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Andrew Strauss

Shahid Afridi <em>Picture: Harrias</em>

Shahid Afridi Picture: Harrias

Technically, it’s at the six-sevenths stage – 42 matches down, seven to go – but this feels like the pivotal point in proceedings. The tenth cricket world cup, being played across India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, has reached the end of its group stage and the knockout matches – the proper, consequential contests – await.

In the tournament preview, it was argued that the good side / poor side imbalance of the two seven-team groups would lead to “a strong sense of a month having been wasted”. Well, that’s been the case in terms of which teams failed to qualify: Zimbabwe, Kenya and Canada from Group A, Bangladesh, Ireland and the Netherlands from Group B. So far, so straightforward.

Group A was something of a pointless exercise – literally so for Kenya, who plunged from semi-finalist status eight years ago to played six, lost six this time round. The top part of the group was glorified net practice, mere jostling for position.

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Many of the matches were stupidly one-sided: New Zealand twice won by ten wickets (against Kenya and Zimbabwe), Sri Lanka beat Canada by 210 runs. Even the mini Tri-series between the minnows failed to produce any close contests: Zimbabwe beat Canada and Kenya by 175 runs and 161 respectively, Canada beat Kenya by five wickets.

The markedly stronger Group B, however, was a different matter. The predicted qualifiers again made it through, but the group provided almost a tournament’s worth of entertainment in itself – largely due to the efforts of England. Rarely can such a sequence of crazy, umbrella-chewing games have been played in top-level sport – recent Scottish football qualification campaigns had nothing on this. Thus far, almost all the enthralling matches have involved England – winning narrowly, losing spectacularly, or enjoying that rare bird among cricket results, the tie.

As the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew noted after qualification had been secured by the (inevitably tight-squeeze-ish) win against the West Indies, there is no point in Andy Flower, Andrew Strauss and co worrying about the Irish defeat: Kevin O’Brien’s onslaught was a once-in-a-lifetime, force-of-nature innings, against which any team would have wilted.

O’Brien’s name will be added to the list of extraordinary one-off batting assaults – a list stretching from Ted Alletson to Nathan Astle. It didn’t provide much overall information, but it did add hugely to the atmosphere of what already appears to be a happier, more enjoyable – for players and crowds alike – tournament than the 2007 edition in the West Indies.

The Bangladesh defeat, however, was different. Losing straightforwardly to a team that could only muster 58 against the West Indies and 78 against South Africa really shouldn’t happen. As in the close shave against the Dutch, a tired-looking England outfit seemed uncertain in terms of tactics and friable when things start to go wrong.

Despite all the English brinksmanship and crowdpleasing, the match of the tournament thus far was the South Africa–India encounter at Nagpur. Seen by various pundits (the present writer included) as a trial run for the final, this was a remarkable affair. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambir swaggered through the first 39 overs, racking up 267 for 1, at which stage it was simply a question of how far above 350 they could reach. But nine overs, nine wickets and just 29 runs later, South Africa had a target to chase. And chase it they did, with Robin Peterson – rapidly becoming a real star – thumping 4624 when they needed 13 from the final over.

Now, with just eight teams left and an unfussy knockout format, it’s engagingly open. Australia’s defeat by Pakistan in their final group match not only ended a 12-year, 34-match unbeaten run, but also meant that every team had lost at least once. India and South Africa remain the strongest, best-balanced outfits, but the field has bunched.

All four quarter-finals are intriguing. First – today, in Mirpur – comes Pakistan–West Indies, which has the air of two teams vying for a losing semi-final slot. Chris Gayle, on his day, is the most destructive batsman in world cricket, but his day comes only occasionally. Darren Sammy’s team is the flimsiest of the eight, having qualified courtesy of wins against the weaklings.

Pakistan remain, as ever, an enigma, and could yet march through and win the whole thing. Shahid Afridi’s batting mostly misfires these days, but his haul of 17 wickets, the most by any bowler, has helped greatly. Pakistan are a good bits-and-pieces side, and ought to reach the semis.

There they would meet the winner of India–Australia. On paper – and how strange it is to write this – Australia are very much the underdogs. Their batting, even with Michael Hussey now back in the team, stutters more than Colin Firth. The pace attack, Brett Lee excepted, looks uncertain in the radar department. India, by contrast, have a tremendous top order, with Tendulkar seemingly destined to “do a Boycott” and reach a lifetime landmark – his 100th international 100 – on his home ground in the final.

Yuvraj Singh is having a good tournament, while Virat Kohli is a classy strokemaker. But there are doubts. The lower-order hitters, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yusuf Pathan, haven’t really sparked, the bowling is insipid at times, and that collapse from a position of huge strength against South Africa might come to be seen as telling.

The construction site that is the Australian team could yet grind out a win – or three – with Ricky Ponting hitting form one last time and the team coalescing around him. Tim Nielsen, the Australian coach, described Thursday’s Ahmedabad game as “a mini-grand final”. But it’s hard to see his team progressing, and an India–Pakistan semi looks likely. That would put Old Firm tensions into perspective: no one at Parkhead or Ibrox has access to nuclear weapons, after all.

The third quarter-final, New Zealand versus South Africa, will also be fascinating. The Proteas have the best attack (Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir, with Peterson proving to be a “finisher” with ball as well as bat), and have moved to overall-favourite status. Their batting is in no doubt: AB de Villiers, averaging 106, was born to play in the world cup, and he is supported by a strong cast. In 11 days’ time the “choker” tag could well have been seen off by sheer skill and strength.

That said, New Zealand were dark horses at the start and are an even stronger outside bet now. Losses to Australia and Sri Lanka were offset by solid wins, and their extraordinary late-innings blitz against Pakistan was the undoubted Group A highlight (but probably said more about Afridi’s team than Daniel Vettori’s).

Then there is Sri Lanka–England. It’s to be played in Colombo, and home advantage could prove decisive. If Kumar Sangakkara wins the toss and helps his team rack up 320-plus, that should be enough. But England – the wayward and currently dropped James Anderson aside – have mostly been a handy bowling unit, with Tim Bresnan, James Tredwell and Graeme Swann performing well. Their having been joined by a bloke named Jade seems curious, however.

The batting has just been on the healthy side of curate’s egg status, with the ultra-consistent Jonathan Trott and the patchier-but-classier Strauss nos.2 and 3 behind Sangakkara in the tournament run-scorers list.

England, though, need to get their batting and bowling departments having good days together, not alternating like weather-house figures. Just as significant, however, might be their battle-hardened status after the run of tight games. Writing in the Guardian before the final group matches, former England coach Duncan Fletcher had this to say: “If they qualify England will be a dangerous team to come up against. They can take a lot of confidence from the fact that they are used to playing under the pressure of knowing that they will be knocked out if they lose. Other sides are going to have to readjust to that change of pace, which is a sharp switch to have to make when you have been playing soft games in the group stages. England have quite an advantage because of that.”

That seems a reasonable assessment. Although England might quietly regard pre-tournament expectations as having been met were they to lose in Colombo, just now they are in a remarkably strong psychological position. Whether they have it in them to push on and win the trophy for the first time remains to be seen.

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Samuel Beckett, an Irish cricketer

Samuel Beckett, an Irish cricketer

Wednesday’s Irish victory at the cricket world cup was remarkable in various ways, not least in how it was achieved. England might not be likely cup winners, but they’re not as bad as some believe, and their 50-over score of 327 for 8 would have been hard for one of the Test-playing sides to beat, never mind one of the associate teams.

Andrew Strauss’s men, however, are proving to be both careless and complacent when in control, and their inability to score more than 33 from the final five overs gave the Irish some tiny hope that wouldn’t have been there with a target of, say, 348 rather than 328.

At 0 for 1 (when captain William Porterfield dragged Jimmy Anderson’s loosener into his stumps), then 111 for 5 – and needing to score at eight-and-a-half an over – the Irish didn’t have a chance. Then came Kevin O’Brien and his century off just 50 balls – the sixth-fastest hundred ever scored in a one-day international and comfortably the fastest in any world cup match, beating Matthew Hayden’s 66-ball effort for Australia against South Africa in the 2007 tournament.

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The 26-year-old Dubliner blazed away with 13 fours and six sixes, highlighting another English failing in the process: they become flappy and ill-disciplined if the attack is carried to them. This also happened in the win over the Netherlands and the tie with India – both of which were tremendous contests. If there is one criticism that cannot be laid at England’s door, it’s that of serving up dull cricket: the three most enthralling matches in the tournament thus far have been the three involving the men from the shires.

The irony is that England are still much more likely to qualify for the knockout stages than are Ireland, who had earlier lost a tight and crucial match against Bangladesh, the most minnow-like of the major nations. England still only need to beat two of South Africa, the West Indies and Bangladesh to progress (and against the latter pair they will start as favourites, albeit wobbly ones), while the Irish must hope for another miracle against India, the West Indies or South Africa and then beat the Dutch in their final group-stage game.

Chances are they won’t do it, but Kevin O’Brien going forearm-to-forearm with Trinidad’s Kieron Pollard in a tonkfest at Mohali on Friday week ought to be entertaining. Until O’Brien’s wonder-innings, Pollard had perhaps been the most crowd-pleasing player in the tournament, shambling to the wicket against the Netherlands wearing what looked suspiciously like one of Richie Richardson’s old wide-brimmed hats and proceeding to launch the ball to various far corners of Delhi.

Despite Wednesday’s heroics, was the defeat of England really a long-term significant Irish cricket performance, or just another in a sporadic series of impressive one-offs? Irish cricket has had a long and meandering history, dating back to country-house games at Coole Park of Lady Gregory fame. Cricket even cropped up in one of the most celebrated poems of William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, but it was the kind with six legs rather than six stumps: “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, / Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings”.

A more valid Irish literary connection comes courtesy of Samuel Beckett, known to any half-decent pub-quiz aficionado as the answer to the question: “Which Nobel laureate appears in Wisden?” The creator of Krapp and Godot “had two first-class games for Dublin University against Northamptonshire in 1925 and 1926, scoring 35 runs in his four innings and conceding 64 runs without taking a wicket.” He was a “gritty” left-handed opener and “a useful left-arm medium-pace bowler”.

Kevin O’Brien would certainly win more prizes and be bought more drinks than Beckett on Wednesday’s evidence, however – and the man who wrote “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” almost certainly never dyed his hair pink for charity.

As regards notable Ireland matches to rival the events in Bangalore, the candidate most often mentioned was the 2007 world cup victory over Pakistan in Kingston, Jamaica. This might not have been so dramatic in individual-performance terms (Kevin O’Brien’s brother Niall was the hero that day, scoring 72), but it effectively knocked the Pakistanis out of the tournament on the same day that Bangladesh did the same to India.

That Ireland–Pakistan encounter, however, has long been subject to doubt about possible – but never in any way proven – dodgy dealings on the Pakistani side. This was clearly not an issue in Wednesday’s match, given how utterly and genuinely gutted the English players looked at the end.

Then there was the 2004 game against the West Indies in Belfast, when the Irish chased down 292 to beat a side including Brian Lara, Chris Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul with more than three overs to spare. That, though, was just an early-tour warm-up, of far less consequence than the 2007 and 2011 real-tournament upsets.

Having said that, could the only true rival to Wednesday’s mayhem be a half-forgotten festival-friendly fixture played in 1969? As a diversion during their tour of England, a strong West Indies side faced the Irish in Derry. The visitors’ batting line-up included such luminaries as Basil Butcher, Maurice Foster and a young Clive Lloyd, along with the great Clyde Walcott, who was managing the team and turned out for the occasion.

The match was a curiosity even in organisational terms, with the old-fashioned idea of squeezing in two innings each during just one day’s play – with the proviso that if time ran out, the winner would come from the first-innings performance. It was clearly a light-hearted occasion, offering the West Indians an escape from the formal rigours of the main tour. But that didn’t excuse or explain what happened: the visitors batted first and were reduced to 12 for 9, before Grayson Shillingford and Philbert Blair dragged the total up to the giddy heights of 25.

For Ireland, Dougie Goodwin took 5 for 6 and Alec O’Riordan 4 for 18, and the home side reached 26 – for what proved to be an eventual victory – with the loss of just one wicket.

Stories abound about this match, including suggestions that the West Indians were plied with oceanic quantities of Guinness the night before – a traditional and perfectly acceptable form of match-fixing.

Even Wednesday’s events in Bangalore didn’t match that for strangeness. But if the current Irish one-day squad can conjure up another great day and somehow reach the knockout stage of this world cup, then Kevin O’Brien’s batting will surely come to be seen as the finest of all achievements by an underrated cricketing nation.

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The Ashes. <em>Picture: Mskadu</em>

The Ashes. Picture: Mskadu

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Christmas Day. Always brilliant to see the look of the faces of children and adults alike. Anticipation on the part of the little ones, bewilderment on the older generation as they struggle to assemble the various toys and goodies.

Still, I worked out why the Wii is so called, simply because it is piss-easy to set up. After numerous games of ten-pin bowling, baseball and tennis (where it took me a few hours to acknowledge that I was never going to get my double-handed, top-spin, backhand return to work this side of another Christmas), and having superbly defended my alpha-male status against my six-year-old son Callum, it was time to sit down and recall Christmases past.

“Did you have a Wii when you were a wee boy?.”

“No. “

“Just a Playstation?”

“No”.

I wasn’t sure what to read into his facial expressions – a mix of shock, horror, disbelief and even sympathy – as I tried to explain the delights and difficulties of mastering Subbuteo, of my generation, the-then state-of-the-art table-top football game. Even he saw how technologically advanced it wasn’t with the cutting line: “Just using your fingers?” As he sat resplendent in his green and black Adidas number, he fired off his next salvo.

“Did you have a Chelsea strip like mine?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because they wore yellow then.”

“Did you have a yellow one then?”

“No.”

“Did you have a blue one?”

“Yes! Yes I did!” I countered with a rapier-like Wii forehand cross-court drive.

“And I also had Manchester United home and away, Everton, Liverpool home and away, Ipswich Town, Leicester City, Bristol City, Leeds United, Real Madrid, USSR, Portugal, Greece, Marseille, Linfield, Anderlecht, Preston North End, Poland, Cyprus, Stockport County, Barnsley, Chesterfield, Cowdenbeath, Queen of the South, Carlisle United, Denmark, Cardiff City, Swansea, Wrexham, Rangers, Walsall, Charlton, Millwall, Bournemouth and Raith Rovers (although not entirely sure about them but it sounded good).”

“Wow!”

Yes, wow indeed wee man. What I didn’t say of course was that they were devoid of club emblems and badges. But the all blue, all red and all white kits from Kays Catalogue enabled you to manufacture countless permutations, up to a point, although with a bit of ingenuity.

“Oh, and Arsenal. But only if you pulled your red jersey over the white one and rolled the sleeves up …”

That shut him up …

Sunday
Boxing Day. Celtic beat St Johnstone. But the real news comes afterwards when manager Neil Lennon confirms Freddie Ljungberg could be moving to Parkhead.

“He’s been a world-class player for a long time,” said Lennon, although not dwelling too long on whether that was the same or different world-class to the world-class promised a year ago when Robbie Keane arrived …

Monday
Boxing Day II. Glasgow beat Edinburgh in the first instalment of the 1872 Cup at Firhill. The appearance of the Edinburgh kit would have shocked many a traditionalist, who would have toiled to get their heads around a kit that looked like scrumpled up Christmas paper.

Tuesday
There is sad news today with the passing of former Rangers defender Avi Cohen, aged 54, who succumbed to injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident last week. While more recognised in this country as a Liverpool player, he was one of the many arrivals during the time when Graeme Souness was in charge at Ibrox, And while he made just a few appearances, his contributions in a blue jersey will not be forgotten. Eventful they were, including a win over Dynamo Kiev (virtually the Soviet state World Cup from the previous year), that 2-2 Old Firm draw, and a winner’s medal in the Skol Cup final.

Wednesday
England retain the Ashes. My thoughts haven’t changed, namely that a decent England team playing at their best have beaten an Australian team who are a cheap imitation of the previous model. In skippering his team to victory, Andrew Strauss (who is only South African born) becomes the first England captain to do so Down Under since another Middlesex man, Mike Gatting, in the winter of 86/87.

Now there was an athlete. Gatting was a popular guy, able to comment first-hand on how both captains would be feeling, one as a winner, the other – Australia’s Ricky Ponting – on being pilloried for his outburst at the umpire which lost him two-fifths of his match fee. Gatting was in full flow with his criticism of Ponting when it was pointed out that he had been embroiled with a certain Shakoor Rana many years ago. But Gatting’s defence was textbook, padding up with the reply; “Yes, but that was different!”

Thursday
Late night Thursday. And it emerges from Australia that Kevin Pietersen believes the actions that saw him lose the captaincy were key to England retaining the Ashes. Pietersen resigned as skipper in January 2009, after his attempt to have coach Peter Moores sacked made his own position untenable. “We would not be here today if I had not done what I did. I got rid of the captaincy for the good of English cricket,” said Pietersen. If only he came across as modest as that more often …

Friday
No sporting year would be complete without a glance to see who had been rewarded in the New Year Honours List. Journalists of course, are given advance notice of this release in order that we can prepare copy, articles and tributes around the announcement.

That part, in my experience, has not always been welcomed, or understood by some recipients who believe they are sworn to secrecy and who will lie and deny any such Honours nonsense just so they don’t let the cat out of the bag.

I don’t have a problem with Honours being handed out. What I do take issue with is the decision making process and the mechanics behind these awards, which are seriously flawed.

Exhibit A: Stirling Moss, a four-times world championship runner-up receives a Knighthood ahead of three-times world champion Jackie Stewart.

Exhibit B: Paul Collingwood, who received an MBE as part of England’s 2005 Ashes winning side, despite having played just once and scoring 17 runs.

Exhibit C: The various bench-warmers MBE, who were part of England’s 2003 World Cup winning squad.

I could go on. But this is as much about having someone pushing your name and knowing how the system works than out-and-out dedication and sporting achievement.

So who should have been rewarded this year and wasn’t? Try motorbike racer Ian Hutchinson, the first man in the history of the Isle of Man TT races to win all five senior races in the same week, doing something, at a location, where most of us would be hospitalised or worse after two or three bends.

Amongst those who were honoured in 2010 are golfer Graeme McDowall, who for winning his first major and Ryder Cup success gets an MBE, along with referee Howard Webb for his record 14 yellow cards and one red in a World Cup final, and veteran rugby league commentator Ray French, who in my eyes never quite managed to fill Eddie Waring’s camel coat.

Others receiving medals include rugby player Mike Catt, who having won an MBE for winning the World Cup in 2003, now gets an OBE for retiring. Make him Exhibit D.

One person suitably rewarded is George Kerr, the 72-year-old from Edinburgh, who in February became one of only 19 people since 1935 – and only the second Briton – to have achieved the status of 10th Dan in judo. He gets a CBE, and given his qualifications, I am not going to argue with that.

But were they forced into recognising George after the Emperor of Japan a few months ago awarded him with the Order of the Rising Sun?

And for a moment, I almost admitted to getting the same – until I realised it was an order from the Rising Sun, albeit with complimentary prawn crackers …

Ronnie Moran, Kenny Dalglish and Roy Evans. <em>Picture: Wekkuzipp</em>

Ronnie Moran, Kenny Dalglish and Roy Evans. Picture: Wekkuzipp

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Paul Whitehouse’s Fast Show character Archie was an old geezer who had matched anything anyone else had done as a profession. Whether it was ballet, bricklaying or bomb disposal he described it as the “hardest game in the world”.

In sporting terms nothing is as hard as boxing. Anyone who has covered the noble art has nothing but admiration for the devotion, dedication and the guts, blood, sweat and tears that goes into making a champion. Unfortunately in most cases, those same commodities are also in abundance in most losers. It’s difficult to follow fighters on their journey (to use an Audley-ism) without feeling some of their pain and anguish when it goes wrong. Like when Gary Jacobs was victim of a home-town verdict in Paris against Ludovic Proto. Or when Donnie Hood was knocked cold by Johnny Bredahl in Copenhagen. Or seeing Drew Docherty dismantled by Vincenco Belcastro.

So while Ricky Burns was maintaining his status as king of the world at Braehead Arena, on the undercard Paul Appleby was probably losing the chance to face Burns in an all-Tartan world title contest next year. Appleby lost on a split decision to Ghana’s Joseph Laryea in their vacant WBO intercontinental super-featherweight title fight. He didn’t just lose; he went home with a “sair coupon” (or sore face from my Firrhill reader). But battered, bruised and cut-up both internally and externally as he was, Appleby still gave an emotional ringside interview minutes afterwards. How my erstwhile colleagues wish many SPL mediocrities were equally forthcoming when the only thing damaged is their egos.

Sunday
The Sunday Mail Sports Awards (which I mentioned last week and thanks again to Euan McLean for the invite) gets its airing on STV. A slick production and one which is rounded off by the Dalglish family’s challenge to The Osbournes. Wise cracks galore from Kelly, Paul and Kenny, and a funny tribute too from top comic John Bishop. Dalglish, or rather the “King of the Kop” Dalglish, picked up the Lifetime Achievement Award. Brilliant whether with Celtic, Liverpool or Scotland, that his abilities still have the ability to make watchers shake their heads in awe and wonderment some 25, or 30, or 35 years after the event, only emphasises how good we once had it as a country.

The compilation footage of his goals was superb, each cheered and applauded as if they were live, especially his record-breaking strikes for Liverpool, against Ipswich, making him the first player to score a century of goals on both sides of the border for a single club, and his effort to beat Spanish ‘keeper Arconada at Hampden during the qualifier for the ’86 World Cup in Mexico, equalling Denis Law’s tally of 30 goals for Scotland. How good we once had it, particularly when pitched against where we currently are, namely, that the last player in Scotland, who had record-breaking goal-scoring prowess bestowed upon him, is now just a sub at Middlesboro and doesn’t even get quoted internationally …

Monday
And to Telford where Stuart Bingham is responsible for the first major upset at snooker’s UK Championship when he reels off five frames on the spin to defeat four-times former winner and arguably the biggest attraction in the game, Ronnie O’Sullivan. At least Ronnie was gracious in defeat with no mentions of his disillusionment with snooker or imminent retirement. Bingham was chuffed, but obviously he still had something of a gripe with “The Rocket.” Said Bingham: “We used to practise together. He would text me and ask if I wanted a game. But he hasn’t texted me for nearly a year.” Probably no Valentine’s Day card then, and Christmas might slip past without so much as a note let alone a gift. Looks like it will be just a table for one again then Stuart …

Tuesday
England, thanks to a superb batting display by the South African-born Kevin Pietersen (he now bats at No 4 behind the South African-born Jonathan Trott who regularly comes in at three to replace their South African-born captain Andrew Strauss) rout the Aussies in Adelaide to go one-up in the Ashes series with three to play. Last time it was 5-0 to the hosts Down Under. But that, as the Australians are now finding out, was when they had a team full of champions; Hayden, Langer, Gilchrist, Lee, McGrath and Warne. All now retired, and all now greatly missed. So missed in fact, that a campaign has started to get Warne in as captain.

Are the Aussies that desperate?

There is something terribly English about The Ashes, the most hyped two-horse race in sport, just pipping the Boat Race in terms of knowing which two teams will always make the final. That I’ve spent many a sleepless night watching events unfold on the other side of the world is merely coincidental.

Wednesday
Back in snookerland, seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry – who just pipped Jimmy White 9-8 in the previous round – goes down 9-6 to Mark Williams in the last 16 of the UK Championship, a match which will last long in the memory only because it was so rank. Afterwards, Hendry reveals he has been battling “the yips” for the last ten years. Does that include David, the former Chinese Detective?

Actually the yips, for those who are wondering, is more commonly associated with golfers, manifesting itself as involuntary movements when playing a shot, or being forced to jerk either cue or club when you freeze on a shot. Darts legend Eric Bristow was another sufferer, although just for him they invented “dartitis”. “On some shots I don’t even get the cue through,” said Hendry. “I think I need to phone Bernhard Langer to see how he got over the ‘yips’ because that’s what I have.”

Hendry’s plight is a sad one. Currently he is a shadow of his former self, judged by some for his performances now and not on his unsurpassed former glories. The thought of Hendry missing out on the Crucible this year is almost unthinkable. But then, at one time, so would be Stephen admitting to such human frailties.

Thursday
Britain’s Dereck Chisora is right up there when it comes to Who’s Who in boxing circles. Did you see Chisora’s name there and ask yourself “who?” – I rest my case. While David Haye is a heavyweight world champion, Chisora’s bid to match his countryman was stymied after Wladimir Klitschko pulled out of Saturday’s world heavyweight title bout. IBF and WBO champion Klitschko withdrew from the contest in Mannheim, Germany, claiming he had suffered a stomach injury. But little-known Chisora is a threat, not just to Klitschko A and B, but to the whole heavyweight business. The world – and in particular pay-to-view TV – wants to see Haye against Wlad the Lad or his brother Vitali. Chisora, deserving of his opportunity having put pen to paper, could get in the way of those main events. So don’t be surprised that once Wladimir is fit again, it’s David Haye on the bill, and not Dereck Who?

Friday
There is said to be a madness brought on by long-term exposure to the whiteout conditions experienced in the Arctic and Antarctic. I had similar symptoms this week, but that was entirely down to a burst central heating pipe. However, you have to wonder if one or two around Motherwell have been afflicted by the same madness.

Take Mr Brown of Fir Park Street. On Monday the snow set in. On Tuesday, he found himself confused and disorientated by an offer to move elsewhere with his trusted friend Archie, who would have been headed back to a former home. On Wednesday Craig (to his friends) was pledging his love, devotion and future to the wee boys to the Wee Alpha and the delights of Steeltown. But by Thursday after making certain demands regarding bringing in new little helpers, he had resigned to be installed immediately as favourite to move north to the Granite City.

While Brown worked without a contract at Motherwell, he might want to work with a safety net, hard hat and bullet-proof vest at Pittodrie. With a wealth of managerial experience, he knows what he is doing. Managing Aberdeen, as Ian Porterfield, Jocky Scott, Alex Smith, Willie miller, Roy Aitken, Alex Miller, Ebbe Skovdahl, Steve Paterson, Jimmy Calderwood and Mark McGhee would confirm, is neither simple or easy.

It never is when you re-locate to a time warp.

Each has tried and failed to live up to the achievements Alex Ferguson. But as he’s slightly tied up and has been for the last quarter of a century, Aberdeen have drawn up a wish list and managed to tick of several boxes in advocating wee Broon as the man. For instance, he must have played with Rangers, and must have been mentioned at least once for the Ibrox managerial role; must be able to apply for a bus pass, must have formerly managed the Scotland international team at a World Cup, must have called on the services from time to time of James Leighton and Andrew Goram, must be able to identify a decent filly and must have a working relationship with Archie Knox. So Craig Brown is more of perfect candidate that it first appears. And if it all goes wrong, at least the pension will have been sufficiently topped up.

The Ashes. <em>Picture: Mskadu</em>

The Ashes. Picture: Mskadu

The Ashes have started, amid impressive waves of hype and with, thankfully, an interesting first day’s play. England won the toss and chose to bat in Woolloongabba – the only Test venue to include four sets of double letters and the name of a Swedish pop band – more commonly known as the Gabba or the Brisbane Cricket Ground.

The first two sessions were roughly level – exactly level in statistical terms, as England scored 86 for 2 in each. Then Australian paceman Peter Siddle took a high-grade hat-trick (Alastair Cook, Matt Prior and – after review of the lbw decision – Stuart Broad), and on his 26th birthday, too.

It wasn’t a terrible opening day for England. Cook and Ian Bell both made half-centuries, while the out-of-form Kevin Pietersen, described by Shane Warne on commentary as “the walking ego” (which raises questions of pots and kettles) scored 43. But Australia ended on top, with their openers having compiled an untroubled 25 in seven overs by the close.

There are 24 more days to come in the five-Test series. If England win only one match – which would be their 100th victory against their old rivals (they’ve lost 132) – it won’t be enough. If they win two, it could well be. They only need to draw the series to retain the Ashes, remember. That’s a very big “only”, though.

The Gabba is a tricky place to start
During a pre-Ashes hypefest on Radio 5 Live, Victoria Derbyshire (a woman named after first-class teams in Australia and England) announced that the last time England had won in a Test in Brisbane was 1986.

She failed to add that the fixture has only been played five times since then, but the point has some validity, as those five matches have seen four Australian wins and one draw. The wins were all thumping: ten wickets, 184 runs, 384 runs and 277 runs, while the draw, in 1998, was an England-hanging-on affair.

More relevant, however, are two stats relating to 1988. The Australians haven’t lost a Brisbane Test against anyone since the West Indies in that year. And they have recently lost three Tests in a row (against Pakistan at Headingley, against India at Mohali and Bangalore), again for the first time since 1988. They will be utterly determined to not see that become four.

What to make of the relative bowling strengths?
Australia have been struggling to replace Warne and Glenn McGrath, while England fared better in the admittedly easier task of replacing Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard. On paper, England look the better equipped, especially if Graeme Swann can maintain his knack of taking a wicket in the opening over of a spell. Steve Finn could prosper on the bouncy wickets, James Anderson – who took 1 for 195 at Brisbane four years ago – ought now to be at his most mature and incisive.

But the new Aussie crop – with melting-pot names such as Ben Hilfenhaus, Xavier Doherty, Doug Bollinger and Nathan Hauritz (neither of the last two playing at the Gabba) – must not be underestimated. And Peter Siddle couldn’t have hoped for a better first day.

Mitchell Johnson versus Broad will be an interesting contest: both can bat without being proper all-rounders, but Broad is the more likely to be distracted to the detriment of his main job, pinging the ball down from 22 yards.

There’s only one great cricketer in the series, and he’s fading
Ricky Ponting is the most accomplished player on either side. The second Test, at Adelaide, will be his 150th – only Sachin Tendulkar and Steve Waugh have played more. Ponting has racked up over 12,000 Test runs, his long-handled lofted pull has been one of the signature strokes of the last 15 years, and he has coped well with the “best Aussie batsman since Bradman” tag – a poisoned chalice along the lines of “the new Dylan”.

If no Australian batsman was “Punter’s” equal when Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and the Waugh twins were still around, then there damn well isn’t anyone just now. But he’s ageing – he’ll turn 36 during the Perth Test – and fading, with the big scores and match-winning knocks less common than before.

If Ponting has a poor or even moderate series, England could win. If he decides it’s time for a swansong, then his troops will draw strength and England will struggle.

Strauss might be the cannier captain
While Ponting is undoubtedly one of the finest of modern batsmen, he has struggled to dominate in captaincy terms. At times his team has been such a juggernaut that it hasn’t mattered, but history will view him as a lesser captain than his predecessors Allan Border and Steve Waugh. He might have won 47 of his 73 matches in charge, but he has conceded two series in England and has seen his team overtaken by India in the world rankings.

Andrew Strauss is a very good but not great batsman, yet already, arguably, the more accomplished leader. He has a solid, settled team on the rise, as opposed to an Australian group in flux and transition, and if the Ashes end up being a tight team contest – as opposed to one or two individuals dominating – then the strength of Strauss could tell.

Ponting took charge through natural seniority; Strauss because he’s the natural man for the job.

Other great rivalries are available
It’s only in recent years that the Ashes contest has been elevated to the top-of-the-tree status it currently enjoys. It’s as though the game’s promoters and apologists are sporting creationists, believing that history only started in 2005 (or perhaps, at a pinch, 1981). Yes, it’s the oldest of cricketing rivalries (this is the 322nd Test between the teams), but not so long ago the much-anticipated, much-feared encounter was England versus the West Indies. Or anyone versus the West Indies, for that matter.

The Windies were the dominant, swaggering team from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s, such that all other rivalries seemed second-place, even commonplace. It coincided with a rare weaker Australian period, under Greg Chappell and Kim Hughes, but it didn’t really matter. Trying to avoid a “blackwash” was how every country assessed its prospects.

There have of course been famed, fabled Ashes battles ever since the start – the series that saw Jessop’s match in 1902, the great Australian touring teams of 1921 and 1948, the Bodyline crisis of 1932/33, the post-Bradman Ashes win in 1953. But what of Australia versus South Africa, both before and after the apartheid-exclusion? And what of India versus Pakistan, in terms of venom and viewing figures the biggest cricketing rivalry of them all?

Cricket is not football
Until recently, cricket was not a sport where teams were widely supported in the tribal way so engrained in football. Rather, it was and still perhaps is a game to become engrossed in, to appreciate the finer points, rather than to be blinkered or bigoted.

My old maths teacher, as a schoolboy, didn’t queue twice round the ground at Trent Bridge in 1948 to cheer on England. He did it to see Don Bradman bat. And he was still disappointed, 30 years later when telling the story, to have arrived inside to see the great Australian walk back up the pavilion steps, caught Hutton, bowled Bedser.

So much of the pre-Ashes hype has been partisan, patriotic, almost parochial. Cricket-lovers are encouraged to support their team and to unsupport the opposition – another unseemly trait transferred from football. That’s not what it’s about, really. It’s more profound than that, and stock phrases such as “It’s not cricket” and “May the best team win” have a deeper resonance in this sport than in any other.

Blame the Barmy Army. Blame Jerusalem being blared from the pre-match tannoy at home Tests. Blame live coverage being taken off terrestrial TV. Blame the game’s administrators who have been striving to sell its soul.

Or don’t blame anyone or anything. Just sit back, stay up late and enjoy some keenly competitive cricket.

- Live coverage is available via Sky Sports, Test Match Special (Radio 4 long wave and 5 Live Sports Extra), and at Cricinfo. ITV4 has highlights each evening.

<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.

http://www.wisden.com/