Wednesday 30 November 2011

Paceman Pat and his immediate impact...

When South African maestro Dale Steyn is bowling with his tail up, that trademark snarl etched across his face, that demonic look in those piercing eyes and the wind rushing through his hair as he tears in toward the popping crease at breakneck speed, it is safe to assume there is no specialist batsman in world cricket that enjoys the prospect of facing him. Unleashing outswinging and unerringly accurate exocets in excess of 90mph, Steyn is a menacing presence.
In the second and final Test between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers a fortnight ago, that is exactly the proposition 18 year old paceman Pat Cummins was greeted with when walking to the wicket with his side 292-8 with 18 runs needed to win, and just two wickets remaining in Australia’s second innings.
One could have forgiven Cummins for thinking that this wasn’t part of his job description when his prodigious fast bowling talent saw him picked to earn his first Test cap. Crucial passages of play in a high pressure atmosphere are often where hot prospects sink or swim. Cummins, it seems, has an element of Michael Phelps about him. Where more experienced and illustrious names had failed, Cummins took to his task with the fearless youthful exuberance that only the inexperienced can, swiping the mighty Steyn and co for two boundaries on his way to making 13 not out and winning Australia the match and a share of this compelling and criminally under scheduled Test series.
His batting heroics were nevertheless only the icing on the cake of what was a terrific Test debut for the New South Wales man. Whilst Cummins had looked the most threatening Australian bowler in South Africa’s first innings, his modest return of 1-38 did him little justice. It was the second innings, however, where this rising star of Australian cricket really began to burn at its brightest. One over in particular caught the eye and was rather poignant, as an 18 year old novice gave 40 time centurion Jacques Kallis an almighty working over, before removing the great man with an angled delivery outside off stump; Kallis clearly softened up by the earlier barrage of venomous short deliveries. The cunning old fox had been out-thought and out-smarted by the new cub on the block.
Australia, it must be remembered, were still busy peeling themselves from the canvas after that crushing and traumatic trouncing in Cape Town. This was a side carrying more issues than the average Jeremy Kyle guest line-up, and how it showed here in Johannesburg. Ricky Ponting was embroiled in his own almighty struggle for each and every run as he looked to finally post a score of note, Mitchell Johnson was bowling off a shortened run up as an experimental means of gaining accuracy and swing, and wicket-keeper Brad Haddin had clearly decided that blazing his way back in to form through a series of audacious slogs and extravagant drives was the solution to his own batting woes.
A man whose only issue was how much carnage he could wreak on a stellar South African batting order was Pat Cummins. Experience is key in any sport, with participants constructing a mental portfolio which sees them through the toughest of situations. As a consequence, the mental scars of past failures are often etched deep into their psyche, with the potential to inhibit a mind that was once reliant on natural instinct. One suspects that the absence of these embedded psychological terrors was of greater benefit to Cummins in this pressure cooker situation than years of experience could ever have provided.
India’s master batsman Sachin Tendulkar is one such example of experience, and therefore expectation, altering the way that various situations are approached as time passes. At the age of 18, Sachin played with all the freedom of a chick flying the nest. In recent times, and with the hopes of over one billion fans sitting squarely on those small shoulders, the pressure is at times visibly telling. The hook shot has almost disappeared from the little masters game, no doubt a concession to prolong his stay at the crease, and the whole experience of watching him bat is somewhat diminished (though still a pleasure) from that of his youthful exuberance, as he plays to his strengths with minimal risk. Such a situation is something that may present Pat Cummins with problems of his own in the future, but it is likely the very reason that he was the coolest head in the house at the Wanderers.
Whilst his effect upon this particular Test match was undoubtedly critical, it is the wider impact that the emergence of Cummins has on Australian cricket which is likely to be the most resounding. In truth, Australia have struggled for a fast bowler with genuine quality and a real cutting edge since the retirement of the peerless Glenn McGrath. Mitchell Johnson is a mercurial bowler capable of destroying the best of line-ups, but those performances have become all too infrequent of late. Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle are what you would call solid performers that won’t let anybody down, but there is no doubt that a world class attack needs a leader that oozes class and wicket-taking threat whenever the ball is in his hand. It is early days, but could Pat Cummins be well on his way to filling this void already at the tender age of 18?
Cummins bowls with a maturity well beyond his years, and is clearly a ‘thinking bowler’ always looking to out-smart batsmen. Such attributes were consistently on display throughout the T20 Champions League tournament where he found great success with New South Wales on the flat pitches of the Indian subcontinent. Tall, fast and with the ability to extract prodigious bounce from just back of a length, the raw materials of a world class fast bowler are there in abundance. Add to that the promising early signs that he has an ice cool temperament required for the big occasion, and Australia may just have unearthed themselves a gem.
Only time will tell just how far Pat Cummins can go, but based on these initial glimpses the potential seems to be there for a long and successful Test career. One thing is for sure, his emergence will add much needed spice to the Australian bowling unit ahead of the next Ashes series in England, as the selectors look to revitalise an attack ground in to the dirt by the relentless blades of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott last winter.
Of course, it is often English practice to get carried away by talented youngsters that display early promise. In this instance, one has to wonder whether that enthusiasm is more closely related to the possibility of a hotly contested Ashes series against a Cummins led Australian bowling attack, after the relative ease with which the little urn was retained last time out. It couldn’t be that English supporters miss having an Australian bowling nemesis, could it?

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Adrenalin Agenda...(continued)

In the first of this series of blogs I spoke of my desire to take those first few tentative steps into the world of boxing, with the ultimate aim of stepping in to the squared circle and managing to hold my own against those far more experienced in the 'sweet science' than myself.

As a 9 to 5 office worker whose experience of throwing punches didn't extend much past the free Wii Sports boxing simulation game, it had appeared an intimidating prospect. The intention of that first blog however, and I hope it had the desired effect, was to show that somebody with no fighting background and with a tendency to live the easy life could step out of their comfort zone, and find it wasn't quite as petrifying as it may once have appeared.

Nevertheless, it's still an intimidating place, the gym. During our various drills in technique I take time out to look around at the others, assessing the competition, if you like. What I see is something that doesn't sell sparring too well to me. My main concern? They all look like they know what they are doing. 'Mean Business' read the slogan on one gym mates T-shirt, and the way he was hitting the heavy bag showed it wasn't in jest.

Despite only having stepped in to the gym for the first time all of six weeks ago, I realise I'm becoming far more confident in things even as simple as shadow boxing. I'm now concentrating on slipping those imaginary incoming punches, of manoeuvring my opponent around and ensuring it is all done with the correct technique. Turn back the clock a couple of weeks and the only thing I'm concentrating on is not looking like a clueless buffoon in front of the regulars.

The question I had been mulling over almost endlessly in my own mind was whether I could live with these guys in sparring, where the drills became real and instinct takes over. That old adage of fight or flight would certainly apply, with my worry being that it'd be the latter. After all, the last time I'd been hit on the nose was a good fifteen years ago, I didn't like it much then, and as to how I'd react now even I didn't know. One thing was for sure, I would most definitely be getting hit - my dexterity in the slipping of punches had only slightly improved from that of off-milk to a badly made porridge after a few extra weeks attempting to sharpen my skills.

After the obligatory Google search of 'how long do people box for before they start sparring' I was left none the wiser, with advice ranging from one month to six months. "You'll be fine" says one of my gym mates, "once you realise you aren't made of glass, and get used to being hit, you'll start to enjoy it." This may be boxing, but getting hit was something that wasn't exactly at the forefront of my mind when I signed up. I vowed to redouble my defensive efforts in training.

Upon finally purchasing a mouth guard, one of those self-mould jobs that barely fits, gives you a mouth appearing similar in shape to that of King Kong and falls out every time you try to speak, it was time to give sparring a go. If I thought I was nervous before my first group training session, I was wrong. I spent my entire day at work with what I can only imagine is the type of dread that a Death Row inmate suffers as he peruses the menu choices of his final meal.

Hands up, chin down, I told myself as I was first called in to the ring - quite typically against the biggest, meanest looking guy in the vicinity. Thankfully, our trainer Anthony had us work on a two jabs each policy to begin with, so I was able to get a taste for moving about the ring and being able to try and defend against the incoming jabs without worrying about a monster right hand follow up wiping me out.

I must admit, my greatest fear beforehand was being overwhelmed by punches I couldn't see coming. Whether by design or fortune, it actually suited me well to be in with the biggest, but consequently slowest member of the team. I wouldn't necessarily class myself as fleet of foot, but I was able to get in and back out again using quick raiding tactics with the jab before I could be found with a counter. Jabbing to the body was where I enjoyed most success, with the majority of my jabs to the head being blocked or parried. Not at all surprising, given that I most likely announce an impending jab with all the subtlety of a stampeding Rhinoceros.

There were five of us in attendance, boxing two minute rounds each, but changing opponent after one minute of each. Words fail me when beginning to describe how much hard work a two minute round is, and it really brings home just how well conditioned professional boxers must be, who are fighting three minute rounds remember, and twelve of them!

"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights" - Muhammad Ali

Despite not quite being ready to begin comparisons between myself and the great Muhammad Ali, one thing I can say is that I now understand what he was talking about - difference being that he was preparing for a gruelling 15-rounder with Joe Frazier, and I was hoping to survive two minutes against Dave from the local building site.

We had completed plenty of tough strength and conditioning drills in the gym across the past six weeks, but nothing could have prepared me for the rigours of sparring. That combination of sharp foot movement, the throwing of punches and, of course, being punched in the face, chest, arms, everywhere it seemed, does take it out of you, and rather rapidly. Concentration is another aspect that cannot be overlooked, causing a sweat to break out after mere seconds through my sheer will to pre-empt punches that had my name on them. Things had started well though, despite the almost immediate screaming coming from my legs that they'd had enough.

Alas, it wasn't to last. On a list of things you most definitely would not want to do when faced with an ogre-like opponent with arms like hams, hitting him low would appear pretty close to the top. As I lunged in for another of my by now specialist jabs to the body, he stepped back, leaving my jab to fall low and cause his eyes to water somewhat. After a ten second break where he checked they were still there and gathered himself, he came tearing out of the corner like a bull to the matador, except this particular matador wasn't quite as skilled in the art of evasive action.

Before I knew it I was under fire against the ropes from a barrage of left hands, managing to block most of them to my credit, though I did take a particularly painful one right on the end of the nose. Another jab to the eye later and it appeared that Taurus had finally started to run out of steam. Chance to capitalise? Not for me, dead on my feet and genuinely thankful as the buzzer told me it was the end of the round. I'd held my own, but certainly had a scare upon awaking the sleeping giant.

The rest of the session saw us focus upon techniques we had been working on so rigorously in training in recent weeks - defensive manoeuvres and counter-punching. One half of the round was spent being the aggressor, whereas the other half had a stipulation; you could only throw a punch back if it was a legitimate counter. Needless to say, I was far too concerned with getting out the way of my opponents punches to be much of a success at getting my own counter off, though I'm reliably informed that everyone feels this way during their first couple of sessions.

I'd been told it was addictive, sparring. Beforehand such a notion was pretty hard to believe, though I've since found myself throwing combinations in every mirror I manage to walk by - when nobody is watching, of course. There is no doubt that sparring was the scariest thing I have ever participated in, but did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Will I be going again next week? You bet. I'm not fooling myself, I've got a heck of a long way to go before I can start getting the better of people in there, but it was comforting to know that I could step between those ropes and hold my own, particularly given that I'm still a complete novice in the sport.

One thing this session highlighted is the immense role that confidence plays in a sport such as boxing. I went in feeling like a lamb to the slaughter. After somehow managing not to disgrace myself, I left feeling like the next super-middleweight champion of the world.

Monday 7 November 2011

The curious case of Jacques Kallis...

Twenty years on since the re-admission of South Africa to world cricket following their exclusion due to the government's policy of apartheid, the once banished nation is standing tall alongside the other behemoths of the sport.

They've never been short of talented crickets, South Africa. Prior to the sporting boycott of the nation in 1970 they were represented by undoubted greats of the game in the form of Graeme Pollock and Eddie Barlow, to name but two, and since their re-admission have seen numerous world class performers don the olive green cap.

Open to debate this may be, but perhaps South Africa's greatest ever performer, and a man that has been a stalwart of the side since re-admission is Jacques Henry Kallis. Kallis, it could be argued, is right up there alongside Sir Garfield Sobers as the greatest all-rounder the sport of cricket has ever seen, boasting an incredible 40 Test centuries, second only to Sachin Tendulkar, at an average of 57.43 (at the time of writing).

Add to this 270 Test wickets at an average of 32.01, in addition to the fact that Kallis is the only man to have scored in excess of 10,000 runs and taken in excess of 250 wickets in Test cricket, and you've got yourself one heck of a cricketer.

Why, then, does debate amongst cricket supporters often see Jacques Kallis being ranked slightly below the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara and Rahul Dravid when discussing the greatest batsmen of his era. Purely in terms of statistics, and despite his all-round credentials, Kallis has a batting average superior to any of the aforementioned. As alluded to previously, he is second only to Tendulkar in the number of Test centuries scored, and also holds the lowest number of innings per half century ratio of the group (2.62 innings per half century, with Tendulkar second at 2.66).

Initially, I believed it to be a reflection of Kallis' batting style. Cricket is, after all, an entertainment business. To the purist, Kallis' slightly cumbersome style and often laboured footwork is not hugely adhering, and his solid but unspectacular technique somehow fails to set the pulse racing in comparison to the sublime majesty of Tendulkar, that West Indian flamboyance of Lara, the poise of Dravid and the tenacity of Ponting.

History has a tendency to be kind to pioneers and entertainers, and Jacques, unfortunately, fails to qualify as either. When assessing the greatness of a batsman, however, surely style alone cannot condemn a man whose record stands up to those of his seemingly more illustrious contemporaries. There had to be something deeper and far more significant as to why this magnificent run machine wasn't receiving his dues.

When racking my brains for any possible explanation as to what makes these batsmen so great, I began trawling through the stand-out innings that each have played - whether that be an innings that alters the outcome of a series, an innings that takes their side from a seemingly unwinnable position and puts them into a winnable one, or an innings that simply sets a new precedent against a certain attack.

If we cast our memory back to the Sydney Cricket Ground in January of 2006, the above point becomes particularly relevant. The two greatest batsmen on display in this game, Kallis and Ponting, both had significant success. Kallis scored 111 in the first innings, followed up by 50 not out in the second. Ponting, on the other hand, made 120 in the first innings, and a match winning 143 not out in the second. Statistically, you couldn't argue with either performance. The manner in which the runs were compiled however, presents a different outlook in its entirety.

During that first innings, it was eminently clear that Jacques Kallis and South Africa were desperate for a big first innings total, betrayed by their snail-like run-rate of less than three runs per over. Conversely, Ponting came out and made his 120 from 174 balls, a brisk enough strike rate for sure. This is of far less consequence to this debate than the second innings, however.

After taking a first innings lead of 92 runs, South Africa's batsmen were required to really push on in order to declare and set Australia an imposing total whilst giving themselves enough time to take the ten wickets needed for victory. Herschelle Gibbs went about this task in the right manner, making 67 from 74 balls before falling, though his partner Kallis looked far more concerned with playing for his average in crawling along at barely a strike rate of 50 once again. Upon setting Australia a difficult 287 in 76 overs, Ricky Ponting strode to the crease and blitzed 143 from just 159 balls to lead Australia to an unlikely victory.

That Test match, to my mind, is a prime example of why Ricky Ponting will always be rated as a greater batsman than Jacques Kallis, despite many of the statistics proving otherwise. It is also potentially the key reason as to why Kallis is rarely regarded in the same league as the other extraordinary batsmen I have mentioned throughout this piece to many cricket buffs. In short, Kallis may have spent far too many years of his career being a great accumulator of runs, as opposed to a match winner. Though there have been signs of late that Jacques has attempted to reverse this trend, he may just have left it too late in the day. This, along with the lack of that one career defining innings to date, might just explain why such a magnificent batsman may be placed on a slightly lower pedestal than his esteemed contemporaries, despite having a record that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of them.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Just how good was Larry Holmes?

"If you want to get technical about it, Rocky Marciano couldn't carry my jockstrap" - Larry Holmes.

Despite Larry Holmes' mouth often dividing opinion on The Easton Assassin, there can be little doubt that he was a terrific heavyweight, possibly ranking amongst the top five best the sport of boxing has ever seen, depending on who you ask.

Timing, particularly in boxing, is everything - an adage that is applicable to the career of Holmes more so than many others. Herein lies the problem with Holmes, that he was the dominant force in the heavyweight division between the glorious reign of Muhammad Ali and 'Iron' Mike Tyson's tyrannical and revolutionary tenure, the two most revered heavyweights since Jack Dempsey trail blazed his way through the 1920's.

This, I feel, has proved somewhat of a double edged sword when assessing the career of Holmes. On one hand, Holmes' utter dominance allows boxing pundits and fans alike to wax lyrical about his abilities, despite Larry insisting that he didn't receive enough credit for his talents during his reign, a feeling demonstrated so well by the overtly bitter comment at the beginning of this article. On the other hand, it does make one wonder whether the esteem in which Holmes is held is purely an issue of people attempting to over-compensate for this perceived lack of credit, as opposed to a true reflection of his merits.

Holmes had many of the attributes required to make a great heavyweight. His piston-like jab is seen as one of the best in heavyweight history, he had a solid right cross, the heart of a lion and powers of recovery that X-men's Wolverine would envy, as demonstrated so ably when rising from the canvas against fearsome punchers in the mould of Earnie Shavers.

After lifting the WBC heavyweight championship of the world in 1978 over fifteen action packed rounds with Ken Norton, Holmes went on to defend his title sixteen times, a testament to his longevity at the highest level. Notable wins across the period came in the form of a stoppage win over 'The Great White Hope' Gerry Cooney in what was a highly publicised bout, a stoppage win over the aforementioned Shavers after peeling himself off the canvas, and a contentious split-decision victory over future champion 'Terrible' Tim Witherspoon. When you add to this wins over other future, albeit not dominant champions in the form of Trever Berbick, 'Bonecrusher' Smith and Mike Weaver it highlights that Holmes by no means had a succession of 'gimme's'.

In 1983, Holmes relinquished his WBC belt in favour of recognition by the newly-formed IBF, and went on to make a further three defences of this belt before suffering his first loss to career light-heavyweight Michael Spinks in 1985, in what was voted Ring Magazine upset of the year. The decision was tight, though Spinks went on to repeat the feat in a rematch, this time gaining a split-decision win. Nevertheless, Holmes had amassed a total of nineteen defences of his crown, an outstanding achievement in any era.

When you begin to look more meticulously at Holmes' record, holes do however begin to appear. Of course, this is the case with the majority of fighters throughout the course of boxing history, but it does seem there are a fair few question marks over Larry's reign.

One benchmark for assessing a fighters career is to analyse their best win. In Holmes' case, I think it is fair to suggest that this would be Ken Norton. Norton was of course a very fine heavyweight in his own right, though it is difficult to look beyond the fact that Ken was 33 years of age by the time he and Holmes met, and arguably past his best. To add to that, Norton had also already been splattered across the windscreen of the juggernaut that was the young George Foreman in two brutal rounds, before going on to fare even worse in a first round knock-out loss to Earnie Shavers. Granted, these were two fighters that could punch holes in a set of blast doors, but the upshot being that Norton showed little after that Holmes fight to suggest he was still a prime fighter. This may be slightly unfair to Ken, but he is arguably best known for those two losses alongside having being the great Muhammad Ali's 'bogey man'. In short, despite being a fine fighter, Norton's shortcomings at the very highest level make this rank in the 'good' as opposed to 'great' wins category for Holmes.

Outside of the Norton victories, the likes of Shavers, Witherspoon, Smith, Weaver and Berbick did indeed go on to win a version of the heavyweight title after being beaten by Holmes. It is of course impressive to have such a collection of future champions in your win column, but Vitali Klitschko, Shannon Briggs, Evander Holyfield and Frank Bruno did the same after losing to Lennox Lewis - a yardstick which I seldom see applied when assessing the career of Lewis.

My final point, and possibly the biggest stick with which to beat Larry Holmes, is that he was the first heavyweight champion to be usurped by a light-heavyweight champion moving up in weight. Michael Spinks was a fine fighter, but so was Billy Conn, and that didn't stop Joe Louis from dispatching him twice when moving up to challenge for his heavyweight crown.

So where, once all of the above is taken into account, does this leave Holmes? Is he actually worthy of a place in the highest echelon of heavyweight history? There is no doubt that Holmes was a tremendous fighter, a fine champion and one of the more gifted heavyweights we have seen, but I'm not so sure that he belongs alongside the Muhammad Ali's and Joe Louis' of this world. Even when matching Larry against other top heavyweights, does anyone really see a man whose lapses in concentration against Earnie Shavers and Renaldo Snipes saw him tasting the canvas doing the same against a George Foreman and surviving? For me, Larry is ranked slightly too generously by many, and I'd place him toward the bottom end of my own top ten heavyweight rankings upon reflection, as opposed to the top half as I may have done previously.

As ever, your thoughts are welcome. Maybe I'm being slightly too harsh when assessing Larry's career, but it is food for thought nevertheless.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Britain's young guns not quite ready to take on the world.

Turn back the clock six months and fight fans across Britain are talking up the young undefeated duo of Nathan Cleverly and Olympic gold medallist James 'Chunky' Degale as the next great hopes from these shores, destined to make a splash on the world stage in the not too distant future.

Light-heavyweight Cleverly, after winning a world title, albeit not in the ring after current WBO champion at the time Juergen Braehmer was stripped, was Britain's answer to Tavoris Cloud, Chad Dawson and even the effervescent Bernard Hopkins, they said. The mathematics graduate from the Cefn Forest in Wales was now free to concentrate his efforts fully on boxing, with just the rather more difficult equation of the aforementioned American trio left to solve.
After winning a string of recent bouts by stoppage, Cleverly looked to be adding the much needed power required to succeed at world level to his youthful exuberance, stamina and speed that had been evident from day one. With the WBO title around his waist, unification beckoned against his American counterparts.

James Degale, on the other hand, was coming off a ninth round stoppage win in which he looked a million dollars against the British champion at that time, Paul Smith. Rave reviews predictably followed, as is so often the case with our Olympic champions, and the general consensus around Britain was that within the space of 18 months Degale would be ready to take on the likes of American Andre Ward. Whilst I am loathe to leave current WBC super-middleweight champion Carl Froch out of this discussion, it is worth noting that a large percentage of fight fans in Britain see him being edged out in a decision loss to Ward when the two meet in a unification battle later this year. Degale, however, was thought to be slick enough, quick enough and good enough to give Ward a greater challenge somewhere down the line.

One night at London's O2 Arena in May of this year, however, gave many fans cause to revise their previous optimism. Cleverly defeated Aleksy Kuziemski by fourth round stoppage comfortably enough, despite looking far too eager to get involved in an unnecessary war, something which he could not afford to do at the highest level. Degale, on the other hand, lost a very narrow majority decision to British rival George Groves. Cleverly gets hit too often, and Degale has no 'Plan B', were the criticisms levelled at the pair. Nevertheless, they were young and still developing their game, and would have chance to right the wrongs in the not too distant future.

Which brings me to their most recent fights, both fighting on the same card at Liverpool's Echo Arena. Cleverly defended his WBO strap against local fighter Tony Bellew, with Degale mounting a European title challenge against seasoned professional Piotr Wilczewski.
First up of the pair was Degale. Throughout the course of this fight it was evident that Degale hasn't progressed a great deal since the loss to Groves back in May. His tendency to get caught by shots, particularly hooks in close, was plain to see. As it was, Degale edged out his Polish adversary in a majority decision after outworking his opponent, but not without his face being badly marked up and suffering a cut over his right eye. Wilczewski, whilst being very tough and game, had no business making the fight such a struggle for a man due to knock on the door of the world's finest, if indeed that is who we were watching.

Cleverly topped the bill at the Echo Arena in a fight boiling with bad blood. Predictions beforehand, which the bookmakers clearly supported, were that Cleverly would have too much speed and too much class for a "European level at best" fighter in Bellew. What transpired, however, was an extremely tight affair fought in the trenches for the most part. Bellew actually dominated several rounds with effective use of the double jab, but looked to tire in the championship rounds, ultimately costing him a majority decision defeat. For a man that was so nearly stopped recently by journeyman Ovil McKenzie to cause Cleverly such problems has to raise questions as to his ability to take on the Cloud's, Dawson's and Hopkins' of this world.

Whilst both Cleverly and Degale showed a commendable ability to 'tough it out' on Saturday, their performances left more questions being asked than answers given. Cleverly talked of unification in his post-fight interview, though one would have to suspect that by that he means WBA champion Beibut Shumenov as opposed to any of the American light-heavyweights mentioned earlier in this article. At this moment in time they would surely be a step too far for a man that despite possessing an incredible work-rate simply gets hit too often. Such a tendency to get dragged into wars would in all likelihood prove very costly at that level.

Degale's possession of the European title automatically gives him a world ranking, though he still spoke of a rematch with Groves in his post-fight interview. Perhaps that would be the most prudent route to take, for now, given the plethora of world class fighters currently operating at super-middleweight. It was apparent from his fight on Saturday that he still has plenty of work defensively to do before he can even begin to take such a step up in class. Questions still linger regarding his ability to change up his game plan mid-fight, too, and such a degree of versatility is almost certainly required before taking on polished operators such as Ward.

Talented fighters, Cleverly and Degale, of that there is no doubt, but British expectations have rightly been cooled following their recent showings. By no means is this article intended to write the pair off in terms of their future standing, as I personally see them being very good world champions in due course, but being realistic it may just be time to squeeze the brakes slightly on their respective careers before contemplating bigger things. Their time will come, but it most certainly isn't yet.

Friday 14 October 2011

Central Contracts - Time For A Review?

The inception of the central contract system in 2000, brought in to lighten the workload of key England players and therefore reduce the chance of injuries, has coincided with a significant upturn in the fortunes of the English national side. Testament to that is their current occupation of the world number one Test rankings.

Whilst the national side has reaped the benefits afforded by central contracts, it could be argued that they have been to the detriment of the English county game. Indeed such is the rigidity of the central contract system now that a county which is home to an England regular can be considered lucky to see their charge make just a handful of appearances throughout the course of a season.

English county cricket is a tough game for the money men, with the financial structure of many counties flimsy at best. Poor attendances are just one problem to contend with, and it serves to raise the question as to whether these would be significantly improved were the star players of the counties, namely the England regulars, to turn out more often. The central contract system was introduced for this very purpose, to reduce the workload of the England stars, and for that reason there is unlikely to be a change any time soon.

Frank Keating, a sports writer at The Guardian, summed up the current situation when saying "it is now a pointless exercise, unwatched, unwanted, serviced by mostly blinkered, greedy chairman-bullied committees and played by mostly unknown foreign and second-rate mercenaries". Whilst this may be a little harsh, as anyone that watches the County Championship will know it still contains a great deal of very promising young English prospects, it does highlight the perceived fall in overall quality that will inevitably come as a result of removing the countries top players from the scene.

"For the county game it has taken a lot away in terms of the bowling quality. Years ago you had two overseas professionals, plus the England bowlers but now that has been removed by central contracts as you rarely see the England bowlers playing county cricket, which has diminished the quality somewhat," says recently retired ex-England and Leicestershire wicket-keeper Paul Nixon during a recent discussion.

Former England fast bowler Angus Fraser reinforces those sentiments. "Before, there was a different mentality: I was a Middlesex player who was released to play for England and when my Middlesex duties finished, I was straight back to Middlesex." Issues of bowlers not getting sufficient 'game time' have surfaced and as one reporter put it, "central contracts have helped most of England's cricketers, but not young bowlers who need to develop strategies from playing in matches, not in the nets."

Undeniably, the opportunity for the aforementioned prospects of the English game to regularly face Test match quality bowling from the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann would be a valuable learning curve and assist in their readiness to make the step up to Test level. As it stands, the first time young batsmen face such a quality of bowling is often upon their International debut.

Central contracts, it must be remembered, can also have a negative effect upon those batsmen that are bound to them and are intended to benefit from them, with Alastair Cook being a prime example. In the 2010 home Test series against Pakistan Cook's technique was exposed time and again by the prodigious swing of Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif. Had Cook spent time in the middle for his county side Essex in the swinging conditions of an early English summer, he may well have had chance to iron out such flaws.

It is argued in some quarters that the point of the English County Championship competition as a whole is to provide and nurture players for the national side, and this is a concept that has certainly become more prominent in recent years. This, however, is a view that I entirely disagree with. Surely we should have a national team forged upon the high quality, competitive cricket of our domestic competition, as opposed to using it as a training ground for the next generation of hopefuls? The cricket they play should be tough, uncompromising and mentally challenging in equal measures to ensure that once they do get that international call-up, they are ready.

There can be no doubting that in the decade since their introduction, central contracts have played a huge hand in providing a fit, fresh and successful England team. What we have seen, however, is a dwindling interest and reduction in quality of the domestic game as a direct consequence of that success. At present there is no cause for concern, but a question that must be asked is that in a further ten years from now, will this lower standard in the domestic game begin impacting upon the quality of player that is produced as a by-product?

The answer to such a question only time can tell, however it may be prudent of the ECB to try and strike a balance between the two going forward. An ideal scenario would be one in which centrally contracted players still give something back to the county game, increasing the quality and popularity simultaneously, whilst priming their own technique against a swinging ball.

In their infancy central contracts were the proverbial sat-nav, setting England well on course for becoming the number one side in the world. Now that they have reached their destination, it may just be time to relax the grip on some of those that hold them, for the good of the English county game and the potential harm it may be doing in the long run.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Is 'Sugar' Ray Robinson's #1 spot as secure as we once thought?

'Sugar' Ray Robinson is widely regarded as the single greatest fighter that the sport of boxing has ever seen. Boasting an astounding record of 173(108)-19-6 and generally being accepted as the most rounded fighter to have laced up the gloves, surely there is no debate as to his claim to that 'Greatest of All Time' tag with which he is so often labelled?

Reading one boxing forum recently, there was a debate revolving around Robinson and the so called 'Black Murderer's Row', made up of the likes of Charley Burley, Lloyd Marshall, Holman Williams and the Cocoa Kid, amongst others. Robinson, they suggested, gets a much easier ride with regard to managing to avoid facing any of the aforementioned fighters in comparison to some white champions of the time, namely Tony Zale and Freddie Cochrane.

The story of the Black Murderer's Row is one for another day, but the purpose of this article is to discuss which, if any, of that group of fighters Robinson may have avoided facing. Whilst I realise it is nothing short of sacrilege amongst most boxing fans to even question Robinson's record, there are a couple of points that I feel should be made.

Due to the entry of the United States of America into the Second World War, Ray Robinson had to wait from 1941 (when he was first ranked as the #1 welterweight contender) until 1946 before he got his shot at that particular title. As such, the likes of Holman Williams and the Cocoa Kid had arguably faded from the scene by this point in time. Robinson gets a pass as far as those two are concerned.

Before suggesting that Robinson was too small for these guys, it should be remembered that he regularly made forays up into the middleweight category in order to participate in non-title bouts, even at this stage of his career. Fights with Burley and Williams (prior to his fading away) could therefore have been made during the war years without too much of an issue where weight was concerned. When putting this in context, Robinson again gets a pass for these fights not taking place. Although there was scope for these fights to have happened, all three of Robinson, Burley and Williams were regarded as the top contenders in their respective divisions, and desperately awaited the titles to become active again (the titles had been 'frozen' upon the USA's entry into the war). As such, there was no great incentive for Burley or Williams to come down in weight to secure a fight with Robinson, and likewise there was little chance of Robinson jeopardising his ranking by moving up in weight to fight either of the two. Around 1943 fights between this trio would no doubt have been fascinating, but owing to the aforementioned scenario the necessity for such fights was somewhat lessened.

Charley Burley however, is one of that group of fighters that Robinson probably could and should have fought once he had won his title in 1946. Of all of the members of the Black Murderer's Row, Burley was the most akin to Robinson in terms of ability. Burley is often described within boxing circles as 'the greatest fighter to never win a world title', and unlike the pass given to Robinson above, Burley was still very much a valid opponent at the time of Robinson winning his first world title.

Those arguing in defence of Robinson will suggest that Burley was still in contention for the middleweight title around the end of the Second World War, and as such was looking more toward a fight with Tony Zale than Ray Robinson. As history tells us, Zale duly avoided such a fight and went on to fight out a trilogy with Rocky Graziano. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that Burley did indeed offer a fight to Robinson, at any weight between 147lbs and 160lbs, even if it meant a non-title affair, around this time. On the back of this, Robinson gets no such pass, and his apparent avoidance of Charley Burley has to go down as an asterisk against Robinson's otherwise stellar career.

This article is by no means an attempt to diminish the achievements of the legendary 'Sugar' Ray Robinson, nor is it suggesting that he isn't indeed the greatest fighter that ever lived. The purpose, and hopefully the effect it has, was to alter the way that it has become all too easy to place Robinson as our #1 without question, and that even the great man should be subjected to the same scrutiny that a whole host of other great fighters careers are subjected to.

Is Robinson still the greatest? In my eyes, yes, however there may be one or two shortening the gap between Ray and the likes of Harry Greb, Henry Armstrong and Ezzard Charles after taking the above in to account.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Kell looking Special...

This Saturday inside Sheffield's Ponds Forge International Arena 'The Special One' Kell Brook (25-0-0) showcased his vast array of talents with a stoppage victory against the tough, game but ultimately over matched Rafal Jackiewicz (38-10-1) of Poland, whilst serving up a timely reminder to the welterweight division that he means business, and is coming looking for titles.

From the very first bell Brook took the centre of the ring in this WBA title eliminator, looking in tremendous shape and finding his range with a series of sharp, powerful jabs. Jackiewicz, for the most part of the opener, looked to keep a high guard and stay out of range of Brook's right hand, possibly with a view to countering, but by the end of the round was already beginning to look befuddled as to how to deal with the speed and movement of Brook. This was highlighted by a sharp counter landed by Brook when Jackiewicz opened up slightly in the dying moments. A fairly uneventful opening round, but one in which Brook looked wholly at ease.

Clearly encouraged by what he had seen from Jackiewicz in the first, Brook began the second round looking increasingly confident, and scoring with the left right combination almost at will. This pattern followed through in to the third round, with Jackiewicz looking all at sea against the movement, reflexes and accurate punching of Brook, his growing confidence outlined by an uppercut thrown with vicious intent that, luckily for Jackiewicz, glanced off his temple on it's way through.

By now Brook's Polish opponent was looking beleaguered, and with visible damage beneath both eyes was cutting a rather forlorn figure in his corner at the climax of the third round. Racing from his corner at the bell for the fourth, Brook went to work in a relentless fashion, balancing aggression perfectly with a tight defence and more than impressive reflexes. Jackiewicz still remained solid however, despite a crunching body shot from Brook early in the round. It appeared that Brook would have to break his opponent down a good deal more before the stoppage he craved as a statement of intent was in sight. Jackiewicz, remember, had never been stopped in his previous 48 fights. Late in the round Brook unloaded a volley of punches, not all of which landed, but which again highlighted the fact that his opponent had no means of slipping, blocking or countering the shots.

Judging by the lack of meaningful work coming back from Jackiewicz, it seemed clear to all that he was content to last the distance, and his body language between rounds betrayed his inner thoughts that told him he wasn't going to win on this night.

Round five saw Brook unveil his full arsenal, throwing a succession of uppercuts with one visibly staggering Jackiewicz, though his legs still looked strong. Throughout the onslaught, Brook stuck to his basics, and was still having regular success with that sharp jab, further marking up the eyes of his opponent. The packed crowd inside the Ponds Forge Arena were on their feet by now, smelling blood and sensing the first stoppage loss of Jackiewicz's career.

As the sixth got under way Brook still seemed intent on working the body, perhaps forming the opinion in his own mind that he would need to break Jackiewicz down sufficiently by the later rounds in order to force the stoppage. Midway through the round however Brook connected with a strong right hand, and after eating another left right combination the referee Howard Foster, who had been taking a close look at the Pole since the previous round, decided he had seen enough and stepped in to end the bout.

It is true that Jackiewicz looked tired and was becoming increasingly ineffective at defending himself against the sharp attacks of Brook, but the question as to why an eliminator for a world title no less can be stopped on a small number of unanswered punches is one that must be asked. Let's ask ourselves, if it had been the other way round with Brook struggling, would the referee have stepped in? No, is the answer to that particular question.

Lest we forget this is a man that had yet to be stopped in 48 previous contests. Only once in the fight had Jackiewicz been visibly hurt, and it does make one wonder if British boxing is beginning to become slightly unfair toward foreigners that are in with a British prospect, this being the latest in a string of questionable refereeing decisions.

It is the nature of the sport of boxing that the balance of a fight can be swung dramatically with one punch, and despite tiring Jackiewicz undoubtedly still had that chance, albeit a very slim one. He certainly wasn't out on his feet or defenceless, though his lack of activity in terms of what was being thrown back was probably the decisive factor that told Howard Foster he had seen enough. In this authors mind it was a premature stoppage, all things considered.

That is to take nothing away from the performance of Kell Brook, however, who showed a level of maturity that some detractors may have questioned him having before this fight. It was perhaps this aspect of his performance that stood out and showed those watching that he is indeed the real deal, and is more than ready for a tilt at some of the welterweight divisions bigger names.

Brook was boxing with an air of confidence, patience and guile in the way that he set up and executed his attacks. Many a fighter of similar experience to Brook would have gone actively seeking the stoppage win once he saw that his opponent was offering little in terms of return fire and was clearly inferior, but Brook kept to the basics behind his effective jab and systematically broke down Jackiewicz. Rather than getting overly zealous and smothering his own work, as is so often that case with young fighters that have an opponent in trouble, Brook managed distance with aplomb and continued to land crisp, clean shots.

What next then for Kell Brook? His promoter Eddie Hearn suggested during the post fight interviews that a fight with former WBC champion Andre Berto could be on the cards, with the possibility of this match-up already having been discussed with Berto's promoter Lou DiBella. This would be a definite step up in class for Brook and would promise to be an explosive fight that could really provide a platform from which 'The Special One' could gain Stateside recognition.

Other possibilities include America's Mike Jones, or an all British showdown with Amir 'King' Khan once he makes his move north to welterweight following his scheduled bout with Lamont Peterson. This one would certainly capture the imagination of the British public, and would almost certainly garner some interest in the States given Khan's recent outings across the pond.

For now, however, Brook says that he will continue to knock out whoever Hearn puts in front of him, and based on Saturday's performance, who would bet against him?

Adrenalin Agenda...

Ever held an interest in participating in one of the more 'blood, sweat and tears' adrenaline fuelled sports, but not quite had the minerals to do so? On many an occasion, I have sat there with friends - beer in hand, empty pizza box sat on the table, and EA Sports Fight Night on the Xbox blaring away - conversing about how much we would like to be able to fight, to be in similar shape to the real life versions of those we were controlling with the push of a few buttons, and to possess the supreme self confidence that would surely come with knowing how to box.

Well on my way to becoming 25 years of age, I sat there one night and decided in my own mind that I was going to take the plunge and get myself down to a local boxing gym. After all, these are my 'prime' years, and if there was a time to learn the fight game it'd be now, wouldn't it?

I'm not usually one for excess self-indulgence, but this next series of blogs will document my experiences in the boxing gym on a monthly basis, and will hopefully go some way to showing why an ordinary office worker, who has barely had a fight in his life, can step into a gym and (hopefully) reach a point where he can hold his own with those that have been in the game considerably longer.

Prior to my first session, I consulted British boxing coach Kevin Campion. "Any advice for a novice?" I enquired. "Get fit, running is a key part" he said, "and the jab is the key, it can help you in defence or attack. If you learn anything, learn how to throw a good jab". With that in mind, I set off for the gym - butterflies in my stomach and with no idea what to expect.

Located in the degenerated back streets of Digbeth, Birmingham the 'Executive Boxer' gym looks more like a disused warehouse from the outside, sitting above an old car garage and a far cry from the Dodgeball-esque 'Globo Gym' I had perhaps been expecting.

After climbing the staircase, in the sort of state that you encounter in a multi-storey car park only minus the stench, I see the gym in all it's glory - concrete floor, a few heavy bags and a solitary boxing ring sat against the back wall. Add to that what I imagine is the familiar smell of many a boxing gym around the world and I might as well have been in 1960's Philadelphia training alongside 'Smokin' Joe Frazier.

At this point the resident trainer, Anthony, introduces himself to me. "Hi mate, I'm Anthony, the first few sessions are going to hurt, but you'll soon pick it up". Very comforting, and did nothing to add to the butterflies that were by now in the midst of a particularly violent hurricane in my stomach.

I consider myself a relatively fit bloke, playing football and squash once a week, in amongst a handful of gym visits for some casual weightlifting. After a warm-up containing numerous variations of running around the gym I was swiftly beginning to change my opinion.

On then to my first experience with the gloves on, as I was paired up with another member of the ten strong group. Thankfully, the technique work wasn't overly complicated, with variations on jabbing, throwing a 1-2 and slipping punches being the focus of the exercise. One thing that did astound me, however, was the difficulty of staying balanced at all times. Footwork, it would appear, is not in the slighest bit as easy as it looks. Next to the regulars, it felt like I was wearing old school diving boots and moving with fluidity comparative to that of three month old milk.

It would appear that it'd be some time before I could declare the arrival of Pernell Whitaker reincarnate.

Anthony, whilst making various comments and corrections to my technique, couldn't stress enough the importance of the legs as a solid base from which to throw your punches, and the burn could certainly be felt as I constantly rocked my weight back to slip the incoming jabs. Thankfully for my face, my partner took pity and certainly wasn't throwing with any gusto!

Unarguably the most physically exhausting exercise came in the form of circuits. I'd heard stories of first timers being sick after a mere ten minutes of circuits, so it was with a degree of trepidation that I approached the first station in week one.

One minute intervals of squats, heavy bag, military presses, sprints, punching with dumbells, bench step-ups and the like and I was on my last legs, with every muscle, including those I never knew existed, an inferno. The abs session to finish up with was most welcome, which is something you wouldn't usually hear me saying!

The remaining sessions of the month focussed more on defensive technique, the slipping and parrying of incoming attacks, and the ability to set up attacks of our own through use of the jab. It has to be said that it was the defensive side of things that I found most difficult - it certainly wasn't second nature to stay in range of my 'opponent' when attempting to slip punches, and that was something taking some degree of getting used to.

In terms of general fitness, you'll find that it rapidly improves if you can couple your boxing sessions with a three to four mile run each week. The next day aches won't stop, but as those old weightlifting sages might tell you, "pain is just weakness leaving the body".

All in all a good month of training, and one where I had realised two things. 1) Boxing requires a lot of patience, and in the words of the great Floyd Mayweather Jr "hard work, dedication" in order to master the various techniques and reach the required fitness levels. 2) An average Joe office worker could head into a boxing gym without completely embarassing himself. Plenty of hard work and learning ahead, but the wheels were in motion.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

India's 'Wall' well and truly breached

*Copied across from my previous blog, posted 3rd August 2011*

Cast your mind back two weeks, a much heralded Indian team arrives on English shores, rightful holders of the world number 1 Test ranking and coming off the back of an impressive series victory away in South Africa - a notoriously difficult place to go. In the Test arena, not to mention their limited overs prowess, India have swept aside all before them under the captaincy of MS Dhoni.

The foundations upon which this success has been built comes in the form of solid Indian willow, an opening pair that combines pyrotechnics with patience and class in the form of Virender Sehwag and Guatam Gambhir, reinforced by arguably the finest middle order that Test cricket has ever seen in Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, and VVS Laxman. With more than 30,000 Test runs between those three alone, it is plain to see the daunting task facing any bowling attack when attempting to remove them from the crease.

Their opponents for this highly anticipated Test series, England, have had significant success of their own during India's rise to dominance, winning a home Ashes series against Australia in 2009, finishing all square away in South Africa, the Holy Grail of an away series win in Australia in 2010/11, and a recent 1-0 series win at home against Sri Lanka.

Heading into this current series, with England needing a clear two Test win margin in order to usurp India as the number one Test ranked team, the question on the lips of most pundits was whether England's impressive bowling attack had the skill to consistently take 20 wickets against India's batting stalwarts. On the evidence of the first two Tests at Lord's and Trent Bridge...the answer is unequivocally yes.

India's 'Wall', Rahul Dravid, has been the one stand out batsman for the tourists across these first two Tests, hardly surprising for a man that has occupied the crease for longer than any other batsman in the history of the game (approximately 40,000 minutes - equivalent to one month of solid batting). Whilst Dravid has looked to be the solid mortar steadfastly holding India's batting displays together, showing perfect technique in testing conditions, his team mates have looked to be the relative play-doh, attempting to hang on when stretched but eventually giving way to an English cocktail of swing, seam and venom. Even Test cricket's record run scorer, the 'Little Master' Sachin Tendulkar, has only managed to pass fifty once in four innings.

India, in fairness, have suffered through the loss of their strike bowler Zaheer Khan, a shoulder injury to explosive opener Sehwag and an elbow injury obtained at Lord's by his opening partner Gambhir, but nevertheless have so far failed their stern examination in English conditions. Their plight has not been helped by the fact that the general fitness levels of their players appear equivalent to those of an asthmatic sloth, and it will certainly be interesting to see if India do indeed have any response to the two crushing defeats they have suffered thus far in this series. It may well be that this team of invincibles have simply met their match against an England side hell bent on being the world's finest.

The next episode of this series takes place at one of England's happiest hunting grounds, Edgbaston. Win here, and the series is theirs, along with that highly coveted number one Test ranking. Conditions at Edgbaston are likely to be similar to those experienced during the second Test at Trent Bridge, with movement for the bowlers on days one and two, and the pitch becoming slightly more batsman friendly on day three. Don't expect much spin, it is likely to once more be a battle of the seamers. England clearly have the edge in this department, and on the evidence of the past two weeks, only a fool would bet against them.

Prediction: England win.