Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Test is Best

Test Cricket. Well, there are those of you who think that it’s about as dull as sport gets but I tell you, that’s garbage. It’s still the acme of the sport.

In a brilliant article earlier in the week Simon Barnes described the long form of the game as being like a novel. I’d prefer to say that the Test Match is the tantric version. One-day cricket is a back of the alley knee-trembler and Twenty 20 is a quick Sherman before you leave the house of a Friday night.

But like Barnes I like to think I have the intellect, the stamina, the discretion to enjoy something that lures you in, that ebbs and flows, that has its apparent doldrums and its mighty storms, and be able to appreciate it for its full and glorious nature.

I don’t mind your abbreviated snack-food stuff but it feels like it’s been structured for the goldfish-memory, sound-bite generation.

To back up the analogy of the well-told story, the latest instalment of Test cricket had more sub-plots than a Swedish crime novel.

First, take a look at the characters involved:

the Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar – as refined a piece of batting machinery as has ever set foot on to an outfield. A living legend destined to fulfil the arithmetical nicety of scoring his 100th international hundred in the 100th Test match between the two sides and the 2000th Test match of all time. Only actuaries would have believed that this meant that it must happen.

Then there was Stuart Broad, a lanky prep school pretty boy with a temper shorter than Shaun Wright-Phillips; a man who could hardly buy a Test wicket and whose place seemed to belong to the less media-friendly face of Reliable Old Tim Bresnan. Broad bowled like a genius, arcing devious deliveries in and out and off the pitch like Glen McGrath had supped from the fountain of youth and found a decent haircut and an English accent.

There was Rahul Dravid, who like Sachin had never quite mustered a hundred at Lord’s. He’s nicknamed The Wall is Dravid because of the stoutness of his defence, unlike Martin Keown who has a similar moniker cos it’s very much like talking to one. Dravid struggled manfully to three figures despite the consistent excellence of England’s bowlers.

Dravid’s doggedness was to be expected, however, unlike that of one Kevin Pietersen (remember him? He was very big in the noughties).

KP’s innings was precisely the sort of grind that would’ve left most superfast broadband customers thumping holes in their laptops. Such was his bind of self-restraint that at times he resembled nothing less than a fat lass sat in front of a never-ending conveyor belt of treacle puddings. But he held fast, did KP, until finally with 150 to his name he gorged himself on his just desserts.

There was, too, Matt Prior, a sort of NCO of the England XI, marching busily to the wicket in the wake of some pretty meek batting from the top order. With help form the rejuventated Broad, he tonked the ailing Indian attack to the four corners of Lord’s with such assurance that it almost looked inevitable.

England were very indebted to an injury to Zaheer Khan a bloke who hoop a delivery around like a Ronaldo free-kick when the force is with him.

The last day’s play was marvellous, not least cos the ground was packed out with fans who could barely believe they were there. Swathes of Indian fans attempted to get a touch of Tendulkar as he went to his nets, as if he were the cricket equivalent of the Blarney Stone.

Dravid and Laxman, another wondrous batter, were at the crease. Jimmy Anderson, at his best a promiscuous bisexual of a bowler in that he really swings it both ways, was ready at one end. At the other there was Chris Tremlett, built like a tower of brick shithouses. To come was Broad and Graeme Swann, the best spin bowler in the world.

Slowly but surely they chipped away at the Indians like four men trying to upend a boulder with the trunk of a tree, until eventually the rock shifted and the whole cliffside caved in. You needed patience to understand it. To understand the stoppered rage after Broad’s plumb lbw was turned down by the umpire Billy ‘Oooh look at me, aren’t I quirky!’ Bowden.

To understand the agony of Dravid’s lame waft and nick behind, or Laxman’s pull to midwicket, or hothead Harbhajan’s brainless waft to mid-on.

Let’s be clear. There is nowt wrong with this whole yarn taking five days to unveil itself. Long may it continue, especially cos as a Sky Sports refusenik I enjoyed most of it on Test Match Special on the radio. To me TMS is as much a part of the English summer as sheltering under trees during a thunderstorm and getting botulism from a not-quite-cooked piece of barbecue chicken.

Sometimes the private school and chummery and vowels more fruity than an Innocent smoothie have me reaching for my Teesside Book of Working-Class Outrage but the advent of Tuffers and Vaughany seemed to have redressed the posh monotony. (Although hearing Tuffers give good counsel to Test Match batsmen is a bit like Peter Stringellow starting up a line in Marriage Guidance.)

And there’s always Boycott. Straight-talking no-nonsense Geoffrey. I bet he’s never done a cryptic crossword. Or changed the font on his computer. Cricket is bloody obvious to Boycs. Not so much a tantric week of sensual love as a steady straightforward me-on-top shag with the missus. Not a rambling saga but the Haynes Manual to the Honda Civic. What a cracking pundit he is.

"I'm off down the Corridor of Uncertainty to the Bar of Utter Truth for a glass of Simple Fact"

Despite all that, I’m gagging for the footy season to begin, particularly if Balotelli continues to entertain so royally. The lad’s head must rattle from all them loose screws.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Clarkey of the Course

Look golf is a stupid game. I’ve never liked it, not least cos it is the one sport that makes me violent in the extreme. I reckon I could make a decent cage-fighter if I went straight into the ring following a windswept nine holes.

To me, golf is one of them weird ritualised sanctuaries of the middle class. Like Waitrose. Or Cafe Bastard Rouge. It’s all Pringle sweaters and business chit-chat; the sort of place where comfortable finance directors discuss Audi TTs and share-prices while tutting over their bifocals cos I’ve been playing in me trainers.

There’s never a decent ale on tap and the only totty represented there still seems to be the middle-aged wife of the treasurer heaving herself around behind the bar with all the alacrity of a hibernating bear with arthritis.

To me, golf clubs are just a sinister cover for a heinous scheme to clone Peter Alliss. Shudder.

So it comes of a bit of a surprise when someone wins a golf tournament and I end up with tears in me eyes.

As I say, golf is a loveless pursuit. For every decent strike there’s a dozen evil twists of fate that make you feel like you'd happily rotivate every mother-fecking piece of turf that ever played host to a pimpled ball and chuck it into the back garden of a Hebridean crofter to fuel his peat-fired aga for the rest of his bleeding days.

But Darren Clarke, eh? Has there been a more welcome winner of anything in the past few decades? Really?

Even putting aside the personal tragedy the bloke’s endured, here’s a man who visibly enjoys his life. In this era of dietary fascism, where pastry is the devil’s work and a deep-fried bread-crumbed piece of flesh can only be eaten responsibly if some supermarket think-tank has labelled it a ‘goujon’, here we have a sportsman whose chosen method of perambulation is the lumber. That’s when he’s not grinning through the fug of a cheerful B&H, or gabbling happily over a third Guinness.

Put simply, he’s a bit like you and me is Darren. Twenty years he’s been cuffing a white dot through the gorse and grass of Britain’s links, and somehow smiling through it. Up until now, you’d have thought that his greatest triumph was the heart-tugging holing out at the K Club in Ireland to secure the Ryder Cup in 2006 – all in the wake of the death of wife Heather, who unsurprisingly was as popular a golf wife as ever there was.

Of course what made the victory even sweeter was the fact that you spent the whole day waiting for him to fall away. There were much more heralded players who had already ducked under the Open canvass for a sheltered weekend.

I’m not sure Lee Westwood will win a major. There’s something about his humble demeanour and that Agassi-style waddle that never quite convinces. And the new world number one Luke Donald looked as happy in the wind and rain as a Royal Ascot debutante.

Clarke though has spent his last few months back in Northern Ireland and I dunno about you but every time I’ve looked at the weather forecast recently I’ve been half expecting to see the province relocated somewhere in the North Sea such has been the crapness of their weather.

People say that links golf is a bit of a lottery, and maybe fortune plays its part there more than say the manicured and preposterously fake technicolor avenues of some of them American courses, where even the water hazards are dyed blue to convince the homeys that they’re real.

To be fair, the Americans were dogged at this tournament and at one point yesterday it seemed inevitable that Mickelson, wielding his club like an expert whittler, was going to storm past even the Ulster Teddy Bear and lift the jug himself.

One word for you son - haircut

At one point you thought that the young lad Ricky Fowler – impossibly not yet the name of an EastEnders character and dressed like a camp Blackpool fan – would get back in it.

Then there was the little-known American (to me any road) who looked destined to grab the trophy. The lad Dustin could certainly drive a ball further than I could a car. But thankfully he carved one out of bounds, as if recognising that to deny Clarkey would’ve been an act of pure villainy. Let’s face it none of us have forgiven Stewart Cink for denying Tom Watson – a man who has a turtleneck even when he’s not wearing that style of sweater - his victory in 2009, the slap-headed God-fearing git.

And so, as if moving to the strains of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain), the Ulsterman strode on mightily and wonderfully.

I heard him in a press conference this morning. He’d had no sleep, he was slurring with emotion and no doubt booze. He wasn’t quite the staggering pisshead that was Freddie Flintoff in 2005, but he wasn’t far off.

Great sporting boozers of our time

Today he goes back home to Portrush to be with his two lads. He’s got a fiancĂ©e n all, and she’s easy on the eye, I reckon.

Nah, it’s hard to believe but sometimes the right people win. It’s not always the narrow-eyed cold-blooded egomaniacs that lift sport’s greatest prizes. Not only were we partisan Brits delighted that the transatlantic threat was extinguished, so was every other golfer that walked the course this weekend.

Of course this means three Northern Irishmen have won a golf major in the last 13 months. The R&A are looking at maybe hosting a future Open in the province. Mate it’s the least you can do. Apart from anything else, a good old gale and the odd bit of horizontal hail doesn’t do the chances of our doughiest players any harm at all.

And yet despite all this, I’m still not going to my local pitch n putt this week. Cos golf is, as I say, the stupidest of games.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Transfer Tittle-Tattle

Ahhh! The Beckhams have had a baby girl (or as you say in Essex ‘ge-uw’). The name? Well that’s always a source of great interest as celebrities seem unable to call a child anything resembling a name.

I was convinced the answer would have something to do with his nibs’s football/modelling career so I had my money on Bernabeu, with a couple of side-bets on Police and Row-Z (where that scuffed penalty kick ended up in 2004).

Sorry pet but this is your Mum and Dad.

But it turns out they’ve named her after an obscure Australian lager: Harper Seven. Although Becks was pretty keen on Guildford Four. He discounted Birmingham Six as he couldn't imagine them scoring that many.

Obviously the ‘seven’ bit is cos she’s sixth in the family and after they got past four they lost count. As for Harper, I guess Posh reckoned it had royal connotations (as in Harpers & Queen’s) or they have a fondness for loyal bench-warming Geordie goalies who’ve finally secured a first team place.

Still it’s the silly season at the mo. Football carries on in a kind of Heat-magazine style gossip form. The chippiest kid on the block at the mo is Little Luka Modric. Having never listened to Elvis Costello he really wants to go to Chelsea. He’s such a tiny wee thing, it’s hard not to feel like he’s being bullied out of the sort of wage packet that Even Fred Goodwin might come out of hiding for.

You can’t help thinking of Suzanne Vega’s plaintive little tune: ‘My name is Luka, I live on the second floor, I play for Tottenham, Yes I guess you’ve seen me before, If you hear something late at night, some kind of trouble, some kind of fight... chances are it’ll be Daniel Levy coming round with the thumbscrews and the baseball bat.’

Modric says he had a gentleman’s agreement to discuss matters if a bigger club came in for him. Note the carefree use of the term ‘bigger club’. What he means is ‘richer’. A club’s size is directly correlated to its wealth. There are no other factors: forget tradition, loyalty, relationship with the fans.

"What?.... 80 grand a week, Mr. Levy? Call yourself a gentleman!"

Nevertheless I think Modric has been naive – and given he’s only twelve years old you hardly blame him for that. Perhaps he should ask Martin Jol about gentlemen’s agreements with THFC. Fact is, Modric can’t be sold now without Levy and Spurs looking like spotty teenagers trying to keep hold of their half a cider at a night-club for big boys.

You might say that Levy’s taking his cue from Wenger’s successful retention of Cesc Fabregas this time last year. And a lot of good that did them. When he wasn’t crocked Cesc was as unremarkable as an English penalty shoot-out defeat, as if half of him was already tika-taka-land – a point he proved with that impish backheel at the Nou Camp.

Of course Arsenal is the hub of football speculation at the mo. The fans are beginning to lose faith in the Wenger Plan – a kind of tika-taka lite – the same as Barca but without the burden of all them heavy trophies.

Clichy has jetted off from the Emirates to the Etihad. Bendtner has finally been given to leave to piss off somewhere – anywhere, probably. Apparently Niclas would have sent his resignation himself but he just missed the post. He could’ve e-mailed it but he couldn’t find the net either.

And England’s very own Manuel Almunia is destined to leave too. ‘Almunia’ always sound like a little-known department of rural Spain to me: a place where people constantly wander aimlessly out of their homes only to wonder why they left the door wide open.

Gervinho has arrived. Now there’s more to being a top footy player than adding ‘inho’ to your name like you’re some kind of honorary Brazilian (hmm... that sounds like something that comes with being made a freewoman of Romford).

Despite that, and a headband that’s so tight it resembles the sort of thing shepherds clamp on to lambs’ tails, the lad’s a class act.

But Fabregas will return to his beloved Barca, which leaves a question mark over Samir Nasri, the player of the first half of last season (unsurprisingly as that is Arsenal’s favourite bit of the season – the bit with no pressure).

Samir’s in demand. In fact if your club haven’t put a bid in for him then you support a club with no ambition. (NB – in the current climate of club football, ‘ambition’ is another word for ‘money’: c.f ‘bigger’).

But according to The Sun – which could mean it’s (a) untrue or (b) confidential or (c) just summat some copper told them - Wenger’s keeping him. And Fabregas. Such is Arsene’s self-belief, he is unable to comprehend either of them leaving even if that means another season of winning nowt.

"Shh, don't tell Arsene I had my fingers crossed when I promised to stay!"

Given half a chance I reckon Wenger would be checking the back of Clichy’s head to see where the Man City spies inserted the brain-altering microchip. But before Gooners everywhere start jumping with joy at the news, a little reminder for you: these blokes were there last year, and the year before...

And there’s no sign of Wenger bagging a decent centre-back yet. He’ll be in for Samba but he’ll come out with some no-mark Colombian called Passo Doble. And where’s the midfielder who likes a tackle? (That’s a tackle – not the Wilshere-trademarked studs-up lunge).

Chances are that 2011-12 will be the identikit Arsenal experience. A bright start, a lot of cooing, a centre-back injury, a quarter-final Champs League defeat, a Cup semi-final, and a drastic loss of form come February. The football equivalent a lover that brings you to the point of climax and then stops to ask you whether you think they’re any good at it.

Meanwhile I’m still trying to get over the Women’s World Cup defeat. Hopefully in 20 years time little Harper Seven Beckham will be taking the deciding penalty. And doing it better than her Dad.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Toe to Toe With Klitschko

David Haye. The Hayemaker. Making hay while the sun shines (out of his arse if you believe the hype). Anyone who watched the Fight of the erm, Decade was it? - or did they manage to hype it up to an epoch this time? – can be certain that the braided braggart has reached the end of his line.

Before the Valuev fight you sensed that Haye’s main goal was to make sure he was remembered. And to that end he gobbed off like a schoolboy baiting a caged gorilla. Still he got in there and whittled away at the Russian cliff-face and got a result.

Not so cocky now, eh Dave?

This time there wasn’t even the slightest sign of him even chipping a nail on the Ukrainian’s chin... which would be fine if he hadn’t called Wladimir a ‘fucking dickhead’ and accused him of yabbering on and saying nothing – a remark which is unsurpassed in the history of exchanges between Mr. Pot and Mr. Kettle.

Now you might say Haye has pepped up a heavyweight division which is as devoid of character as a Steven Gerrard post-match interview. But he seems to leave all his showmanship in the pre-fight build-ups. In the fights themselves he’s just another journeyman heavyweight with a big right hand.

Lennox Lewis was apparently comparing Haye to Ali last week. And, laughably, in favourable terms. Clearly the Hayemaker is nowhere near Ali's class in the ring, so maybe Lennox – another somewhat uninteresting man from boxing’s recent history unless you dwell on the fact that he still lived with his mum in his 30s – was on about Haye’s audacious use of the English language.

Well even here I fear Muhammad Ali is slightly ahead on points. On Saturday night Haye appeared to float like a bee and sting like a butterfly.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Haye – perhaps you have to give him grudging respect for fashioning himself some mighty paychecks from a bit of talent and a lot of bluster.

Nevertheless the broken toe excuse doesn’t wash. I’m sure there are pain-killing injections to help with that – and surely getting belted in the face by a 6 foot 8 inch Cossack is going to distract you from a crack in your phalanges.

The point is that Haye offers this as an excuse after the fight. I mean what was he hoping to do, kick his ass? If it hampered him so much then he should’ve withdrawn but that would’ve denied a handsome purse. And the pinky pain hardly stopped him from dodging a Klitschko KO from round 4 onwards, did it?

I’m not saying he’s Dis-Audley Harrison, but if that was the Fight of the Decade then I suggest we take down all the boxing rings in Europe and go back to a bit of honest to goodness cock-fighting ‘til 2021.

In the meantime Wimbledon drew to a close with yours truly getting it right and wrong. I tipped Kvitova to win the ladies and she didn’t let me down. Not that I want to watch two strapping lasses from a Nazi Youth propaganda poster knocking nine bells out of each other too often.

At least we were saved from Azarenka v Sharapova which would’ve been a festival of grunting post-Soviet grunting the like of which hasn’t been heard since the outlawing of the Stalingrad Sow Slaughtering Championships in the early nineties.

Kvitova saved her whelps for the odd celebration of a winning point. Not that you expect someone of her dimensions to emit a noise that sounded like she’d sat on a hamster.

The men’s final had better moments in it, and was a refreshing change. Djokovic is an extraordinary player. He doesn’t seem to possess the most dangerous of weapons: he doesn’t have Nadal’s whiplash forehand (and I bet you wouldn’t want to come up against Rafa in a post-shower towel-flicking contest) or that fluent Fed backhand. The serve’s not terrifying either.

But he doesn’t have any weaknesses either, not least in his body which appears to be more flexible than a Nick Clegg policy commitment. And he covers the court to such an extent that even the Rafa was reduced to clumping it over the baseline in despair.

I liked the celebration, too – eating the grass was a nice touch. I think he’s going to have to smoke some before our Andy Murray can get anywhere near him.

That’s not to say that Murray’s crap. He’s very, very good. It’s just that Nadal’s a blinking animal. But Djokovic has proved what needs to be done to beat him and Jesus it looks like hard bloody work. Let’s hope the Scot is up to it.

Old Rafa is disarmingly nice, isn’t he? On court he looks for all the world like a Spanish Popeye, narrowing his eye and bulging his biceps. Off the court he’s a pussycat which is in fact the diametric opposite of David Haye’s performance in Hamburg on Saturday.

I’m off to see a bit of one-day cricket on Wednesday and I’m hoping and praying that Jonathan Trott isn’t batting at number three. The lad doesn’t do one-day innings. He likes to spread ‘em out over two or three. Why the feck are they picking him?

Meanwhile a Latin American model has promised to strip if Paraguay win the Copa America. Given I listened to a BBC 5Live broadcast that listed the reasons why England’s national team is shite (too many foreigners, club v country, media pressure, being a bit too tired, schoolboy centre-halves just hoofing it, being generally a bit crap, etc.) maybe it’s time that Capello resorted to these more alternative incentives.

That's a mobile phone in her cleavage by the way. Wonder if it's on vibrate.

Frankly the lass in question, a Senorita Larissa Riquelme, leaves not too much to the imagination, but it must be worth sounding out Rachel Riley just in case.