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WC Musings June 30, 2006

Posted by samratsengupta in Football WC, Samrat.

World cup excitement this time has percolated down even to the mainstream media, the airtime and print columns dedicated to soccer this month is unprecedented, I feel it is almost equivalent to that given for the cricket WC.

This has brought football popularity out in the open. Hopefully this would popularize football even more, attract sponsors and lead to some tangible improvement in the local infrastructure and standards. Enough daydreaming.

The new offside rule has caused lots of heartburn for many teams, but I think the rule is a positive move, otherwise most of the defences had perfected the offside traps, now they have something more to think of. I get really irritated to see numerous offside whistles, it breaks the rhythm of the game. Was really surprised to see the African teams playing a high defence line, and getting caught many times by forwards breaking the offside trap. The African teams are not known for their tactical nous, so such trap implementations do not come easily to them, and I feel they should not deploy such tactics. They should rely more on their natural strengths. Play man-to-man or zonal defences. The Ghanian defender John Mensah really impressed me, reminded me of Marcel Desailly in his peak. He got an appropriate moniker of the “Rock Of Gibraltar”.

The Germany Argentina match has all the ingredients of being a classic and I am sure we would not be disappointed and I believe the winner of this match is going to take home the cup.

England surely lack the passion, their players look somewhat flat, and have belied the pre-tournament optimism about them. Portugal has been a revelation , they seem to be the hungriest of all teams to win. Though it seemed the same with Spain and Holland , but unfortunately got knocked out.

Most surprising was that all the previous winners who participated in this edition have qualified for the QFs. My friend Arnold would be pretty pleased that his point of view has been vindicated https://sillypoint.wordpress.com/2006/05/31/the-not-so-glorious-certainties-of-football/

and we can safely say that the winners would be among them, considering a weak Ukraine and a sub-staffed Portugal.

My only wish is that Samba’s cute butt gets kicked and they do not walk away as the winner. French geriatrics or Portuguese streetfighters/English Flat beers, seem to have an uphill task though.


Worried about England? June 29, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Abhishek, Football WC.
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Here is something to mull over. Nicely detailed and wickedly British.
Meanwhile, some Robbo picks of the day :

[…] enjoy the Valentin Ivanov show, featuring brief guest appearances from Portugal and Holland.

(About Ronaldo) A goal for every stone.

[..] the Azzurri don’t even have to work to close the match out – which of course delights Francesco Totti – the biggest and laziest jessie in the tournament. The only decent pass he’s played so far is in that Pringles ad.

I haven’t seen so many shimmies, hip-wiggles and step-overs in ages – Cole, Ronaldo (the slim one), Robinho, Tevez, Robben – all look like they’re auditioning for Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing.

Read the whole thing. 

Indian Cricket: Back to negative tactics? June 28, 2006

Posted by Aniket in Aniket, Cricket.

Since it’s inception in the 1930s, Indian cricket has always been known for it’s negative tactics. The sole aim was not to lose test matches . A draw was considered to be almost as good as a victory. Indians always played to save the test, right from day one. And if playing abroad, a draw was the equivalent of a victory. After all, how can you expect Indians to win abroad? That would be such an abuse of the hospitality of the host team. Such digression was unacceptable from the ‘gentlemanly’ Indian cricketers. And it was this negativity that took us 20 years to win our first test & 15 more to win our first test abroad.
Indian test captains were always known for their negative approach to the game. Right from Merchant, who introduced this approach to both Bombay & Indian cricket, followed by Hazare, Mankad, Borde, Wadekar, Bedi, Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and a few more. It is no surprise that the last two in this list hold the record for most number of draws as captain. In between, Tiger Pataudi came as a breath of fresh air with his positive attitude towards the game. But normal service was resumed right after his retirement and Indian cricket went back to the boredom of negative cricket. Even 5 match series’ would end 0-0 and 14 tests between India and Pakistan during the 70s and 80s produced no result.
All this seemed to change with the appointment of Sourav Ganguly as the captain of the Indian cricket team. He, along with John Wright, seemed to change the team’s attitude towards cricket. Swashbuckling players like Yuvraj Singh & Virender Sehwag found a place in the test team, something which was unthinkable in the past. Attacking bowlers like Harbhajan Singh got much needed support from the attacking tactics of Ganguly. No wonder that in a 5 year span as captain of India, he led India to more test victories than anyone before him. His outspoken tactics totally changed the face of Indian cricket and overseas test victories in Australia, England, West Indies & Pakistan proved that Indians were no more lions at home and chickens abroad. But his batting deteriorated & soon came the time when the selectors felt that he could contribute no more to Indian cricket and dropped him from the team, leaving the captaincy in the hands of Rahul Dravid. The board also appointed the brash and outspoken Greg Chappell as coach in place of John Wright and it was believed that he would ensure that the aggressive streak brought into the team by Ganguly would not die. Unfortunately it has. And the test series in the Carribean is a sorry reminder of this grim reality.
In the first test, India was on the back foot after conceding a huge lead. But a timely second innings fightback gave the Indians a great chance of victory. However, they failed to bundle out the West Indies’ tail and the match was drawn. They held the upper hand for most of the second test but the weather ensured that the match ended in a draw, though one gets the feeling that if someone like Waugh was captain, he would have seen the weather forecast and might even have declared early. But that didn’t happen and the series was still 0-0 when the third test began. The Windies dominated the 3rd test right from the beginning but a sporting declaration from Brian Lara gave the Indians an attainable target of 392 and a result seemed likely.
The hardest part of such run-chases is getting off to a good start. The Indians had a great start, thanks to a century partnership between Sehwag & Jaffer who took India to lunch with all ten wickets in hand. Sehwag departed immediately after luch but the arrival of Laxman at no. 3 showed that the Indians were going for the win. The arrival of Dravid didn’t slow the innings much and at tea, with India at 200 for 2, a victory seemed probable. The fall of Laxman brought Dhoni to the wicket which showed that the Indians meant business. And a six from Dhoni off the first ball he faced made this clear. But what happened after that was totally incomprehensible to say the least. Dravid withdrew into his shell and left the task of scoring to Dhoni. The singles dried up and the asking rate which was a gettable 6 during Laxman’s stay at the crease suddenly rose to above 7. Then Dhoni was dismissed and the Great Indian Run Chase came to a grinding halt, despite the fact that India’s two best One-day players, Yuvraj & Kaif, were yet to come. India (read Dravid) decided to go in for the draw when the only two possible results were either an Indian victory or a draw. A Windies victory was very unlikely, after all Harbhajan Singh & Kumble are no mugs with the bat and Dravid was still at the crease. But Dravid decided to be satisfied with a draw . What hurt most was not the fact that the match was drawn, indeed a win was never a total certainty, but the Indian approach & the time at which the Indians gave in and settled for a draw. This was just another proof of Dravid’s negative approach to captaincy which was evident throughout the series.
Hard questions have to be asked now. Has India gone back to square one? What has the aggressive and hard-talking Chappell contributed if India still settles for a draw from a winning position? And is Dravid, with his negative mindset, both while batting and captaining, the right choice as captain? Indeed it wouldn’t be too harsh to say that it was his batting that cost us the game. These questions have to be answered right now. We might go on to win the last test & then all this will be forgotten. But these questions will soon arise again, and Indian cricket cannot go ahead without providing a satisfactory answer to them.

Good on ya, mate. June 27, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Abhishek, Football WC.

I am writing this after watching the Aussies go out to due to an extremely hopeless decision for a penalty in the dying seconds of their game against Italy. Agreed, the decision was hopeless and completely wrong, but even though I was strongly strongly rooting for the Aussies (reasons for which might come later someday) I will not criticize the referee.

In fact I will remind the Italians of the events of KJ – 2002, when the Ecuadorian referee who made some really appalling decisions against them, sending Korea into the semi-finals. The fact remains that, that experience has still not been erased out of the Italian public’s mind. They cried hoarse for retribution against another Guus Hiddink side, the burly Gold and Green clad Australia. If victory was what they cried for, then they got it – but retribution? far from it.

At the end of the game, a victory in such a manner was poor revenge indeed. Outplayed and maybe outclassed, the Italians had nothing to offer, apart from a few tresses to the ogling teenage girls across the world. Del Piero, not even that, courtesy a brutally shaven head. The Aussies harried and they hustled, and in the end, did not even complain. The irrepressible Lucas Neill, one of Australia’s best players of the tournament, and the rock in defence unfortunately would be the one who would give away the penalty. Even he, only had a mild chat with the referee at the end of the game.

What, I want to say to the Italians is this. Sport is indeed much more than winning. Its being graceful in victory and even more graceful in defeat. That is why the Courbetin Medal is worth more than the gold medal in the Olympic Games. The Italians I am afraid do not understand this. The recent allegations of match-fixing (which might lead to an unthinkable relegation for the top clubs like Juventus & AC Milan ) in the Serie A are testament to this fact that Italians are good at the game, not at the sport. Daniele De Rossi’s ban for his horrible elbow on USA’s Brain McBride is another example to justify this fact.

It’s time, the Italians realize that, in sport, sometimes decisions go your way, sometimes they don’t. Whatever the stakes, this does not mean one has the license to masquerade around like nine-pins going down at the slightest push, or for that matter push and stamp opponents behind the referee’s back. You might get away with it sometimes, but the sport will catch up one day, and then there will be no place to hide.

As for the game, any neutral observer will point out that it will be the Aussies who will walk out the side with their heads held higher, under a coach, who could well go on to write another fable-story with his next employers. Far from the sunny Bondi beach, in the cold and shivering climes of Russia.

Too Much Cricket or Too Few Players? June 24, 2006

Posted by Arnold in Arnold, Cricket.

I've been particularly surprised by the amount of attention this whole issue of "player burnout" in cricket has been given. Here's how I see it.

There is a market for a certain amount of cricket. Good business strategy would involve trying to ensure that as much cricket as possible is played without exceeding the demand that there is for it. All the cricket boards are business organizations and would thus do what they can to maximize their profits. There is nothing wrong in this. And certainly the amount of cricket being played currently doesn't seem to be too much for the public to handle.

The question that then arises is — Are cricketers able to cope up with this much cricket physically, mentally and otherwise? Having never played the sport myself at anything that even comes close to a professional level, I do not feel that I am personally qualified to make this judgment. In fact, I think it's a personal decision by each player to decide how much cricket he feels his body can take.

What if this figure that the player decides for himself does not match with the amount of cricket his national team has to play in the calendar year? As the amount of cricket being played increases, this is becoming more and more true. And hence we have players complaining. What is to be done?

I think cricket would do well to take a look at, and learn some lessons from, its American cousin — baseball. The job of a Major League Baseball starting pitcher is one of the hardest and most physically tasking in professional sport. An MLB team's regular season consists of better than 150 games. And then there's the post-season. No pitcher, no matter how great, can be expected to pitch every game. It's just not physically possible. To tackle this problem, teams rely on that time-tested strategy of rotation. A pitcher plays only one of out every 4-5 games. (Also a pitcher who starts the game will rarely pitch through to the end, but this solution is not possible to adopt in cricket since there aren't really any "substitutions" in cricket.)

I believe rotation is the key to the current problem in international cricket. Don't play your best eleven every match. Instead of a squad of 20 players whom you expect to carry you through the year, increase your squad size to 30-35 players. And use them in rotation. This forces teams to ensure that they have a deep bench and a good "second" team. Having just 3-4 match winners will no longer cut it, since they can't play every game. Teams with more depth in their lineups will naturally do better in the long run and this is what's important in the end.

The amount a particular player is used in the rotation policy depends on a number of factors like how fit that player is, what his role in the team is (an allrounder might play less games since his task his harder), the quality of the player, etc. The players' contracts would also be decided dependent the amount the board plans to use them. In other words, the more you play the more you earn. (One big difference between the MLB and the cricket boards is that while baseball players frequently shift clubs, cricketers tend not to "shift" countries.)

Some people might feel that this rotation policy would lead to a reduction in the level and quality of the sport. I don't think this is true. The slight drop in level, due to the fact that you won't the best twenty-two playing all the time, will be made up for by the fact that your players are less fatigued when they do play and hence can perform better. Besides, with more top-level match experience, the "second string" players will automatically improve and close the gap between them and the first eleven. Also, the rotation needs to be done carefully so as not to have all your first eleven resting for any particular game. Rotation would also mean that stress related injuries should reduce, and this can only be good for the game.

And at the end of the day, the cricketing boards will be happy because the increased number of games will fill their coffers up faster.

Interjecting here June 21, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Abhishek, Miscellaneous.
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This is just to let you know that the About page and the FAQ page have now been updated. On the former you may acquaint youself with all of us, and if you already know us, then try and look at the weird photos some of us have opted to put up. (heart-malfunction due to shock is not our responsibility).

 Also the FAQ page is up, where we ourselves have made up some questions, mostly ones we had answers to. We do not think this will be very helpful, thought it might provide you with some insight into how contorted our ideas sometimes can be.

There’s “Fair Play”, and Then There’s Fair Play June 20, 2006

Posted by Arnold in Arnold.

Sport, to me, is all about winning fairly. You have to win and you have to do it fairly. "Fair" in a sporting context means two things — legally fair and ethically fair. In order to ensure that the players abide by the first, we have rules and officials to see that they are followed. But what about the ethical factor? Who looks after that? Does it even matter?

I'm writing this post after having seen the Mavericks employ the "Hack-a-Shaq" play against the Heat; so I'll start off with that. Is "Hack-a-Shaq" fair? By the current rules of the NBA, it certainly is. And when you're playing for the Championship, you're going to use every little trick you can to help get you there.

Does "Hack-a-Shaq" improve the quality of the game? No, it doesn't. Does it call for any special skills to be employed? No. Does it add to the viewing pleasure of watching the game? No. According to me, it actually detracts from it. And yet, since it's legal and, at times, the most sensible game plan, you can't blame the opposing team from using it.

What about walking a batter in baseball? Two away, second and third base loaded, you see a guy who's hitting .400 walking up to bat with a lousy hitter on deck to follow. What do you do? Walk him, of course. Again, this does not improve the quality of the game in any way. In fact, I don't like watching a batter being intentionally walked at all. But as long as it remains legal and the smartest choice to make (Game Theory-wise, at least), you'd be a fool not to do it.

So what is to be done about it? I think we can do with changing some of the rules to start with. Tighten the rules to make ethical fouls into legal ones. In basketball this has already been done many times in the past. Examples include the introduction of the 24-second shot clock, 8-second half-court violation, 3-second defensive violation etc. Football authorities (FIFA) too have gone some way in criminalizing ethical fouls. The no nonsense attitude of referees toward diving and play-acting is evidence of the same.

With respect to "Hack-a-Shaq", I would suggest having "away from the ball" fouls fetch one free throw and retained possession for the entire fourth quarter, instead of only the final two minutes, as is the current rule.

I don't believe this is "trying to change the rule book in order to protect one particular person". I just think it improves the quality of the game.

The big upset June 18, 2006

Posted by Aniket in Aniket, Football WC.
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Just when it seemed that the African challenge at the world cup was coming to an end with Ivory Coast crashing out, Ghana showed the world that there is a lot of talent in Africa & that no african side can be considered to be easy meat. Their 2-0 win over the Czechs, who were outstanding in their first match, means that they have taken a huge step towards qualifying for the last 16 & in the process have thrown the group wide open.
    Early goals always make a huge difference to any football game & today was no different. The Africans caught the Czechs off-guard by scoring as early as the 2nd minute – a brilliant strike from Gyan Asamoah. After that though the Czechs attacked occasionally, Ghana seemed to be in control & never had any serious trouble till halftime. After the break, the Czechs appeared refreshed and had a few good chances but good defending from the Africans, along with some outstanding tackling, meant that a goal remained elusive for the Czechs. Ghana never stopped attacking though and if it weren't for Petr Cech's brilliance in goal, it could have easily been 4-0 or even worse. They even won a penalty which Gyan failed to convert but didnt make much of a difference. However, here Ujfalusi got sent off for needlessly arguing with the referee & the Czechs were down to 10 men. The Czechs still carried on attacking with Ghana content to counter-attack. And on one such well built-up attack, Ghana got their second goal via a well struck shot by Sulley Muntari. After that, even the Czechs knew the match was gone, though they did get two good headers on goal towards the end, both of them were saved by Kingson, the Ghanaain goalie who seemed pretty reliable.
    What this means is that Ghana now seem to be favourites to qualify while the Czechs will have to win their last game against Italy to stand a chance of qualifying. The Azzuris shouldn't have too much trouble against the Yanks but they should try to score as many goals as possible, as there is a possiblity that the group may be decided on goal difference. But a win for the Czechs seems to be an uphill task, as they will be without Lokvenc, Koller & Baros for the last game. That leaves them without a good striker upfront and the Italian defence is not exactly known for its generousity. So the Czechs might well be going home very soon, but for today lets celebrate a great Ghana victory and a great game of football. 

The NBA finals June 18, 2006

Posted by Aniket in Aniket, Basketball.
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While the rest of the world is busy watching the football world cup, for most americans there is another more important event going on. And that is the 2005-06 NBA finals .
    For years, Dallas Mavericks have had a strong squad but somehow never made it to the finals.  But sterling performances from their German import, Dirk Nowitzki, meant that they reached the NBA finals after a long gap. While in the eastern conference, the Heat always looked favourites to win with Shaquille O'Neal & Dwyane Wade putting in great performances. What remained to be seen was who would win the final clash between East & West and be crowned champs.
    For the first two games, it seemed that the Mavericks could do no wrong. They won the first game of the best of seven finals at home & travelled to Miami full of confidence. And in game 2, they produced an outstanding performance to stretch their lead to 2-0. With Nowitzki, Terry, Howard & Stackhouse all coming good for the Mavericks, it seemed game over for the Heat – only two teams had won the finals after conceding a 2-0 lead. The low morale in the Heat side was obvious, with Shaq converting only 2 out of his 16 free throws.
    Game 3 seemed to be going much the same way. But a great performance by the Heat in the second half and a superb display by Wade who scored the double of 40 points & 10 rebounds took the Heat to a great cmeback win. Wade became only the 4th player to achieve such a double in the finals, after Jerry West, Magic Johnson & Michael Jordan. The Heat were striking back.
    Game 4 began with both teams playing well. But in the second quarter the Heat opened up a lead which would last till the end. Their attack, led by Wade & O'Neal, kept their score ticking while their defence led by Alozo Mourning & James Posey had the upper hand over the Mavericks who seemed to be clueless. The Mavs could score only 7 points in the 4th quarter – the lowest ever in finals history – and that gave the Heat a convincing 98-74 victory. This tied the series at 2-2 but now the momentum definitely seems to be with the Heat. But dont count out Nowitzki & co. yet, there is still a lot left to play. Game 5 is on Sunday at Miami.

India and the Cup June 17, 2006

Posted by Arnold in Arnold, Football WC.

I’m sure every Indian who’s been following the FIFA World Cup has at some point or the other stopped to ponder upon the woefulness of our very own football team. How is it that countries like Trinidad and Tobago or Angola can field a team while India can’t?  Let’s look at the possible reasons:

A. There is an anti-Indian propaganda in the football world and FIFA fixes matches to ensure that India doesn’t qualify.
B. The qualifying system is skewed in such a way that for a team to qualify from Asia it has to be much better than one than qualifies easily from a zone like the CONCACAF.
C. The Indian team isn’t as good as Angola.

Ignore the first option as a pitiful joke from my pitiful mind. Let’s look at the second option. FIFA’s aim with the current qualifying system obviously isn’t to have the top 32 football playing countries in world compete in the Finals. It wants to have the best teams subject to certain other geographical representation criteria. Is this fair? I think it is to an extent. If it weren’t there I’m sure we would have to scrap the name “World Cup” and call it the “Europe – South America Championship”.

However, equal representation to all zones obviously isn’t the way out either. Otherwise we’d have the World Cup turning into a farce with teams like Western Samoa qualifying from the Oceania zone. So we need a balance between getting the best teams and giving all the football zones a ‘fair’ representation. FIFA believes that their current qualifying system matches this criterion and hence it is in place. If you think it isn’t fair to India, spare a thought for countries from the South American zone. Uruguay and Colombia, far better teams than India, couldn’t make it out of that group.

Moving to option C. Is the Indian team good enough to play in the World Cup? I have grave personal doubts about this. Looking at the 32 teams in the tournament, I find it hard to pick even a single team that I feel India can beat unless the opponents play blindfolded. (I feel Brazil might beat India even with this restriction.)

I think a strong argument for my case can be made by looking at the clubs that these footballers play for. Even the apparent ‘whipping dogs’ of the World Cup have a fair number of players playing for European clubs. Most of them even have one or two that play for big clubs. (Think Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Dwight Yorke, Kolo Toure etc.) India, on the other hand, can boast of no such thing. Apart from Bhaichung Bhutia’s short spell at a practically unknown English club, no other names come to mind. This isn’t because Indians are so patriotic that they would choose to forsake the big money in Europe and play for a local club. They simply aren’t good enough.

Why aren’t Indian footballers good enough? One frequent complaint is lack of money and infrastructure in the sport. While I am under no delusion about the pitiful condition of sporting facilities in the country, I find it hard to believe that most of the African countries have it much better. They’re just better natural athletes (and probably with more natural talent too). You’d think India, with a population many times that of these smaller countries, would be able to find at least 11 men capable of taking them on. But where are they?

Football in India obviously loses out on popularity to cricket. But I think that’s more of an effect than a cause. You need some success in Indian football before you can hope for the sport to become popular here. Of course, as far as the foreseeable future is concerned, that is merely a vain hope.