorkshiremen and neutrals alike, and the scars still appear livid today.

Despite making the play-off final last year, more internal disharmony saw Kevin Blackwell, the man who almost took them back up, ousted, and an irregular duo of Dennis Wise and Gustavo Poyet brought in. The slide was never averted, however, and life outside the top two divisions for the first time in their history now seems a certainty. This is grand guignol theatre for the club's faithful (not least Safari Dan) - but they must look down the M62, towards the City of Manchester Stadium at Eastlands, for a glimmer of hope. In 1998 Manchester City became the first English winners of a European trophy to descend into the third division (Division 2), during a turbulent period in their history - just as Leeds were beginning their late nineties ascendancy, initially under George Graham, and then whole-heartedly under David O'Leary. If resurrection is to be achieved, then Leeds will have to find a resolve similar to that employed by City in their rise back to the Premiership; and a return for such a great club would surely be warmly welcomed around the country (perhaps excepting Manchester!)

Lost the pot?
And finally, in this hotch-potch of sporting analysis/gabble, a sideways glance at the Crucible, that theatre of respectfully silent sporting genius, where Stephen Hendry, ranked numero uno coming into the World Championship, seems set to depart the tournament in the second round, after scratching his way to just four frames out of 16 (best of 25) against Ali Carter.

Now, I only really get interested in poking small balls with big sticks once or twice a year [insert own joke here], and the championship in Sheffield is usually good for a bit of olde worlde entertainment. I say that, because with a large number of eighties bellwethers - Parrott and Davies in the arena; Virgo and White behind the mic - still on the scene, coupled with the generally somnolent atmosphere that pervades the hallowed arena, one can take in the action at a gentlemanly pace, undisturbed by changes of strip or the introduction of hawkeye to detect surreptitious double-hits. The only records likely to be broken are ones for extremely lengthy encounters - as happened in last year's final - and with regular repeats of Dennis Taylor manically gyrating, cue held aloft in victory, from 1985 (check out those bins by the way), you can virtually taste the sepia.

Yes, there is a respect for one's elders at the World Championship. Which is why I'm saddened to see Hendry getting whupped by young Carter (even though the lad's from Tiptree, home to Essex's finest jam-maker). But almost as ruffling is the absence of Dougie Donnelly as the BBC's anchor for its coverage. Hazel Irvine may have an appealing lilt to her voice too, but this break with tradition is most unwelcome. And while it mayn't be long before Hendry exchanges his potter for some patter in the world of punditry, surely there's still room for the Silken Scot (yes, I realise both Irvine and Hendry are Scottish as well) in the BBC SWC (British Broadcasting Corporation's Snooker World Championship) 2007 dramatis personae?

If someone could make it so, we'd be in Grade A Partridge territory: "In off the red!"

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Pyrrhic Pietersen

Take a short long-hop over to Third Umpire for my thoughts on Kevin Pietersen's hundred yesterday, as well as more cut-and-thrust debate on England's fortunes.