One loose cannon

Bathroom firework displays, luxury car roof jumping competitions & curry house curfews… oh, and a few goals – Welcome to Super Mario Land.

The press are not short of words when it comes to Mario Balotelli. In fact over recent months, his continual involvement in mildly amusing misdemeanours off the pitch coupled with his fantastic play on it has made him somewhat of a media darling.

The striker’s brace and general domination of the Manchester Derby only a matter of hours after the fire brigade was called to his house because ‘someone’ had let off fireworks in the bathroom cultivated a surplus of explosive headlines which practically wrote themselves. From then on his increasingly eccentric behaviour seemed to be flourishing under the watchful eye of the papparazzi with sections of the UK press running a host of stories focused around his private life. These have ranged from the mundane, that showed Balotelli giving £20 to a street performer (something that had apparently never happened before in the city of Manchester) to the bizarre which reported him and coming home hours later with a circus sized trampoline, a ride on lawn mower and a giraffe from the local zoo (or something along those lines).

It appeared from all this that the outspoken Italian, or at least the people around him, had finally learnt to play the game without even having to kick a football.

There was talk of the Italian finally maturing, the realization of his ability on the pitch co-inciding with his growing up off it, whilst maintaining his flair and a propensity for the bizarre that had brought him headlines throughout his short career.

But many believed that it was only a matter of time before Mario was back to his old ways, with the charmingly eccentric, larger-than- life routine vanishing in favour of the the realization that Mario is somewhat of an uncontrollable misfit.

Two stories that have popped up over the past week have validated those who conform to the latter theory, beginning with Mario breaking curfew on the Saturday before City’s crucial clash with Chelsea. Less than 48 hours before a game, Balotelli blatantly disobeyed team rules by popping out for a midnight curry with some pals and did his best to stay under the radar by sword fighting with a pal using  rolling pins in the middle of the restaurant. If you’re sitting there searching for a valid reason as to why a footballer cannot have a curry 2 nights before a game then I, for one, have got naan, but the disregard for the rules was a definite show of insolence to the Manchester City hierarchy.

But Mario wan’t finished there. Later in the week after the loss to Chelsea  he was involved in a training dust up with team mate Micah Richards. It was the second of these type of incidents involving Balotelli that has been caught by the watchful eye of the press and is the reason Manchester City are developing plans for higher fences around their training ground. The pictures showed both players having to be separated by teammates although the incident was apparently later dealt with using a Sepp Blatter racism-extinguishing handshake.

Now on the surface these two incidents seem to be in a similar vein to the nutty activities of Mario the joker, but it is the undercurrent of embarrassment that flows toward his manager in both of these cases that really questions the wisdom of his actions and well and truly puts the ‘maturity’ theories to bed, and not at a decent hour mind you.

After all, Roberto Mancini has apparently been “like a father figure” to Balotelli and took a calculated gamble when recruiting him as a key player in his Sky Blue Revolution.

Mario’s reputation and Inter was that of a Diva with limitless talent who could polarize the dressing room and during  his time there he managed to alienate the entire fan base by wearing an AC Milan shirt on Italian tv. He was in and out of Jose Mourinho’s good books with such regularity the two could have passed as a married couple and he was involved in a swathe of off the field incidents.

The pick of which was apparently a luxury car jumping competition he had with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, where they egged each other on to jump on the roof of their own flashy sports cars, both which were utterly undrivable by the time the boys had finished having their fun.

These were clearly the actions of an immature self centered brat but the Balotelli story has an interesting prelude. As a toddler he was put into foster care by his struggling family who were Ghanaian immigrants living in Palermo and ended up with living with an couple who gave him the most Italian sounding name since Luciano Pavarotti. Despite being born and raised in Italy, Balotelli faced constant racism in his country that even continued when he became part of the national team. Life before he was a star was reportedly even worse, and much can be read into him coming to the aid of a young boy who he saw being bullied in Manchester, yet another story that the press lapped up like swiftly softening Ben & Jerry’s.

But if someone has shown faith in Balotelli, it has been Mancini as he not only paid top dollar for him despite his endless indiscretions but has also been willing to start him in the big games. The star striker has repaid this faith with goals, and crucial ones at that, with his finish against Chelsea the mark of a man who could be destined for greatness.  If, under the watchful eye of his manager, Balotelli maintains this form and develops further into one of the best strikers in the premier league, then his worth to Mancini will be immeasurable.

In a sense it could become a relationship of co-dependence between player and manager, for in the eyes of the wealthy oil baron owners, those two may almost come as a package deal. If city’s form slumps and Mancini fails to produce a trophy haul that is sufficient enough to appease the Shiekh but Ballotelli becomes one of the leagues best strikers, they will certainly think twice before moving the manager on. So in that regard, Mario could become the bargaining chip used by Mancini to buy himself an extra 6-12 months in the job if things do not go exactly to plan.

After all, who else is going to be able to bring out the best in this volatile problem child and make him feel like he finally belongs to something?

One thing is for sure though, Balotelli is already dining at the Last Chance Cantina and in this regard his short career is already at a cross roads. He must overcome these off field incidents and behave in a manner that is not embarrassing to the club or once moved on, there is every chance he might not be able to find a new one.

One of the few rides Mario hasn't destroyed

Gary Neiwand leaving court, quite possibly with his fly undone

The ageing process of a Hollywood starlet is rarely gracious and can bring about the swift demise of a glittering career followed by abrupt anonymity. Gary Niewand has shown us that life out of the spotlight for once famous athletes can be just as challenging, although old Gazza decided to highlight the issue in complete balls-and-all fashion.

This week the former Australian cyclist Neiwand pleaded guilty to charges of ‘willful and obscene exposure’. Let it be said that nothing good can ever come of something that is both ‘willful’ and ‘obscene’ and in this case it was particularly perverted turn of events which involved Gary driving around behind a woman who was riding her bike, ‘pulling up’ next to her with his pants lurking somewhere down near the gas pedal and politely enquiring as to whether she’d like to “finish him off”.  If this picture isn’t clear enough for you, know that Gary only had one hand on the wheel and it goes without saying he was driving an automatic.

This was the first of two similar incidents which involved the former Olympic silver medalist exposing himself to strangers, although unfortunately neither case reported the state of Gary’s testicles to confirm or deny any steroid use throughout his illustrious cycling career.

Without overlooking the seriousness of the offences, we can at least take comfort that Neiwand didn’t choose to pull this stunt using the form of transport that made him famous. With all the cogs, chain and spokes, this incident could have ended in a far more disastrous fashion for Neiwand than mere shame and humiliation on a national level.

We cannot say that the warning signs weren’t there. There is a strong correlation between men who commit crimes that are lewd in nature and those who choose to model their look on Ron Jeremy. Maybe Gary will complete the transformation and try to beat Jeremy at his own game and put out his own feature film, something along the lines of ‘Driving (behind) Miss Daisy.’ But despite the comical element to Neiwand’s brush with the law, it does reveal a portrait of a man dealing with some fast peddling inner demons.

When I was younger, the name Gary Neiwand was synonymous with cycling but despite him winning enough medals to fill a velodrome, that elusive Olympic gold was never draped around his neck. This reportedly took a large toll on Neiwand as he sunk into a deep alcohol-fuelled depression following his retirement and ever since he has regularly popped up in the media for all the wrong reasons.  Gary’s is not an isolated case.

Controversy has a tendency to follow around current athletes around like a lost puppy. From Michael Vick’s dog fighting to Joel Monaghan’s dog feeding, we are constantly being reminded of the sheer stupidity of professional sportsmen. Vick and Monaghan’s are particularly interesting examples as they highlight the fact that whilst some athletes believe they are above the law, others believe they are out of the public eye and clearly both these presumptions are wide of the mark.

But following retirement, former athletes are often left dealing with more sinister problems as depression, anxiety and worthlessness replace the days of locker room camaraderie. This occurs for a variety of reasons that range from missing the limelight and adulation to dealing with large amounts of physical pain meaning many of those whose careers have peaked during their mid 20’s and who have hung up the boots (or equivalent) by their early 30’s are left with another 50 years or more of trying to get by on former glories.

One can only speculate what has caused Neiwand to behave in the way he did but, one thing is for certain, the man needs help.  According to his lawyer he is currently seeking therapy in the form of weekly forensic care meetings.  I’m sure the women of Melbourne are hoping these meetings have their desired effect so that Gary can begin focusing on his achievements and glory on the track as opposed to his morning glory in the back streets of Elwood.

We didn't think he could do much worse than lycra

"On a personal note I've always loved playing here" - Wonder why?

 

Qld and Australia are well served at full back

When newly crowned golden boot winner , England could have viewed his early exit from the tournament as opening up a major opportunity to expose Australia at the back.  This did not prove to be the case.  Darius Boyd was one of Australia’s strongest performers over the remainder of the tournament, emphasising the depth Australia (and Queensland) have in the number 1 jersey.  In the final, Boyd was flawless under the high ball (zero errors), while running for 104 m, and contributing 1 line break, 1 line break assist and 1 try assist via throwing the last pass for the Jharal Yow Yeh try that put Australia ahead for good.  Boyd was a constant threat to the England defence, chiming into the backline as the 2nd man option and using his pace and passing ability to create overlaps for his outside men.
By reproducing his excellent club form in his first opportunity to play fullback at representative level, Darius Boyd showed that the eventual departure of Billy Slater will not be felt as keenly by Queensland and Australia as might have been expected.

 

Tackling low can still be effective

The classic ‘copybook’ tackle around the legs has largely disappeared from the modern game.  Players are coached to go high in order to wrap up the ball, stop 2nd phase play, and then begin the wrestle to slow the play the ball.  Going low allows the ball carrier to get to their feet too quickly.

I’ve long been an advocate of players tackling low in certain situations, such as when close to their line or when one on one with an attacker out wide.  England’s outside men used this tactic effectively to contain Uate, Yow Yeh, Lawrence and Inglis when isolated out wide.  It was noticeable that Australia’s outside men struggled to break free of the defence, particularly when compared to the field day they had enjoyed a few weeks earlier against New Zealand in Newcastle.  Willie Tonga in particular was able to brush off several ineffective efforts on his way to a double that day.  The Australian outside backs did eventually get the better of their opposite numbers, but the tries they scored were due to hole running and the creation of overlaps rather than from missed tackles.  In fact, the was committed by the NRL trained Chris Heighinton, who went high on Tony Williams close to the line with embarassing results.

When England’s backs got to grips with the Aussies they brought them down – typically from the hips and below.  A lesson for the NRL?

 

England struggle to compete for the full 80 minutes

It is judgement that must seem patronising to English listeners – “England has got the talent, but they aren’t used to the week in week out grind of the NRL.  They don’t compete for the full 80 minutes”

Yet 40 years of dominance allows Aussie commentators to adopt this tone with good reason, and the last two four nations finals between these nations bear out the theory.  In 2009, Australia led 18-16 after 58 minutes of the final, and this year the scores were locked at 8-8 after 56 minutes.  On both occasions the Aussies sealed the win and then blew out the scoreline in the final 20 minutes, scoring 28 unanswered points in 2009 and 22 in 2011.  England had been hugely impressive in the 2009 final (highlighted by Sam Burgess’s amazing solo try) and looked to have the beating of the kangaroos, yet fell apart when the blowtorch was applied.  In 2011 it was more a case of the scoreboard not reflecting the kangaroos dominance in the first half – once they hit the front with 20 to go the strain told and the floodgates opened.

Is the solution for more of England’s top players to head down under to the NRL?

 

NRL clubs will be coming back for more English talent

The NRL is an increasingly attractive proposition for top Super League stars, offering not only a higher level of competition and prestige, but also financial rewards given the current strong $AUD.  James Graham is heading to the Bulldogs for 2012, and NRL clubs will be taking an interest in several other England stars, in particular Sam Tomkins and Rangi Chase. 

Tomkins is the leading light in the English game.  The Wigan star’s light stepping elusive running game would no doubt be well suited to the firmer Australian conditions, and he impressed against the toughest of oppositions in the test match at Wembley, with his flick pass to set up the 2nd of Ryan Hall’s tries the highlight.  Tomkins has recently re-signed with Wigan until 2016, however with contracts meaning little once a player’s head has been turned, a godfather like NRL offer may have him down under sooner than that.

Rangi Chase of course started his career in Australia with the Wests Tigers and the Dragons.  Since moving to Super League he has moved a long way towards filling his always evident potential.  His style draws comparisons to former high school team mate Benji Marshall, and while he is not yet at the level of the Kiwi captain, his first half display at Wembley showed enough to indicate he would be a success in the NRL, particularly given the dearth of natural playmakers in the modern game.

 

The Lockyer/Thurston combination reigns supreme

The old adage ‘forwards win the big matches’ has long been held up as a self evident truth.  Without taking away from the efforts of the Kangaroos pack, once again Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston seemed determined to prove that at the top level, it is the halves that hold the key to victory.

Thurston had a quiet finish to the NRL season, ineffective in the Cowboys embarrassing 40-8 finals loss to Manly, and was generally unable to hit top form following his perhaps precipitous return from a serious knee injury suffered in State of Origin 3.  He was back to his best in the four nations, having a hand in every roos attack, , and deservedly took out the MOM award in both games against England.  In his finale in the sport, Lockyer played the understated, steadying role that he has perfected in the latter period of his career.

The four nations final victory brought this halves combination’s record in the green and gold to 16 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss[1].  Combine that with their impressive 12-6 State of Origin win-loss record and it is clear this pairing have laid claim to being the best representative halves combination in the history of the sport.  England and New Zealand will be glad to see the last of them.


[1] 2008 World Cup Final

The key figures in the NBA lockout reach a peace agreement

Not since the handshake between Yassar Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White house lawn back in ’93 has a ceremonial coming together of palms brought such relief to the masses as it has this past weekend, with the NBA players & owners finally reaching a ‘handshake deal’ to end the lockout.

There will be ball, oh yes, there will be ball.

Whilst I’d be the first to admit that making a comparison between a historic middle east peace deal and the conclusion of 5 month’s worth of squabbling between rich athletes and even richer old men (you heard right MJ) over how best to divide up their billions is, for lack of a better word, a bit rich, the reaching of an agreement was not just a momentous day for your average sports fan.

As in much the same way as the Arafat-Rabin metacarpal grasp was done under the watchful gaze of Bill Clinton, who was grinning like a man who’d not long been given a “presidential service” in the oval office, the end of the NBA lockout was met with a smile and a thumbs up by none other than Barack Obama who had just finished shooting some hoops at Fort McNair in Washington when he heard the news.

There is no doubt this lockout has been an uncomfortable pebble in the high-top of every basketball fan. Neither the players or the owners have painted themselves in a particularly honourable light and a good chunk of the season has already been swept aside in the name of wealthy mens’ greed. Much like Shaq at the freethrow line () the whole situation has been plain ugly.

But one must always attempt to find the positives, like the fact that Shaq was often getting the opposing big man into foul trouble and in the case of the lockout it has been the performance of the cagey little lefty Derek Fisher. Interestingly, throughout this whole ‘ordeal’ he has managed to somehow reject the NBA players’ unofficial suit policy, which is to dress in such a manner that can only really be described by putting on Outkast’s ‘‘ and turning it up to max volume.

But it’s not just his business meets funeral attire which has helped the plucky point guard to avoid becoming the Fish-out-of-water in this process as he has also managed to remain poised and articulate throughout, even when it looked as though a deal was a long way from fruition.

That said, Fisher still managed to amuse at times with his explanations of the negotiation process as they often resembled the post game interview of a man who’d just played an intense 48 on the hardwood. Sentiments such as

“We’ll continue to work through, as long as we possibly can and as hard as we possibly can to see if we can get a deal done. We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves at this point but we’ll continue to remain focused on some key principal items in our system…”

could have been an answer given by Fisher, almost verbatim, when asked by about the mood in the Laker camp after they’d just swept the first round of  the play-offs. But apart from Derek Fisher showing to the world how athlete’s “get it done” in the corporate arena, one man who may have also benefited from the lockout is LeBron James, as the focus has been anywhere but on him.

It was a little more than a year ago that LeBron became the athlete to attract the most media attention in the middle of the off season since O.J. Simpson gunned it down the highway in his Bronco, leaving a trail of blood, chaos and an ill-fitting glove in his wake.

In the lead up to last season, King James sat down in his very own TV special and told the world he was taking his mad skillz to the land of leather-skinned retirees, or words to that effect. As the entire basketball fraternity was already sweating on his announcement, ‘‘ special on ESPN was about as necessary as LeBron putting on suspenders when he was already wearing a belt. As part of the fallout LBJ became a hate magnet, not just for Cleveland fans who had every right to feel hard done by, but for every sports fans that has ever lopped the top off a tall poppy.

Despite all this, LeBron & Co (and by ‘Co’ I mean Wade, Bosh and a bunch of stiffs they pulled off the South Beach boardwalk) managed to overcome a mediocre start (9-8 from the first 17 games) to gel in December and coast all the way to the Eastern Conference title.

But it was on the glittering stage of the NBA finals that King James lost his royal mojo. This was never more evident than in Game 4 where he managed just 8 points and had more turnovers than field goals. In fact his average for the series of 17.8 ppg was almost 9 points below his season average, the biggest drop in NBA finals history and to make matters even worse, LeBron was little more than a spectator in the fourth quarter throughout the whole series (just 18 points through 6 games). This gave the masses a chance to revel in their meaning Dirk & his Merry band of Mavericks had a legion of new fans to celebrate their extinguishing of the Heat.

But this preseason, if you could even call it that, has been very different from the last and has given James the chance to go away, work on his game and attempt to exorcise the mental demons of NBA finals past. For this season, nothing less than an NBA championship will suffice for LeBron & Co because come next June, if that NBA ring don’t fit, the few fans he has left may just acquit.

Fisher finally pulls out something fly for the big announcement

That crazy Uncle Sepp

In some kind of weird parallel universe, where he is not the head of FIFA, Sepp Blater could almost be likeable. Somewhat comparable to that annoying, inebriated Uncle who manages to get a few cheap laughs making inappropriate remarks about your new girlfriend’s bust size, which is then followed by a silence so uncomfortable you’d have thought someone had accidently leant on the Christmas lunch mute button. But jovial likeability aside, it would be better if the most powerful sporting association on the planet was not led by a rogue who so freely speaks his mind, particularly when the opinions he offers are a freshly shaken cocktail made of two parts ignorance & one part insensitivity – served in a long ball over freshly crushed corruption.

Despite a commendable focus placed by football’s governing bodies to stamp racism out of the game, Blatter has gone and poured gasoline on the hot coals of two highly provocative incidents that have recently occurred on the football pitch. Following the allegation that Luis Suarez called Patrice Evra a “nigger” about 10 times in 2 minutes and that Blatter has made the outrageous claim that there is “no racism in football.” He even went on to say that if there was “a word or gesture that is not the correct one” it should be dealt with on the pitch using the timeless mediation of a shake of hands. Clearly Sepp is showing himself to be a man that possesses the cultural sensitivity of a burning cross.

Since making this controversial statement, Blatter has been back peddling faster than my Betfair balance, firstly by saying his statement was taken out of context then later apologising with the sincerity of an unrepentant school bully. But Sepp’s sorry is all too late as his flaming comments have reduced FIFA’s anti-racism foundations to little more than a very culturally aware pile of ashes.

This is far from the first time Sepp’s been forced into clarification & apology mode. In fact, it happens so regularly that FIFA might be better off prefixing every Blatter interview with a warning stating that ‘the following content may offend some viewers’. When asked the very practical question of how a homosexual football fans might be able to enjoy a round of hide the sausage at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, a country where homosexual acts are illegal, he pointed out that the gay community were more than welcome to enjoy football’s biggest showpiece but also added with a hearty chuckle that “they should refrain from any sexual activity”. Sure, your money and your fabulous clothes are welcome, but please check your sexuality at the door.

So, if Uncle Sepp has managed to completely alienate anyone who has ever been racially abused as well as the homosexual community, then it goes without saying that he has annoyed the fairer sex at some point. Blatter has actually done on a number of occasions, my personal favourite being when he referred to the International Olympic Committee’s lack of financial transparency by saying “the IOC does it (accounting) like a housewife”. Obviously Mrs Blatter has whipped out the credit card on more than a few occasions without disclosing the details of her purchases to hubby. But that statement was just the tip of Sepp’s misogynistic iceberg. When applying his governing wisdom to the realm of women’s football, that incorrigible rascal suggested the players “wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts” to attract more male fans. Whilst it would make women’s football far more appealing to simple folk such as myself, these are not the sentiments that should be uttered by the Don of Football Admin.

These horrible gaffs would not be tolerated by a democratically elected world leader, save for a media controlling Italian Billionaire, yet somehow Sepp manages to evade accountability. The worst part of this continuing saga of embarrassment for FIFA is that Blatter was recently re-elected to his post in an uncontested manner, extending his Presidential reign into its 13th year. This occurred despite the complete distrust of the general public, particularly in regards to corruption and the appointment of the next 2 world cups in ridiculously wealthy, oil rich nations whose liquid gold has apparenty greased the right palms.

It is worth adding that the claims of corruption surrounding these World Cup bids were dealt with in a swift manner by Blatter and the FIFA executive committee, who ousted Mohammad bin Hammam (pictured with Sepp, no that is not Lando Calrissian) of Qatar on charges of accepting bribes. Not surprisingly bin Hammam was the only person willing to challenge Blatter’s leadership, although he withdrew from the presidential election just days before it took place. With the swift Soprano-esque removal of his only rival, we learned the fate of those willing to challenge the status quo inside the house of FIFA.

, sports ruling bodies appear to be in a race to the gutter of public opinion. But through the never ending blunders from their man at the helm, FIFA manages to be a beacon in a sea of incompetence. It’s not like he makes up for his verbal insensitivities with a range of shrewd decisions that lead to the betterment of football. Under Sepp’s reign, the game has failed to follow the lead of other sports and appease those who crave fairness through the introduction of goal line technology.

I am not the first person to call for Sepp’s head and unfortunately I will not be the last. But despite constant public pressure and even the likes of the English FA trying to shake Sepp from his lofty branch, very little seems to happen. His reign borders on a dictatorship, and with uprisings aplenty round the world and long term leaders being removed from their posts, there is no reason that football fans should be left wanting.

Blatter really needs to step aside from his FIFA position and consider an operation to have his foot permanently removed from his mouth. As we head toward the festive season, there is little doubt that Blater’s jolly nature would better be utilized with a big white beard, a flat lap and cherry red suit as opposed to governing sport’s most esteemed ruling body.

The head of FIFA - never kicked a ball in his life

Ponting departs during the capitulation in Cape Town

Ricky, it’s been a hoot. But seriously mate, you were never one for walking and it’s not about to start now. And if Lord’s famed Old Father Time hasn’t been kind enough to tap you on the shoulder and give you a knowing wink then it’s time for a gentle shove.

Now I know you’re been spouting the “I’ll know when the time is right” routine but if your Cape Town quacker and the fact you haven’t posted 3 figures in almost 2 years doesn’t drop the penny then Rod ‘Bacchus’ Marsh & Mr Bichel might have to be the ones to do the dropping.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there since the start and I’ve loved every second. The raw talent that you exuded as a 21 year old who marched out with purpose against Sri Lanka at the WACA, each step a little cockier than the last. First time in the baggy green, swagger to burn and a perfectly manicured goatee on a Napoleon frame.

The Aussies were already on top courtesy of a Slater double tonne, but you followed it up with a very memorable knock. You had the kind of luck a Punter needs with first slip grassing your first ball in Test cricket, which was bowled by Murali of all people, but from there on out you were class off both the front and back foot. In fact, you were only robbed of a century on debut by a farcical umpiring decision by Khizer Hayat.

With that innings, you showed us that the kid from Launceston they called Punter had arrived on the test stage and if ever there was a nickname that would endear itself to the average Australian male sports-fiend it was yours.

We smirked with a certain pride when you sat down sporting the shiner following a dust up at one of King’s Cross’ more classier establishments. , but our appreciation of your on field talents never wavered.

Because regardless of what happened when you were out on the sauce, out in the middle it’s been a virtual 15 year runfest. Sure you had a few ups and downs but show me a batsman that hasn’t.

The control you had over that Kookaburra put Bill Lawry and his pigeons to shame. So many highlights it’s hard to know where to start. A hundred in both innings of your hundredth test is tough to top on a poetic front.

Many would say your captaincy was steeped in controversy but one thing is for sure, you knew where the jugular was.

And thanks largely to the current competitive climate of international cricket and to a lesser extent the changing of Mother Nature’s climate, those 16 wins on the trot as Captain (shared by you and Tugga) will no doubt sit in the history books for some time to come.

You managed to astound us with bat in hand, but also regularly in the field. off the bowling of McGrath is one that is permanently burnt into the memory as the ball had seemingly reached the boundary when you took the catch at gully. If your exploits at slip weren’t enough, you even managed to, very occasionally, impress us with the ball. , Michael Vaughan, in an Ashes Test with a classy caught behind is more than many bowlers can lay claim to.

But now it has come to this. Concerning the capitulation in Capetown – it cannot merely be swept off the pitch. It is time for the heavy roller. Given the recent cricket events played out in the courts as opposed to at the crease, it must be said that if Pakistan had played an innings like that then the News of The World would be digging faster than Ben Johnson’s pet rabbit.

It wasn’t just the fact you got out, it was how you got out. You walked across your stumps, not with the purposeful confidence we saw from you in your younger days, but more like a wandering pensioner who’s forgotten the way home. Although in this case it is certainly not you alone who should take the rap. With the team’s back to the wall, we were expecting the experienced players to step up. After all, that’s why you’re there. But between you, your bridge partner Hussey and your knitting buddy Brad, all we got was enough ducks to open a French restaurant.

We weren’t crying out for centuries (although the SA top order made it looks doable) but a run for every year of life from the old guard would have plugged a leaky ship and sailed us to a commanding position. Instead you decides to go for a walk, Mr Cricket slashed at a wide one and in a semi-demented state, Brad Haddin thought he was back in the purple pyjamas of the Kolkata Knight Riders and tried to clear the fence. All that ‘experience’ on the cricket field, 106 years of life between the three of you and not a single bl000dy run to show for it.

And just who was this Philanderer ripping through our top order? Sounds like more of a Wayne Carey type than a lethal fast bowler. There couldn’t have been that much in the deck given that Shane ‘Elementary’ Watson’s ability to skittle them like . That creep can roll man.

All good things come to an end Rick and it’s time you hung up your gloves and threw down your protector – preferably in the opposite direction to your flat screen TV. It’s not like you haven’t had chances to step aside gracefully. The century you made in the quarterfinal of the last world cup would have been perfect time to call it quits. Granted, we weren’t victors that day but it was one gutsy innings which defied the critics and made a nation proud.

The love, until now, has bordered on unconditional. We’ve looked beyond the fact your from Tasmania and embraced you as the captain of our mainland side. We’ve looked beyond the fact you’ve been caught out hooking more times than Warrick Todd. More recently, we’ve looked beyond the fact you took time out from test cricket to rush home for your daughter’s birth, which would have been fine had you not just come off a near 8 month break from test match cricket. Surely you could have sneaked one between Rihanna’s bat and pad a few months before you did and avoided the conflicting schedule. I am maybe boarding on insensitive here, but this sort of slander pales in comparison to the grief you’ve handed out from the slips cordon over the years which, I might add, we’ve also looked beyond.

But watching you lead implosion in South Africa was the icing on an 18 month old cake made of anything but convincing stroke play. The time is now Ricky.

Raise you bat, ride into the Bellerive sunset, hell, even join Plastic Keithy in the Big Bash if your heart desires. But I’m afraid your days in the Baggy Green are soon over.

“Disgraceful”, “Horrible”,  “Unnaceptable”, were the terms used by Australian Captain Michael Clarke to describe the 2nd innings capitulation in Cape Town on Thursday.

Australian cricket supporters could perhaps describe it in other terms – “all too familiar”.

While the shameful scoreline of all out for 47 represents a nadir for Australian “batsmanship”, it is also the 3rd time in 18 months that Australia have failed to reach 100 in an innings.

The scale of the decline in Australian batting over the past 4 years is illustrated below – the blue line shows average runs per wicket on an innings basis, while the orange shows the 10 innings rolling average runs per wicket.

At the end of the 2006/07  Ashes, the 10 innings rolling average stood at a mammoth 59 runs per wicket.   By the time Australia was touring the West Indies in mid 2008, the average had fallen to 40 runs per wicket.  It remained at around this level until Mid 2010.  Since then, series defeat in India and annihilation in the Ashes have seen the average fall to the high 20′s.

The occasional amazing collapse can be tolerated, and the humilation soon forgotten, if the usual performance is huge scores and winning totals.  But to suffer three such performances in 18 months speaks of a larger malaise, and hints at a lack of mental toughness in the current aussie top 6.

For a nation who until very recently joked that ‘English batting collapse” was somewhat of a tautology, these are concerning times indeed.

This year Online Poker was dealt the 7-deuce

With smoke-filled card rooms giving way to near sterile casinos, transparent visors being cleared out for an abundance of hoodies and mirrored shades now preferred to a steely gaze, the game of Poker has undergone a more dramatic transformation over the last 20 years than Optimus Prime.

This metamorphosis has been brought about by the injection of a seemingly endless number of 20-somethings with too much pocket money and because of them the game of No Limit Hold has seen unprecedented growth. The number of entrants alone willing to fork out the hefty sum of $10000 USD just to take a seat at the World Series of Poker Main Event has swelled from just 393 in the year 1999 to 6865 this year and in the process the prize money for first has escalated from 1 million flat to a cool 8.7 million dollars.

Poker is the Chess of the modern generation, just with a few more Queens, loads more money and much cooler hats.

It is no secret that over recent times we have developed a tendency to live a larger portion of our lives in the semi fictional existence of cyberspace. Poker has followed suit (most likely spades) and in the process a mammoth online industry has been built through those who prefer the comfort and anonymity of their sofa to the grubby green felt of card halls. This online poker empire has paved the way for a new type of millionaire. Many now rake in a fortune without having to leave their domain typically filled with a plethora of flat screens and empty pizza boxes. I may be preying on the stereotype of young internet poker wizz here, but for those that follow the game you see the pattern repeated like that of a degenerate blowing next month’s rent money. These ‘kids’ in their hoodies have even developed their own language and also speak with pace only matched by the speed of their mouse movements. Truth be told most have us have got a better chance of following a conversation in Russian than making sense of “it was raised by a maniac under the gun and then 3 bet by the donk in the cutoff so I 4 bet shoved, they both mucked and I scraped the pot.”

But much like the internet date who has shown up to dinner with oversized hands and a bulging Adam’s Apple that you somehow missed in the picture ‘she’ sent you, it has turned out that  the online poker world just ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. And for the initiated who know what a backdoor flush is, 2011 will long be remembered as the year Poker’s chip stack seriously diminished.

With the game enjoying an extraordinary level of success, some of the greedy entrepreneurs that founded online poker sites were accused of embezzling huge sums of cash. On 15th of April this year, a day which has since been dubbed ‘black friday’ (my vote was for ‘folded Friday’ but nobody listened) 3 of the biggest internet sites – Full Tilt Poker, Pokerstars and Absolute Poker were shut down by the US department of Justice (or DOJ to the hoodie clad masses).

To the amazement of many, the selfish money grabbers who run some of the world’s most profitable websites managed to slay the goose that sh!ts the golden nuggets.

In the process millions of players were left out of pocket, the game’s reputation was permanently soiled and those that play poker for a living in the US were left scrambling for an address in Canada like a Canuck chasing down the goalward bound puck.

Despite the online poker industry being predominantly built in the land of stars and stripes, it was a young man from Down Under who brought to its knees. Even though The ’Lucky’ County produced the 2005 World Champion in Joseph Haschem, the Australian who will long be remembered for having the greatest influence on poker is Daniel Tzvetkoff. Funnily enough, he isn’t even a Poker player. Instead he carved his reputation in the world of internet finance, helping the directors of online poker companies such as Full Tilt Poker stash millions in accounts the IRS were not privy to and slicing himself a sizeable chunk of the pie in the process. He was picked up in Las Vegas by the Department of Justice, following a tip from one of the companies themselves after a dispute over funds. What this company didn’t predict however, is that with all the inside information on where the companies were hiding their millions, Daniel held the nuts (not his own, it’s a poker thing). He used this to bluff his way out of trouble and turn the tables on the internet poker giants by revealing the details of their scamming operation.

Full Tilt Poker’s slogan is, or more accurately, was “Learn, Play and Chat with the Pros” and most of Poker’s most successful thoroughbreds could be found in the Full Tilt stables. No surprises then that a few of them are caught up in the mix, namely former main event winner Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson and Howard ‘The Professor’ Lederer who are both on the sites board of directors. Between them they have over $13.5 million in tournament poker earnings although these figures pale in comparison to the millions of unearned cash they are alleged to have siphoned through the players funds deposited to the
website.

All of a sudden, questions were being asked and when Full Tilt’s books were examined it appeared that although they held over $390 million in players accounts, they had only $60 million in the reserve coffers. This is a massive revelation and a warning shot fired to anyone whose ever deposited money through a website, with the US Attorney’s Office recently describing Full Tilt’s operation as “a global Ponzi scheme.”  From the outside it looks as though Jesus has broken a commandment or two and the only Phd the Professor has is in embezzlement. Both of these former pillars of the poker community have completely vanished from the public eye, obviously following the immortal words of Kenny Rodgers of knowing when to run.

One positive to be taken from all this is the focus of poker been shifted to live play. At its jack of hearts, poker is more a game of personalities than faceless avatars. There have been some true characters over the years that have graced the felt – Scotty ‘Baby’ Ngyen, the and the Granpa figure Doyle Brunson but to name a few. These personalities are what draws newcomers and their crisp paychecks to the game and the unique mix of personalities, body types, cultural backgrounds and nationalities is what makes Poker accessible to the masses.

Despite a strong mathematical foundation, Poker is predominantly about playing the man, not the cards and this element is sad omission from the online format. The true essence of Poker is found after you’ve shoved all your chips in the middle holding ‘air’ whilst your foe stares you down with a suspecting eye. Lady Gaga was onto something. The jugular pulse, the forehead sweat, the crossing of arms, the rocking of the chair – these are all key aspects of the game that can be picked up by opponents, or indeed simulated by a player prone to ‘hollywooding’.

And rest assured, there was plenty of sweat on the brow last Sunday as the 9 lucky (no wait, it’s skill isn’t it) players met to fight it out in Las Vegas for the final table of the World Series of Poker – Main Even. In a format that was switched to a few years back, there is now a 3 and a half month break between when the final table is set (that is 6865 players play down to the last 9) and when the first card is dealt to the final 9. This gives the likes of ESPN time to create some hype and buzz as, despite being almost exclusively made up of professionals, the final table players are often relative no-names even amongst the Poker community. This drawn out system certainly has it’s critics, who say it is much like a basketball game finishing in a draw and deciding the players should all come back the next day to play the overtime. But it does give these poker players a chance to go away, take stock and attempt to improve their game before sitting down for a session at the oval table that could put them in the history books forever.

Sunday’s play at the Rio Casino was intriguing to say the least. In a first for poker 7 Nationalities were represented amongst the 9 players at the table showing the global influence of the game and with 7 players under the age of 30, the quest for Poker’s Holy Grail appeared to be played around the fountain of youth. Six players felt the cold sting of the knockout. Now just 3 remain. They will resume again on Tuesday to see which player will be last man standing and winner of Poker’s most coveted prize.

The remaining players are American Ben Lamb – who has had an amazing world series and is a lock for the the player of the year award, Martin Staszko from the Czech Republic – who started the final table as chip leader but has now slipped to 3rd and the new chip leader Pius ‘Beans Means’ Heinz from Germany who is a fearless young gun with talent and chips to burn, and a mandatory hoodie no less. My money is on the young German and if he can maintain his advantage and go on to rake in the final pot, he’ll secure himself nearly a $9 million payday and a cement a place in poker history. Not bad for a few weeks work (10 days of play to be precise). No luck on the final table for Phil Collins, a young American who finished 5th, as he was busted after Calling In The Air of The Night.

In a tumultuous year for poker, there will be one person who will be sure to remember 2011 for something other than the online controversy as they take home the pot at the end of the Poker rainbow.

The players battling for Poker's biggest prize

And to think – 4 years ago – I had blamed the poor French.

In 2007, I found myself in the city of Lyon in a queue outside the Stade de Gerland, about to attend the Rugby World Cup Pool B match featuring Australia and Japan. I wore a green and gold karate headband, adorned with a kangaroo instead of the rising sun – an act that is about as hilarious as ironic racism gets.

Photos of mass destruction.

As we neared the entrance to the stadium, a gruff attendant approached me, pointed to a camera around my neck and waggled his finger in that French way that is camp, arrogant and intimidating all at the same time. After some confused back-and-forth, including my own bastardised exclamation of “Ne pas SERIOUS?!”, I eventually checked my camera into an outside office, to be picked up after the game. The pile of Nikons in that room looked like some grotesque, paparazzi, torture tableau.

My own illegal contraband was a Canon 400D – a digital SLR camera with a single lense (15-50mm), no longer than my pinkie finger. With that device – sitting anywhere that wasn’t on grass – I would have been able to roughly work out which team was Australia, based on the fact that we were playing Japan, and Nathan Sharpe is six foot seven. The camera had two purposes only – to record personal memories of an overseas trip with my parents and girlfriend, and eventually to be left in some random bar after the game when I got drunk. I soothed my frayed nerves before kickoff with a cold, plastic cup of “Amstel Sans Alcool”.

“”? !

What I initially thought was an act of French bastardry not witnessed since they turned out to be an official IRB mandate. Back in quaint old 2007, the IRB – in an attempt to protect the rugby product – banned spectators from bringing cameras into the ground that may have been able to produce photos that could be used for publication. These were constraints placed on actual, paying ticketholders – many of whom had travelled thousands of miles to witness the spectacle (and by spectacle, I mean watching a referee trying to even-up a match between the likes of the Wallabies and Fiji).

The restrictions initially placed on the accredited media were even more arcane. For example, only 10 pictures could be broadcast from the stadium and published on a website during the course of the match. 2007 – with it’s pesky Interwebs! After all, you take pictures quickly enough and join them together and – brother, you got yourself some live coverage! Other rules included banning overlaying text across a published photo (say, a headline or the name of a player) and refusing to allow any mobile phone content.

Not only are the IRB happy to bite the hand that feeds them, they want to put a 10-mile exclusion zone around the whole farm, and patrol it with snipers.

This year, it was time again for the IRB to pass calligraphic parchments from their dark, smoke filled rooms, placing new restrictions on the media. In “ought-eleven”, they were having none of this Youtube malarkey, and deemed that online media providers could not accompany any video highlights with advertisements from their own sponsors. Heaven forbid Extra Dry try to muscle in on Heineken territory (as if taste itself wouldn’t be the deciding factor in that match-up). Such was the threat this restriction posed, both Fairfax Newspapers and Rupert Murdoch’s own News Ltd joined together and refused IRB accrediation. Remember when Hulk Hogan rescued Randy Mucho Man Savage from a Hart Foundation ? When your outdated restrictions have Fairfax and News Ltd shaking hands, surely you’re doing something wrong.

So instead, the unaccredited Sydney Morning Herald and Australian journalists sat in the stands, or in front of their widescreen plasmas at home, and did pretty much the same job they were going to do, just without a badge, and without – one would imagine – having to be strip searched and deloused before entering every stadium. They sourced video and images in pretty much the same way, without threatening their online earnings. In fact, I probably would not have noticed this development at all, except I have a permanent Google News alert running, for the phrase “the IRB and Steve Jobs are the seven white men running the world”.

And if it’s not those pesky reporters – it’s the silly . There are not enough elbow patches, or slightly raised eyebrows in the world, for the IRB to express their disdain.

Still hurts...

All of this masks a far bigger problem. Whilst the IRB runs around in circles, kidney-punching reporters and spitting on ticketholders in order to protect their product, the quality of the product itself is in decline. Sure – the final match between France and New Zealand was a tight, rousing affair, but was this a result the IRB deserved? Red cards, fixture lists, referees, mouthguards, Samoans on twitter- with all the kerfuffel the IRB created for themselves, did their “product” warrant a 9-8 victory to New Zealand that had Richie McGaw throwing that wry smile and lifting the Cup – a battered nation breathing a sigh of relief?

The International Rugby Board should have given the French side a big hug, but instead, their final act of the tournament was to substantially fine them for .

I could almost see the Head of the IRB watching the coverage of this moving French tribute from their plastic-covered, floral print sofa, through a haze of pipe smoke.

“I say, what do these Gaul bastards think they’re doing…. !”

In any case, the International Rugby Board needs to find a way to protect their product without attacking everyone involved in it’s creation – fans, media and teams alike. Because while Luis Suarez keeps banging in , rugby union cannot afford to push away a single ticket buyer, a lone reporter or one Samoan winger with a mobile phone.

Every Australian wants a Melbourne Cup story. If you are somehow Canadian, or at least uninitiated, the Melbourne Cup is an annual horse race run over 2 miles, or 3200 metres. They call it the ‘race that stops a nation’ and it is something that must be experienced to be believed. Not necessarily on the green slopes of the Flemington race course, Melbourne, where this tradition takes place – that is but for the select, heaving few. In Australian life, on the first Tuesday of November, something is very different. An iron curtain falls over the country – no news comes in or out because nothing else really matters. The air becomes thin – people wander, light-headed on the streets at lunchtime, searching for meaning, and a hot tip. Like any shift in reality, there are those that pretend nothing has changed – that nothing important is going on. But by 4pm, even the detractors know the name of the winner. By 4pm, a new trivia question has been born. More the $175 million is gambled on the Melbourne Cup. This is not just sheikhs and media barons – this is the imagination of a culture.

Rightly or wrongly, for 5 minutes a nation holds its breath.And they’re off…

The morning of the first Tuesday of the November of 2004 was not an especially bright time for me. I was wading through the fifth year of a four year software engineering degree – stretching it out in an attempt to have it paid for – working four days out of five for a large company. I was not exactly a model worker. My designated university days were typically anything but, and I managed to wing my way through an education courtesy of quick talking and a quicker Internet connection. But on this particular day I was staring failure in the face and was to be tied to a circuit board for the day.

Red Bull - gives you a chip on your shoulder.

This may be a galloping surprise, considering the questionable nature of this writing, but I hate cliches. Every time a nerd with a chip on their shoulder has a Red Bull for breakfast, a small part of me dies. So when I walked into that Electronics Lab on the first Tuesday of the November of 2004, my heart broke a little. It was 9am and already there was a queue for the benches. I surveyed the room – looked into the caffeine ridden, twitching eyes of my peers and wondered if they knew what day it was. I realised that at 3:20pm these boys would still be here and – more importantly – they wouldn’t care. These were the uncommon few – the Melbourne Cup Deniers. I fled – the image of that room burned into my soul – and drove from the campus as quickly as a 1.6 litre Ford Laser could travel, which is still comfortably within the speed limit. I knew what I must do.

The first stop was a newsagent where I picked up Best Bets and some flowers. My girlfriend was manning the reception desk of an empty orthodontic clinic – in order to deal with any sort of rubber band emergencies involving Melbourne Cup deniers, Canadians or perhaps chocolate fuelled software engineers. Recently, she had commented that I rarely displayed spontaneous acts of affection. I was about to be as spontaneous as a closed circuit camera monitored office allowed. Presenting her with the flowers, I gripped her shoulders and laid it all on the line.

“I’ve just failed Uni, so I’m going to the pub. I’m taking what little money I have and I’m going to get shit-faced and gamble like a maniac and watch the Cup. I’ll see you tonight.” My car safely stowed, I trekked with purpose to the local club.

Gambling is a lot like alcohol or military coups. They all cost lives, and instinctively we should be hesitant about introducing them into a society. Done properly, however, and by putting on the line only what you are willing to lose (twenty bucks here or there, your self-respect, or your current head-of-state), they can all be a lot of fun. Personally, I made a disastrous, future-bearing mistake when I first gambled, as a young man – I won.

The wrongs and problems of gambling are obvious and impossible to argue against. In an ideal world, it would be the realm solely of idiots with a disposable income, where any losses are deserved and affect only one person. I hope I fall into this category – the mug punter. Me, my family, my friends and countless others. In an ideal world… well, we all know the end of that sentence.

The Diva

By 3pm on the first Tuesday of the November of 2004, I was wearing a tuxedo t-shirt (formal, yet says ‘I’m ready to party’) and was – in gambling parlance – close to $500 in the hole. In the big race, I had pinned my hopes on a 200 to 1 outsider named Zazzman in an each-way bet. As they rounded the final, sodden turn at a miserable Royal Flemington, Zazzman was in front by three lengths and the only person who seemed impressed with this was me. But two miles can sort the men from the boys, and it became clear that Zazzman was currently the Mayor of Struggle City. And here came the Diva

Between 2003 and 2005, a horse named Makybe Diva won three consecutive Melbourne Cups – the first horse ever to do so. It was an incredible feat and an amazing story – the horse seemed to know where the winning post was, and knew how to win. She chalked up her second in the mud of 2004, in front of her Melbourne Cup nemesis Vinnie Roe, and a thoroughly spent Zazzman.

As the commotion died down and the pundits began the inevitable post-Cup analysis, the familiar feeling of disappointment and guilt began to kick in. I had lost, and lost too much. I glanced up at a screen, blinked and turned to my brother Daniel, who had been with me throughout the day.

“I think I have the Melbourne Cup trifecta.” I said quietly.

I removed a ticket from my back pocket. In truth, I probably removed five, but flicked through them until I found the right one. And there it was. An after-thought bet, which had netted me close to three thousand dollars. Dan rang Kenny. “Dad,” he said. “Remember how you always say you’d like to speak to someone who has picked a Melbourne Cup trifecta?”

And he handed the phone to me.

Though the club was full well before the big race started, a new crowd began to gather. School teachers (notorious mug punters) began to filter in to check their tickets and try to reclaim their losses, or ride the vibe into the last race. The story was already starting to get better. Pitty – a recent, sober arrival – drove me to a nearby T.A.B. to collect my winnings “in a safe location”. Three grand – it was like I was carrying nuclear launch codes. T.A.B. offices late on the afternoon of the first Tuesday of November are an incredible sight. Completely empty – bar the shaken, gaunt staff – it resembles a 1980’s stock exchange floor, moments after closing. I waded through discarded tickets, stepping on the odd broken dream as I walked to the counter. The ticket scanner beeped approvingly. A slight glance up from the clerk was met with a wink as I lent cockily on the counter.

Though the staff were drawn and tired, there was plenty of cash to cover the bet. Nobody would lose any sleep over me and the Zazzman.

We drove from the T.A.B. to my flat where the winnings were stashed safely under my mattress, and then back to the club. Some family and friends had arrived – pulled from Melbourne Cup parties on the promise of free drinks. My girlfriend turned up – still happy with her flowers but perhaps with her eyes now on a bigger prize. The crowd began to move into the restaurant for some Zazzman-sponsored Chinese food when it happened…

I ran out of money. Down my daily bank limit before the race, and with my winnings secure in a few pairs of socks back home, I found myself suddenly skint.

It’s a unique moment – to borrow money from a friend an hour after a big win. The look on their face is superb. I’m good for it, I promised.

Full report here

The money paid for a two-week trip to America. A couple of months later, I received my grades for that University semester. I passed with a mark of 53. Fell over the line… just like the Zazzman.

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