Monday, 28 July 2014

Brian and Johnny - Football Conundrum

The Cleveland Browns are in an enviable position at this moment in time in the AFC North Division of the NFL. They are a young team that for years have struggled for years and ended up 4-12 last year.  They were not helped by the injury sustained to quarterback Brian Hoyer when he showed maturity and some much needed stability for a side that suffered with Brandon Weeden as a starting QB the season before.

Yet during the 2014 draft they hit the jackpot so to speak by grabbing vaunted draft prospect and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in the first round. Questions then began to circulate that would Johnny Football be the starter for the Browns.

Critics and pundits have long had an opinion that Manziel whilst talented will not be able to translate to the professional level due to his size and lack of arm strength.  Yet Manziel does win football matches as his play in the Bowl victory versus Duke can testify.  However, will Manziel have the same protection as he was afforded at Texas A&M.

The opinion after four days of training camp appears to be that Brian Hoyer will hold onto the starting job following his recovery from a season ending knee injury.  Hoyer is a game manager and a good reader of pressure from defence and rushing linebackers.

The reason we mention about game management is because the Browns are in a position where for once they have to think long term instead of a short term failure.  The AFC North is in a state of flux currently, the Ravens are still suffering a Super Bowl hangover and are now crippled by the max contract they gave to Joe Flacco as well as the suspension given to Ray Rice. The Pittsburgh Steelers are relying on their defence to make plays whilst Big Ben learns Todd Haley's comet of a play book. And the Cincinnati Bengals who have been to he playoffs for three consecutive years remain an uninspiring bunch.

Looking at the schedule the Browns have to play, six games versus those division rivals, they also face the AFC South, NFC South and two very winnable games versus the Oakland Raiders at home and the Buffalo Bills away. They probably get the four better teams at home; New Orleans, Tampa, Indy and Houston, a fortuitous slice of luck from the scheduling computer. They could easily be 5-3 or 4-4 after the first eight games which would be good progress as they would have more wins or as many as last year.

To achieve this they need to give Hoyer the keys; he has greater accuracy with his arm, shows composure in the pocket and is not afraid to use his feet if necessary.  The reason to utilise Manziel is due to his mobility and capability of running plays as the running backs of the Browns depth chart does not inspire confidence.  Yet if Hoyer is making first downs and the play calling for Ben Tate or Chris Ogbonnaya is correct, then things may happen.

In spite of the Josh Gordon suspension hanging over the team, there is talent at their disposal.  Tight end Jordan Cameron is a stud in waiting and made some big plays throughout the season, though petered out near the end of his rookie season. Yet three wide receivers in Miles Austin, Travis Benjamin and Nate Burleson are no slouches at all.

The answer should be an obvious one, let the veteran guide the ship and if he finds it hard to stay afloat let the young whippersnapper off his leash.  Perhaps Manziel could be the first substitution QB the guy who comes on in last quarter to make big plays, stretch defences and cause panic.  Hoyer has to be used as the man to keep games close, as people forget the Browns defence is better than their record suggests.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

England Cricket in Crisis

Following the embarrassing 2nd test defeat at Lords yesterday, it seems it cannot get any lower for the England cricket team.  Having now gone 10 test matches without a victory, there seems to be more and more questions without any hint of an answer coming from within the England Cricket Board.

Yet how has it got this bad? Following the 5-0 whitewash in Australia, the decision was made to keep   Alastair Cook and remove the combustible Kevin Pietersen.  Rest was the order of the day for many senior players who missed the Caribbean one day series before the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh.  Yet the results have not improved. A test defeat to Sri Lanka has been followed by inept cricket in two tests thus far versus an equally inept Indian side.

What is the solution? Do England make wholesale changes? Do they remove the senior players for a new zest of youth and form players. In this test series only four players can be picked on form; Gary Ballance, Joe Root, Moeen Ali and Liam Plunkett.  Tellingly there is only one bowler in my list, and he was nowhere near the Ashes squad in November.  It seems that Jimmy Anderson has got slower, Stuart Broad is again injured and Ben Stokes' poor batting form is affecting his batting.  Plunkett, meanwhile, has transferred his early season county form for Yorkshire to the test arena.

Therein is an answer. Plunkett played domestic first class cricket and his batting has been useful also. However, Anderson and Broad had torrid winters and Stokes lost to a locker room door in a straight fight.  Dropping Chris Jordan sent out the wrong message, he has youth and pace on his side as well as a desire to succeed and achieve.

Perhaps too many of these senior players have achieved too much and now want to gain riches of the IPL, where is there short term and long term targets now.  Matt Prior has removed himself from selection for the remainder of the summer and probably played his last game for England, his fitness issues were too much to overcome.  Yet the decision to play him despite being less than 100% fit was indicative of Cook wanting seniority instead of form, when Jos Buttler's one day form was screaming for selection for first test versus Sri Lanka.

Yet the in house hegemony of the England cricket team which is very cliquey and looking after their own is doing a disservice to the players who are and are not picked.  Look at how James Taylor was treated after he played two tests and did nothing wrong, supposedly dropped at the behest of Pietersen who did not rate him. Even the call back of Simon Kerrigan of Lancashire, who was coached by Peter Moores last season is a fair form of nepotism or naivety in not knowing who else is available.

England need to pick players in form. Players like Daryl Mitchell of Worcestershire, Ravi Bopara of Essex, Adam Lyth of Yorkshire and his team-mate Jack Brooks, the bowler. This is unlikely however as England do not pick players or from winning counties. They ignored Mark Alleyne when Gloucestershire was winning every one day competition; have any Lancashire player been selected after they won the domestic title, Glen Chapple remains the best county bowler not to earn an England test cap.

Yet I feel they need to change the order and ask Moeen Ali to open the batting as he does for Worcestershire with Mitchell. Then have Ballance at three, Root at four with Bell at five or six.  England need to have a long look for themselves and if players are not fit then they need to do the honourable thing and stand aside as Prior has done.

It seems England have been more worries about selecting eleven players who will fit the ethos and mindset of a supposed identity, yet when the results are not happening you go back to picking players who will create results and from there a new ethos can be ushered in.

There are many dilemmas to be addressed but only the coach, Moores and the captain, Cook, who should both remain can supply them.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Best Thing That Never Happened To Me

Laura Tait and Jimmy Rice have known each other since they were at university. Today they have written a novel together incorporating influences ranging from David Nicholls to the romantic comedy of Richard Curtis.

The novel, tells the on and off again romance between Alex and Holly from their days as teenagers in Yorkshire in 1999 to the present day in London. Holly is a PA sleeping with her boss and in love, whilst Alex moves down to the big smoke as a teacher.

Holly is settled and happy with her boss Richard, yet the arrival of Alex on the scene creates more intrigue.

Using the narrative device of each writer taking their same gender voice, it offers differing perspectives and both sides of the story.  Whilst it could be considered a gimmick the surprising aspect is how similar in voice both Holly and Alex are, they sound a lot like each other and perhaps that is a way of convincing us they are meant to be together.

The flipping of narrative time from present day to 1999 is reminiscent of Nicholls' One Day but whereas Nicholls afforded his characters fifteen years to grow, here you feel Holly and Alex are very much different from their teenage selves, with the past merely a means of showing what might have been.

Book lovers of Lisa Jewell and Mike Gayle as well as those who actually like Love Actually will no doubt read this book in one sitting. The book has a great tempo and feel to it that can withstand a typical Curtis happy ending which although generic is nevertheless successful.

The Best Thing That Never Happened To Me by Laura Tait and Jimmy Rice is out now in paperback from Random House for £6.99

Follow the authors on twitter @LauraAndJimmy

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Break Point: The inside Story of Modern Tennis

Kevin Mitchell is a writer this reader has long admired, from his work on The Guardian and The Observer to his appearances on Cricket Writers on TV.  A born Australian who has slowly become more English in his years, due to the demand and pains of watching English cricket every summer.  Mitchell writes but also specialises in the trifecta of boxing, cricket and finally tennis.

Mitchell makes no pains about being given the role of Tennis correspondent as a means of cutbacks, he admits tennis is not his forte, nevertheless he remains a journalist who sits merely three rows from the court at Flushing Meadow whilst the four gladiators of this golden era; Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and our own Andy Murray.

Following a similar template to his contemporary, Neil Harman (The Times), in his Court Confidential, it is Mitchell's point of view of the tennis treadmill tour full of off the beaten track destinations as well as the glitz of Paris, Monaco and New York.  Whilst Harman's position allowed him to garner juicy pieces of gossip focusing at times in he women's game thanks to his friendship with Victoria Azarenka; Mitchell seeks out the male side of the ATP indulging the chance to encounter Mats Wilander who offers great interview material.

Whilst the male side of the game is eclipsed by the big four, Mitchell is intrigued to consider the past asking if legends like Boris Becker and Pat Cash could compete in this modern game.  Whilst those guys were purveyors of touch and feel, today's players are all about power, strength and muscle.  The chapter where Mitchell par takes in a mere smidgen of Andy Murray's brutal winter workouts in Miami puts in sharp context the lengths these players go to for the extra dimension to achieve victory.  Whereas when Mitchell asks Becker how fit he was, the German replies in the inquisitive, 'Do you think we weren't fit?'

The interviews with Cash and Wilander are intriguing as they long for a time in tennis where it was less predictable to name the winner of a tournament.  Mitchell is at pains to make clear how shocking it was to see both Nadal and Federer lose at Wimbledon to Steve Darcis and Sergei Stakhovsky respectively.  Yet the author is more surprised by Federer's departure, especially as he greatest tennis player of all time could not adapt to a serve and volley onslaught.

Similarly to Simon Barnes of The Times, reserves his greatest admiration for the Swiss superstar who is as close to a Pele or Muhammed Ali as the sport has had - universally admired and the personification of the sport full of grace and balletic quality coupled with a dignity and gentlemanly charm.

Yet by the end, Mitchell becomes much like Ernest Gulbis who called out the top four for being boring; the author yearns for a time of surprises.  Whilst this is undoubtedly a golden era for the sport, Mitchell makes you more aware that without the excellence of Federer the sport would not have the exposure and money at its core.  As he makes the point for certain players, Federer has earned over $60m in prize money and an extra $75m in endorsements.  The conclusion remains that without Federer and his intoxicating rivalry with Nadal, there would be no coat tails for Djokovic and Murray to hang to.

Not that Mitchell does Murray a disservice in the book, although his acknowledgement towards Murray is genuinely touching.

Written with clarity and expertise as expected it also includes the most concise explanation of Marin Cilic's suspension I can recall.

Out now on hardback and eBook, seek it out

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir

One of my earliest memories of late night film watching was viewing an intoxicating interview on BBC Two's Moviedrome between the presenter Mark Cousins and the film director Roman Polanski. The interview covered most of the Pole's illustrious career whilst touching on the controversy that has engulfed his life and led to his self-imposed exile in France away from Hollywood.

The interview was spellbinding in the sense that Cousins did not relent from a tough line of questioning almost leading to a butting of heads due to the difference of opinion between the two.  Twice, if memory serves, the interview had to be stopped due to Polanski's consternations.

Polanski is a polarising figure, a genuinely talented filmmaker but fundamentally a maverick who has banged his own drum.  This documentary A Film Memoir is based around a series of interviews between Polanski and his long-time collaborator Andrew Braunsburg when under house arrest at Polanski's home of Gstaad, Switzerland in 2009 and 2010.

The interview covers all of the milestones of Polanski's life from his early work in Poland including his international calling card Knife in the Water, his move to Paris, Chinatown, the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson, his subsequent arrest in 1977 and his eventual triumph of winning an Oscar for Best Director for The Pianist which recalled his own horror of growing up I'm he Krakow ghetto.

Recollections are interspersed with film excerpts, news footage, press coverage, private photos and documents.  Whilst is does offer a rare glimpse into the world of Polanski you nevertheless feel there is always more to the story, and maybe that is his lasting appeal, you never know the full tale.

Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is released from Network Distribution and will also be available to rent from Curzon Home Cinema via BT Box Office now

Thursday, 22 May 2014

England's ODI Batting Dilemma

Another English cricketing summer has begun again with Sri Lanka being the first of two renowned cricketing titans to tour our country this summer.

However, England despite the new regime change with new performance director, Paul Downton; the return of Peter Moores as Head Coach and a new group of selectors, England are still making the same mistakes in 50 over team selection.  With less than a year to go before the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, England are showing their hand to be feeble and weak.

For years, England have refused to join the party of having big hitters at the top of the order as is the want of every other Test side.  Whilst there is a credit in maintaining consistency of selection across all formats and familiarity of roles for players, is that not ego massaging of the order by not putting pressure on players to succeed and garner a better quality of performance.

In Alex Hales, England finally have a player who is both bombastic and exciting at the top of the order.  One of the best T20 players in the world, he requires the opportunity to be promoted to the fifty over game and yet England are seemingly content with the opening partnership of captain Alastair Cook and Ian Bell. Whilst Bell is scoring runs solidly, if there is someone disposable it is the Warwickshire batsmen whose removal from the limited overs team(s) will prolong his Test career of which he is the most solid of anchors following the dismal Ashes series over the winter.

Cook has shown himself quite adept at adapting to the shorter format of the game, however, do we have to select the Test captain due to his position of seniority or is he being selected on merit? The selection of Cook with Hales would give the left and right hand combination, and allow Cook to bat his way and Hales the freedom to swing his arms much like Sanath Jayasuriya was nearly 20 years ago.

Yet is this a matter of accommodation or a matter of bad management, because the formation of a competitive batting line-up is being ignored for the sake of posterity.  Ravi Bopara is possibly the most talented individual all-round cricketer in England, and yet he is mis-managed by England seemingly.  This writer has seen Bopara score centuries for Essex at the number 3 position; his experience and now veteran status should not be undermined and utilised.

Bopara at 3 followed by Eoin Morgan at 4 then the developing Gary Ballance at number 5 will allow some solidity to the order as Ben Stokes (in a perfect world) will enter at 6 followed by the wild card of Jos Buttler at number 7, where his inventiveness and unorthodox approach at the death of a first innings can garner bonus runs or be successful in a chase.

This would mean the removal of Joe Root from the team, this is required as Root a good member of the Test side and an important component of the side going forward is being accommodated in this respect of the limited overs side.  Whilst he scored a century in the Caribbean, he nonetheless scored at close or less than a run a ball.  Until Root shows he can play and score consistently for his county, only then can we add him to the discussion.

Currently England are not sitting pretty in the ODI rankings as a team and individuals, there is still time to make a statement. How about picking the ones making the loudest noises?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Thirty One Nil

When I interviewed James Montague at the tail end of last year in relation to the release of his book, When Friday Comes, my last question to him was, What advice do you have for a young writer? His answer was go out and find the stories. Taking heed of his own advice and endorsing the quote on the front of new book ' The Indiana Jones of football writing', Montague travels around the world from 2011 throughout the qualification period for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Montague travels to all corners of the globe from the now famed American Somoa team (who garnered world attention after being defeated by Australia 31-0) which gives the book it's title. Other outposts visited include Lebanon, CuraƧao as well as returning to the Middle East, a place of which he wrote with such authority.

Montague is an affable writer, and by placing himself at the heart of the action amongst such eccentric players and equally fanatical fans whilst experiencing the problems of travelling the globe and being an outsider in a strange land.  Often he had little money, often he is up against the clock; he makes clear that it is not all warm beaches and glamour, the dedication to the craft of journalism is never in doubt.

While some call him Indiana Jones, for me he is Michael Palin - the polite Englishman ever respectful and yet universally liked by all, able to infiltrate previously restricted areas with ease and gaining access and interviewing those who rarely gain exposure from the world media.  Whilst football provides the overall framework for the book, the locations and their residents provide the page-turning material. The final score is not the most important result, more so the bus journey to the ground.

Mixing in top rate observations of new landscapes as well as explaining the sometimes qualifying procedures for these lonely nations; Montague has again written a book that is more travelogue than tome to football.

It got me thinking that if Shakespeare had been born in the twentieth century, he may well have written, 'All the world is football' and with writers like Montague who venture to all corners and continents to cover it with such aplomb, the passion for football will never diminish.

Thirty-One Nil is out on 22 May 2014 from Bloomsbury priced £12.99 for paperback and available on eBook