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Andrew Flintoff

And the tens of thousands rolling up to Old Trafford had the opportunity to clap eyes on the bronze statue of Sir Alex Ferguson, unveiled the previous day in the company of the likes of his former charges, including Eric Cantona, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Edwin van der Sar, Peter Schmeichel, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Bryan Robson and Gary and Phil Neville.

The nine-foot statue was commissioned 2011 to mark Fergie’s 25 years at Manchester United, when the North Stand was also renamed the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand.

“Normally people die before they see their statue, so I’m out-living death,” said Ferguson, words that Sir Bobby Charlton and Denis Law will have been especially pleased to hear, given that Fergie was on hand to see them unveil the ‘Holy Trinity’ statue – dedicated to the Englishman, the Scotsman and their partner George Best – back in 2008.

So Fergie joins the array of footballing talents – like Charlton, Law, Best, Sir Matt Busby, Sir Alf Ramsay, Bobby Moore, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, Joe Mercer, Billy Bremner, Billy Wright, Thierry Henry, Tony Adams, Herbert Chapman, John Greig and Jimmy Johnstone – cast in various metals, around the country.

Yes, after winning 37 trophies including 12 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues during his 26 years at Manchester United, Fergie is deserving of the accolade for his impressive records. And it’s for impressive records most people have statues outside football grounds. Like Michael Jackson at Fulham …

Sad news today with the passing of Dave Sexton, the former Chelsea, QPR and Manchester United manager, aged 82.

He almost did the unthinkable in the 75/76 season, by taking the unfashionable QPR to the Championship title, pipped in the end by just a single point by Liverpool. He later managed at Old Trafford, but he was best known for his achievements at Chelsea, or at least he was by some. In 1970 he led them to victory over Leeds United in the FA Cup, a passport into Europe where he guided the Blues to a Cup-Winners-Cup final win over Real Madrid.

Twenty-plus years later, I was in a queue with Stephen Hendry, waiting to collect our tickets outside Stamford Bridge. The chap in front stepped forward.

“Could I have my ticket please. For Dave Sexton …”

“Who?” came the question from the geek behind the glass.

“Sexton, Dave Sexton,” he replied, half-turning to look behind to see if anyone had noticed what had just happened. We had.

So too did the bloke behind us, who enquired with words and expletives in equal measure, who exactly had given this youngster his job. Without looking behind, Sexton raised his hand, waved it slightly, hushing the ranting fan. He took his ticket, turned, and gave an embarrassed smile.

“He’s only young,” Sexton said as he walked into the night.

Words lost on Mr Angry once he got to the head of the queue …

The early phone call was a booking for me to give an interview to STV News following the abdication, sacking, resignation, call it what you will, of Andy Robinson as coach of the Scotland rugby team. Robinson goes the way of Craig Levein, his one-time counterpart with the national football team, so leaving the top managerial positions for both major team sports in Scotland vacant.

As I said in my STV interview, questions need to be asked of the SRU and SFA for employing these men in the first place, and, for leaving them in charge when it was evident neither was up to it. You really couldn’t see it ending any other way for Robinson after the Scots were beaten by Tonga at Pittodrie on Saturday. A bad loss any day of the year, but especially given the 12 months Robinson had endured, with a Wooden Spoon in the Six Nations, three straight home losses in Autumn Tests, and relegation into Pot 3 for the World Cup draw.

Despite the catastrophic record, Robinson – just like Levein before him – reckoned he had left Scotland in a better place. I can only think that after a while fulfilling such roles eventually leaves you delusional. Robinson can lay the blame where he likes, and claim the stats didn’t match the team performances, something most people would dispute. What was indisputable was that on Saturday, Scotland lost to an island nation that has only half the population of Aberdeen.

Or put another way, there is probably a household in Tonga with a better scrum than Scotland …

And Elgin City are fined £25,000 by the Scottish Football League following the postponement of the match against Rangers at Borough Briggs. Elgin were forced to call the game off after printing 1100 more tickets than their ground would hold. A hefty price to pay. But pay they should.

I can’t really feel too sorry for those who had turned the visit of Rangers into some kind of circus. If they’d spent more time concentrating on ticketing and less on churning out commemorative scarves, badges and whisky, they would have had their profitable day.

The one thing Elgin did avoid was a points deduction. That was never on the card to be honest. You wouldn’t be wanting to hand anyone an advantage now, would you …

On a day when it was revealed that Gareth Bale’s favourite goal was the winner he scored against Scotland for Wales in the recent World Cup qualifier, I couldn’t help but think that some kind of justice (or is it vengeance) was done tonight during the Spurs game against Liverpool.

See what I mean here

Twitterland is debating whether Rangers should accept an approach from Newcastle owner Mike Ashley so that he can rebrand Ibrox the Sports Direct Arena. This was a subject ironically enough, that I touched on at the start of the month while discussing similar plans for Murrayfield.

Going by most fans reaction, Rangers should take the money, just as they did with the other million Ashley has apparently invested with the Ibrox club already. Most people see it as I have always viewed renaming initiatives, in as much as fans still call the ground by its original name. Only rival fans will ever mention the venue by its brand name, and that is just to get under the skin of some of the home support.

Only rival fans, oh, and at least one news corporation who seem intent in putting ‘new’ ahead of Rangers at every mention …

Former England cricket captain Andrew Flintoff makes his professional boxing debut tonight against American heavyweight Richard Dawson in Manchester.

The contest, over four, 2-minute rounds, will see Flintoff face Dawson who has an impressive CV. He knocked out his first challenger in just 19 seconds, then in this second bout, he broke the ribs of his opponent.

Flintoff’s fight is sponsored by Jacamo, who do a wide and varied selection of clothing for the fuller-figured gent. Denims, tops, shirts, jackets all part of the range. I really do hope for Flintoff’s sake, we don’t need to find out if they do hospital dressing gowns …

<em>Picture: Tessa Carroll</em>

Picture: Tessa Carroll

While the eyes of the sport-spectating world these past couple of days have mostly been on events at Augusta, or on Sebastian Vettel’s win in the Malaysian grand prix, or – inevitably – on various football matches, there has also been some unusual and entertaining cricket action.

In an odd coincidence, the small section of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack that provides details of six-hitting records has seen two candidates for inclusion within the space of 24 hours.

First – in the opening round of domestic county championship matches – the 19-year-old Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes came within one mighty swish of being only the third person ever to hit all six balls of a first-class over for six. En route to an unbeaten 135, Stokes dumped the first five balls of an over from Hampshire’s left-arm spinner Liam Dawson beyond the boundary – before Dawson obtained a modicum of revenge when the last ball was merely edged down to fine leg for a single.

“We are really, really chuffed for him,” said Stokes’ mother Deb, when the News & Star asked what she made of her son’s big-hitting exploits.

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Had that last ball flown for six, Stokes would have joined an extremely elite club. The first – and still the most celebrated – instance of “all six” was by Garry Sobers, playing for Nottinghamshire at Swansea in 1968, an occasion immortalised by one of the most fortuitous pieces of forward-thinking in the televised history of any sport.

Although BBC Wales had been broadcasting live coverage for Grandstand, it was off-air when the great over came. But producer John Norman had told the cameraman to keep filming, and so the Sobers assault – with its over-the-boundary “catch” from the fifth ball and its monumental, away-down-the-street, “that’s not a six, that’s a 12” finale – has been preserved for YouTube posterity.

Sobers plundered the respected Glamorgan bowler Malcolm Nash – who, like Dawson, was bowling left-arm spin, although his normal trade was as a medium-paced seamer. Nash also suffered being smashed for 34 in an over by Frank Hayes of Lancashire nine years later, but it’s those few minutes trying and failing to tame the great Sobers that will forever define his cricketing career.

There was a second instance, untelevised this time, by Ravi Shastri. The Indian was another very fine all-rounder – it’s odd that the two successful efforts and Sunday’s near-miss have all been by all-rounders rather than pure batsmen, although Sobers would be a candidate for an all-time World XI on batting alone. Playing in what was then Bombay, now Mumbai, Shastri smashed Tilak Raj of Baroda (another left-arm spinner) for six consecutive sixes in a Ranji Trophy match in 1985.

There have been two further instances in one-day cricket – where the format makes such feats more likely than in the first-class multi-day game. Both came in 2007: first by Herschelle Gibbs of South Africa, in the 50-over world cup, against Dutch bowler Daan van Bunge in St Kitts. Then India’s Yuvraj Singh tonked England’s Stuart Broad for six in a row – including two over the off-side – in Durban in the Twenty20 world cup. For this, in the manner of a golfer gaining a prize for a hole-in-one, Yuvraj received a Porsche 911.

Having said all that, because Stokes “only” ended up with 31 from Sunday’s over in Southampton, he remains a long way short of the top of the list, given that other batsmen have scored 34 or 32 off an over at various times. These include a couple of to-be-expected names – Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff – but also some batsmen not renowned as rustic hitters. Ian Redpath, who went 666644 in Bloemfontein in 1970, was “an opener so obdurate that he did not strike a six until his 66th Test”, according to Cricinfo, while Paul Parker (466664 at Edgbaston in 1982) was “an entertaining and correct middle-order batsman”.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough excitement, just a few hours after Stokes had earned himself a couple of pints, Australian opening batsman Shane Watson did something equally impressive in a one-day international against Bangladesh at Mirpur. Bangladesh made 229 in their 50 overs, which was never likely to prove a troublesome target given the gulf in class between the teams. But Australia – and Watson in particular – didn’t mess about. The match was won off the last ball of the 26th over, by which stage Watson – a brute with a bat when his eye is in – had made an unbeaten 185 off just 96 balls, including 150 in boundaries: 15 fours, 15 sixes.

Watson only managed four sixes in succession – off the middle four balls of an over bowled by Suhrawadi Shuvo (inevitably a slow left-armer). But he beat the previous highest tally of sixes in a single limited-overs innings, which had stood at 12, by New Zealander Xavier Marshall. The first-class record remains the higher of the two – 16 in an innings of 254 by Birmingham-born Aussie muscleman Andrew Symonds, in 1995 (coincidentally at Abergavenny, birthplace of Malcolm Nash).

Both Stokes and Watson – who sound like they should set up in business together – must have entertained their respective in-the-ground crowds tremendously. Do their efforts tell us anything new about the game, however? Probably not – especially the Watson innings, given that it only reinforces how substandard Bangladesh remain in top-table international terms (something that will further rile Ireland’s cricketers, in light of the news that they will not be allowed to try and qualify for the next world cup, whereas Bangladesh, arguably a poorer team, will be automatic entrants).

In a way, it’s a good thing that Bangladesh didn’t score more than 229 – or that Australia didn’t bat first. With Watson in that kind of form against that standard of bowling, he could well have scored 300-odd including 25 sixes, which would surely have crossed the boundary of what counts as fair or fun.

We live in a batsman-favoured time, however, and while such feats will remain infrequent, there are likely to be more of them than in ages past. Heavier bats, shorter boundaries – even in first-class matches – and various bowling restrictions mean that the six-hit doesn’t count for quite as much as it used to, the simple scoreboard statistic aside.

That said, there has always been a fascination with the sixer – and as far back as 1960 the cricket historian Gerald Brodribb was able to write a learned and lengthy book on the subject, Hit for Six.

Brodribb clearly loved the subject (another of his books was The Croucher, a biography of the great Edwardian strokemaker Gilbert Jessop), and it was with evident relish that he gave his chapters titles such as “Some Great Hits and Their Makers”, “Danger and Damage” and “A Spree of Sixes”. The book is worth seeking out for the pictures alone: a great ones of Frank Woolley hooking Alf Gover “out of the ground” at the Oval – a very big ground – in 1934, and of Errol Holmes, Percy Fender, Charles Oakes and the like.

The game has moved on greatly in the half-century since Brodribb’s book, but the basic joys remain the same. Just as there is scarcely any better sight than a genuine pace bowler in full flow, so nothing prompts cricketing awe and amusement quite like a batsman hoicking the ball high over deep square leg – or, even better, the clean straight hit, back over the bowler’s head and on to the roof of the stand or beyond.

Messrs Stokes and Watson will have brought a lot of smiles to faces – apart from those of beleaguered bowlers and fielders – with their recent efforts in belligerence.

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<em>Picture: Justin Kraemer</em>

Picture: Justin Kraemer

By Stewart Weir

Winter happens. And some years it happens more than others. Unless you’re reading this from your holiday home in Barbados, or you’ve emigrated to the Antipodes, you might have noticed we’re in the middle of a cold snap which has played chaos with the sporting calendar. Football is particularly badly hit again, the mounting pile-up of snow causing a similar pile-up of fixtures. Still, it has stoked the debate again about winter shut-downs and the likes.

At one time I was all for it, particularly when spending many an arduous hour, sipping freshly squeezed orange juice while watching Rangers train in Florida. A decade ago, Rangers jetted 3,000 miles just as Scotland began to endure a pleasantly mild January.

Since the referees strike in the last weekend of November, only a handful of SPL matches have been played. Pretty much all of December has been wiped out. And there is still no sign of a thaw.

A year ago, snow set in the week before Christmas and the chaos lasted through much of January. Indeed, the “live” clash between St Johnstone and Rangers at the end of February was another victim of the cold. So, without trying, that’s three months where a case could be made for having a break.

In principal, a winter shut-down seems the right and proper thing to do. Unfortunately – and this always has been the biggest barrier – no-one has a clue the best time to have it.

Given the environment in which it belongs, the BBC Sports Personality of The Year awards could easily have been tested for steroids given the size that it has grown to. Several years ago, it was a cosy wee show where the nation (although I always had the sneaking suspicion that it was just England who took an interest) would wait to see what hard-luck story had captured the imagination, and was therefore worthy of a trophy.

These days however, SPoTY has turned into an extravaganza, with Sunday’s gathering at the LG Arena in Birmingham played out in front of 12,000 guests.

Tony McCoy won, his Grand National success obviously tugging at sufficient heart-strings for people to register a vote, although what can’t be ignored was the support whipped up (still legal under Jockey Club rules) from within the racing fraternity. In a ten-horse race McCoy gathered 42% of the vote, an amazing statistic and one which might have the Electoral Reform Society using it as a case study.

If SPoTY has changed in size it has also radically amended just where it pulls its “personalities” from. Winner McCoy’s biggest success this year was in the Grand National, covered by the BBC, while third-placed Jessica Ennis has performed mostly in front of licence payers, which also applies to diver Tom Daley (6th).

But Strictly BBC viewers just wouldn’t be familiar with the best of the rest.
But of the rest, runner-up Phil Taylor is only ever seen on ITV or Sky, the latter also being home the majority of the time for Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowall, David Haye and Graeme Swann, while Eurosport would have a stake in Mark Cavendish and slider Amy Williams (although she did take Olympic gold on the BBC.)

Victory for McCoy (who should slip his election agent either a fiver or a few tips for a job well done) will placate followers of the gee-gees who have always claimed those involved with that industry have never got the recognition they’ve deserved, a view I’ve always subscribed to – ever since the year my vote for Red Rum didn’t count!

Sam Allardyce’s sacking but a week ago from Blackburn hasn’t so much left a void as a complete mess. While Big Sam was shown the door along with assistant Neil McDonald, coach Steve Kean was kept on, something that obviously rankles with Allardyce. Scotsman Kean is obviously well thought of in football, and the new Indian owners at Ewood Park have shown faith in him by installing him as caretaker manager, which appears to have tipped Allardyce over the edge. “If there was anybody capable of looking after the reins when I left, with all due respect to Steve, it would be Neil,” admitted Allardyce, who is still wondering, and angry, as to who has been two-faced in this saga. But better, Sam, to rise above it, keep your dignity, and say nothing – and watch on as the buggers find out the hard way who really knew what they were doing …

I like my darts. I like my cricket. So I was always going to love Sky’s coverage of the PDC World Championship from the Alexandra Palace when Andrew “Freddie’” Flintoff joined Sid Waddell in the commentary box. Classic TV, with Freddie giving it all the chat and delivering some classic “oooone-hundred-and-eighteeeee” calls. The fans loved it and so too did the producers on Sky Sports News, who ran the feature right through Wednesday. Whatever anyone thinks of master showman and impresario Barry Hearn, he and Sky really have turned darts into the most watchable sport on the box.

At a press conference, SFA chief executive Stewart Regan and its president, George Peat, give their first public reaction to the McLeish Review, the former First Minister’s report into the workings of Scottish football. Peat arrives with a toy dinosaur in hand. “A member of staff gave it to me a few years ago,” smiled Peat. “It adorns my office every day, just to remind me.” Of what George?

That the SFA is a prehistoric organisation? Or that you may be plastic? Or that someday you’ll have to ask who plays at Jurassic Park?

When your physics master at school weds your music teacher you have to wonder what will come out of that relationship. Possibly someone who can get a tune out of a Periodic Table. But in my case, it was Scotland prop Euan Murray. So having always taken a biological interest in his career it was good to see him signing a two-and-a-half-year contract with Newcastle Falcons. The 30-year-old had been without a club since being released by Northampton, partly because he refused to play on Sunday due to religious beliefs. That problem shouldn’t arise too often with Newcastle as they mostly play on a Friday evening.

Friday and Christmas Eve. No, not a couple Tommy Sheridan met at Cupid’s. But one may wonder why his lies and fall merits a mention in this article. It is entirely because of his victory speech outside the Court of Session after winning his defamation case against the News of The World.

Back then, Comrade Tommy proclaimed: “Gretna have made it into Europe for the first time in their lives, but what we have done in the last five weeks is the equivalent of Gretna taking on Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and beating them on penalties, that’s what we’ve done.”

It was a very good analogy at the time, but one that was ultimately flawed.
This tie was obviously always going to be played over two legs, home and away, Edinburgh then Glasgow, so less chance of a real upset.

At Gretna, as with Sheridan, honesty was just a veneer. And Gretna paid the price for living their dream when lying to others, and for believing they were bigger than they were and could take on the establishment. And Gretna were sent down and went out of business. But I’ll stop the analogies there.

What I will tell you is that both he and I were columnists together at the Scottish Mirror a few years back. On one particular day he asked to borrow one of my books, How To Get Three In A Bed.
A few weeks later he returned it. “Not what I was expecting,” he said, to which I replied; “I was surprised you wanted to read a book written by Eric Bristow in the first place …”

Tommy left court last night but realised he’d forgotten something. He walked back in to find the cleaning lady bending over while dusting the judge’s chair. “I’m here for my holdall,” to which the wummin replies “d’ye no think yer in enough trouble already Tommy!”‘

Ho, ho, ho and a Merry Christmas …

<em>Picture: Tessa Carroll</em>

Picture: Tessa Carroll

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack – recently published for the 147th consecutive year – is a great dipping-in book. Doubtless there is someone, somewhere, who opened the 2010 edition at page 1 and read right through to page 1728, but it’s not designed for that. Better to pick it up, put it down again, peruse and muse, take one’s time – even if that means years and decades rather than weeks and months.

The old yellow brick is in a period of consolidation after the redesign upheavals of the early part of the past decade. This has to be a good thing, given the overall state of flux in the game. In the age of Twenty20, Stanford (there’s a picture of the ex-knight in handcuffs on page 1571), umpire-doubting and international-overload, something in cricket needs to remain solid and certain. That something is Wisden.

The old-favourite features remain, and by and large the recent rejigs and retunings have proved a success. The typeface is sharper, the layout has improved. The clutter of births, deaths and records has become clearer, while the “Chronicle” section – cricket-related oddities from local papers and the like – provides great entertainment.

Stuart Broad, Michael Clarke, Graham Onions, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann are the Five Cricketers of the Year. They are profiled to the usual high standard and illustrated with proper on-field action shots. No more of the soft-focus studio nonsense of 2005, or – a particular low-point – the boy-band-ish, leather-jacketed Simon Jones of 2006.

The more general essays are also good, notably Tanya Aldred on the early fun days of 40-over Sunday cricket, Ivo Tennant’s suitably brisk history of the tea interval, and an analysis of how cricket survived in, and emerged from, the second world war. This is by Stephen Chalke – “author, publisher, and captain of Winsley Third XI”.

Gideon Haigh, assessing the Ashes series, confirms his position as the most accomplished current writer on the game. Nagraj Gollapudi and Scyld Berry provide a straight, sobering account of the Lahore terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team bus.

Aside from the serious stuff, there is a nice line in tucked-away jokes. Bail-stealing birds make an appearance, as does an obscure university bowler named Robbie Williams – described as “on song”. There is mention of “Pandora’s abdominal protector”, and even the errata page raises a smile in that it includes a correction from the 1940 edition.

Berry’s editorial notes, in his third year at the helm, are forthright. He applauds the achievements of Andrew Strauss and the good work done by the ECB in distributing its wealth, but objects to England fans’ booing of Ricky Ponting, to the absence of live Test cricket on free-to-air TV, and to the abolition of the domestic 50-over format. (Steve James, elsewhere in the book, describes this decision as “shocking, unfathomable”.)

Berry also rails against the £650,000 the ECB “had to cough up” last year on child protection. “Ludicrously,” he writes, “the government insist that even a regular club scorer now has to have a Criminal Records Bureau check.”

The obituary section remains a strength. If 1950s Pakistani pace man Khan Mohammad was the most accomplished cricketer to die last year, David Shepherd was undoubtedly the most loved. The diverse group includes Bobby Robson (“a fine batsman in benefit matches”), Clement Freud (“his sports writing was often overlooked”), and Henry Allingham, feted as the world’s oldest man when he died aged 113 and “beyond reasonable doubt, the last person alive to have watched W G Grace bat” – for London County versus Surrey in 1903.

The most telling obituary, however, is that of Bill Frindall, the BBC scorer. Frindall was undoubtedly brilliant, but the very pedantry that made him so good statistically could also make him difficult at times. Wisden tackles this with a certain relish, writing of “fearsome acrimony”, a “horrendous spat with the even more obsessive Irving Rosenwater”, and a “torrid” personal life – while acknowledging that Frindall’s “dedication ensured that he remained pre-eminent”, and that he was “a zestful club cricketer until he died”.

Wisden is struggling to know how to record Twenty20 cricket, which has the potential to further increase the page-count while dumbing-down the content. The current arrangement includes some decidedly unWisdenlike abbreviated scorecards. It is hard to see “M E Trescothick c3 b11” lasting long as the house-style – but then Twenty20 itself might prove to be a mere passing fad.

The most obvious flirtation with modern ways comes with the cover photograph – the eighth since the old words-and-woodcut design was ditched. One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, of course, but the cast-list illustrates the increasingly partisan and punterish nature of modern cricket coverage. This year’s picture has Andrew Strauss about to lift the Ashes urn, with a fuzzy backdrop of various team-mates, notable among them Andrew Flintoff. The 2003 cover showed Michael Vaughan, 2004 Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh, 2005 the England team huddle with Flintoff prominent, 2006 Flintoff and Shane Warne, 2007 Warne, 2008 Kevin Pietersen and 2009 Flintoff.

So it has been entirely England and Australia, despite the resurgence of Asian cricket. Sachin Tendulkar ought surely to have featured by now, also possibly Murali and Mahela Jayawardene, and it’s unclear quite what more Virender Sehwag – Wisden’s Leading Cricketer in the World two years in a row – has to do.

Yes, Flintoff has been a notable player, but for him to appear on four out of eight covers seems overdone. He’s been good, but not that good. Wisden itself, meanwhile, with its endless struggle to balance conservatism and popularism, remains without rival. It’s a wonderful lump of a book.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, 1728pp, ISBN 978-1-4081-2466-6, £45.