Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ronnie Irani: The lad done good

It's been a few days touched by sporting sadness for me - not least because Thierry Henry has departed for Catalunyan shores - but because it also seems that injury has cut short Ronnie Irani's final season at Essex.

Arriving in Chelmsford from the more northerly environs of Lancashire, Ronnie quickly established himself as a favourite at the County Ground - although he never did manage to shed his accent! A combative allrounder, he was the obvious choice to take on the captaincy in the wake of Paul Prichard's retirement and Nasser Hussain's increased commitment with England, and, I'm sure he'd be pleased to know, he always did us proud.

Whether he was bustling in to unleash his niggardly medium pace, or flaying the ball around at a fair old strike rate with willow in hand, his ability as a player was clear; despite never being quite able to translate this to the international arena. At his best as a one day player, he guided Essex to National League success in 2005 and 2006, as well as the last ever Benson and Hedges Cup final in 2002 (unfortunately not a great day out, as I remember). His strongest international analysis also came in the short form, with 5 for 26 and 53, in the same match against India.

It was as an increasingly accomplished batsman in the longer game that the last few seasons have been most notable for, however, as knee trouble forced the right-arm away swingers to be packed up in the kitbag for good. Performing solely in the top order from the 2004 season onwards, he consistently averaged around the 60 mark, and his bankability helped go a long way to making up for the loss of such stalwarts as Nasser Hussain, Paul Grayson and, more recently, Andy Flower. Before announcing his plans to retire at the end of this season, Reggie was averaging over a hundred, having hit a career-high score of 218 in the second game of the Championship at home to Glamorgan. Sadly, the knees couldn't quite make it.

With some of the young, talented players Essex have brought on recently, I'm not too worried about the batting (it looks like Grant Flower's staking his claim as 'veteran run-getter' at the moment too): it's more as a presence in and around the team that Irani will be chiefly missed. Always a jovial, friendly cricketer, his captaincy engineered us a few wins we might not otherwise have had, and his honesty and connection with the fans were much respected. I'll always enjoy the memory of his clobbering Shane Warne out of the ground in one Warney's first few games at Hampshire; as well as some of the thunderous strokes he employed in Essex's recent one day ascendency. But it's the simple, incongruous-sounding, familiar three sylables in the middle-order of the Essex scorecard that I'll pine for most of all.

Cheers, R. C., you done good.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Baubles for Boca; and Becks

With a late brace, Juan Roman Riquelme sealed Boca's Copa Libertadores triumph, in doing so making sure that their season didn't finish trophyless. After being pipped to the domestic post by San Lorenzo (whose fans were driving through the streets after closing out the title), Boca - and in particular Riquelme, who is set to finish his Juniors career - needed to dispatch Brazil's Gremio in the two-legged intercontinental final to avoid disappointment.

With a resounding three goal triumph cushioning the Buenos Airen team from the first-leg, a cagey second match-up ensued; but Gremio lacked the wit to break down the Boca back line, and despite cracking one effort against the bar while the tie was theoretically still alive, it was incisive counter-attacking by Riquelme and co. which brought the first goal. Fed inside from the right by Palacio, the man Juan Roman himself finally nailed the Brazilians in the 68th minute, with a dipping drive, whipped from right to left into the far corner of the Gremio goal. Irish bar, Wilkenny, in Andean Bariloche, went mad, and it wasn't long before the hundreds-and-thousands were sprinkled over the icing as Riquelme applied the decisive touch from close range to turn home a second, after Palacio' initial effort had been blocked.

So, the Argentine who perhaps suffered most after his country's poor showing at World Cup 2006, achieved some form of redemption, as pictures of him in the press the next day, held aloft by his team mates, demonstrated. Another cathartic moment for followers of footballing drama was provided a few days prior, with Real Madrid's snatching of the La Liga title from arch-rivals Barcelona: a win in his first season back in Spain for Fabio Capello; and a trophy at last for the resurrected Golden Balls of English football, Mr. D. Beckham.

I noted on this cloud some months ago that I expected Becks to make it back into the England fold - and it seems now that he's about breathing a little vim into his country's Euro 2008 qualification campaign, the Spanish sun is shining on his final hours too. After being exiled in a fit of pique by Capello and the Madrid board following the announcement of his summer transfer to LA Galaxy, his recall and subsequent contribution to Los Galacticos' title run was immensely satisfying - particularly as someone who has rarely seen cause to doubt the player's ability. He may have a grin made for a billboard, but if he's smiling that widely come end of summer '08, we'll know a little more of the pain has eased; and Stevie Mac may just have picked up a first trophy for England in fourty years...

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