Sunday, 31 August 2014

The NFL is back

The last couple of years has seen a significant rise in the popularity of the NFL in the UK, particularly as a result of the Wembley games and decent media coverage (intentional pun for the serious followers). As the new season punts off this week, there are a whole range of stories to pique the curiosity of the even the most occasional fan. The first openly gay player was drafted but didn't make the final cut for St Louis Rams; the Seahawks are aiming to become the first team to retain the title since the '04-'05 Patriots; London's adopted team Jacksonville Jaguars have signed exciting prospect Blake Bortles and there are a record 3 matches at Wembley this year for the UK fanbase to follow.

My bet for this season's MVP
This Thursday night sees a blockbuster beginning to the 2014 NFL season with the reigning Superbowl champions Seattle hosting many people's outside pick for the title, the Green Bay Packers. Much like the championship game in February, this year's opener will be a clash of the best defense (Seattle) against one of the league's best offences. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is perhaps the best player in the NFL and is back after missing a lot of last season due to injury. The match is also the first clash of these two since one of the most controversial moments in recent NFL history, the so-called Fail Mary, when the Seahawks won on a last minute touchdown which should have been disallowed.

The greatest team in the history of American Football, or indeed any sport, the Indianapolis Colts, start their season with a huge match up against the Broncos. Colts legend now in Denver, Peyton Manning, set records for passing yards and touchdowns last year, before defeat in the Superbowl and will be looking to go one better this time around. 
This time last year Indy were coming off their dramatic 2012 season and looking to build on Andrew Luck's rookie year. They ultimately lost to the Patriots in the playoffs (something Colts fans are familiar with) but did record impressive regular season victories over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos as well as beating the Chiefs in the second highest comeback victory in NFL history. With a stronger group of wide receivers there could be more success ahead but the reality is that weak options at running back mean that a Superbowl run is unlikely this time around.

For those who haven't got a clue when it comes to the gridiron, have a browse here. Some of the best players to look out for are Calvin 'Megatron' Johnson for Detroit Lions (Wide Receiver), Richard Sherman Seattle Seahawks (Cornerback), Adrian Peterson for Minnesota Vikings (Running Back), JJ Watt for Houston Texans (Defensive End). As the season develops over the next 17 weeks we'll see who else can distinguish themselves, and ultimately who is going to be competing in Superbowl XLIX.

Monday, 25 August 2014

A Chance for Someone New?

With the US Open starting today, there has to be a chance of an outsider taking a debut Grand Slam title for the second time this year. None of the usual suspects are on top form and some of the next generation such as Raonic and Dimitrov are starting to turn potential into ability. Both reached maiden Slam semi finals at Wimbledon and in the near future that may well become victories. Flushing Meadows also has a tendency to be a productive tournament for players who only win one or two in their career. Rafter, Safin, Hewitt, Roddick, Del Potro and Murray all won their first major in New York and none have managed more than 2 in total.

Perhaps it's because it's later in the season and so there can be fitness issues affecting the field. The fatigue element may well have played a part in Federer failing to win since the last of his 5 consecutive titles in 2008, aged 27. He has won each of the other Slams since he last triumphed in New York, but not even reached the final here. The Swiss star's dominance coming to an end has brought about a season of the title changing hands each year. The last 6 years have produced 5 different winners (only Nadal x2) and no-one has defended their title from the previous year. That trend will continue again with this edition with Nadal's withdrawal due to injury.

Nadal's absence means that since his Grand Slam debut aged 17 at 2003 Wimbledon, he has been missed 7 majors, including one in each of the last 3 years. To compare, Federer's debut was at Roland Garros 1999, also aged 17. Since then he has never been absent, missing out only 1999 US Open main draw by losing in qualifying. Tomorrow he will appear in his 60th consecutive Grand Slam. Nadal will not overhaul Federer's record of GS titles, because his absence (and injury) record limits how many he has the chance to win. Rafa has actually only won 1 Slam outside of Roland Garros in the last 4 years and it's pretty unlikely he'll still be at the top of his game when he's 32.

Normally you'd think that Nadal's absence would mean the title is pretty much a guarantee for Murray or Djokovic. As it happens, both have been on a fairly feeble run of form, the Scot losing in the QFs of his last 3 tournaments, the Serb in the last 16 of his last 2. Of course they will rise to the big occasion but in the significantly tougher side of the draw, (Djokovic, Wawrinka, Tsonga, Murray, Raonic, Isner), it will take a mighty turn of form for either of them to be holding the trophy aloft in a fortnight. Federer has shown at Wimbledon that he is still in the hunt for the majors and with a relatively weak route to the final (Karlovic, Fognini, Dimitrov, Ferrer), he may well put the American drought behind him. That being said, his performance the last two years doesn't fill you with confidence if you're a Fed fan (2013 Last 16 loss to Robredo, 2012 QF loss to Berdych). For once, none of the major players look like safe bets.

Hence why it might just be the time for a breakthrough from someone new...

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

India Collapse and England Emerge

Just under a month ago the Lords test had finished and as far a lot of people were concerned, so was Alastair Cook. Virtually every name in English cricket had been suggested as an alternative to the captain, Anderson looked like he could still get banned and India appeared to be a genuinely decent test match team.

My last post said we had to keep faith with Cook but it was influenced by the lack of alternatives and a general principle that it's best to stick by a captain. Look where we are now. Cook has proven himself both resilient and determined, gritting his teeth and demonstrating exceptional self-confidence. Under immense pressure from himself as well as the press, he stood up and was counted. Three 50s in the last four innings is an ideal way to head into a massive break from test cricket, although he'll be disappointed that he couldn't get a century, especially against an increasingly dispirited and weary Indian attack, lacking genuine test-match class. Which is perhaps a fair summary of the Indian squad in general...

The desperate batting displays have of course taken the headlines and will be the main focus of attention for India going forward but in truth their bowling needs serious work as well. Kumar had a great IPL and was the only bowler to be able to exploit the conditions consistently here. Although Ishant had one good session, he is pretty one-dimensional and bowls too many leave-able deliveries, only really threatening on a hard bouncy wicket or as a change-up from swing/seam bowling. Beyond these two, the likes of Binny, Pankaj and Shami offer so little sustained threat. Aaron is only young and Ashwin never had any runs to work with or a 4th innings target to defend. 

The batting was undeniably abysmal, and progressively worse but I feel like it was more of a mental weakness and collapse than a lack of talent. Pujara, Dhawan, Kohli and Rahane will still be the backbone of an Indian team which will grow and strengthen over the next few years. With a little more maturity and fortitude, a little less Twenty20-style approach, they will be challenging the best again before too long, if they can sort the bowling and bring in a few new names (watch out for Akshar Patel, Sandeep Sharma and Mohit Sharma).

As for England, the signs are of course positive. Turning round a potentially dreadful summer into an ultimately victorious one will give England a massive boost before the Ashes next summer. The issue with who opens alongside Cook remains, as does the reality that we are heavily reliant on Broad & Anderson in the bowling department. Moeen is a batsman with the potential to be a real class act and has demonstrated glimmers of becoming a quality spinner as well but both sides of his game need work to really develop into a high level all-rounder. Anyone who thinks he is a replacement for Swann needs to wait until Warner, Clarke and Watson have come to tea next year. The reality is that we've been flattered somewhat by our opponents collapsing in various ways, something I can't imagine Australia or South Africa ever really doing. 

With India's strength, the limited overs matches, coming up straight away, it is important for England to finish the job and keep the improvements coming.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Are England Over-Cooked?

The last five years or so of English cricket seem to have installed incredibly high expectations of our national team. We thrashed the Aussies, won in India, climbed to the top of the test rankings and became genuinely top quality. Then the signs began to appear to suggest that the foundations were a little shaky and suddenly it all collapsed spectacularly one winter down under. 

The changing of the guard
The true strength and depth of our squad has now been revealed and we're facing a period of rebuilding and struggle. In some ways we've paid the penalty of having such a successful and stable squad for years. The team of Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Prior, Bresnan, Swann, Broad, Finn, Anderson pretty much picked itself and didn't really require the blooding of young talent, particularly in the batting. Suddenly we're finding ourselves needing Robson, Ballance, Root, Moeen and now Buttler all at once. With Bell and Cook in such abysmal form, is it any wonder we've struggled against a relatively mediocre India team?

The fact that we played utterly dismally yet got within 100 runs of winning suggests that perhaps we're not too far from competitive but is that really what we're aiming for? After such an era of success a lull was inevitable but is no harder to accept. 

So what of the 11 men we have now? It's seemingly the end for Prior, and although Buttler is not yet up to test standard, there is no real alternative. There is little point in bringing back Foster or Reed - a lot of people seem to think that decent county form will translate to test match form but these are players who have had a go at test level and were found wanting. How many times did Hick, Crawley and Ramprakash have chances for England? 

And what of our under-fire and under-performing captain?

No question, Cook needs a break and to find his form again but changing the captain mid-series is not the answer. Criticised for being too dull & boring with his captaincy but not praised for inventive fields in the 1st test or bowling Moeen to Jadeja when we all wanted Anderson. He is stubborn and gritty and on a dismal run of form but he is still outstandingly talented. Despite not scoring one for over a year, he still has two more centuries than any other Englishman in history. 

Four years ago Cook was having similar struggles (although not as captain of course). Look at his averages in the home series before he came good so spectacularly in Brisbane:

2009 vs Australia - 5 matches, series average 24.66
2010 vs Bangladesh - 2 matches, series average 19.66
2010 vs Pakistan - 4 matches, series average 23.85 (9.4 in the first 5 innings)

Hard to imagine scenes like these
again any time soon
If it hadn't been for the gritty and extremely lucky century then Cook would probably have been dropped and England's greatest Ashes success for years may never have come about. Take a read of this article and it's hard to believe it's not written about his current situation. 

Much like with replacing Prior, there is no viable alternative to Cook, as an opener and certainly as captain. If he cannot turn things around by the end of the series then I've no doubt he will go, but for now he needs to remain grittily determined and work hard to turn things around, ideally with at least some support from the ECB, the media and the public.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Who's Daring to Dream?

Among the many things I love about the World Cup is the huge variety of opinions, articles, talking points, disagreements and perspectives it provokes. Go on any decent website and there are as many different articles as you could hope to read, discussing every possible aspect of the tournament. You can read about the teams, players, previous tournaments, the infrastructure, the impact on the hosts, impact on previous hosts, basically anything.

But without doubt the best thing (possibly including the matches, that remains to be seen) is the debate (yes I mean arguments). Who's in your All-time XI, who's in your fantasy team, who will win the Golden Boot, do Messi/Ronaldo need to win to be considered among the best players ever, who should start for England and how far will we get? There is virtually nothing on which you'll find yourself in complete agreement with someone else. If you do, the only thing I can recommend is you debate things a bit more.

Of all the contentious issues, there is one that most clearly identifies the optimists, pessimists, realists and idiots. How will England do? 
A couple of years ago I wrote a post about England's chances going into Euro 2012. Before the tournament, there was a genuine sense of realism about the England football team and our chances in such a way that there was no huge feeling of devastation when Diamanti tucked home the decisive penalty. Winning the group failed to inspire any genuine hope and rightly so given the insipid performance produced against the Italians.

So with it all kicking off on Thursday evening, how are we feeling this time around? There's a certain satisfying symmetry with England starting where they left off in the Euros, aiming to avenge that defeat and put right the dour and lacklustre style of play from 2 years ago. Lots has been made of the exciting young talents of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling, Lallana and Barkley but whether they're quite enough to inspire blind optimism in a naturally wary nation remains to be seen. Surely it will be the same old story. Surely warm up draws against the might of Ecuador and Honduras tell us all we need to know. Surely...

I can't help myself, I'm going to put it out there that by 1am on Sunday morning, there'll be the faintest of glints in the eye of even the most cynical of England fans.