Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Fiercest Rivalries in Sport

Borg vs McEnroe, Spurs vs Arsenal, Palmer vs Nicklaus, Federer vs Nadal, Michigan vs Ohio State, Lakers vs Celtics, the list of great rivalries is endless. Few things fascinate and engage the followers of sport as much as a great rivalry. It is often the yardstick by which greatness is measured. Six time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Sergei Bubka broke the world record 35 times and was the greatest pole vaulter of all time, but he never captured the popular imagination because no one came close to challenging him. There is some base human desire that gets enthralled by duels, whether lion vs slave at the Colosseum, or Federer vs Nadal at Wimbledon.

So the natural curiosity, given my predilection for lists and rankings, was to figure out the fiercest rivalries in sport. As subjective as which cheese tastes the best, but an interesting exercise nevertheless. To have some quantum of objectiveness, its divided into three un-mixable sections; individual rivalry, club rivalry and national rivalry. Here are the top 3 in each category:

Individual Rivalries
Number 3 for Individuals- Navratilova vs Evert

Rivalries last a few matches or a few years but very few individual rivalries last 14 years at the top level (from Evert's win in Italian Open final in May 1974 to Navratilova's win in Virginia slims final in Nov 1988 they faced off in 60 finals). The life time record of the two was 43-37 in favour of Navratilova, but most of Evert's losses came towards the end of her career. The dominance of the two was such that between 1982 and 1986, the pair won 18 out of 19 grand slams between them. Evert won 90% of all her matches. Navratilova had the longest winning streak of 74 consecutive matches. Evert has 157 singles titles, Navratilova has 167. Evert has 18 single major titles, Navratilova has 18 as well (best male tennis player of all time has 14). Despite the rivalry they grew close and Navratilova even introduced Evert to her second husband Andy Mills. Fittingly, when Evert hosted Saturday Night Live in 1989, in the kick-off skit a Navratilova character showed up everywhere Evert was and outdid her at whatever she was doing. Their rivalry was intense, but always remained civil.

Number 2 for Individuals- Prost vs Senna
There are fierce rivalries and there are bitter rivalries but this one was fiercely bitter. Formula 1 racing is one of the most dangerous sports to start with but you know its getting personal when drivers start banging their cars into each other just to take their opponent out. This was the duel between the fire of Senna and the ice of Prost. In 1989 in the second to last race of the season in Suzuka, Prost drove into his team mate Senna, taking them both out of the race and in the process winning the drivers' championship. The next year Senna got even by driving into Prost at 190 mph on the very first turn of the same track and winning the championship. Honours even but the rivalry had turned bitter forever. When Prost Joined the Williams team in 1993, he had a clause inserted in his contract that prevented Senna from being his team mate that year. Later at the Interlagos circuit, Prost had to have a police escort, he was so reviled in Brazil. When he couldn't prevent Senna from joining Williams the following year, he chose to retire rather than be his team mate. By the end, Senna won 41 races with 65 pole positions and 3 championships while Prost won 51 races with 33 pole positions and 4 championships. Both have a legitimate claim to be the all time great of their sport. Unfortunately Senna died in a car crash at the Imola circuit in 1994. He had told a friend he realized after Prost's retirement how much of his motivation had come from competing against Prost. One million people showed up to Senna's funeral in Sao Paolo. Alain Prost was one of the pall bearers.

Number 1 for Individuals- Ali vs Frazier

"It's gonna be a chilla, and a killa, and a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manilla". While Muhammad Ali entertained the world with his psuedo-rap, smacking a rubber gorilla in his hands, such words really got under Frazier's skin. He never forgave Ali for calling him "uncle tom" and the "white man's champion" prior to their first fight. What is not widely known is that Frazier had helped Ali through his boxing ban for refusing to serve in Vietnam by showing up at tribunal hearings in support and had even given Ali hundreds of dollars in cash to support him. Ali maintained that he said all these things to promote the fight but Frazier did not buy that and felt deeply betrayed. Their rivalry would become one of the most storied of all time and they would fight each other three times over their careers. Known as "the fight of the century", the first fight took place at Madison square Garden in 1971. Frazier had a 26-0 record with 23 KO's. Ali had a 31-0 record with 25 KO's. The fight also came to symbolize the anti-establishment camp in Ali and the pro-War movement in Frazier. Frazier won by unanimous decision after 15 rounds, but Ali gained respect for recovering from a 15th round knock down to finish a fight he had no chance of winning. Both fighters spent time in the hospital after the fight. Ali-Frazier II was also at Madison Square Garden in 1974. By this time Frazier had been demolished by Foreman so it was no longer a title contest, but the hostility between the two was still palpable. Promoting the fight on TV, both were reviewing their first fight when an argument led to a fist fight on the set and a fine for both boxers. In the ring later, Ali came away the winner by unanimous decision after twelve rounds. In October of 1975, the last and perhaps the best fight between the two took place, popularly known as "the thrilla in Manilla". Ali had beaten Foreman, Norton and Wepner since his last fight with Frazier and was riding high in confidence. He prepared lightly and was distracted by his torrid affair with Veronica Porche. Frazier on the other hand was seething with revenge and always managed to save his best for Ali. In the fight, Ali started strong but faded in the middle rounds and Frazier started punishing him. Legend has it that around the 6th round Ali whispered in Frazier's ear: "Joe, they told me you was all washed up" and Frazier barked back, "they lied" and followed it with a left upper cut. However, Frazier grew tired by the 10th and Ali managed to get enough jabs in that both Frazier's eyes swelled up. We would later find out that Frazier had a cataract in his left eye so was fighting almost blind for the last three rounds. Ali made it a one sided fight in the 14th round and Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch stopped the fight after the round, despite much protesting from his fighter. Author David Halberstam summed it up best: "the only way we know of Ali's greatness is because of Frazier's equivalent greatness, that in the end there was no real difference between the two of them as fighters."

Did not make the top 3: Borg vs McEnroe, Sampras vs Agassi, Federer vs Nadal, Palmer vs Nicklaus, Alydar vs Affirmed, Ted Williams vs Joe DiMaggio, Magic vs Bird, Jahangir vs Jansher, Imran vs Hadlee, Tendulkar vs Lara, Schumacher vs Hakkinen, Jeff Gordon vs Dale Earnhardt, Wilt Chamberlin vs Bill Russell, Hagler vs Hearns, Duran vs Leonard and Gretzky vs Lemieux.

Club Rivalries
Number 3 for Club Sports
- Boston Redsox vs NY Yankees
The Redsox and Yankees have an embittered and fierce rivalry of over 100 years that is often referred to in America as "the greatest rivalry in sports". After Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees in 1919, the Bosox were said to suffer from "the curse of the Bambino"- they failed to win a world series for the next 86 years, while the Yankees gathered 26 of them. It all changed in 2004 when Boston finally overcame NY and went on to win the world series- and then won it again in 2007. The Yankees haven't won since 2000.

Number 2 for Club Sports- Boca Juniors vs River Plate

Both teams are from Buenos Aires and matches between them are known as the "superclasico". Boca has a more working class following while River Plate has a more affluent fan base. One of Boca's stands is entirely of stacked boxes (called La "bonbonera" or chocolate box) while River Plate followers are called "Los Millionarios". The match thus adds an element of the class divide as well. There is huge following of the two clubs in the whole of Latin America and when the Observer newspaper made a list of "50 sporting things you must do before you die", watching a "superclasico" in Buenos Aires was top of the list.

Number 1 for Club Sports- Celtic vs Rangers

There are 12 clubs that play football in the Scottish Premier League but only two that have ever won it. The Celtic-Rangers rivalry goes back to 1888 and the two teams are such a world apart, they even have a special name of their own: "the old firm". Religion, politics and social attitudes are all involved in old firm derbies, where the mostly Irish and Catholic supporters of Celtic are pitted against protestant republican followers of Rangers. There has been unfortunate instances of sectarian violence ensuing after games between the clubs. The rivalry is so fierce that only five players have ever moved between the two clubs in almost a hundred years. A study said admissions to hospital emergency rooms increases nine-fold over normal days on old firm match day weekends. It easily makes Celtic vs Rangers the most fiercely contested rivalry in all club sports.

Did not make the top 3: Redskins vs Cowboys, Ohio State vs Michigan, Galatasaray vs Fenerbahce, Inter Milan vs AC Milan, Real Madrid vs Barcelona, Arsenal vs Spurs, ManU vs Liverpool, Olympiacos vs Panathinaikos, Oxford vs Cambridge Crew, Boston Celtics vs Lakers, Notre Dame vs USC, Ferrari vs McLaren, Dinamo Zagreb vs Red Star Belgrade, Maple Leafs vs Canadiens.

Country Rivalries
Number 3 for National teams- America vs Europe in Golf's Ryder Cup
This rivalry has a relatively short history but the passion involved, including bitterness at fans behaviour towards players, is intense. The gamesmanship, the patriotism it espouses, the drama, the ridiculous outfits of the spouses, and some exceptional golf has made this biennial event one of the most anticipated sports event watched across the world. The score line is 8-7 in favour of the Europeans since it became Europe vs USA in 1979 and the intensity can be judged by the fact that there is always some bitterness voiced by the losing team. From walking across putting lines to prank calls in the middle of the night for opponents, its all been done in the Ryder Cup.

Number 2 for National teams- Brazil vs Argentina in football
Some of the best footballers in the world are from the the two countries. Between them they have won the world cup seven times. Brazil have won the World Cup 5 times and the Copa America 8 times, while Argentina have won the World Cup 2 times and the Copa America 14 times. Their close rivalry is reflected in their 35-34 record in favour of Brazil since their first match in 1914. Another dimension to the rivalry is often lent by the two players mentioned most for the title of greatest player of all time- Pele and Maradonna. In 1946 there were instances of broken legs during two consecutive games, which resulted in an abandoned game and fighting on the pitch with police. In the 1990 World Cup, Brazilians accused the Argentinian coaches of giving one of them water laced with tranquilizers (known as the "holy water scandal"). The amount of football passion involved makes any international meet between the two countries an all consuming affair for the fans.

Number 1 for National teams- India vs Pakistan in Cricket
Three wars in 60 years coupled with the religious fervour of cricket in the national psyche, provides for combustible ingredients for a passionate rivalry. Very few places in the world does sport, politics and religion mix in such a portent way. Traffic vanishes from the roads in the two countries of over a billion people when India play Pakistan. In a previous trip to Pakistan during the World Cup, all TV sets and electricity generators were sold out in the market in anticipation of the cricket match. While the rivalry is statistically tilted in Pakistan's favour (leading Tests 12-9 and ODI's 68-45), India have managed to win all the World Cup encounters so far and also won the inaugural Twenty20 tournament by narrowly beating none other than Pakistan in the final. In 1986, Javed Miandad hit a last ball six for an improbable come from behind victory that lead to souring of cricket relations for a decade. The 1991 Pakistan tour of India had to be canceled because youths from the local extremist party Shiv Sena party dug up the pitch at Bombay's Wankhade stadium. In 1999, with Pakistan ready to tour India for the first time in 12 years, Shiv Senna dug up the pitch at Delhi again but it was repaired in time. The Asian Test Championship match against India had to be finished in the eerie silence of an empty stadium after the 90,000 crowd at Eden Gardens Calcutta invaded the pitch as India inched towards certain defeat. And for all the mighty victories, Pakistan has never been able to top India when it's mattered most, in a World Cup. After one defeat to India in a World Cup, the Pakistani players had to go in hiding and father of ace bowler Wasim Akram was kidnapped by enraged fans. It often doesn't take much for this sibling rivalry to rise to the level of sheer lunacy.

Did not make the top 3: England vs Australia Ashes, USA vs USSR Ice Hockey, England vs Germany football, Australia vs USA swimming.

10 Famous Sports Celebrations

Long before the TV is turned on and the spectacle of sport is broadcast around the world, long before the ball boys show up, the grass is cut, the lines drawn or the referees show up, there is sheer hard work by the athletes. Miles are run, hills are climbed, weights are lifted, balls are hit and putts are practiced over and over and over again. Almost all the great athletes we cheer for these days have done little else for every single day of their adult lives except for practice their sport. The days of being a carpenter for your day job and hitting boundaries at the weekend at Lords are long gone. When such hard work results in success on the playing field, sometimes the celebration is spontaneous and ecstatic. Yet at other times, celebration has become tradition and as much a part of winning as playing the game. Here are a few of my favourite and while photographs might not do them justice, it was not possible to source videos for all of them.

"Rock the baby" celebration. Introduced in the 1992 Football world cup by Babeto of Brazil, the original celebration was probably meant to celebrate his impending child. It has since become mandatory for any expecting father scoring a goal.

"The Dunk" was first performed as a revenge act by NY Giants defensemen to legendary coach Bill Parcels in the 1980s, for the previous weeks training woes. It has become the ultimate end of game celebration in American Football- from the pro game to children's leagues, whether a scorching match in the heat of Florida or a -30 degress bone chilling duel on the frozen plains of Minnesota. Here in the picture is Patriots super-bowl winning coach Bill Billicheck getting dunked.

Shirt over face- Some feats are too good to be believed and in football you find goals a plenty scored from some unbelievable positions. When the adrenalin is high, you see some players do the shirt over face blindfold and run like crazy. Here, we see Fabrizio Ravanelli in mid-celebration.

Biting the trophy- Done in the old days to check coins for authenticity, Rafa has without fail bit every single award he has won. The move seemed to be gaining popularity as medal winners in other sports at the Beijing Olympics were seen doing the same.

Hats on ice- When a player scores a hat trick in ice-hockey, it is the custom for the crowd to throw their head gear onto the playing surface in respect. It still happens and is one of the moving sights in sports if you ever witness one live.

Boxing with the flag. Tim Cahill of Everton and Australia started the tradition of running over to the corner flag and boxing with it after scoring a goal. When asked why he did it, he's supposed to have answered "well the flag started it".

The chest bump- originally started in basketball, the jumping and thumping celebration has spread to all American sports. Its the adrenalin filled version of a high five.

The fist pump- Perhaps an old fashioned simple way of channeling a testosterone surge after a moment of achievement, it has been trade marked by Tiger Woods after sinking long unbelievable putts.

Doing the Airplane- Shoaib Akhtar has arguably done more than his share of celebration but when he's at his deadly best, he never lets a wicket go uncelebrated without doing the airplane.

The Ssshhh- Here we see Thiery Henry silencing the opposition through one of his trademark goals. Very popular with footballers when scoring on away games in front of boisterous audiences.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Rossi vs Gibernau- Best of Moto GP

In my previous post I mentioned how Formula 1 was losing its excitement, especially when compared to a sport like Moto GP. Well, Valentino Rossi is the greatest known purveyor of the sport and while I promise to honour him in an individual writeup later, here is a taster of his skills. This is the last lap duel between the famous number 46 and Sete Gerbernau during the Spanish Moto GP of 2005. Don't miss the last minute of the race, there are more lead changes than an entire Formula 1 Grand Prix.

200mph at Night- Without Headlights!

Singapore will become the first country in the 58 year history of the Formula 1 to have a Grand Prix after dark. Yes, 20 F1 drivers will hurtle under flood lights from one concrete banking to another at close to 200 mph. Initially designed to please European TV audiences by holding a night time race, the gimmick has turned into the greatest leap forward for the flagging sport. But will it revive interest in a sport declining in popularity?

Formula 1 has been bogged down in technicalities that are difficult for novice audiences to follow. Who cares if its a 2.4 litre naturally aspirated engine with V8 configuration or a 3.0 litre V10? A ban on variable intake trumpets or bargeboards, sidepods or rare diffusers. I subscribe to two car magzines and even I can't keep up with the rules, or care to.

What I do care about is that there is lots of overtaking (like Moto GP), which there isn't currently. I do care that Formula 1 cars are capable of going from zero to 100mph and back to zero in under 5 seconds. That under deceleration drivers can experience forces of up to 5.5 g. It does impress me that the down force generated by the cars at 150mph can make them drive upside down on the roof of a tunnel without falling. With so much capabilities at their disposal, its a pity those running the sport don't get on with the business of racing instead of getting obsessed by tyre changes or switching around qualifying rules.

Its not looking any better either. With its cutting edge image and a global TV audience of 300m, it seems every emerging market wants a part of the action. This means money will keep getting pumped into the sport and those who run the sport will feel no pressure to improve the spectacle of the sport. In recent years Bahrain, Shanghai, Istanbul and Singapore have moved onto the race calender and Abu Dhabi and Delhi are next.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The Courage of Derek Redmond

Sport is inspirational because it brings out the best in us. The best speed, measured in seconds. The most force, measured in pounds lifted. And the most power, measured in meters thrown. But how do we measure the most courage? What about heart and grit and determination?

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics is associated in a lot of minds with Linford Christie's gold in the 100m sprint. It was memorable for me because the friend I ran around with in school, Arif Hussain, ran heat number 3 of round 1 in a valiant 10.83 seconds, finishing only four places behind Christie (10.48 secs). But the real inspiring story of the track took place away from the 100m, in the 400m semi-finals. It involved British medal hopeful Derek Redmond.

Derek was a medal favourite when he arrived in Barcelona, having previously withdrawn form the Seoul Olympics 400m only 10 minutes before the start of the race due to an Achilles tendon injury. This was the athlete who had shattered the British 400m record at the age of 19. He had five surgeries in the following year and after a long rehabilitation process slowly worked his way to becoming one of the favourites for the 1992 Olympics. The night before the race he strategized for the race with his dad, who was very close to him, and they decided that even if the race didn't go according to plan he would finish it at all costs.

What happened in the race is in the video below. As the commentator says, "he got the cheer of the olympics." Of course, visa made it into an ad immediately (attached below the video as well).

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The Rich Four, not the Big Four

Money may not win titles in the English Premier League, but lack of money precludes titles. Yes, all rich teams do not win the title, but all the teams that win titles are rich. The "big four" of English football have the highest wage bills by far. Last available figures from the 2006/2007 season show that the top wage payers were Chelsea (£132.8m), Man U (£92.3m), Arsenal (£89.7m) and Liverpool (£77.6m). Surprising? Not.

If that is not enough of a correlation, then take a look at the next four (bar one) highest paying clubs: West Ham, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Everton. All those fighting for UEFA Cup places or dreaming of challenging the top four. In fact, the only team paying more than the next four and not getting similar results is Newcastle United, the perennial under-performer of the league. Manchester City, newly acquired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, is widely expected to challenge for a top four spot. While they appear to have little chance of doing so this year, they might after a summer of transfer activity next year. But I'm willing to wager a few quid that when they do, their wage bill will look more like Chelsea than Blackburn. English fans who live on dreams of some genius manager making shrewd acquisitions or harvesting their clubs' youth academy can wake up and smell their credit cards.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Nawakille: A Squash Town You've Never Heard Of

The small village of Nawakille (pop. few thousand) outside the frontier city of Peshawar in Pakistan boasts something that no other in the world can. Over the last half century, the village that does not have a single squash court, has produced six world number ones in the sport. In fact, since 1950 the six between them have won 29 British Opens (the Wimbledon of squash) and 14 World Opens (which started only in 1975).

This is an incredible story that just happens to be a sport story. If the sport of squash had a bigger profile in world sport, there would have been movies made on this subject. For now, a writeup in this blog will have to suffice. While the British whiled away their time guarding the Khyber pass, they decided to relieve their boredom by building a few outdoors roofless squash courts. In the heat and direct sunlight, it was difficult to play a game with one of the highest cardiovascular work rates. But try telling that to the Pathan warriors.

Hashim Khan, the first of the lot, become a ball-boy at the Peshawar British Army Officers club and practiced with the broken balls tossed out by the officers. When the officers would retreat indoors in the 100 degrees heat and the squash court was empty, it would be "Hashim vs Hashim" in the court according to his biography. He got good enough to be the Pakistan champion by 1949 and somehow got enough sponsorship to get to the British Open in 1951. He was 34 years old at the time (Borg retired from Tennis at 26). In the warm up tournament he beat the four time British Open champion Mahmoud El Karim conceding just six points. The British press called it a "flash in the pan", expecting for order to be restored, but Hashim went on to beat Mahmoud in the Open final 9-5, 9-0, 9-0, and then continued to win the tournament six out of the next seven years.

Roshan Khan was a cousin of Hashim and beat him in the 1957 British Open.

Azam Khan was Hashim's younger brother and practice partner. Sparring with his brother, Azam got good enough to win the British Open 4 times. One of his victories was over Roshan Khan with a dominating 9-1, 9-0, 9-0 scoreline that forced the Squash Rackets Association to introduce a playoff for third place to make it worthwhile for the audience to buy tickets.

Mohibullah Khan was the fourth of the group from Nawakille and won the British Open in 1963 in dramatic fashion, recovering from 8-1 down in the fourth game and saving multiple match points before winning in the fifth.

Then came a fallow period of two decades where Pakistan produced five world number 2's but no world number won as Jonah Barrington of Great Britain and Geoff Hunt of Australia dominated the game. Maybe it was because Aftab Javed, Gogi Alauddin, Mohammed Yasin and Qamar Zaman were not from Nawakille. But Mohibullah Jr was from the village (Jansher's elder brother), and he was the closest of all to get to world number 1, but unfortunately got incarcerated for carrying drugs to Britain. That will ruin anyone's career.

The domination started again in 1979 by perhaps the greatest of all, Jahangir Khan (literally "world conqueror"). He beat the legendary Australian Geoff Hunt in the British Open Final and started surely the longest unbeaten streak in any individual sport. He went 5 years and 8 months or 555 matches without getting beat. Over his career, Jahangir accumulated 10 British Open titles and 6 World Opens.

The last of the line was Jansher Khan who won 8 World Opens and 6 British Opens. The Jahangir-Jansher rivalry over the next few years took on the nature of Sampras-Agassi or Palmer-Nicklaus, elevating the sport to a new level but leaving each wondering how much more successful he would have been without the other. Their rivalry was announced to the world in the 1988 World Open in Amsterdam by "the rally". The first point of the match consisted of 247 strokes and lasted 6 minutes 16 seconds and ended in a let. Jahangir went on to win what would be his last World Open.

No one has ever been able to uncover the secret of Nawakille. Why did a small village produce so many world beaters without the existence of a single squash court. It is easy to come up with explanations of why Kenyans are excellent long distance runners, why Austrians produce world class skiers. But squash and Nawakille? I'm stumped.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

US Win the Ryder Cup- No Tiger Required

The US defeated Europe in the most closely contested Ryder cup since Brookline in 1999. The overall quality of the golf was exceptional and one is tempted to think that if Soren Hansen had defeated the 400 yards driving JB Holmes (they were all square after 15) the result would be different. But the crowd did its part as the 13th man and a well deserved victory to the US.

While the British press will be skewering Nick Faldo over the result, vicariously getting even for his career long non-cooperation with them, there wasn't much the captain could do different. Faldo's picks of Casey and Poulter worked out nicely and his decision to rest Garcia the second day did not hurt the team given his subsequent tepid performance. Its a shame that Europe's leading Ryder cup player of all time will have a losing record as the captain.

In an earlier post I had written about Anthony Kim's promise and Sergio Garcia's importance to the Europeans. The two happened to come across each other in the first match of the day and Sergio got absolutely annihilated by the American 5 & 4. Kim was on fire and finished 8 under for 14 holes. With Karlsson making short work of Justin Leonard 5&3 in match 3, it came down to the wonderful battle between Hunter Mahan and Paul Casey in match 2 to set the tone. The match fittingly finished all square on the 18th. Then the Americans produced some critical victories in the middle of the pack with Kenny Perry, Boo Weekly, JB Holmes and Jim Furyk. If one of those results had turned in favour of the Europeans, you can't help but feel the European tail of Poulter, Westwood and Harrington could have brought it home.

The US rookies, untainted by the negativity of past defeats, played remarkably and brought a lot of points home. An American victory has been a while coming and you have to tip your hats to them this time around for some great play. On to Wales for 2010!

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Ryder Cup Day 2- Down but a far way from out

Europe mounted a mini come back on the second day as the group matches stage of the Ryder cup ended with a 9-7 lead for the US team (6-2 after the first day). Traditionally the strength of the European sides, this will be the first time in at least the last 4 Ryder cup matches that the Europeans will not be leading going into the singles matches.

There are 12 singles matches on Sunday and the math is pretty simple. The Europeans have to get the equivalent of 7 victories (2 draws are equal to 1 victory in points) out of 12 matches on Sunday to retain the cup, since a 14-14 tie will favour the holders. Sunday is a day of momentum and it will be important to see who leads off in the first few matches. Once the results starts going up on scoreboards it usually puts a lot of pressure on the players of the team chasing. That is why in the last two cups Europe ran away with a record margin of victory (18.5 to 9.5). The US players were chasing and that's never easy to do surrounded by forty thousand supporters and with the hopes of an entire continent riding on you . Nothing beats points on the board and if I were either captain I would load my best players upfront.

The standard of golf over the two days we have seen at Valhalla has been especially good with some great individual performances. The pick of the players for the Europeans so far has been Ian Poulter, fully justifying captain Nick Faldo's controversial choice of him ahead of sentimental favourite Darren Clarke. Poulter won both his matches today for 2 valuable European points. Leading from the front for the US team has been world number 2 Phil Mickelson. He has played some amazing rescue shorts and throughout the two days has steadied his rookie partners.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Ryder Cup Day 1- A Zinger for Faldo

I hate to say I told you so. (Ryder Cup- A Contrarian View). The British press' coronation of the European team not withstanding, the US team took a formidable 6-2 lead after the first day of of the 37th Ryder Cup. Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim came through their 2 matches with 1.5 points despite Kim looking nervous early on. The surprise performance (and there is always one) was by Hunter Mahan and Justin Leonard who brought in 2 points and looked untouchable. I had said the player to beat for the Americans would be Sergio Garcia, and he came home with half a point out of his two matches.

It's still early but the Europeans need a dramatic reversal of fortune tomorrow. The foursomes and the fourball format is supposed to be a European strength. They needed a lead going into the twelve single matches on Sunday but now would do well just to be close. Faldo will be going to sleep a worried man tonight. He better be praying that Garcia and Harrington start to produce, and Mickelson (out of his shell in Tiger's absence) stops.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Twenty 20 has to kill Test Cricket

Australian cricketers are causing a stir by snubbing an earlier tour of Pakistan on security grounds, yet agreeing to go ahead with the Indian tour inspite of the recent bombings in Delhi. Cricket Australia went to great lengths to express "concern" at the security situation in India but there was no mention of any commercial considerations. Andrew Miller was more perceptive in a cricinfo article: "India, once tolerated at best by visiting nations, is now fawned upon shamelessly by savvy superstars who recognize the brevity of their athletic prime and the value of being seen to be seen in such a red-hot marketplace. Pakistan, by contrast, is regarded as India without the assets. A hot, dusty, foreign hellhole where you can't even get a drink, for God's sake - let alone a billion-rupee contract."

Under current ICC rules teams refusing to tour under its Future Tours Programme (FTP) are liable for hefty fines. But amid the IPL and Stanford millions, players have got more power and can exercise more choice. The boards seem to have little choice but to heed the players less dependent on international cricket (A billion dollars between lunch and tea). Miller narrows in on this: "Like the competitively honed creatures that they are, the players sensed a weakness, and they went for it mercilessly. They wanted a break in their never-ending calendar, and quite rightly so, but not one that would jeopardise their unparalleled earning powers. They saw in a little-loved tournament in a little-loved country the perfect combination to bend and abuse. The tournament never stood a chance, and nor does it have any hope of a revival in 2009."

As Cricket Australia and Ricky Ponting, the captain, kept insisting there was no double standard and everything was done on security considerations, former Australian cricketer Dean Jones threw a spanner in the works. Jones implied it was all done not to take on the economically powerful Indian Cricket Board (BCCI): "There is reason to be concerned about security there, particularly in Delhi, where the latest bomb went off. Through my role as an executive director of the Indian Cricket League, I know we have major headaches with security there."

Pakistan cricket is no doubt a loser. The country has yet not had a test match in 2008. But in this incident is reflected the greater malaise of international cricket. The bigger picture is that there are nine test playing countries left since Zimbabwe got ejected. Bangladesh, New Zealand and Sri Lanka are smaller markets and West Indies has already seen the erosion of its powers. Once Pakistan is sidelined as well it leaves the quartet of India, South Africa, England, Australia. While other sports expand their markets and enroll more audience participation, international cricket seems to be headed in the opposite direction.

Some may see this cherry picking behavior on the part of cricketers as a cause of decline for Test and One Day cricket, I just see it as an inevitable consequence of the ascendancy of Twenty 20 cricket. Money is not simply a sign of greed in today's marketplace as the cynics keep pointing out. In this free wheeling commercial era, money is also a scorecard of success. Twenty 20 cricket 1, Test cricket 0.

Ryder Cup- A Contrarian View

The US goes into the Ryder Cup as underdogs for the first time in years and the British papers have been doing their part in getting ahead of themselves calculating the margin of victory. The champagne is on ice, waiting for the Sunday coronation. Even the betting markets reflect the Europeans' overwhelming status. The three players odds on to be top point winners are all Europeans- Garcia, Harrington and Westwood.

The sentiment is understandable as the Europeans took the last two Ryder cups with record margins of 18.5 to 9.5 points each and have won eight of the last eleven cups. There is a lack of desire and camaraderie among the US players. Tiger is out injured. The in form player is European double major winner Harrington. There are too many rookies in the US team. Retrospective explanations as above will be endless if the US loses, but a closer look now shows few of these to have weight.

The US has home advantage and expect the Kentucky course to be set up with light rough and fairways that widen at 300 yards to accommodate their long drivers. Tiger should not be missed, with only a 10-12-2 record so far and intimidating his own team as much as opponents. Look for one of the US rookies, particularly Anthony Kim (23 year old with third best PGA scoring average) to make an impact. The Hot Harrington had a 0-4-1 record in the last Ryder cup in Ireland. Experience is over-rated as rookies have previously had some of the best performances.

The biggest problem for the US will be countering Sergio Garcia who has a formidable record of 14-3-3. If the US can find an answer to him, expect this Ryder cup to be very finely balanced. A lot is dependent on how teams respond to pressure and for the first time in a while, the US does not have the pressure of expectations. Symbolically, the match is being held in Muhammad Ali's home town of Louisville, Kentucky. So don't be too surprised if it turns out to be a "thrilla".

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Haka

Different sports have their own peculiarities and rituals. American football players douse their coach with a cooler full of Gatorade. Ice hockey fans throw their head gear onto the ice when a home player scores a hat trick. New Zealand international rugby teams popularly known as "All Blacks" perform the Haka, a form of Maori traditional dance to gee themselves up and to intimidate opponents before the start of a game. All this 10 feet from the opponents faces, who are expected to watch the ritual.

While I have never been able to get into rugby (and I used to watch Bass fishing on ESPN in college), the Haka has always fascinated me. There have been instances where the opposing teams have tried to ignore the Haka and the All Blacks have gone on to beat them by a higher than expected score. So ignore the Haka (in the following Addidas Ad) at your own peril:

Monday, 15 September 2008

Darts- The All Time Greatest

As a sports fan I'm always fascinated by sporting excellence (Federer winning the US Open) and sporting genius (Greatest Sport Stars of All Time), not least when the two come together. It is in this spirit that I want to introduce my majority non-British readership to the greatest darts player that ever lived, Phil "The Power" Taylor. He is the 13 time world champion from England.

Here is a video of Phil scoring one of his six live "nine darters" (the only player ever to have scored more than one on TV). For the uninitiated, a nine darter is the perfect score in darts, much like a 300 point game in bowling, a 147 break in snooker or hitting six sixes in an over in cricket. It is the absolute best a player can do, score 501 in 9 darts. Enjoy!

(oh, if you don't understand the commentators' Scottish accents, its probably because they are speaking Dutch!).

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Money Can't Buy You Love- But Gold Medals is Another Matter

"Sports do not build character, they reveal it". When John Wooden said those famous words he had those in mind who play sports. It turns out it reveals quite a bit about those who buy into sports as well.

Sporting success inspires people, provides a sense of accomplishment and pride, besides being a welcome diversion from bad news. I witnessed first hand this summer, the emotional uplift of a billion Indians when Abhinav Bindra won the first individual Olympic gold in his country's history. I remember from childhood, whenever things got tense under General Zia's martial law in Pakistan, we'd be treated to a rerun of some famous cricketing victory on state television. Who wants to protest when you can see Miandad bat instead?

Thinking about it, the surprise is that it took so long for nations to start throwing money at buying sporting success given all the positive externalities. China wanted to match its burgeoning economic might with gold medals and spent hundreds of millions of dollars through its state run sports system. And while the accompanying photograph of Chinese children gymnasts makes for more compelling newsprint, the British success was also criticized locally for diverting lottery money from community schemes to sports. Britain trebled its Olympic funding for Beijing to £235 million, funneling funding from other areas.

Then there is gas rich Qatar that has already taken the next logical step with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. In 2004, Qatari Saif Saaeed Shaheen broke the 3000 meter steeple chase world record. This would have been admirable for a country with a population of less than a million people except that until the year before, Shaheen was actually Stephen Chorono of Kenya and changed his nationality (and name for some reason) in return for $1,000 a month for life. There was an uproar in Kenya, but the undaunted Qataris continued their shopping spree by snapping up the Kenyan 5000m specialist Albert Chepkurui (now fittingly Ahmad Hassan Abdullah) next. These moves were probably inspired by the earlier wholesale purchase of eight Bulgarian weight-lifters for an alleged $1 million. In case you can't tell the Bulgarian silver medalist Alan Tsagaev from Qatari bronze medalist 'Said Assad' in the photo from Sydney Olympics below, here's a hint: Qatari flag (and track suit) has red in it.

Is there anything wrong with what Qatar has done? "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" was my first reaction. But a deeper look changed my mind. Is it ok for the rich countries to attract bankers and lawyers and doctors for financial reward, but not athletes? Is it the exclusive preserve of Ivy League educated professionals to sell out to the highest bidder? Surely, whats good for the goose is good for the gander.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Federer Made Me Fail the Tebbit Test

I admit it. I failed the "Tebbit Test". For those who need a refresher, Baron Norman Tebbit of Chingford famously devised this test a decade or two ago during an England-Pakistan cricket match. The honorable Baron was rather disturbed by the behavior of British Pakistanis betraying Queen and country and cheering for the men in green instead. He suggested that if there was a 'cricket test' to see which side you cheer for, a large portion of the British Asian population would fail it. The tabloids loved the idea and ran with it and it was 'christened' (no pun) the "Tebbit Test". A concept the honorable Barron returned to after the 7/7 London train bombings, making us feel like the enemy for cheering for the wrong cricket team, but I digress.

So a few years ago when I pledged allegiance to the Queen and got a purple passport (to prevent latex glove checks at airports, but I digress again), it felt like converting to a religion without really believing in it. Will I cheer for England cricket when they play Pakistan? Not if hell freezes over! But I was a bit surprised when I found myself gradually cheering British. First it was at the Ashes, but then I told myself who doesn't like rooting against the Aussie plonks. Next I found myself deflated when the England Football team got the two failures under Ericcson and I cheered hard for Britain at the Olympics. So like a Jew who eats pork, I allowed myself this one excess in my "Britishness". Other than when they play Pakistan at cricket, I cheer for all teams British.

It was in the same spirit that I found myself yelling my lungs out in support of Murray when he played Nadal in the semi-final of the US Open. Here was a chance (for us British-yeah!) to make up for the years of under-achievement by Henman. And what a victory it was. Murray out-muscled the muscular Nadal and won a beautiful game through powerful serves and relentless returns. He was even un-Murray like gracious in victory. So on Monday I put the kids to sleep early and settled in for a rooting session for a first British grand slam victory since Fred Perry in 1936.

Federer was in no mood to be denied though for he was on his own quest. If this was a "coming of age" match for Murray, it was a "mid-life crisis" for Federer. This year he lost his Wimbledon crown, his top world ranking and failed to get the Olympic gold. He knew he'd be written off by pundits if he lost this too and perhaps he was equally fighting his inner demons after so many defeats. The way he answered those doubts left me shaking my head in disbelief and appreciation and left little room for melancholy at the downing of my boy Murray. Federer's flowing ground strokes were back and the nimble touch was present as ever. It was poetry in motion and as a sports fan you knew it was time to enjoy an all time great back to his best. Grand slam number 13 leaves him one short of all time leader Sampras (see previous post) and with the young and hungry Nadal, Djokovic and Murray closing in, there can't be many more left in the tank. So with apologies to Baron Tebbit, cheering Murray will have to wait and I think I'll enjoy the Federer phenomenon while it lasts...

A Billion Dollars between Lunch and Tea? That's just not Cricket

ESPN Star Sports, the Asian broadcaster part owned by Rupert Murdoch, will pay $975 million for the 10yr exclusive rights for the Twenty20 Champions League, a tournament where the first ball has not yet been bowled. The Indian Premier League (IPL) had earlier bagged a $1.03 billion 10 year deal for 60 games a year, but the Champions League will only have 22 to 25 games a year. In response to the IPL riches, the Texas billionaire Alan Stanford has already announced a $20 million match in November between England and a West Indies all star team. Each member of the winning team will win $1 million, an amount equal to the total prize money available for the 12 teams that participated in the 1999 cricket world cup in England.

Reminds me of the famous Churchill phrase, "never was so much owed by so many to so few". In this case the "so few" not the valiant fighters of the RAF, but the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Representative for the largest share of cricket watchers in the world, they have been quick to pounce on the commercial opportunities and bounty is now being shared by cricket players all over the world. Not long ago the man of the match award at International cricket matches would get a $500 prize. Winning members of the Stanford match will earn that amount every 5 seconds of being on the field. Cricket has been late in claiming its commercial place among world sports, but you know a sport has arrived when Nike turns it into an advert.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The 5 Most Memorable Sports Ads on TV

Advertisements have been inspired by sports performances or sports stars for a long time. At least over a hundred years since we can see W.G.Grace in a Colman's Mustard print Ad in this photo. While commercial opportunities have done their part in making sports bigger and better, there have also been occasions when the ads themselves have inspired people to talk about sport or even take up sport.

To relieve the monotony of reading words, I thought I'd list my 5 favorite TV Ads. The first two are simply inspiring in a warm and fuzzy way, the third stands out for the artistic genius skills, and the last two are inspiring because they are humorous. Unfortunately, most of these ads are Nike ads as other companies tend to focus on their products, while Nike tends to glorify the sport or the star.

1. Nike- Earl Woods Speakover

Tiger Wood's father Earl Woods speaks in the background (posthomously) and tells us about how he "instilled" the game into Tiger as a kid, got him immune to distractions and focused on the task at hand- hitting the golf shot. Especially powerful since the media initially berated Earl Woods for his grand visions of his son and the messiah like impact he felt his son will have on the sport and beyond. Turns out papa Woods wasn't that far off. And after the poor guy passed away, every one came around to see it his way. The last line is particularly powerful and hangs in the air because if you've seen Tiger play, you know it's so true: "I told him Tiger, I promise you that you'll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life; and he hasn't, and he never will."

2. Addidas- Laila Ali vs Muhammad Ali

"Impossible isn't a fact, it's an opinion" starts the ad in Laila Ali's voice while her father enters the ring and shadow boxes and does his patented cross-over dance. The other boxer is Laila herself. "So when my father looks impossible in the eye and defeats it- again and again, what do you think I'm gonna do when they say women shouldn't box?" and with that she socks one to her father almost sending him tumbling.. "rumble young girl, rumble"... sends chills down your spine.

3. Nike- bouncing golf ball

This commercial was shot in one go without any edits and became the subject of a lawsuit between Acushnet (parent company of Titliest) and Nike for who held commercial rights of Tiger woods. Meanwhile golf fans from Japan to the US shook their heads in disbelief at the skill level and started practicing bouncing golf balls on their wedges instead of practicing their golf shots.

4. Nike- Is it the shoes?

Any list of great ads cannot ignore this Spike Lee/Michael Jordan number. This is the original ad that got Nike on the map and catapulted Jordan from being a sports star to a star period. Need I say more?

5. Nike- Roger Federer

Roger Federer and his make belief coach. Pretty funny.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Monkey off England's Back

Revenge is a dish best served cold. In one of the most anticipated England matches in recent years, England demolished Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb in a World Cup qualifier to avenge the defeats in the Euro qualifiers. Mondial 2010 Afrique du Sud, here comes England!

It was the coming out party of Arsenal prodigy Theo Walcott who scored a hat trick, while Fabio Capello also proved himself by out manoeuvring Slaven Bilic's Croatia. The same pundits who were starting to question Capello's class are now heaping praise on him on TV minutes after the game. Until the next set back....

I mentioned in my previous post that the England coach is of proven pedigree and if any questions need to be asked it is of the England stars who turn out for their clubs but not for their country, at least in spirit. Croatia had an off game today and it helped that they played with ten men for the last 35 minutes or so. England were well organized for a change but playing as underdogs to a team that beat you twice in the last year is one thing, reproducing that form game in game out in front of 90,000 impatient Wembley fans is another. England needs to keep the focus. Well begun is only half done.

Why Athletes Find it Difficult to Stay Retired

Its official. Lance Armstrong is coming out of retirement to go for an unprecedented 8th Tour de France win. In a Vanity Fair article he announced his decision to compete again in the premier race of the most physically grueling sports at the not so tender age of 37. Just to be clear, we are not talking about picking up a cricket bat again and stroking the ball around like Jayasuriya or even playing football where you can manage your pace of play or be used as an impact substitute for part of the game ala' Dennis Bergkamp. This is a 2200 mile muscle cell depolarizing, electrolyte depleting, flesh dehydrating, non-stop race through mountains and valleys at about 100 miles a day for three weeks. It's not tiring. Have you ever sat through a 2200 mile car journey? That's tiring. This is exhausting beyond recognition.

Why would Lance do it? Here is a man who is easily worth $300-$400 million. Lets cross out money from the list. He has won the Tour de France a record seven times, and that too consecutively. Cross out achievment. He has also gone on to raise $265 million for cancer research, not least through those oh so popular yellow "livestrong" wrist bands. Cross out altruism. And before winning these 7 yellow jerseys Armstrong got diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer and according to the VF article "had two surgeries: one to remove a cancerous testicle, another to remove two cancerous lesions on the brain. An additional 8 to 10 golf-ball-size tumors were found in his lungs. He’d been a dead man walking..... He was only 25 years old and had been given less than a 40 percent chance of survival." Cross out courage!

So why "un-retire"? Despite Armstrong's explanations that this time its "to raise awareness of the global cancer burden", I have my doubts. There is no reason to doubt his noble feelings for cancer research but I feel that is the crutch he is using for a come back. The history of sport is replete with examples of "all time greats" calling it a day and then coming back for one more try. Unfortunately, very few of these turn into happy endings and even if the initial foray is successful, they keep coming back until their legacy is somewhat tarnished.

Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, came back from his Whitesox baseball jolly to the Chicago Bulls successfully for a "three-peat" of championships. But that wasn't enough. After another 2 years of retirement he came back with the Washington Wizards for 2 unsuccessful seasons where they failed to even make the play-offs and Jordan also suffered a torn knee cartilage. The Ice Hockey great Mario Lemieux came out of retirement until he admitted to not being able to keep up with the increased speed of the game and suffered a heart condition. Tennis legend Bjorn Borg tried a comeback a decade after calling it a day, wooden rackets and all, but couldn't manage a single win. Baseball ace Roger Clemens came back to the Yankees last year and struggled with a 6-6 record, abysmal by his standards. The list goes on and on; Martina Navratilova, Brett Favre, Evander Holyfield, Martina Hingis, Sugar Ray Leonard- and then the most tragic of all and the most famous, Muhammad Ali. By all accounts Ali should have hung up the gloves after the "Thrilla in Manilla", but he would go on to fight another ten times including punishing losses to Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. Forget tarnishing his legacy, the searing question is, would Ali be different today if he hadn't taken such powerful blows to the head that late in life?

What causes world beaters to come back again and again? Why can't they leave brilliant enough alone? I suggest the answer might be addiction- to achieving, to being the center of attention, to feeling like you are on top of the world. Sort of the same addiction that makes dictators stay too long. While most corporate chieftains retire in their sixties and sometimes well in their seventies when their testosterone levels are falling and their physical powers are over the hill, professional athletes call it a day in their thirties. What is a man (or woman) suppossed to do? You think Michael Jordan watched the newly minted 18 year old millionaires with attitudes come into the Wizards on the back of money he attracted to the game and didn't think "I can still take you to school"? I'm sure Lance Armstrong enjoys his time with his children and keeps busy with his foundation, but do you for a moment think he watched Carlos Sastre win the race this year and didn't think "I can still beat him". All his power, his importance, comes from what he achieved on his bike. Is there a paucity of crusaders for cancer research? People listen to Lance Armstrong because he is the seven time winner of the Tour de France, not because he had testicular cancer. And I suspect he knows that all too well.