Archive for the 'sport' Category

Blitzed

November 6, 2011

My own chess career was modest: I made it as far as number 4 board in a moderately good school team. But that was enough to give me a respect for the game, and especially the way in which quite small advantages in ability were almost inevitably transformed into winning positions.

So I enjoyed the account by the journalist Stephen Moss of covering the launch of a chess initiative at the House of Commons, hosted by Rachel Reeves MP, now Shadow Treasury Secretary, who two decades ago was the British girls’ Under-14 champion. Moss challenged her to a game of blitz chess (10 minutes per player for all moves) and finding her “a little rusty” duly beats her.

But then the story takes a twist, in the shape of the former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, who was also attending the launch:

He quickly sizes up the situation – that Reeves, his host for the day and the new standard-bearer of chess in schools – has been walloped, and suggests a rematch. He will, he says, intervene on her behalf just three times.

We play again. … As the game gets more interesting he can’t help lending Reeves a hand. “I’m just offering general advice,” he insists as her position improves while mine deteriorates. … “Now final, final, final shot,” says Kasparov as my position becomes dire. He has seen a way to win my queen, and Reeves eventually sees it too. Amid much laughter and applause I resign.

“I think that’s one of the best games I’ve ever played,” says Reeves with neat self-deprecation.

The image at the top comes from Chess Right, and is used with thanks.

Guards of honour

May 31, 2011

Alberto Contador won the Giro d’Italia at the weekend by an impressive – or suspicious – 6 minutes 10 seconds. But what I want to write about here is an episode which shows another side to the sport. On Stage 3, the young sprinter, Wouter Weylandt, crashed and died on a descent. Travelling at between 50-60 mph, his bike apparently clipped a wall as he looked back at a group behind him  and he was thrown off, being killed instantly as hit a wall on the other side of the road.

Cycling is a dangerous sport, and crashes are common. But deaths on the road are rare, largely because of the extreme handling skills of those who make it to the professional ranks. There are about a thousand professionals in Europe – less than the number of footballers in the top two divisions in the English leagues alone.

When someone dies, cycling has its ways of honouring them. In the Giro, this was done by riding the next day’s stage, not racing it. Each of the teams in the race rode at the front of the peloton for 10 kilometres, and at the end of the stage Weylandt’s team, Leopard Trek, together with his training partner Tyler Farrar, were allowed to go to the front and cross the line together (see the picture at the top of this post). The prize money for the stage was donated to his family – his girlfriend is five months pregnant.

You might think that the spectators would be irritated about being deprived of a day’s racing. Not a bit of it: they stood by the road and applauded, paying their respects to the cortege.

Leopard Trek has set up a memorial fund to help Weylandt’s family. The picture is via the blog Endurance Racing, and is used with thanks.

Following the Ashes

December 4, 2010

The arrival of a new Ashes series always sends me in search of Gideon Haigh, who is probably the best cricket journalist currently writing in English: informative, insightful, illuminating, measured, and with a keen sense of the game’s history and wider context. As in 2009, he’s covering the series for the Australian Business Spectator (free but needs registration). So far he’s hit his usual heights. Here are some extracts from the first two days play at Adelaide.

From Day One, which started a few hours after the FIFA World Cup debacle in Zurich:

Misery loves company, and there is something consoling about tradition too: no matter how many brown paper bags change hands at FIFA, Australia and England will always have each other. So there was something rather warming and reassuring about the preparatory rites of the Second Test: all rise for the national anthem, and let’s salute the red, white, blue and green, the last provided by the Milo munchkins, lined up to mix their corporate message with the patriotic ones.

Day One again, with Ponting coming in at 0-1 with Katich run out in the first over without facing a ball:

Early losses are one thing; self-inflicted wounds another. Katich’s was the sort of death by misadventure that rocks a dressing room, still to seat itself comfortably, still to obtain itself the first cups of tea, maybe still straining to detect early movement on television. Passing a batsman yet to face a ball was certainly not the manner in which Ponting would have imagined batting in his 150th Test.

From Day Two, on Andrew Strauss’ early dismissal after leaving the ball:

Because it is necessarily exploratory, opening the batting is full of such infinitesimal judgements. Strauss could even claim that his non-shot selection was vindicated by Hawk-Eye, which mysteriously pronounced that the delivery would barely have grazed the target. But leaving on length – as Strauss also did to the first ball of the second innings in Brisbane – is frankly better left until a proper evaluation of bounce is made, particularly when one is unfamiliar with the bowler, as Strauss is with Bollinger.

And on Trott’s narrow escape from being run out early in his innings:

Cook turned his partner sternly back, and the fielder at mid-wicket was a left-hander, Doherty, who had to run around the ball before collecting it, and his necessarily hurried throw missed the stumps. When the ball is new and hard, and the ball is likelier to travel square than straight, mid-wicket should really be right-handed: Trott the fielder would have comfortably run Trott the batsman out.

When you read the columns for extracts such as these, you notice two things. The first is how well written they are, with considered sentences and carefully structured syntax. The second is that I could have picked four or five, each as interesting as those above: on Cook’s batting style, on Pietersen playing spinners, on Ponting’s vulnerabilities early in his innings. There is depth along with the richness. Enjoy.

The portrait of Gideon Haigh at the top of this post is from Melbourne Cricket Club, and is used with thanks.

When England lose

June 29, 2010

After England’s World Cup débacle it seems a good moment to be reading Why England Lose, by the journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski. It turns out that there are only three factors which explain international footballing success:

  • Size of population
  • National income
  • Experience of playing internationals

In general, England have outperformed those factors, a bit; but in terms of overall results there’s no quick way of changing the odds. (Population and national income changes slowly; international experience increases, but so does that of other countries). Well, almost no quick way; it seems it is possible to amplify experience by hiring in know-how, which is why there is a thriving international market in coaches with experience of managing sides in the Champions’ League.

That at least, was the theory of England’s hiring foreign coaches in the last decade. The book – which seems to have been updated for its recent paperback publiction – is  enthusiastic about Capello’s record, but at least offers the caveat that his England defeats have come against ‘big teams'; England has always managed to do well against the ‘minnows’.

So perhaps ‘know-how’ needs to be understood more broadly, and here the wider differences in expertise between England and its bigger competitors was noted this week by Paul Hayward:

Spain, the European champions, have 750 Grade A Uefa-trained coaches, compared to under 150 in England. All those English tutors instruct fully-grown men while in Spain 640 of the 750 teach five-year-olds and up. A Spanish cultural revolution 15 years ago has transformed the national team.

Can England win it again? It turns out that home advantage is worth ⅔ of goal per game, which is why South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002, Sweden reached the final of the World Cup in 1958 and and six countries – Uruguay, Italy, England, West Germany and Argentina and France – have won the competition at home, in eighteen World Cups.

I took the picture at the top of the post. It’s is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Alone, again

May 13, 2010

Fulham’s close-run defeat against Atletico Madrid in the final of the grandly named ‘Europa Cup’ last night reminded me, as it would, of the late playwright Dennis Potter, who is almost as strongly identified with Hammersmith and Fulham as he is with his native Forest of Dean.

At the end of the original UK television version of Pennies From Heaven, of course, Arthur Parker commits suicide (or not) by throwing himself from Hammersmith Bridge.

In The Singing Detective, the detective (Michael Gambon) observes – and this is from memory at the moment – that people go to football matches ‘to be together’. ‘Except for Fulham’ he adds, of a team which would have been in the second or third tier of the English League at the time. ‘You go to Fulham to be alone’.

The marketing is the message

December 20, 2009

Accenture has announced that it has ended its sponsorship deal with Tiger Woods, and staff are supposed to have removed all of those embarrassing advertising posters which say that the company ‘knows what it takes to be a Tiger’. Well, obviously word travels slowly across the Atlantic these days, since there were big Accenture posters with the golfing superstar on them in Copenhagen and Heathrow airports on Friday. One of them, at least, seemed appropriate to the moment, even if it was shot in the days when Woods’ putting was more interesting than his private life, and the ball is impossibly placed off the edge of the green. The caption reads: “It’s what you do next that counts“.

Long distance cricket

October 2, 2009

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I followed most of the Ashes, the one-dayers against Australia, and the Champions Trophy games via the ball by ball coverage on cricinfo, so I was amused to read an account of the so-called ‘synthetic broadcasts’ constructed by the Australian broadcaster ABC to cover the Ashes in Australia in 1934 and 1938. (I’m indebted to Gideon Haigh’s excellent book Inside Out for this).

A panel of broadcasters convened in the studios in Sydney and reported more or less as live the ball-by-ball information sent by means of coded telegrams by Eric Scholl at the Test match grounds. Sound effects were provided by a pencil and a block of wood; crowd noises came from a gramophone record. The listening public was enthralled, staying up to listen until the small hours of the morning. Employers complained.

And how unlike the coverage on cricinfo, much as I depend on it in the absence of a Sky Sports subscription. Reading between the lines of some of the summer coverage, they have a team of writers based in Melbourne, who watch the television coverage and transcribe it into ball by ball updates. In 70 years we’ve updated the technology but the method seems all but identical. Cricinfo, it should be said, does have a journalist at the ground. He (almost invariably he) feeds colour into the ball-by-ball commentary from time, but his main role is to write the Bulletin, the analysis pieces at the end of each session of play. To describe the action, it doesn’t really matter where you are; to understand it, well, you still have to be there.

Dreaming of perfection

August 8, 2009

johan-cruyffI can’t think of a better way to mark the beginning of the new football season that with a quote from Jorge Valdano on the teams which fans remember, which I found in Jonathan Wilson’s fine book Inverting the Pyramid, on the history of football tactics:

People often say that results are paramount, that, ten years down the  line, the only thing which will be remembered is the score, but that’s not true. What remains in people’s memories is the search for greatness and the feelings that engenders. We remember Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan more than we remember Fabio Capello‘s AC Milan even though Capello’s Milan was more successful and more recent. Equally, the Dutch Total Football teams of the 1970s are legendary, far more than West Germany, who beat them in the World Cup Final in 1974, or Argentina, who defeated them in the 1978 final. It’s about the search for perfection. We know it doesn’t exist, but it’s our obligation towards football, and maybe towards humanity, to strive towards it. That’s what we remember.

The image of Johann Cruyff is from Pitch Invasion, with thanks.

Managing genius

July 25, 2009

1961.62 Programme

One of the stars, for me, of Jonathan Wilson’s geeky but entertaining global history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, is Bela Guttman. The career of the Hungarian manager spanned both sides of the war, and he escaped the Holocaust by being interned in Switzerland. He’s best known for his Benfica side of the early 1960s, which beat Barcelona and Real Madrid in successive years to win the European Cup. Wilson describes him this way:

He represented the final flowering of the great era of central European football; he was the last of the coffee-house coaches, perhaps even the last defender of the game’s innocence.

“I never minded if the opposition scored” he said, “because I always thought we could score another”. When Benfica beat Real Madrid 5-3 in the European Cup Final in 1962, with two second-half goals from the young Eusebio, they came back from 2-0 and 3-2 down. He was also a man who had a Clough-like hostility to interference.

Three stories from the book from a career which involved managing dozens of teams on three continents.

  • At Ciocanul in Romania, a director tried to interfere his team selection.  “OK, you run the club, you seem to have the basics”, Guttman told him, and promptly left.
  • Managing Kispest in Hungary, he decided to take off a full-back who was having a poor game, thinking (in the days before substitutes) that the team would play better with ten men.  His captain, Puskas, told the player to stay on. Guttman sat out the game in the stands, reading a paper, and didn’t return to the club again.
  • At AC Milan he was sacked after taking the club to the top of the league. He told a news conference, “I have been sacked even though I am neither a criminal or a homosexual”. Thereafter he insisted on a clause in his contract which said he could not be sacked when the team topped the table.

19-PedrotoGutmanIn Portugal he won the league with Porto, and was hired by Benfica, with whom he won the league in 1960 and 1961. After he’d won the European Cup for them for the second time, he asked the directors for a bonus. They declined, and he quit. Benfica fans, apparently, say that he cursed the club never to win another European Cup. Not true, of course, but they have appeared in five finals since then, and lost the lot.

Gideon Haigh on the Ashes

July 10, 2009

the-ashes-urn1

The Australian journalist Gideon Haigh is probably the best living cricket writer, certainly in English, and during 2005 we had the luxury in England of having him write a column in The Guardian – later edited, quickly, into one of the best books on that epic series.

Sadly, the advertising downturn means that there’s not a repeat performance for this year’s series. Happily, though, the internet means that we can still access his coverage is Australia’s Business Spectator (and if that seems strange, it’s worth noting that Haigh also wrote, pre-crash, one of the best books on the dizzying corporate greed of the last 20 years).

Here’s a couple of good moments from his coverage so fa, three days into the first Test of the five-match series:

From his preview (which also includes a characteristic flourish about Churchill and the Dardanelles):

The five-test series was for a century the standard unit of international cricket rivalry.  Now it is only played by the format’s pioneers over the course of Ashes.  Late last year, England played West Indies in a Twenty20 match that lasted less than three hours for a grubstake of $US20 million.  For England to now spend seven weeks playing Australia mainly for honour and glory seems almost unpardonably decadent.

On Pietersen’s dismissal by the Australian  spinner Hauritz in England’s first innings:

The beneficiary of Pietersen’s largesse was a deserving one: Nathan Hauritz, said so often not to be Shane Warne that he must sometimes feel like issuing a pre-emptive public apology.  Hauritz would have been an onlooker had Brett Lee maintained fitness, and still seems to lack the variation necessary to prosper at the top level.  But the delivery in question could hardly have been improved on, drifting away toward slip and dragging Pietersen so wide that he almost ended up on the neighbouring pitch.

And on Hughes’ dismissal by Flintoff in Australia’s first innings:

Taller, stronger, Flintoff’s first over to Hughes almost justified his selection on its own, five deliveries from round the wicket bouncing sternum-high, a sixth veering past the outside edge, bowler following through down the pitch with his jolly jacktar’s swagger.  The ball hit Prior’s gloves with a satisfying whack rather than the clang that sometimes emanates from them.  Hughes was in Year 10 when Flintoff made the Ashes of 2005 his own: this must have been like living out a still-fresh schoolboy fantasy.

More daily at the Business Spectator.

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