South Africa, cricket, the World Cup and the impossibility of victory

The coveted but elusive ICC Cricket World Cup trophy

The coveted but elusive ICC Cricket World Cup trophy

If South Africa beat Sri Lanka on Wednesday in their cricket World Cup quarterfinal, it would be our maiden knock-out victory in the game’s show piece tournament since we first competed in Australia in 1992.

I suppose most fellow South African cricket fanatics know that miserable little fact already.

The closest we have come to winning a knockout game is the heart-breaking semi-final tie with Australia in 1999, a game we should have won  but where we lost our heads completely instead.

It’s arguably the worst moment in South African sport since re-admission in the early 1990s, and not in my humble view the greatest one day game of all time (Mine would be the record-breaker in 2006).

In truth, the cricket team has borne the brunt of the nation’s on-field sporting disasters (rugby, soccer, golf, athletics, swimming even rowing have all produced champion teams and athletes). Our World Cup cricket teams have promised so much, but delivering so little.

In fairness, it hasn’t all been about choking in knock-out games, South Africa’s run at World Cups has been ended by a mixture of bad luck and a lack of big match temperament.

brian mcmillan

Losing in the first of many cruel fashions in 1992 against England

Perhaps if the rain had not intervened in the semi-final loss in 1992 to England (when a possible 22 runs off 13 balls became a silly 22 runs off 1 ball) we might have gone on to win the tournament on our first try. What a fairy tale win that would have been! And who knows how it might have changed our fortunes in later tournaments.

Instead, the ‘choker tag’ has steadily gained weight from the quarter-final loss to the West Indies in 1996 (after we were unbeaten in the group stages), the1999 tie/loss to Australia, the 2003 exit at the pool stages after miscalculating the run chase in our Sri Lankan game affected by rain), the 2007 big choke against Australia in the semi-finals and 2011 loss to a weak New Zealand team.

So here we are again – at the crossroads – ready to wear the choker tag again if we fail against a good but easily beatable Sri Lankan side, who are already playing up their superior psychological mindset through their coach, Marvan Atapattu:

“[Our better records in World Cups] is something that will work in their minds.”

Even if we do pull off a maiden knockout win, there’s still two more games and unbelievable pressure – the kind in which Australia, Sri Lanka and India have thrived but we have succumbed too like a mismatched boxing opponent.

South African captain AB De Villiers – arguably the best one day player in the world – has been boasting of the team’s status as the favourites – despite two bad performances against India and Pakistan in the group stage. He told ESPNCricinfo:

“I 100% believe we are the best team in the tournament here.Those two losses in the group stage did hurt us a bit but we are past that now. We know where we could have won those games and we weren’t that far off. We know we are very close… three games away from taking that World Cup home.”

Does he believe that? And more importantly does the team?

I have my doubts, this is a team peppered with great players (De Villiers, Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla to name three)  but it’s not played like a great side…well not yet anyway.

I would love to be proved wrong. Nothing would give me more satisfaction than watching the Proteas lift the coveted trophy – it would make up for a lot of years of hurt.

But my gut says otherwise. I’d be surprised if we beat Sri Lanka on Wednesday and even more surprised if we go all the way.

(My final prediction: Australia v New Zealand, Australia to win)

Andre Agassi’s odyssey and the death of flamboyant tennis

agassiReading Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, you realise how boring men’s tennis has become.

No wonder they are trying to re-invent the game with a new idiotic format, Fast 4 tennis.

Tennis players these days by and large remind me of Ivan Lendl, the gaunt Czech number one who dominated the game in the late 1980s winning eight grand slams. Lendl had the charisma of a can of tuna (the no name supermarket brand). Expressionless, machine-like, Lendl wore opponents down with relentless accuracy. (Jim Courier was another mind-numbingly boring player to watch and even worse, to hear these days as a commentator).

The current world number one, Novak Djokovic, is very much Lendl-like, and while we all admire Roger Federer as the greatest player of the modern game – Agassi calls him “the most regal player I have ever known” – flamboyant he is not. Ditto Andy Murray. Perhaps only Rafael Nadal in full flight has something to captivate the imagination.

Andre Agassi burst onto the tennis scene at about the same time Ivan Lendl was at his peak and as the game’s other great entertainer – Enfant terrible John McEnroe – was nearing the end of his career.

Complete with enormous hair (actually a hair piece because he was going bald), earrings, colourful outfits and the most amazing return of serve and ground strokes the game has ever seen, Agassi shook the tennis foundation to its core, reaching his first Grand Slam final at the French Open in 1990 aged just 19 and winning Wimbledon two year’s later, a tournament he admits to hating for its rules and snobbery.

Winning Wimbledon in 1992

Winning Wimbledon in 1992

Agassi ended up winning just as many grand slams as Lendl, (he won all four majors, something Lendl never achieved) doing so in an era dominated by another machine-like competitor, Pete Sampras. Without Sampras to thwart him, Agassi could have won as many majors as Roger Federer.

All the more amazing his success, given that Andre Agassi hated playing tennis.

“I hate tennis most of all,” he tells his friend, the actor Kevin Costner soon after winning Wimbledon, in Open.

“Right, right. I guess it’s a grind. But you don’t actually hate tennis.” – Costner says. “I do,” Agassi replies.

This conversation repeats itself throughout the book, becoming almost its mantra.

Forced to practice for hours and hours under the Las Vegas sun by his mad Iranian father and later sent away to be force-fed tennis at the Nick Bollettieri academy, Agassi says he despised tennis.

The problem is, he wasn’t much good at doing anything else, so he stuck to it, becoming, against the odds, one of the all time greats.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Open is the window Agassi gives into the world of professional tennis. The endless travel and hotel rooms. The dieting and fitness regimes. Overcoming injuries. Dealing with hostile sports journalists. Encountering rivals and finding ways to beat them. The physical and mental strain of competing and the agony of losing.

Of course there is also the joy of numerous come from behind victories, his most incredible being at the French Open in 1999 – a tournament which marked Agassi’s comeback from injury, disillusionment, dabbling with drugs and extracting himself from a soulless marriage to the actress, Brooke Shields. Agassi, ranked 141 in the world, fought back from two sets to love down against Russian battler Andrei Medvedev to win in five sets. Rousing himself from the jaws of defeat, Agassi writes brilliantly about how he started to win the mental battle after winning the third set:

He’s (Medvedev) has had too long to think about winning. He was five points away from winning. Five points, and its haunting him…

Open is a real ‘rags-to-riches-to-rags-to riches’ tale and Agassi tells it well, especially when he’s in the cauldron of the packed arena slogging it out, somehow finding the will to win. His battles with Pete Sampras in particular are riveting blow-by-blow accounts of epic encounters.

Agassi comes across asschmaltzy, painfully honest and very likeable – the same can not be said for Jimmy Connors (a pompous prick), his ex-wife Brooke Shields (a vacuous airhead) and to an extent Pete Sampras (the accountant of the tennis world).

His coach Brad Gilbert, who helped turn his career around, comes across as an eccentric genius.

Agassi’s pursuit of Steffi Graf – told with embarrassing relish – is quite comical, particularly, the numerous rebuffs, but the lashings of syrupy cards and flowers leave one feeling a tad ill. The same can be also be said of Agassi’s choice of inspirational music which includes Michael Bolton, Celine Dione and Kenny G and his brief dalliance with “finding God”.

Whatever his musical shortcomings or sugary sentimentalism, no one has since entertained quite like Andre Agassi, who played his last professional match – almost ten years ago – at the 2006 US Open.

And Open is one of the best accounts of a life of tennis you will ever read.

How to win cricket world cups: win the toss, bat first

ICC-Cricket-World-Cup-Trophy-2011

The illusive ICC World Cup Trophy

I never stayed till the end of the India v South Africa game on a steamy night at the MCG.

As the sixth wicket fell and the sea of orange, white and green Indian flags waved triumphantly in the packed arena, and as we (meaning South Africa) began our all familiar world cup capitulation, I got up and left.

India had scored over 300 and we were about 150/6 with 20 overs remaining. It was a hopeless situation, one South African fans are all too familiar with at world cups, particularly at the knock-out stages.

In five world cup knockout games South Africa have played since their debut in 1992, they have lost four and tied one (THAT game against Australia we should have won in 1999 before the greatest choke in the history of sport).

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

To win world cups is a mixture of skill, luck and nerve: we have plenty of the former and not much of the other two.

But if South Africa do – as expected – make the quarterfinals and then somehow win their way through to the final, this is the surest way to win the competition:

One
Win the toss

Two
Bat first

Three
Score at least 250

(If we lose the toss, bowl them out for under 150 or less)

Winning the toss is important, but only if you take advantage of it by choosing to bat.

In the 10 world cups played to date, seven have been won by the team batting first.

This is not all that surprising. Cricket is a game of nerves, of who blinks first.The pressure is so much greater batting second. Recovery is so much harder if you get off to a poor start, and if it’s a day/night game, conditions are usually tougher batting second under the lights.

That’s unless you’ve got only a small total to chase.

In 1996 Sri Lanka chased down 240 odd against Australia and in 1999, Australia only had to score 132 against Pakistan.

The only time a team has chased down a sizeable total and won the world cup was in 2011, when India chased down 274 set by Sri Lanka, winning with 10 balls to spare thanks to an MS Dhoni special.

The cardinal error though is to win the toss and choose to field. Only one team has done that and ended up on the winning side: Sri Lanka against Australia in 1996.

In the first three world cup finals won by West Indies twice and then Australia, on each occasion, the team that won the toss chose to field and lost the game. It happened again in 2003 when India won the toss, chose to field and Australia amassed 359/2.

So my message to AB De Villiers, if we somehow start playing well enough and make it through to the final is simple:

Make sure you win the bloody toss and for heaven’s sake, BAT FIRST (and then post 300 plus!)

I know, I know…

But, we are allowed to dream, aren’t we?

The Asian Cup of rogue nations

afc-asian-cup-1420749072-2318216It struck me – with the force of a Tim Cahill wonder strike – that there was something decidedly wrong with the 2015 Asian Cup.

North Korea. Iran. Saudi Arabia. All run by brutal dictatorial regimes, all with appalling human rights records, but allowed to compete in an international sporting event.

Has the world gone mad? Have we lost our moral compass?

I ask from the perspective of a South African who remembers our isolation from world sport, forced to live off a diet of local competitions and the occasional ‘rebel’ cricket or rugby side visit.

Of course, it was quite right that we were banned, given our cruel apartheid policies, though there were some who argued that sport and politics should be kept separate and that we shouldn’t punish individuals, many of whom opposed the government’s policy of separation, from competing internationally.

Certainly, there were many great South African sportsmen and women denied their opportunity on the world stage, barred from competing at  Olympic and Commonwealth Games and from cricket, rugby and soccer world cups.

We had a world-beating cricket team in 1970 (thrashing Australia 4-0 at home) before we were kicked out of world sport, champion rugby and soccer players, swimmers and athletes.

But, I got a real shock when I saw North Korea arrive in Australia to take part in the tournament, a ridiculous charade, given they refused to give media conferences or engage with the public and thankfully were bundled out in the group stages. Clearly instructions came straight from mad dictator Kim Jong-un and his henchmen on how to behave in a foreign country, a rare treat for the lucky few who were able to travel outside of their home country. The rest stay home and starve.

Iran’s another shocker. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is a jihadist theocracy that has dragged Iran into economic depression while executing, imprisoning and intimidating its domestic opponents” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan recently. Iran is more dangerous than the Islamic State, he added.

Iran’s people are beaten, imprisoned, tortured…but its team is allowed to compete in the Asian Cup. Even the players over here play with fear in their hearts: during the tournament players were warned not to be photographed with young female fans.

As for Saudi Arabia, being a Jew I wouldn’t be allowed into the country (not that I have any plans to visit). Saudi Arabia is by all reports a brutal, repressive place, with medieval laws. The penalty for homosexuality is death. The penalty for blasphemy is death.  Commit adultery and the punishment is to be stoned to death. Steal and you lose a hand. State your opinion in a blog and you get flogged.

So, I ask again, has the world lost its moral compass?

Do we now turn a blind eye now to every human rights violation in the name of sport and entertainment?

Or have we finally decided that sport and politics should not mix. If so, a lot of South African sportsmen and women deserve an apology.

Federer, Nadal, Becker and Curren: remembering my tennis moments

tennis-ballsIt wasn’t the classic match I’d been hoping for, but it was still a thrill to sit under the lights at Rod Laver arena and watch two of the modern-day greats, Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal, duel it out for a place in the Australian Open final.

Nadal was too aggressive , Federer made too many errors at the net with only the occasional glimpses of his sublime ground strokes, and it was all over in straight sets.

As I sat in the arena with Danni Minogue behind me, Pete Sampras chatting away in the distance (and never applauding a single point) and the great man, Rod Laver himself, watching intently with his distinctive mop of red hair and pointy nose, I thought about my own relationship with tennis and the role it’s played in my life.

Growing up in Germiston, a mining town about 30 minutes east of Johannesburg, we lived across the road from a Catholic convent and next door to the school’s tennis court. The nuns graciously gave us a set of keys and it was quite a novelty to have friends over and then head down to the courts to hit the ball around.  The court’s were cracked and the nets frayed and we frequently lost balls into the neighbouring homes, but it was our own private tennis club.

I was never much of a player, occasionally I’d string a couple of good shots together and fluke a serve down the line, but I’d have been a lower grade club player at best if I’d had lessons and practiced. Still, there probably wasn’t a family holiday, where we didn’t take our rackets and have a game. I recall being rather competitive and not averse to smashing my racket against the ground and not always the best loser.

More so though, my relationship with tennis revolved around the four majors – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, which seemed to define the calendar year and the seasons.

South Africa might have been isolated from the world in the mid-1980s, but every game was shown on SABC (the South African Broadcasting Corporation) with our legendary doubles champion Bob Hewitt waxing on in English about this shot and that and someone else providing the alternate Afrikaans commentary.

The French Open and Wimbledon were always my favourites – the former played on those bright red clay courts, with smartly dressed men and sexy, haughty European women in sunglasses watching from the stands (expertly picked out by the cameramen) while the umpire called the points in French.

They was probably the only words in French I knew:

“Zero – quarante” (Love – 40)

“Jeu” (Game”)

“Quarante – trente” (40-30)

And my favourite, the oh so very sophisticated:

“Egalite” (Deuce)

I loved all the sliding across the red clay, the ability to see exactly where the ball landed in the court when a dispute was called and the long baseline rallies by the likes of Mats Wilander, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster and the tiny, plucky Michael Chang and his famous win over Stefan Edberg in 1989 (where I seem to remember a point he served underhand).

But Wimbledon holds the strongest memories for me.

It was always played in the middle of winter in South Africa, crisp, days when the afternoon sun streamed in through the sliding doors of the living room and always while I was studying for mid-year exams. I remember I’d structure my study time  – 40 minutes at my desk, then 20 minutes of tennis, which soon turned into 30 minutes and sometimes until my mother called the family over for dinner.

The men’s final evokes strong memories of family gatherings. Uncles and aunts and cousins would arrive for tea, cake and biscuits and then we’d all retire to the family room to watch the final. My father would invariably fall asleep (I have photographic evidence somewhere) but wake up in time for the trophy presentation by Duke of Edinburgh.

One year was particularly special – 1985. I was 12 years old and a South African had made it all the way to the final. His name was Kevin Curren. He was tall, awkward looking, softly spoken guy who blitzed the likes of McEnroe and Connors with an endless stream of aces and unplayable serves to power his way into the final against an unknown, unseeded 17-year-old German “wunderkid” called Boris Becker.

This was in the deep, dark days of apartheid isolation with only the likes of Gary Player and a few other individual sportsman able to still represent our country on the global stage.

The nation held its breath that day as we prayed that our new sporting idol, Kevin Curren, would play one more storming match and give us our first Grand Slam champ since Johan Kriek won the Australian Open in the late 1970s.

Sadly it was not to be. The fresh-faced, precious talent that was Boris Becker leaped onto the world stage on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon and tennis was changed for ever. It was upsetting to see our hero lose, but the truth is I became an enormous fan of Boris Becker with all his theatrical dives at the net and that powerful, trigger serve of his.

In the subsequent years, I remember the three Wimbledon Finals between the raging, tear away Boom Boom Becker and the cool elegant Swede, Stephen Edberg between 1988 and 1990 as among the most thrilling of my young adult life.

Later, while living in London, I was lucky enough to attend Wimbledon a couple of times, taking the train after work, queueing up for five-pound tickets and wander around the famous courts, indulging in some rather disappointing strawberries and cream and sitting on what was then called “Henman Hill” (now called Murray Mound) in the long summer days.

In 2004, I slept over at a mate’s house in Croydon  and we awoke at 4am to queue early for tickets for one of the show courts.

We got to watch a young very attractive talent by the name of Maria Sharapova on her way to her first Grand Slam, but the highlight was watching the panther like Roger Federer on his way to his second of seven Wimbledon Crowns.

And this week I got to see him again  in the twilight of perhaps the greatest of tennis careers.

To inappropriately quote Eric Clapton and Cream: Anyone for tennis, wouldn’t that be nice?

Giddee up: why horse racing is an absurd sport

Horse Racing-hdhut.blogspot.com (8)I rarely gamble. Not because I am puritanical about it, but because I never win. I figure I’m better off burning the bank notes in my wallet for warmth than taking a punt.

On Tuesday, on Melbourne Cup Day I won $5 in the office sweepstakes. The horse I picked up was Verema. That horse is dead. It was put down after breaking a bone in her leg in the race. Not quite sure why I won $5, but it was out of sympathy I think and I shall donate the money to some animal charity in return.

I took the incident to be a kind of omen – about betting mainly – but it also made me think about horse racing and what an utterly absurd sport it is.

Mainly, it’s the idea that horses are somehow willing competitors and participants in these so-called carnivals.

Michael Lynch, a sports writer at The Age, writes in a column that the death of Verema was “sad” but not a “tragedy”.

A tragedy, he said, would be if a jockey were to die as happened in Darwin recently.

Horse racing, he says like all sports come with risks, somehow suggesting that these horses have agreed (perhaps they signed a contract with their hoof?) to take on these risks.

He writes:

“But the reality is that in any sport or recreational pursuit involving horses (or livestock of any kind) there will be casualties.It’s part of the risk inherent in such activity.”

He then goes on to attack those people who will use the example of the death of Verema to accuse the sport of being barbaric, when in fact very few horses die – one out of every 2000. He writes:

“For those who won’t ever approve, one is too many.For those of us who love racing, it is a sad statistic, but one that will be judged acceptable on a risk-to-return basis.”

I am sure his statistics are accurate. He is of course entitled to his opinion, but I found it heartless and in poor taste, and what really annoyed me was this line:

“Verema was a horse that gave her all.”

The notion that the horse had any idea that it was racing and trying to win.

Michael, Do you really think the horse cared whether it came first, second or last?

It makes me think of a classic Jerry Seinfeld joke about horse racing where he muses about whether horses, after the race, walk back to the stables saying: “I was fifth, while I was third…” and why if the whole idea was just to finish at the point they began, could they not have just remained where they were!

Take a listen:

To be fair, Michael Lynch is not alone. Commentator after commentator will talk about horses as if they were consciously involved in the sport. They talk of horses that “race solidly”, that “never let go” that “bolt ahead” as if these animals are cognizant beings, able to make judgements and decisions, to strategize and plot, when really its all about the little man on their backs manipulating them.

Horse racing is not grand. It’s not a spectacle. It’s quite silly and boring. It’s why people get blind drunk on cup day and frequently dress up in silly outfits.

Sometimes it can be cruel. And I doubt it’s ever all that much fun for the horse.

The demise of Australian sporting prowess…or how they went from champs to chumps

france v australiaJust what has happened to Australia’s sporting prowess?

Over the weekend, the Soccerros lost 6-0 to France to accumulate a 12-0 scoreline when you tally the previous result against Brazil.

It’s been 11 years since the Wallabies last won the Bledisloe Cup and 14 years since they last won the World Cup.

The cricket team has lost three Ashes series in a row, it lost 4-0 to India earlier this year and before that lost a test series at home to South Africa.

The Olympic team won just 8 gold medals in London, its worst haul since 1988 and half the number of golds they won at Beijing.

Once a tennis powerhouse, Australia has only just returned to the David Cup world group after a six year hiatus.

Blimey, even the last two horses to win the Melbourne Cup were trained in France.

Compare this two twenty years ago.

As a once-mad South African cricket and rugby supporter, a sense of dread would come over me every time our national team played the Wallabies or the Baggy Greens throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Let’s play anyone but the Australians was my motto.

Because Australia was so damn good at cricket and rugby and just about any other sport you could think of.

It was not just they’re sporting skill and dexterity, it was a mental toughness they possessed (typified none more so than by the likes of Steve Waugh or John Eales), a do-or-die attitude that left one of the most painful of sporting moments indelibly tattooed on my brain: tieing the 1999 Cricket World Cup semi-final, a game we could not, it seemed, lose, yet somehow managed to do so (I recall celebrating victory only for it to be snatched away so cruelly by lunacy).

Tough as nails, the fiercest of competitors: Steve waugh

Tough as nails, the fiercest of competitors: Steve waugh

Beating Australia meant you had to play at your very best and when you did beat them, it almost always felt like a remarkable achievement, one where you matched both their physical abilities and were stronger mentally.

Now you can do it hardly even trying it seems.

What exactly has happened to this once proud sporting nation? Is it just going through a very bad downward patch or has their being a seismic shift in the world order?

Certainly the Socceroos were not expected to win their games against football powerhouses like France and Brazil, but they were expected to at least put up a good fight.What happened to the team that eight years ago pushed Italy all the way for a quarter-final spot at the 2006 World Cup?

The slide in rugby and cricket has been even worse, these being sports where Australia dominated on the world stage. Yes, teams go up and down, but the fall from grace has been spectacular to the say the least.

But it goes beyond results.

Just how many major sporting scandals have made the front pages of newspapers recently? I’ve lost count. It seems there’s hardly a national sport that has not been tainted lately by something or other.

There’s been the AFL and NRL doping scandals, the numerous punch-ups and bust ups in the cricket team, the bad behaviour among rugby players (James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale). Christ, even sports you’d never associate with anything remotely scurrilous have had their share of public image failures most notably the men’s swimming team, and the sleeping pill scandal. (Not to mention their complete failure to win a gold medal at the Olympics) and the recent admissions by cycling great, Stuart O’Grady that he was a drug’s cheat.

Of course I should mention there have been some exceptions: Australian golf is very strong led by Master’s champion Adam Scott and regular major challenger Jason Day plus a string of other players capable of winning big tournaments. Sam Stosur won the US Open a few years back and Australia continues to dominate at surfing and ahem…netball.

Apart from netball though, these are all individual sports and, they seem to be more the exception then the rule.

It appears that Australian sports teams have been out-psyched or perhaps they’ve out-psyched themselves, believing they’re better at losing than winning. Perhaps the endless succession of scandals can be read as a desperate attempt for them to get back to winning ways.

This is also typified in the apparent necessity to spend millions of dollars appointing overseas coaches to national teams. We’ve had a New Zealander (Robbie Deans) coach the Wallabies, a succession of foreign nationals coach the Socceroos, and a South African (Mickey Arthur) coach the cricket team with varying degrees of success. This speaks volumes about confidence and a lack of belief in the talent of local coaches and managers.

And once again, having sacked German coach Holger Osieck, the Socceroos have considered trying to literally turn back the clock and re-appoint Gus Hiddink, the Dutchman who guided them to the fourth round at the World Cup in 2006. It seems some sensibility has returned with Melbourne Victory coach Ange Postercoglou (Australian despite the exotic sounding name) set to take on the role.

All these teams will no doubt bounce back.

But the days of Australia as a sporting powerhouse, punching way above its weight and utterly dominating their rivals, appear to be over.