Saturday, 5 March 2011

Cricket World Cup 2011: The revival of the 50 over format?

Kevin O'Brien celebrates his century against England (BBC Sport)

Two weeks ago, 50 over cricket was supposedly on its deathbed and the 2011 Cricket World Cup was to be one last hurrah for a format that was soon to be superseded by Twenty20 as the dominant form of limited overs cricket.

Obituaries were freely written for a version of the game regarded as increasingly outdated and irrelevant while the ICC decided to exclude associate members from future World Cups in favour of expanding the fledgling ICC World Twenty20.

Although the opening rounds of this World Cup have had their fair share of whitewashes, they have also produced enough surprises and epics to suggest that there is life yet for this form of the game, while the performances of associate nations such as Ireland and the Netherlands have put pressure on the ICC to reconsider its decision to contract the size of the competition.

The cause of the 50 over game had not been helped by the last two World Cups in South Africa and the West Indies, which were lacklustre, poorly organised and seemingly never-ending.
Political issues plagued the 2003 event as England and New Zealand pulled out of games in Zimbabwe and Kenya respectively on security fears and forfeited points that could have permitted them to advance in the tournament, which lasted for a staggering six weeks.

The 2007 World Cup promised a carnival of Caribbean cricket yet is widely regarded as the worst organised in history as low attendances, high ticket prices and restrictions on what could be brought into the ground stifled the atmosphere.

An unprecedented 16 teams entered which resulted in many one-sided contests and the early exits of India and Pakistan from another lengthy tournament.

The farcical nature of the competition was epitomised by the final itself after Sri Lanka were forced to bat the final three overs of the game in virtual darkness, having already conceded defeat in their run chase and the PA announcer declaring Australia the champions.

Combined with the tragic death of Bob Woolmer, the tournament took its toll on players and fans alike who became disinterested and fatigued long before its conclusion.

Since the last World Cup final, Twenty20 cricket has witnessed a significant increase in popularity with three editions of the ICC World Twenty20 being held and the formation of the Indian Premier League.

Indeed the 2009 and 2010 World Twenty20s were more entertaining than the previous two World Cups with the 2010 tournament in the West Indies providing a far more authentic Caribbean atmosphere than the 2007 World Cup.

It was in this climate of disillusionment that the 2011 World Cup began. After an average opening game between co-hosts India and Bangladesh, the tournament sparked to life in the clash between England and the Netherlands.

The Netherlands famously beat England in the opening game of the 2009 WorldTwenty20 at Lords and the Dutch came mightily close to repeating the trick in 2011 as a Ryan Doeschate inspired side narrowly lost to England after posting an impressive 292.

More exciting contests were to follow as Bangladesh, a test-playing nation, were pushed all the way in their victory over associate member Ireland, while Pakistan beat Sri Lanka by just 11 runs. However, the best was yet to come as two games both involving England would really set the tournament alight over the space of four days.

Billed as the biggest game of the tournament so far, England and India arrived in Banglore for a match that would reveal much about both teams’ tournament aspirations. Talismanic batsman Sachin Tendulkar scored his 47th ODI century and his fifth in World Cups as India set England a daunting run chase of 339, the fourth highest in history.

With India firmly on top, England’s steady start gave the team belief and Andrew Strauss’ superbly crafted century undermined the Indian’s confidence while the crowed became deathly silent.  England looked as though they were cruising to victory, but India took vital wickets that thrust them firmly back into the ascendancy.

As England looked as though they were about to throw the game away, Graeme Swann and Ajmal Shahzad recovered to put England in a position to win off the final ball. Requiring two runs to win, England scored just one to tie the game.

In an exhilarating game which saw the initiative pass back and forth between both sides, England and India produced a perfect advertisement for the 50 over game. The match witnessed most runs ever scored in an ODI, the spectacular centuries from Tendulkar and Strauss would not have been possible in the frantic and impatient world of Twenty20.

After the drama against India, England remained in Bangalore to face Ireland in another contest that would not only demonstrate the merits of 50 over cricket, but also argue the case for associate members inclusion in World Cups.

Ireland slumped to 111/5 during their chase of England’s 327, but Kevin O’Brien’s stunning century, the fastest ever in World Cup history, led the Irish to victory.

The match demonstrated how 50 over games can be turned around in the middle overs with victory snatched from the jaws of defeat as Ireland secured a famous win which cast doubt over the wisdom of the ICC’s decision to reduce the number of teams in Cricket World Cups .

Perhaps responding to criticisms regarding the competitiveness of certain matches and the lengths of World Cups, the ICC decided before the 2011 tournament that only ten teams would compete in the 2015 World Cup.

Critics of the decision argue that it removes the chance for associate members to participate in tournaments with the biggest teams and that it removes any opportunity for the game to expand beyond being a post-colonial legacy.

The ICC have countered this claim by promising to expand the World Twenty20 as they feel the format is the best vehicle for expanding the game to new countries. While this may be true, much of the cricket played in associate nations is 50 over and the set up of their national team is geared towards potential qualification for the World Cup.

Unless the ICC provide associate nations with an opportunity to qualify for future World Cups and regular matches against the full members, nations such as Ireland and the Netherlands will have no platform to prove themselves in what still remains the dominant one day format and there will be no method of evaluating nations for potential accession to the realms of test match cricket.

Twenty20 may yet surpass it in terms of popularity, but the opening two weeks of the 2011 Cricket World Cup has proved that there is life in the 50 over game and that there is no need to abandon it just yet. However if it is to continue to thrive, then associate nations need a chance to compete unless it is to become the preserve an elite few.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Gillingham cure travel sickness

PIC: Steve McCaskill

What a difference a few months have made for Gillingham. Back in November, the Priestfield crowd was baying for blood, calling for the resignation of Manager Andy Hessenthaler and Chairman Paul Scally, but after a turnaround in form, the Gills are firmly back in the promotion picture.

A defeat to Kent rivals Dover in the first round of the FA Cup combined with a home defeat to Crewe left the Gills hovering above the relegation zone. The club’s promotion hopes were looking bleak, while Hessenthaler’s second spell in charge of the club was looking doomed.

Gillingham’s misery was compounded by the fact that they hadn’t won away from home since May 2009, a record that now stretched to 34 games across all competitions. The likes of Leeds and Southampton had been defeated at Priestfield the season before in League One, but the failure to register a single away victory eventually sealed the Gills' relegation to the fourth tier of English football. The poor away form had been tolerated to a degree because of the results achieved at home, but now that source of precious points was running dry, such tolerance was decreasing rapidly.

It was with this unwanted away record that Gillingham travelled to the Kassam Stadium to face Oxford United, urgently requiring a win to relieve the pressure. The travelling support could be forgiven for possessing little optimism but somehow, Gillingham recorded a 1-0 victory, their first on the road since beating Rochdale 1-0 in the 2008/09 season. The monkey had finally been removed from Gillingham’s collective backs.

The joy of finally lifting the away curse acted as a catalyst for a remarkable run of form that has seen Gillingham win eight of their last eleven matches which has catapulted the club into the play-off places. After the doom and gloom of the autumn, the winter has given reason to believe that promotion could be achieved in the spring.

One of the causes of this change in fortune has been the goalscoring form of Cody McDonald. The striker, who is on loan from Norwich City, has now scored 14 goals this season including a hat-trick in the 5-1 demolition of Stockport. His contribution has gone some way to offsetting the inevitable loss of firepower from the Gillingham frontline when Simeon Jackson moved to Norwich in the summer.

Gillingham have also benefited from the return of several players from their extensive injury list and now only long-term absentee Simon King remains unavailable. The form of youngsters Jack Payne and more recently Luke Rooney have also lifted the mood around the club.

After a troubled return to League Two, Gillingham have finally turned the corner and will hope for a top three finish or a return to Wembley, a venue which has been the scene of two celebrations in the last decade. While the glory days of the Championship may now be a distant memory, there is now genuine belief that the club will return to where they feel they belong in League One. 

Deja Vu?: The Search for Edwin Van der Sar's replacement


Last week, Edwin van der Sar confirmed that he will retire from professional football at the end of the current campaign at the age of 40. Speculation that the former Dutch international goalkeeper was ready to hang up his gloves had been increasing over the last couple of the season and the announcement sees him bring an end to an illustrious and trophy laden career that has seen him win three Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues. Not many players, even goalkeepers, are able to play into the fifth decade of their life and it is testament to the ability and fitness of the man that he has been able to stay at the top for so long.

However accompanying the sadness that is inevitable when such a revered player decides to retire is a sense of déjà vu. Twelve years ago, Peter Schmeichel left Manchester United for pastures new and the club will hoping that the process of finding a suitable successor for Van der Sar will be less arduous than the one that followed the great Dane’s departure.

A succession of keepers arrived at the club in an attempt to fill the massive void left by his exit. Mark Bosnich, Fabien Barthez, Tim Howard and Roy Carroll all tried and ultimately failed to replace Schmeichel in a process that proved not only costly off the pitch but also on it. This was epitomised most spectacularly by the signing Massimo Taibi from Italian side Atalanta for a fee of £4.5m. Taibi just lasted four error-strewn games including a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Chelsea and ended with a 3-3 draw at the hands of Southampton during which he let a tame shot from Matthew Le Tissier slip underneath him. Only the signing of Van der Sar himself in the summer of 2005 brought stability to the position and set the foundation for the club’s success in the latter part of the last decade.

Van der Sar’s decision has not come as a massive surprise and moves had been made to prepare for his eventual retirement. Ben Foster arrived at Manchester United in 2005 and had been groomed as the long-term successor. He had been touted as the next England goalkeeper, but unfortunately for him and the club, Foster was unable to recreate the form that he had shown in loan spells at Watford and he was sold to Birmingham City in the summer.

Foster had been the most likely of Van der Sar’s understudies to inherit his Number 1 jersey with current second choice keeper Tomasz Kuszczak considered a rank outsider. Kuszczak joined the club in 2006 from West Bromwich Albion and although he has represented Poland ten times, he is unlikely to become first choice at United.

This points to an outside candidate taking the job and although the signing of Anders Lindegaard in the Janaury transfer window gave a clue to the plans of Van der Sar, it is still unclear whether the Danish Number 1 was signed as a replacement for the Dutchman or as a back up. Peter Schmeichel himself has said that Lindegaard is not ready to be United’s first choice goalkeeper, so it seems likely they sign another player in the summer.

A number of goalkeepers have been linked with Manchester United over the last twelve months or so as speculation over Van der Sar’s future has grown. Schalke stopper Manuel Neuer has been strongly linked with a move after his impressive performances at the World Cup for a youthful German side that reached the semi-finals, while Atletico Madrid’s David de Gea and CSKA Moscow’s Igor Afinkeev have also been mentioned.

However in recent days, Dutch Number 1 Maarten Stekelenburg has emerged as the favourite to succeed his compatriot at Manchester United. First team coach Rene Meulensteen is reported to have told Dutch Radio that Stekelenburg is United’s top target this summer.

Whoever replaces Van der Sar, it is clear that United have to handle this changing of the guard far better than they did back in 1999. All signs point to the club signing a relatively young goalkeeper, but if this is to be the case then any new recruit should be given time to settle into the role and avoid the constant chopping and changing that occurred six years ago.

Whether United opt for a new keeper or promote from within, it is going to be a tall order to replace the giant Dutchman that has protected the home goal at Old Trafford for the last five and a half years. Edwin Van Der Sar brought stability and presence to a position that had been a problem since Schmeichel left in 1999. Hopefully the transition will not be as difficult as last time.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Home Sweet Home: EV Zug move to the Bossard Arena

PIC: Stephen McCaskill

In the summer of 2010, EV Zug completed the move from their home of over forty years to a brand new, ultra-modern arena. The need for a new stadium had been apparent for some time as the Eishalle Herti, in which EVZ have played since 1967, had not aged well and plans were made to move. The end result was the 7,015 capacity Bossard Arena which is billed as the most modern hockey stadium in Switzerland, and after my first visit, I am inclined to believe the hype.

The old Herti could be best described as a giant shed with an ice rink inside. Seats were cramped and uncomfortable while standing areas were even worse. Every facility within the stadium, be it turnstiles or food stands, felt squashed and compacted. While some fans have bemoaned the loss of atmosphere, there is no doubt that the old arena was unsuitable for a top-flight hockey team in the 21st century.

The Bossard Arena improves on the old stadium in almost every conceivable aspect. Firstly, the seats are spacious and easily accessible while standing areas exist for both home and away supporters. A giant LCD screen above the rink replaces the archaic scoreboards while modern lighting creates a sense of spectacle. Entering and exiting the ground is no longer a chore while areas inside the stadium are much bigger, ensuring that facilities don’t feel like an afterthought.

Hospitality has also been improved dramatically. While this is probably of no concern to those cheering on EVZ in the stands, the new facilities will surely increase revenue. As one of the wealthiest towns in Switzerland, if not Europe, Zug is host to a number of multinational corporations and the new dining and hospitality areas will hope to attract a greater number of corporate events. A new restaurant overlooks the ice and allows diners to eat while watching the game and a private room is available for functions. These facilities are a drastic improvement on the previous hospitality tent, which although offered great service, was situated outside of the stadium.

I was fortunate to be able to sample these facilities during my visit to see EVZ face local rivals Zurich. EVZ are enjoying a good season and are currently in 3rd position in the NLA having already qualified for the post season play-offs. Games between these two teams are usually feisty encounters and this was no exception with a number of penalties issued by the match officials. The ZSC Lions barely troubled EVZ who emerged comfortable 3-0 winners in front of a capacity crowd, who were delighted as seeing their team defeat the 2009 European and Victoria Cup champions.

While there was great sadness that accompanies any such move, the move to the Bossard Arena will hopefully be a positive one for the club as they aim to add to their only championship, which they won in 1998. Some fans may miss the old ground, but if it’s good enough for Kimi, it’s good enough for me.

Match Photos: EVZ 3-0 ZSC Lions