Wheel of Fortune Turns Against Rosberg

Back in April, yours truly at Random Towers wrote a blog about Lewis Hamilton’s early season travails and suggested that in order to inject some excitement into the F1 season he should allow teammate Nico Rosberg to gain a massive head start in the Drivers’ Championship and then dramatically claw back the lead and hurtle past to win the title.   Obviously Lewis has been reading my blog!  And followed suit!  How pliable of him.  From 43 points down to 19 points up.  Courtesy of 6 wins in 7 races and now 4 wins in a row after winning the German Grand Prix on Sunday.  Way to go Lewis!

As for Nico Rosberg, he needs to hire a driving instructor to teach him how to steer right.  After driving Hamilton off the track in Austria on the final lap rather than turning into the corner in due time and destroying his own race victory in the process, he tried to do the same to young Max Verstappen at the German Grand Prix.  Now precocious Max isn’t exactly averse to using some iffy defensive tactics of his own, like moving in the braking zone, but Rosberg was never going to get away with shunting a fellow driver off the track twice in four races.  Misfortune though is like buses.  It all comes at once.  Rosberg had already suffered from a disastrous start, dropping from pole to fourth, which is what left him grappling with Verstappen for third.  Mercedes had then tried to under cut the Red Bull with an earlier pit stop for Rosberg, but to no avail.  This left Rosberg trying to get past in his unique way, which cost him a 5 second penalty.  A 5 second penalty taken in the pits that bizarrely turned into an 8.2 second penalty thanks to a malfunctioning stop watch.  You know your luck must be out when German equipment starts conking out!  The unwitting delay didn’t affect the outcome though and Rosberg finished fourth, behind the two Red Bulls, with his teammate serenely coasting to victory at the front.

Rosberg may now find himself 19 points behind going into the summer break, but it’s not all over just yet.  That would be far too straightforward, and since when does Lewis Hamilton do straightforward?  There will be the obligatory twist in the tale.  Hamilton has to take a grid penalty in the next couple of races for using more than the permissible engine parts at the beginning of the season, which could cost him his hard earned lead.  Lewis though has form for making epic comebacks from back of the grid (see Hungary and Germany 2014) so the prospect of a Hamilton charge up the order is enticing.  F1 needs all the help it can get in having more wheel to wheel racing and overtaking, so it is good to know Lewis Hamilton takes his duties as entertainment ambassador seriously.  Well, this is a man whose idea of celebrating a home Grand Prix win was to fling himself onto his delirious fans to enjoy a spot of crowd surfing!  Dull, he ain’t.  And that can only mean more excitement for F1 fans.


Cook’s Cracking Captaincy Silences Naysayers

With one gesture, England captain Alastair Cook sent the cricketing universe into collective meltdown.

How could he do such a thing?  What was he thinking?  Hadn’t he consulted a meteorologist?  Why didn’t England have a meteorologist?  Surely these days they had staff to cater for every need?  Although, considering the 2nd Test Match against Pakistan was being played at Old Trafford, Manchester (the cricket version, not the Theatre of Dreams), it didn’t need an expert to guess that rain was going to fall at some point.

So what was this heinous, obscene, offensive motion by Cook that got everyone’s knickers in a twist?  Drum roll…….

Alastair Cook indicated at the end of Pakistan’s second innings on Sunday that England would not be enforcing the follow on even though they were a whopping 391 runs in front.

Yeah, I know.  What a shocker.  391 runs ahead.  2 and a bit days still to play.  Bowlers only bowled 60 odd overs.  Pakistan on the ropes.  Time to knock ’em out.  Enforcing the follow on seemed the logical cricketing decision.

Except Cooky didn’t.  And thanks to the instant whirl of social media, he was universally condemned as too defensive, safe, cowardly…[insert own insulting adjective at will]…by pundits and keyboard warriors alike.  Even yours truly must admit to raising an eyebrow or both at the captain’s contrariness.

Ah, ye of little faith!  Alastair Cook was vindicated as England batted and bowled Pakistan into submission on Monday with a day to spare.  Although the rain had briefly threatened to undermine England’s parade yesterday evening, England had eventually managed to end the day on 98-1, leaving them with a healthy 489 run overnight lead.  On Monday morning, they added 75 more runs to extirpate any fleeting Pakistan resistance fantasies, eventually declaring on 173-1, and setting them a massive 565 runs to win.

If Pakistan thought they were in the ideal location for the rain to come to their rescue, they would have been right – on any other day.  Amazingly, it didn’t rain in Manchester on Monday.  Which left Pakistan up creek without paddle.  And facing England’s now well rested and freshly fearsome bowling attack.  The result was not pretty.  First Cook deployed the stick in Jimmy Anderson to frighten Pakistan into dropping the first two wickets; then he dangled the carrot of Moeen Ali to tempt them into smashing the off-spinner for easy boundaries and eventually into the grateful hands of the England fielders.  The only negative for England was that in between Ben Stokes pulled up with what looked like a calf tear, which could be the end of his series.

Pakistan were languishing at 165 for 5 at tea and they didn’t have to wait too long to get in for an early dinner.  Chris Woakes joined in the demolition job by taking a wicket either side of tea, with Anderson and Ali adding to their haul.  Cook then changed tack again by throwing in a bit of Root spin (is there anything the boy can’t do?) to confuse Pakistan’s tailenders, and with only his second ball, Root had lured Wahab into edging to the captain.  The end was nigh for Pakistan.  Chris Woakes was left to administer the last rites on their innings, which ended on 234.  England had won by an emphatic 330 runs, and there were still 17 overs to spare.  Follow on? What follow on?

Cook had called it right, and the naysayers have been left to recover in a cold, dark room.  It’s all square in the series, and whilst not everything is rosy with England (opener conundrums, Stokes injury, spinner issues etc), their dominant performance at Old Trafford proved they are good enough to win the series.

Alastair Cook will always have his critics, but in this instance, he proved he knows what he is doing, and perhaps the best thing we jittery onlookers can do is to leave him alone to get on with his job of captaining England, hopefully, to a Test series win.

Mickelson Magic Not Enough To Win Open

Last Thursday, he came within a whisker of doing what no one has ever done before in the history of golf: shooting a 62.  On the 18th green, his ball lipped the hole and somehow stayed out.  It should have been a moment to savour, but Phil Mickelson was left disappointed.  So near and yet…

Fast forward to Sunday: he shot a final round 65, -6 under for the day, 4 birdies, an eagle and no dropped shots, playing one of the greatest rounds of golf that would have won 140 out of the previous 144 Opens, but Phil Mickelson was left disappointed.  So near and yet…

It must be seem very strange to have played one of the greatest tournaments of your career, and taken part in an epic final round duel that will go down in golfing history, yet end up feeling like you have got the booby prize.  The golfing gods were not with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon.  In hindsight, that should have been obvious from what happened on Thursday.  If the gods had been with him, he would have shot that history making 62 on Thursday.  If the gods had been with him, he would have holed the 2nd rather than hit the pin and eagled the 16th rather than miss by centimetres on Sunday.  Phil was destined to be the nearly man, the what could have been man, at Troon.

But what a ride he gave us.  That’s the thing with mercurial geniuses.  You just never know what you’re gonna get.  All you know is it won’t be predictable, and it won’t be ordinary.  Mickelson does things with a golf ball that others didn’t know was possible.  He gets into trouble, he gets out of trouble.  One moment you are tearing your hair out in frustration as yet another wayward tee shot nearly lands in the next county; the next you are slapping your forehead in disbelief as a ball buried deep in the rough or hiding behind a tree is miraculously clubbed out to within a few feet of the pin to save the day.  Yep, life is never dull with Phil the Thrill.

On Sunday, in that jaw dropping final round showdown, Phil was playing against the golfing equivalent of the Terminator.  Henrik Stenson simply would not go away.  He just kept coming at Phil.  He was relentlessly consistent; relentlessly finding fairways, relentlessly hitting greens, relentlessly making birdies, and Phil needed all his Houdini style magical brilliance and powers of recovery just to stay in touch.

In the end, it took a monster putt of 45 ft on the 15th from Henrik Stenson to break Phil Mickelson’s resolve.  Strangely, it’s not the first time that’s happened to Phil.  In the legendary 2012 Ryder Cup, dubbed the Miracle of Medinah, Mickelson was 1 up with 2 to play in his singles match against Justin Rose, when Rose unbelievably birdied a 40ft bomb from the edge of the green to draw level, and then went on to birdie the last and win the match.  It took a miracle putt to beat Phil Mickelson that day.  And it took a miracle putt for Henrik Stenson to finally wrench the Open from Phil Mickelson on Sunday.

Even then, he still needed some more help from those obliging golfing gods.  Mickelson earned himself an eagle opportunity on the 16th that just missed the hole by a whisker.  Then, on the 18th, with the Open seemingly in the bag, Stenson’s final drive trundled alarmingly towards the infamous Norman bunker (more quicksand than bunker) but dribbled to a halt on the edge.  Had Mickelson’s dropped in the hole and Stenson’s dropped in the bunker, who knows what might have been.  But the Claret Jug wasn’t Phil’s to win.  For Henrik Stenson would not be denied.  His steely resolve melted Mickelson’s magic.  Stenson birdied 4 out of the last 5 holes to end with an -8 under par 63, the lowest total to win a Major, and his final total score of -20 was the lowest scored to win the Open, eclipsing Tiger Woods’ -19 total at St Andrews in 2000.

It was a stupendous performance from the stoic Swede (are there any other kind?) and he was a deserved winner of the Claret Jug.  But Phil Mickelson surely wins the prize for having the most surreal tournament.  When he thinks back on this Open, he probably won’t know whether to laugh or cry.  It seems somehow apt, because golfing with Phil has always been a bittersweet experience.  A sweet and sour dish of brilliance and frustration, but never bland.  And once tasted, never forgotten.



No Road to Rio for Rory McIlroy

So, R-Mac says it as it is.  Yes, it was blunt.  Some of it was rather unwise.  But most of it was true.  Golf has no place in the Olympics.

Rory McIlroy, along with all true sports fans, will be watching “the stuff that matters” at the Olympics.  Like the running, and the swimming, the fencing and the throwing, the shooting, the canoeing, the tumbling and the rowing.  Proper, traditional Olympic sports where winning an Olympic medal is the pinnacle of achievement.  That should be the only criteria for inclusion.

Golf is in the Olympics because its powers that be want to grow its ‘brand’.  But why is it acceptable for a sport such as golf, which stages prestigious tournaments around the world and hands out millions in prize money to its top players, to use the Olympic Games as a marketing tool to grow its brand?  The Olympics are supposed to be a global sporting competition that celebrate athletic endeavour, not a marketing convention.

Yes, the top male golfers may have found an extremely convenient excuse in the threat of the Zika virus, but their en masse withdrawal reflects their tacit disapproval of golf’s participation in the Games, even if Adam Scott was the only one forthright enough to say it outright.  Predictably, the players have been condemned as selfish and accused of not playing because there is no money involved – which may or may not be true – but that accusation is rather ironic given the cynical money making exercise the Olympics have become.  Surely if the players were so greedy, they would be rushing to participate and increase their global profile so they could make more money out of it even if they weren’t directly paid for competing, not staying away like there was a potential virus going around.

Of course, there might be another, more prosaic explanation: the Olympics are a scheduling nightmare for the players.  The Games are in the way of golf’s own Olympics – the Majors.  The Majors are what matter in golf.  Golfers do not dream of winning Olympic gold; they dream of cradling the Claret Jug and wearing the Green Jacket.

The biggest of them, The Open, starts this week, and the US PGA will follow straight after, because it had to be bumped forward from its traditional August slot to accommodate the Olympics in the same month.  So basically, the players are being forced to play two Majors (did I mention they are the tournaments that actually matter in golf?) back to back in the space of two weeks.  And hot on the heels of the Olympics comes the Ryder Cup in September.  Plus, there are other events taking place on the Tour.  No wonder the players want to avoid the Olympics.  How the devil are they supposed to fit it all in?  Particularly without compromising the quality of their performance?

Obviously nobody within golf’s governing body, the IGF, had the foresight to realise what a scheduling headache they would be letting themselves in for every four years when they were desperately lobbing the IOC for inclusion in the Olympics.  A quick glance at the golfing calendar would have revealed that the Olympics fall bang in the middle of the last two Majors of the season.  This is in contrast to tennis, where there is a longer gap between Grand Slams, giving the players ample time to indulge in the Olympic experience, and it perhaps explains their unstinting support for the Olympics.  But for golf, the IGF face the prospect of having to change their golfing calendar every fourth year, to accommodate the Olympics.  Cue quadrennially unhappy golfers.

Golfers are entitled to prioritise the Majors and the Tour because those are the events that define a golfer’s career and legacy.  And yes, the money comes in handy too.  We have all got to make a living.  Instead of castigating the players for not being interested in competing at an event which is of no relevance to their sport, the critics should direct their opprobrium at golf’s governing body for their short-sightedness in pursuit of brand growth.

Golf doesn’t need to be in the Olympics to grow the game; golf’s greatest marketing tool is its own players.  What the sport needs is for its top players, such as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, to play great, entertaining golf, win Majors, and create a barnstorming rivalry in the way of the ‘big four’ in tennis.  And the best place for them to showcase their talents isn’t in the exotic tropics of Rio, but at golf’s spiritual home in bonny, blustery Scotland, where its most prestigious tournament, The Open, is taking place this week.

As the saying goes, there’s no place like home.

How To Make Football Interesting Again

Gone are the days of jumpers for goalposts and scruffy kids pretending to be George Best and dribbling worn footballs around molehills of broken glass and dog poo in the local park.  If Euro 2016 is anything to go by, nowadays they are more likely to avoid anything that resembles a spherical object and pretend to be a double decker bus built of brick instead, and park themselves in front of the fat kid goalie (not to be fattist, but they are always the ones stuck in goal in football mythology, aren’t they?).  Because apparently, that’s modern football.  It’s not about possession, stupid.

Perhaps it’s a sorry reflection of our politically correct, risk averse, health and safety obsessed culture that’s made teams fearful of traversing the protective confines of their own half.  Only if teams know their Green Cross Code and have looked both ways and are holding mummy and daddy’s hand will they dare to venture beyond the half way line.

Or maybe, association football as we have known and loved it, has simply passed its sell by date.  After all, adventurous, attacking Brazilian style you score 3 we score 4 football is so last century.  Modern football is played by impossibly rich, ultra fit, endlessly drilled professionals who are organised within an inch of their lives (except for clueless England, of course) to ‘not lose’ games.  Yep, not losing is the new winning.  The drabness of Euro 2016 though is not a current phenomenon, nor is it limited to international tournaments.  It has also been the mode in many club finals for quite a long time now (when was the last time we had a decent FA Cup Final?).

However, it reaches its nadir every two years at international tournaments, where the fear of failing seems to eclipse all ambition and render genuinely talented teams catatonically defensive.  This paralysing effect was epitomised by the last 16 match between Croatia and Portugal where two teams containing the sublime footballing gifts of Messrs Ronaldo and Luka Modric couldn’t muster up one shot on target between them in 117 minutes of football.  Yet, the truly bitter irony was that when Croatia, facing the uncertain prospect of a penalty shootout, did, eventually, dare to be brave and strode forward, they hit the post, and were then cruelly caught out on the counter attack and conceded the only goal of the match just 3 minutes from the end of extra time.  Portugal, of course, were rewarded for their negative, defensive football by going on to win the tournament.

As Croatia’s luckless venture starkly illustrated, there is simply no premium in playing attacking football any more.  If a team goes out to attack and fails,they just lose out.  So why bother?  Better to sit deep, suffocate the opposition and then try to get lucky on the counter in the dying minutes, a la Portugal.  Such tactical expediency might have been a terrific pay off for the victorious Portuguese, but it rendered the rest of us catatonic through sheer boredom.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s time to accept that the rules of football, the fabled ‘Laws of the Game’, which were codified way back in the smog filled Victorian era, need to change, to make them relevant for football in the 21st century.  The object in football should always be to score more goals than the opposition, rather than to stop the opposition from scoring.  But if you want to discourage negative tactics, the best way is to incentivise attacking play.  So here are some suggestions (my own, as well as others I have seen broached) that could be implemented.

Collective intake…

  1. Make the goals bigger.
  2. Introduce a shot clock as in basketball – a team has a certain amount of time to move the ball from their half into the opposition penalty area, and if they exceed the time limit, possession automatically passes to the other team’s goalkeeper.
  3. No pass back allowed into a team’s own half once the ball has crossed the half way line.
  4. Introduce sin bins for fouls – different types of fouls would incur different time penalties, with more serious fouls getting longer time penalties.  Red card offenses would continue to result in a sending off.
  5. In extra time, one player from each side is taken off every 10 mins – so 10 v 10, 9 v 9 etc.  Even if teams start by taking forwards off, it will stretch play and create space so it should increase goal scoring chances.
  6. Alternatively, simply reduce the number of players that are allowed on the field of play to 10 v 10 – this idea was suggested by Tony Cascarino in a Times article recently – http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/pitches-are-just-too-small-for-todays-superfit-footballers-it-might-be-time-for-10-v-10-gkjnfdpbm
  7. Introduce bonus points for high score (3 goals plus) draws or wins.

Ok, and breathe!

Obviously I am not suggesting that all these rules be implemented immediately at the same time!  Nor am I advocating turning football into a giant sized pedal version of basketball.  I would merely like to see some of these ideas developed and experimented upon in lower league or youth football to discover whether they might be viable in successfully counteracting negative tactics and encouraging attacking football.

Surely, if football tactics have evolved with the passage of time to render the game almost unrecognisable from its original form, then why shouldn’t the rules be changed likewise to ensure that the attacking ethos upon which football originated is preserved?  Modernisation should work both ways.  The laws of association football were never set in stone, like some kind of Ten Commandments, to be preserved in eternity and obeyed unquestioningly.  Football needs to discard its antediluvian mentality and start being proactive if it is to maintain its status as the most popular sport in the world.

The beautiful game is worth fighting for.  It should always be about scoring more goals than the opposition, stupid.

Euro 2016: Final – Portugal v France

God, what a borefest!

After the afternoon thrill of the Lewis/Andy British double, it was such a disappointing, anti-climactic end to a super Sunday of sport.  You know the match was dull when the only excitement was provided by an invading swarm of moths who were the only entities on the pitch interested in attacking.  Every two years there is more and more hype surrounding major international tournaments, yet they always end up delivering less and less.  The fact that the tournament was won by an extra time goal (albeit a great goal) by a Swansea reject summed it up.  It was a tournament where endeavour trumped ambition and football was the loser.

The match should have been a battle of the brilliant no. 7s – Ronaldo vs Griezmann – a repeat of the Champions League final; instead it was lack of ambition vs fear of losing.  For that is what international football has become.  No one is interested in attacking and scoring goals as they are so scared of conceding that they would rather sit back and park the bus and hope to get lucky at the end.

Well, it certainly worked for Portugal.  No wins in any of their 3 group games, only 1 win in normal time in the whole competition against Wales, and a last gasp goal against Croatia in the last 16 without a single shot on goal beforehand.  Just stifle the opposition, get lucky on the break and bore the punters to death.  Apparently that’s the way to win major international tournaments.  But no doubt the experts will delight in telling us how tactically astute, supremely organised and defensively clever Portugal were.

Of course France were no better.  Their fabled midfield was suffocated with Pogba sitting too deep, Payet sitting too wide and Kante sitting on the bench.  The French lacked intent, with no passionate leader to galvanise the troops and drive them forward.  Ronaldo, though forced off the field far too early with a knee injury, to his credit, returned to the touchline, passionately urging his team on and perhaps for that reason alone, deserved to be on the winning side.

Still, it was not much of an advert for football.  Yet another major tournament final that failed to deliver.  If that’s international football, you can have it.  Give me the Premier League any day.  It may lack quality, but at least you are assured of exciting end to end football.  Rather naive attacking ambition triumphing over cynical defensive astuteness, win or lose.  For anyone who would counter that by saying defending is part of football, they ought to be reminded that scoring more goals than the opposition is also a valid footballing tactic.

Perhaps one day, some clever international manager will have a eureka moment and come to the same revolutionary conclusion.  International football may then be worth watching again.  Until then, it’s only a month till the new Premier League season starts again.  Happy days.

Murray’s Moment of Destiny

Andy Murray needs an epiphany.

Or alternatively, he could watch last night’s episode of Today at Wimbledon and listen to Boris Becker, the mastermind behind Novak Djokovic’s inexorable rise to tennis domination.

“Obviously you are not going to win a Wimbledon final by waiting for the other guy to lose it…you have to go for your shots, you have to be aggressive, you have to just do a little bit more than the other guy.”

In an individual sport, your greatest opponent is not the guy standing on the other side, but your own fallible self.  As I have stated on this blog before, Andy’s greatest nemesis has always been his own passivity.  Too often, he has been content to plant himself at the back of the court, trading endless ground strokes and waiting for the other guy to make a mistake.  Far too often, the other guy, being Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, hasn’t made a mistake but gone for the winner and made it.

To win in tennis, you must be prepared to evolve.  To change.  Andy must change his mentality permanently if he wants to be a serial Grand Slam winner.  He must accept the need to be aggressive and ruthless, and kill points off at the first opportunity.

Andy will never have a better chance to win a third Grand Slam.  For the first time he is not playing a GOAT (greatest of all time rather than the animal variety!).  For the first time, he is playing a player ranked below him, who has never been in a final before, and dare I say it, someone who, although he is playing the best tennis of his life, is not as good a tennis player as Andy.

This Wimbledon final is Andy Murray’s to lose.  But he has to go out there and win it, not wait passively for Milos Raonic to bottle it.  He has to go into the match with an aggressive mindset.  Yes, his return of serve will be important, but more significantly, he needs to stop Raonic from coming forward and dictating the match.  Raonic is in the same boat as Andy as he too has a need to be more aggressive, which is why he has recently called on John McEnroe, one of the greatest serve and volleyers of all time, to help him develop a more offensive game.  Like I said, you need to embrace change if you want to be a winner.

The outcome of this match will be decided by who is prepared to be more daring and aggressive when the opportunity arises.  I would like to think that player will be Andy.  Ultimately, his game is superior to Raonic, and if he can play with confidence (and why shouldn’t he when there is no GOAT – still of the sporting variety – staring back at him?), and look to come forward and take his chances (yes, they are all cliches, but for a very good reason), he will beat Raonic, just as did at Queen’s a few weeks ago, and at the Australian Open semi-final in January.

If Andy can win Wimbledon tomorrow, he could go on to win a few more Grand Slams.  There is still time, and there is no one below him who is better than him.

Less caution, more opportunism.  That is the way for Andy Murry to win Grand Slams.