Tuesday, 23 July 2013

It may never get better than this

I don't watch golf as a rule. I've tried playing it and have come to the conclusion that they should make the balls and the bats a lot bigger. There's a stereotype of golf in this country isn't there? - that it's populated by V-necked-sweatered numpties who talk lovingly of Top Gear and tonic water and don't have much time for 'the ladies'? Fortunately the R&A like to host their only major golf tournament at such places. Jeez, even the down home backwoodsmen of Augusta have let a woman join the club.

There's another cliché that all American golfers bash the Bible and blame the weather when they can't plot their way around a links golf course. Phil Mickelson was one such, a man with a talent as ludicrous as his mulletish mane of hair, but who couldn't fathom why these Scotch sandbanks didn't play like the unfeasibly green technicolor pastures of your average American course.

Well yesterday he proved himself and seemed genuinely moved that he had. Lee Westwood meanwhile professed himself not too bothered with the result as he hustled himself into his bridesmaid's costume for the umpteenth time. They always said he couldn't putt. This week he couldn't do the stuff he can do. Poor old Lee. Will waddling Westwood ever get his gong?

The last day of the Open is always a great watch and this one oscillated wildly in the best traditions. Adam Scott, his putter looking for all the world like a branding iron, took the lead only to leak shots immediately. Woods is almost back to his best but the old strut has been replaced by a warier tread these days.

As usual Peter Alliss saw fit to remark that the others were making it easier for big Lefty at the end, forgetting, as that not-all-that-successful-former-golf-professional always does, that when a bloke blazes down the stretch and you have to fight to keep up it can lead to mistakes. He's a harrumphing old scrote that man. I don't care if he has got a nice voice.

But the not-quite success of a couple of Englishmen shouldn't undermine the rude health British sport finds itself in. There may come a time when my ancestors sit round my deathbed and all I bother telling them about is Swanny and Anderson, Wiggo and Froome, Jess n Mo n Greg Thingammy.

The Ashes have turned, well, to ashes already. To call Australia a shambles would be to denigrate a perfectly decent little thoroughfare in the fine city of York. Eleven twerps in saggy greens, they are. Barring a couple of extraordinary partnerships they have wielded their willows like inebriated conductors. The bowlers don't seem too bad - as batsmen.

But when Jimmy's not undoing them with brilliance, Swann's tweaking them out with jack-knifing turners or they're undoing themselves by referring every decision to the third umpire. Or as Shane Watson would put it, a 'doggy's chance'.

But it's not like England are up to much at the mo. Were it not for Bell's batting we might not be gloating quite so whole-heartedly. There are those who lament the Australians' utter ineptitude. They're saying that we should make allowances -  give em three innings, one bounce, one hand, play with a tennis ball, etc. Well I'm not one of 'em. 5-0 would be wonderful, ta. Bloody wonderful.

As for Chris Froome, well he's about as English as an English middle-order batsman, which is English enough for me. He doesn't strike me as the most charismatic man in the world. In fact I've seen fallen twigs with more personality. But it's not charisma that tears you up an Alpine 1 in 4 after you've been cycling for a fortnight already. It's sheer force of will, enormous talent, and, in the olden days, a secret pharmaceutical prescription.

I don't doubt that Froome is clean. Cyclists like him seem desperate to shake off the inheritance handed to them by the megalomaniac Armstrong. And who can blame him? Cycling history is pock-marked with horrendous levels of drug-taking. The death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux, brandied and amphetamined up to the handlebars, is possibly cycling's lowest (and yet almost highest) point, and it seems appropriate that Froome pedalled past his monument on the way to victory in the Tour this year.

I have at times wished for the whole of sport to be a drug-test-free zone. There would be a wondrous freakish side-show to be had if a 100 metres final line-up featured characters who wouldn't look out of place in an Avengers Assemble sequel. I can see decathlon favourite Dr David Banner being riled by his coach as I speak.

Professional football seems to be pretty much drug test free anyway at present, although I wouldn't mind if a couple of England boys were found to be over-stimulating themselves for a big summer tournament - it would be the first time any one of them has shown any initiative since 1990. Indeed the girls weren't much better - a horribly convincing imitation of the men as they laboured against a French team that were devilishly good.

But let's not think of footy - it'll only bring us all down when quite frankly there are heroes to herald.

2013. It may never get better than this.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

In Praise of Testing Times

So officially I've torn a calf muscle. A proper tennis player's injury, I'm told, so that makes me a proper tennis player.

This has meant being pretty much trussed up at home, hopping about between fridge and table using a mixture of beer and ibuprofen to dull the pain. Once the leg's better, I'll drop the ibuprofen.

My senses were by no means dulled enough to not excruciating the Japanese water torture of the first Ashes test match at Trent Bridge, mind you.

Midway through day 2 I was warming my heart on a torrid Australian batting after a collapse that wouldn't have looked out of place in an acceptance speech for Best Actress. Then out came Agar (wobbling like a jelly is Agar, I thought). He then proceeded to give us a series of impressions of cricket's greatest left-handers, ending with a Goweresque waft to midwicket.

Midway through day 3 I was chewing legs off kitchen chairs as I realised all our hopes resting on th slender shoulders and sawdust mind of one Ian Bell, a man who responds to pressure like a soap bubble. And yet here he was all touch and timing - one of the most elegant grinding-outs of an innings you will ever see and we were back in the ascendancy.

Our 12th man, Aleem Dar, could only help the cause after missing the biggest nick since Alcatraz. And suddenly there was no way England were going to lose. Midway through the morning of day 5 and here we all were jumping around with Jimmy as poor old Siddle to a blistering horizontal catch by Alistair Cook. That's Cook, the bloke with the Teflon fingers. Job done. Agar was already out, but that just meant that the latest Australian bunny had to be pulled out of the hutch or the hat.

The lad Pattinson then made another mockery of the batting order and looked more comfy than me Nan in a deckchair on Seaton Carew beach. They scraped and clawed - and when Finn was bowling positively scarpered - towards their ungettable target and if it wasn't for a timely lunch - during which the only food consumed by anyone I knew were fingernails - and not just my own - that would have been that.

Then Haddin, who batted so brilliantly, nicked it behind and, like a typical larrikin, refused to walk and we had to go upstairs to Erasmus. I understand the third umpire for the next Test will be Martin Luther - and he'll be a lot more clear-cut about the stumpings that this bloke.

Any road, turns out that Hot-Spot, Snicko, and hearing summat  all added up to Haddin's dismissal and England had squeezed home. Again.

Technology has come leaping to the fore again. It seems to throw up as many disputes as it solves. Me, I'm happy with it and as Aussie skipper Clarke says, he's just got to use it better. It would help, of course, if Sky had that technology to hand when it was needed - and if Mr Erasmus used it to make the right decision the great twot. Along with Cowan and Finn, I think he'll be lucky to see service at Lord's.

But anyone who thinks Test cricket is (a) dull and (b) dead could do worse than watch every second of this Test match back. Most of the dullest cricket matches I've seen in recent years have been tedious Twenty20's where the result is known long before the end has arrived. For a sport to maintain its fascination and tension for four and a half days is a testament to its form, its intrigue and the skill of its participants.

None more so than Jimmy Anderson. Here's a man whose mastery of his art has reached mesmeric proportions. And he's from Burnley! Were he a Pakistani quick with such magical ability, he would no doubt be fending off accusations of jiggery-pokery and sleight of hand that might perhaps be 'against the spirit of the game'.

Which brings us on to Stuart Broad and his refusal to walk. Aussies don't walk. They're told not to at a young age. This is sport. The officials make the decisions and you abide by them. Every so often you'll get a shit one to balance out the decision that went in your favour. It's unfortunate that human beings make these decisions but what can you do?

I'm with Broady. It's best not to help them out if you can help it. If that's not fair then just give him a charge of bringing the game into disrepute and we'll look again at whatever the hell the phrase 'Spirit of the Game' is supposed to mean.

Those that disapprove tend to be the chinless toffs who don't and never have relied on cricket as their main source of income. I mean there's no point in doing any of this chicanery if it's just a hobby you indulge in while you wait for pater to die so you can inherit half of Hampshire. Get over yourselves, chaps.

By the by, because I eschew pouring my hard-earned into the accounts of that wrinkled old Australian bollock Murdoch I've been enduring all this gut-wrenching tension via the medium of Test Match Special. It's the only time I allow transparent toffs to infect the air of the family home, be it Blofeld, his voice fruitier that a bumper crop from the Vale of Evesham, or Aggers jousting in a barely disguised class war with the hard-bitten oik that is Boycs.

Somehow it serves cricket just as well, if not better, than the tired old lunks on Sky. Only two days til the next one. Can't wait. My dear old thing.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Boy from Dunblane Dun Brilliant

First off, apologies for not illuminating your day like July sunshine for over three weeks now. My only excuse is that I've had no proper sport to write about. I could've said a tad more about the Confederation Cup but frankly it's just an excuse to have some international footy when the big tournaments are having the year off. It's a burger in a bun when you're gasping for a steak.

The British and Irish Lions provided a huge talking point to those that are in thrall to the joys of huge steroidal chunks of flesh being slammed against each other. It has its appeal but there are times when it looks like butcher's-shop billiards. 

Which is not to say that the prime Welsh beefcakes on display didn't make a marvellous fist of putting the wobbly Wallabies to the slaughter. Much was made of O'Driscoll's exclusion but Gatland's an unsentimental sod and you kind of knew it'd pay off. It's not like the Aussies are that shit-hot anyway... and as far as I can remember their scrum hasn't been able to push over so much as a Jenga tower for years.

There was the very exciting grand prix n all. Exhilarating, isn't it? Exhilarating in the same way as sticking one's head in a dustbin while your mate clatters it with a big stick is exhilarating. I've not met a single person I could sustain a conversation with after they've admitted loving F1.

On the other hand, Andy Murray winning Wimbledon is downright bloody scintillating. And that's coming from someone who couldn't be arsed much with tennis cos frankly the only decent courts round our way when I was a kid required you to cough up four weeks worth of your paper round money for a quick half-hour. All the lads that played there wore Mumsy-ironed white clothing and shiny Dunlop pumps and were called Giles, Tarquin or Jeremy.

There were no Andys, no Dereks. Just shiny posh nobs. Murray could hardly be described as that. I've always liked him, even when he was a knock-kneed shambling adolescent. That kid that cramped in the second set of a match and looked for all the world like he'd missed his dinner a bit too often always knew that if he wanted to be as good as he could be then Great Britain was no place to learn how.

While we leapt about like loonies at his crowning achievement and the saltires and union jacks got waved with cheery abandon, we all secretly realised that the only people who can take any credit for that victory are the back-room team that Murray has assembled and of course the lad himself. (No, not even Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper had a role to play - though they clearly thought they had, the great dollops).

It is Murray that has transformed himself from enfeebled writher into lithe greyhound. It is Murray that has shorn himself of coaches that could not serve him well enough, and ended up with a dry, deadpan Czech mate to tell him how you get beyond defeat. It is Murray, with the help of Lendl and others, who has sharpened his mind to such a fine state of readiness that even the loss of those three championship points in the final game failed to deny him the sweetest of victories.

He's not a nice polite boy from Oxfordshire who does all the right things. He swears, he rants, he rails against the world. He's a blatant hypochondriac. He doesn't support England when they're playing someone else - he's Scottish, you fecking numpties - show me an honest Scot who does. He's not remotely pretty, so how he got anywhere in the world must be difficult for John Inverdale to fathom.

In short he hates losing, has a bit of a ruthless streak, and, as I've said before, didn't need to cry on Centre Court last year to prove himself to anyone. That German blubberer Lisicki could learn a thing or two from him.

And he has got off the back of British sport not so much a monkey as an entire Planet of the Bastard Apes. I never thought I'd see the day. And I was punching the air with all the Gileses and Jeremies when he did it. (Yep, the Blue Bell was full of 'em on Sunday).

For what we do in Britain is invent wonderful games and then let the rest of the world show us how we should do it. And of all these games, tennis has been the most glaring example of the crapness of our generosity. But now we've got one - and he hasn't been the best of a mediocre bunch either. The blokes around him are unbelievably good. To beat Djokovic in straight sets is almost unheard of. He gets back so much does Novak that there are golden retrievers watching Wimbledon and just shaking their heads in awe and disbelief.

What's more I've even found a court where me and the lass can have a knock-up round our way. Yes Murray's inspired a cynical old scrote like me to get out in the park. Except I think I may have ruptured my Achilles. And I'm not joking. It's a long way back from an injury like this but I think I'll be okay to partner that Pole with the massive eyelashes in the mixed doubles next June. (Radwanska, not Janowicz).

Until then, let's all raise a crutch to Andrew Murray. The boy from Dunblane done brilliant. And we had nowt to do with it.