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Sunday February 20 2011

One of the many reasons for the worldwide popularity of soccer is surely that, because scoring goals is difficult – even when they are easy, they are easily missed – a superior team can easily have an off day and lose to a hugely inferior team.  Witness how near Manchester United came to losing to non-league Crawley Town yesterday.  Okay, not that near.  But Crawley were only 1-0 down at the final whistle, and with a bit of luck in front of goal might have made one of their several difficult-but-definite chances count.  Or, Man U might have missed their goal.  Given either of those eventualities, who knows what might have happened?

Contrast all that with what has been happening today to a couple of international cricket minnows, Kenya and Canada, in the Cricket World Cup, which got under way yesterday with a big win by India over Bangladesh.  All these first three games were pretty much over well before the first innings in each match had even ended.  India crashed 370-4, which Bangladesh were never going to threaten.  The Kenyans were bowled out for 67, which New Zealand passed with 42 overs to spare, i.e. in 8 overs.  Sri Lanka made 332-7, it having earlier looked like being even more.  Canada, who lost their first three wickets on 0, 8 and 12, never came near and they are now 111-8.

As a result of games like this, the Cricket World Cup has, in a sense, yet to begin.  Once the minnows are all ejected, then the real business of the tournament can start.

In short, soccer minnows can dream.  Cricket minnows, not really.  They can only dream of, one day, getting good enough to dream plausibly.  At least these Cricket World Cup annihilations give them an idea of the standard they must reach, which is something, I suppose.  Or then again, maybe not.

Here’s another angle on the difficulty of actually turning a soccer goal chance into a soccer goal.  Consider the ongoing argument about the try celebrations that England rugby star Chris Ashton has been indulging in, before he actually plants the ball down over the line.  Personally, I regret this habit of Ashton’s, and fear (along with thousands of other England rugby fans) that sooner or later he will screw up a certain try on a day when it really matters.  I wrote about this after he did one of these fancy dives against Wales.  He did a couple more against Italy, despite having been told not to and having said he wouldn’t.

Even worse, all this arguing about whether Ashton should or should not swallow dive could insert a fatal dose of uncertainty into his try scoring habits.  He may screw up a vital try through trying to be sensible about it, but, on account of not having got into the habit of being sensible, screw that up.

It’s a bit like that thing about how the Greenies are right that the end of the world is indeed nigh, but that it will come not of its own accord, but because of some botched scheme promoted by them to stop it happening.

So, anyway, the point I have been trying to make during the last four paragraphs is that soccer players never celebrate goals until they have scored them.  They know that a goal is never a certainty until it really is done and dusted.  There is just too much to go wrong, no matter how easy the chance may look.  Which means that a dominant team can make a dozen chances, take none of them, and lose.  And an outclassed team can make a couple of chances, get lucky with one of them, and win.

Canada all out 122.  Glad that’s over.

Now my television is telling me about another soccer surprise.

Cher Monsieur Ashton,
Before you play against Les Bleus this weekend, a sneer of advice. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.

You think your swallow (African or European) dive impresses us French. Pshah! We score four tries against ze All Blacks whenever we can be bothered and care nothing for your feeble imitations of class. Your team couldn’t score a try at Twickenham anywhere near the standard we have in a hundred years (we have Philippe St André in 1991, Christophe Dominici against All Blacks in 1999). As for scoring beautiful tries, even L’Animal (Chabal) scores with more panache and finesse than you do.

I dare you to celebrate your next try by clapping your hands twice BEFORE catching ze ball and hopping BACKWARDS on one foot towards ze try line, or you are a wuzzie.

Posted by Gustave LaJoie on 20 February 2011

The stupid format of this World Cup is driven by the fact that there actually were two upsets in which minnows beat supposedly good sides at the last World Cup. That World Cup had a format in which the minnows were intended to be eliminated quickly, and then the rest of the tournament would feature good sides only: a second group stage would be full of meaningful games and would reduce eight teams to four, and then a knockout stage would start with semi-finals.

However, in that first round India lost to Bangladesh, Pakistan lost to Ireland and both those sides were eliminated. In India’s case it was a fluke, I think. (In Pakistan’s case, probably not, but let’s not go there right now). As Indian TV and sponsors were paying for most of the event, this was a disaster. From a tournament point of view it was not great either, as it meant the second round was also full of mismatches and there was much less doubt about who would go through to the semi-finals.

Now, rather than simply accepting that fluke results can happen but that was basically a good format, the ICC have this time given us a huge opening group stage (42 matches), in which about half the matches will be mismatches and a few more will be minnow versus minnow. This will be followed by quarter finals. For a good side to not make the quarter finals they would have to lose to two or three minnow, not just one. This is really unlikely, so we already pretty much know the outcome of the group stage. So we face 42 matches of tedious mismatches that barely count for anything. Well done the ICC.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 21 February 2011

if you can forgive the music this is when it will all go wrong for Mr. Ashton. And it will.

Posted by Peter Briffa on 21 February 2011

Yes, I believe that was the video they showed Ashton before the Italy game.  They certainly showed something very like that on the BBC before the Italy game.

Everyone in English rugby is talking about Ashton’s diving.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 21 February 2011

You may well have seen the American footballer DeSean Jackson who has twice lost touchdowns through premature celebrations.

Ah, here:

The thing is, it becomes part of their “brand”. If they just did the sensible thing they wouldn’t have that photo for the front cover of their autobiography. That Jackson has done it twice tells us quite a lot, I think.

Posted by Peter Briffa on 21 February 2011

Is not the difference between soccer, rugby and American football for these purposes, that a nearly touch down is getting on for being as good as an actual touchdown.  And the result of these touchdown errors is to take the team to within inches of an actual touchdown.  Right?  (Comments confirming or denying that please.)

A nearly goal, or a nearly try, is not a goal, or a try, at all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 21 February 2011

You’re basically right, in American football anyway, because the refs are usually too keen to blow the whistle. So yes, nine times out of ten it’s a first and goal for the offensive team. But there was this famous instance in a Superbowl, no less, where the defense did get the ball. But the game was so one-sided it didn’t matter.

But in both those instances with DeSean Jackson, the refs should have let play continue.

Posted by Peter Briffa on 21 February 2011

Cricinfo comment on today’s Australia Zimbabwe game, now drawing to another utterly predictable close:

“It is so painful to watch a match when you know that the other side cannot win or even get close, and yet the match keeps prolonging and never seems to end. This has to be one of the reasons why the 50-over format has lost its charm!” says Guru.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 21 February 2011

Yeah, talking of cricket, there is nothing so painful as a one side one day match, and twenty20 throws up plenty of those too. It’s because they can’t draw. A team chasing 200 in ten over with one wicket remaining ain’t gonna do it. Whereas it can always bat the overs out for a famous draw.

Posted by Peter Briffa on 21 February 2011

Yes, I suppose “drawing” to a close is the wrong word.  Dragging more like.

Might they invent a new result, called a drag?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 21 February 2011

I’m delighted to say that no YouTube video of this moment appears to exist.

Christophe Dominici knocked the ball out of his hand with his knee as he was showing off before scoring a try. Glad he did it against Italy in 2004 and not the All Blacks in ‘99 (imagine if he’d ended this move with an Ashton gone wrong). I include the French commentary to give a flavour of how it would have gone down.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 21 February 2011

I think we have had four games in this World Cup so far? One was India versus Bangladesh, another Australia versus Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe defeated Australia in the early stages of the 1983 World Cup. Australia did not make the next stage of the tournament (although neither did Zimbabwe). Bangladesh defeated India in the early stages of the 2007 World Cup. India did not make the next stage. (In this case Bangladesh did). In both cases the defeated team could have still made the next round if they had played well in their other games, but they didn’t.

These big v small side games do sometimes result in upsets even in cricket, so I don’t really want to see them eliminated entirely. We just don’t want too many of them, and this tournament is going to have way too many of them. One problem with the cricket World Cup is that the format is different every time. Something goes wrong in one tournament, and they change it to something else, without thinking about the consequences of that something else, and simultaneously abandoning the good parts of that something else.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 21 February 2011

50 over cricket is so 1976.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 22 February 2011

Oh dear.  Be careful what you wish for.  Netherlands 239-5 with 5 more overs of slogging still left.

England could struggle.  Which would be good for cricket, but not good for England.

My comment code is “out61”.  Hope that’s not a prophecy.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 22 February 2011

Plus, Ryan ten Deoschate has already got a hundred and is going like a train.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 22 February 2011

ten Doeschate out for 119.

Says Cricinfo: “one of the great minnow innings”.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 22 February 2011

"Hold on, what’s going on here!? Borren has stopped going off and he’s survived! England only had three inside the circle so it’s a no ball! Dear oh dear, the wheels are off and England are a shambles.”

Dear oh dear indeed.

My code now: “audience65”.  Would that be the number of people at the ground watching?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 22 February 2011

"Anderson to Mudassar Bukhari, 1 run, dear, dear me. England fans look away now. Absolute shocker as Swann drops a sitter at third man. The World Cup is up and running and England are a mess again. This is what Associates are here for!”

Ah, Associates.  That’s what they’re called.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 22 February 2011

England *should* still win this, although it is not an impressive effort so far, one has to say. (Boycott: This is a big I wouldn’t be feeling optimistic for that game against India on Sunday if I were English. Still, though, the format of this tournament is such that you can play badly for the next four weeks and still win the tournament. (No, I don’t think England will win the tournament, but funnier things have happened. Pakistan were dreadful in their first few games in 1992).

Antoine: Limited overs international cricket was played in the 1970s, but there was not very much of it and it was not yet perceived as a premium product. When Kerry Packer started World Series Cricket, in 1977, the intentions was that most of the games would be five day “Super Tests”, and even then limited overs cricket was an afterthought. However, Packer was willing (and in some ways forced) to innovate and by the end of World Series Cricket in 1979, the one day game had been invented: 50 overs, coloured clothes, fielding restrictions, games under lights, triangular tournaments. This was established in Australia from 1980, but it took a while for the rest of the world to follow. Elsewhere at that point there was no standardisation on the number of overs (anything from 40 to 60 was played in different places). Other countries only followed gradually, and it wasn’t until about 1995 that one day cricket in the rest of the world had pretty much uniformly adopted the format that Australia had adopted in 1980. By then, of course, Australia was showing the beginnings of becoming bored with it, and that format started changing again and possibly dying in the early 2000s, and the decay is now well apparent everywhere.

So no, I don’t agree. The heyday of 50 over cricket was about 1990-2005.


Posted by Michael Jennings on 22 February 2011

Limited overs at county level started in the 1960s with the Gillette Cup and the 40 over Sunday League followed.

The Cricket World Cup (60 overs) started in 1975.

Twenty20 is more lively than a baseball game by far, and I can see it becoming the global bat and ball game. The longer one-day stuff is a bore, neither one thing nor the other. At least Test cricket has cool and classy outfits (better than golf, for instance), civilised lunch and tea breaks and the qualities of marathon running or the Tour de France (you don’t have to watch every moment).

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 22 February 2011

Yes, but the number of one day international games played before about 1990 was actually quite small, and the number played outside Australia before about 1990 was fairly small. 50 over cricket was sold in Australia as the thing that would save cricket in the 1980s, then this idea moved to the subcontinent in the late 1980s/ early 1990s, and to England even later than that. In each case, this idea was followed about 15 years later with the realisation that 50 over cricket is in fact really boring and a vastly inferior game to test cricket (something I agree on completely).

Posted by Michael Jennings on 22 February 2011

Today (Wed 23rd) saw another horribly one-sided game involving Kenya.  Pakistan lost two early wickets, but from then on, slaughter.

The only interesting game so far has been England Netherlands, which went almost to the wire, and would have gone all the way but for some Bopara slogging.

Makes you proud to be British (which is what the England team really is).

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 23 February 2011

Twenty20 is more lively than a baseball game by far, and I can see it becoming the global bat and ball game.

Can’t we please keep them both? 

I’m shut out of cricket again, unless I a) pony up $150 bucks to DirecTV or b) find a pirate streamer.

Posted by Scott on 23 February 2011

South Africa versus West Indies tomorrow. We will see if that can be competitive. Then Australia v New Zealand on Friday (ditto).

Posted by Michael Jennings on 23 February 2011

Nope, South Africa easily. It’s been a wretched first week of the tournament. England v Netherlands has been the only remotely competitive game so far, and it wasn’t really more than a little competitive.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 24 February 2011

And South Africa don’t play again till Sunday week. Nail-biting stuff, eh?

Posted by Peter Briffa on 24 February 2011

I’m looking forward to Netherlands West Indies.

The tournament could get interesting when the not giant, not minnow teams get more involved, especially when playing each other.  West Indies are in serious danger of slipping from the top might-win-it group, as also, perhaps, are New Zealand.  Ireland, like Netherlands, are also better than pure minnows.

England, coming into the tournament, also, like WI and NZ (and also Bangladesh) have that can’t really win it vibe about them, after their one-day annihilation in Australia.  Also, they are hurt by the destruction of Morgan, hitherto world class, now injured and out of it but having already been a severe disappointment in Australia, maybe because already below par physically.  On the other hand, Strauss and Pietersen both look far stronger than they have been of late, and the crucial Swann is now back, as is Broad.  Swann was the one England bowling success against Netherlands.

It can only get better.  Except that maybe it won’t get better and will continue to be crap.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 24 February 2011

Ah, and I see that tomorrow it’s Bangladesh Ireland.  That might get interesting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 25 February 2011

On the other hand, nothing at the Cricket World Cup remotely compares to England v France in the 6 Nations on Saturday.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 25 February 2011

New Zealand have an interesting history in the World Cup. They have usually made the most of what resources they have, and have usually made the semi-finals, and at that point the limitations of their resources have shown and they have then gone out. Overall, though, their achievements are about on a par with South Africa, who have often been more fancied but have not ultimately gone on with it. (How I evaluate England’s overall performances, I am not sure. Losing finalists in 1979, 1987, and 1992, but pretty dismal in all tournaments since).

This time they do look weak, though, and they have just lost to Australia. Bookmakers have dismissed the chances of New Zealand and the West Indies. There is a big gap in the odds between Pakistan (who are sixth favourite but are given a chance) and New Zealand.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 25 February 2011

NZ crushed by Australia in the way that has now become routine.  At one point they were 73-6 before groping to 206, which Australia got with ease.  15 overs to spare.

But, Bangladesh now 189-8 with only 3 overs left.  Could be a nailbiter.

But if it goes to type, Ireland will either cruise to a win with 12 overs and 7 wickets to spare, or else collapse and lose by a hundred.

At least it is not now more or less certain who will win.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 25 February 2011

Bangladesh Ireland is turning into the best game of this tournament so far.

The England chase against the Netherlands had England ahead of the game throughout, and when they won it was no big surprise.  Only the fear/hope of an England collapse kept it interesting, and that could have happened at any moment.  But, it never did.  This chase, on the other hand, is seesawing like mad.

Ireland were 110-5, chasing 206 to win, and looking bad, but are now 150-5.  So Ireland are probably favourites right now.

Every wicket has been and will be huge.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 25 February 2011

Oops.  151-6.  The Ireland top six now all gone.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 25 February 2011

Does anyone have a link to an HD stream?  I’m watching it on SD here:, but HD would be so much nicer…

Posted by Scott on 25 February 2011

Ireland now 171-9 and doomed.  Pity.  For a while there it looked like it was going to be really close, as in: in doubt until the very last ball.  It would be great if that happened now, but it’s not realistically on.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 25 February 2011

And at last a good game. In fact, a really good game: one of those that swings from on side to the other at least half a dozen times. I doubt all that many people in England watched it, but I bet they did in India.

It wasn’t a vital game though. Both India and England are shoo ins for the quarter finals, and would be regardless of the result.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 27 February 2011

Indeed it was a good game.  And more exciting than the England France rugby game, or so I found it.

That rugby game was a bit like a rather disappointing one day cricket game.  At first it seemed like it might be close.  But then, England got on top, and then just stayed on top.  For the last quarter and more of the game, the score stayed stuck on 17-9, and so it ended.  England won 1-0 in the try count.  That’s right: France zero tries.

It is tempting to blame France for having become boring, but I suspect that the real problem is how “professional” rugby defence has now become.  England have deliberately picked two centres, Tindall and Hape, who are not that great at running past people, but who are damn near impossible to run past themselves.  France, packed with talented backs, either ran sideways or just trundled forwards into yet another scragging match like they were Englishmen, and the game was settled by who made the most and the most important mistakes.

France missed one crucial tackle, and fumbled one possible try.  England were one forward pass and later, one misdirected pass (to the guy on the left, instead of to the guy on the right who was wide open), from a dominant (as opposed to competent) victory.

England played rather badly in the first half, which is why it was anybody’s match at half time.  They played like they thought they could do what we fans hoped they would do, namely blow France away and win by 30 points.  In the second half they concentrated on winning, and duly won.

Maybe you had to be there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 28 February 2011

I missed most of the first half, but saw the end of the first half and all of the second. I agree it was a pretty dull game. England were solid enough, and France were a bit scrappy. As well as that fumbled try chance, a few dropped balls and bad kicks meant they were fairly easily to nullify in that second half.

One reason that cricket game was so exciting yesterday was precisely because both sides were so obviously flawed. Both sides had an opener score a great century, then both sides fell to pieces towards the end, and England then managed another resurgence in the last couple of overs to force a tie. I don’t think the bowling was great from either side, and the batting was inconsistent. But all that led to a great match. Both sides look vulnerable to me though. India are strong favourites for the tournament, buy I am not sure they should be.

For India: Tendulkar is brilliant, he has never won the World Cup, and this is likely his last chance.

Against: India’s lower order look brittle, their bowling is inconsistent, and they are under truly mindblowing pressure at home. (No home side has ever won the World Cup, and England in 1979 is the only home side to ever make the final, which is an extraordinary statistic).

And India have never really fixed their running and fielding problems. Seriously, on the second last ball of their innings, one of their players managed to run short and then get run out, so by going for a second run he not only lost the team’s final wicket and caused India to commit the great sin of not batting out the 50 overs, but gave up the first run. Which cost India the match. What?

Posted by Michael Jennings on 28 February 2011
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