Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Strauss urns his place as England’s best

The pride and joy I felt watching Andrew Strauss, England’s colossus captain, lifting the greatest prize in test cricket, is a feeling that will live with me for years to come. Strauss is not just a top batsman and cricket tactician, but also a man of honour and integrity, remaining humble and respectful towards his opposition following the triumphant summer, as England regained the Ashes for the second time in four years.

While Strauss doesn’t have the charisma of Kevin Pietersen, or the popularity of Andrew Flintoff, he possesses the ability to keep his wicket intact, score important runs, and build match winning performances.

What’s impressive about the Middlesex opener is that, unlike many of his predecessors as England captain, such as Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain, he has not let his role as captain have a negative effect on his batting average.

Strauss finished the series as the winning captain, with 474 runs, averaging 52.66. Six Aussies snapped at his heels in an attempt to top the run scoring chart, but to no avail, that award also fell to the England captain, illustrating his raw ability, and strengthening his player of the series accolade.

Contributing to the magnitude of Strauss’ achievements is that he’s only been the captain for 7 months. The current captain replaced Pietersen after he resigned earlier this year, while other English cricketers were relieved that it wasn’t them chosen to fill the void left by Pietersen.

Strauss is not one to shirk a challenge though, and demonstrated off the field his ability to remain clam and composed, which he does so competently at the crease. Strauss’ tactical awareness will have time to develop, and being only 32, he has time on his side to nurture into a top England captain.

An encouraging aspect of this Ashes series is the overall contributions from so many English players. In the first test at Cardiff, the unlikely tenth wicket stand between Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, to sneak a draw, was an integral partnership, yielding 19 vital runs, from 69 balls, over 40 absorbing minutes.

Paul Collingwood’s 4 hours at the crease, scoring a vital 74 runs, demonstrated resistance, while his team mates helplessly frittered their second innings wickets away. It was essential that the Australians didn’t start the series off well, and these displays thwarted such a start for the touring party.

It was a captain’s century from Strauss scoring 161 the following week, who along with Flintoff’s 5 for 92, gained victory at St. John’s Wood, Lords, for the first time in 75 years. Graeme Onions and Anderson were swinging in the rain at Edgbaston, producing bowling of the highest order, in a game that England were in complete control of, only for the rain to save Australia.

It appeared that the entire England team suffered stage fright at Leeds, missing the indispensable presence of Flintoff. The burly no.7 failed to prove his fitness for the penultimate test, as England were soundly beaten by a rejuvenated Australian side, setting it up nicely for The Oval.

For the decisive test, Jonathan Trott scored 160 on his England debut, including a knock of 119. Stuart Broad’s man of the match performance, due to his 5 for 37 in the first innings, decimated the touring party’s batsmen in one of the finest bowling displays in history.

Graeme Swann, who scored a majestic 63 in the 2nd innings, provided strong bowling support for Broad, bowling a staggering 35.2 overs on the final day, taking the final wicket of Mr. Hussey to seal a 2-1 series victory. Special mention is deserved for Matt Prior, who was consistent throughout the series, scoring 261 runs, the second highest out of the Englishmen, while taking 11 catches, and a stumping.

Despite the young players who’ve had such an impact on this series, it important to recognise the test career of Flintoff. The likeable Lancastrian has added excitement and panache to English cricket, while it’s poetic that his last telling test match contribution was a stunning direct hit to dismiss the greatest batsman of the current era, Ricky Ponting.

The manner with which the all rounder swooped, and fired the ball at the stumps was aptly timed, signalling the end of a partnership of 127, which was beginning to look increasingly dangerous to England’s chances of victory.

Flintoff has undeniably had an up and down series, taking only 8 wickets, averaging 33.33 at the crease, but it the guy’s presence on and off the pitch, which instils confidence in his team mates, and fear and worry in the opposition.

His barbaric-like batting display in his final Test innings, emerging from the pavilion while wielding his bat like a man possessed, pumped up for battle, was classic Flintoff. He attacked ever ball, scoring 22 from 18 deliveries.

With England already comfortably in the driving seat, he approached his final test innings with fun and ferocity, giving the crowd something extra to cheer, eventually, getting himself out, the tale of Flintoff’s career, caught after slogging over mid-on. No England fan would change his attitude to the sport he loves, and the country looks forward to seeing him again in the one day form of the game.

In true Freddy style he had a only positive words to say about the great adversaries, Australia, while the scenes of the two teams embracing with each other, sharing brief conversations so soon after the culmination of the series, illustrates the essence of cricket, and the respect shared between competing teams.

A further positive to take from Flintoff departure, is that there are players in the current England set-up who can pick up where Flintoff has left off, performing to his high standard, and fill the huge Test boots vacated now that he’s a one-day specialist.

When you consider that England achieved all this without their no.1 batsmen, Pietersen, for 3 matches, while the talisman Flintoff, to quote Geoffrey Boycott was “playing on one leg”, it further demonstrates the array of quality players Andy Flower has at his disposal, and the future of English cricket.

All the odds were stacked against England, with players making there debuts and a middle order in disarray, but England played with heart and determination emerging the victors in a scintillating and gripping Ashes series, where the pendulum of control swung from one team to the other, mimicking a typical Jimmy Anderson Jaffa.

The resolve displayed by England following the horrific performance at Leeds, which lead to the emphatic result at The Oval, is a factor that the whole England set-up should be deeply proud of. The manner with which England won in 2005, with the removal of the bails by umpire Rudi Koertzen, took a small part of the magic away from proceedings, a magic that was discovered again this summer, and resonated across the country at 17.48, on Sunday 23rd August.

The test for this group of players now lies in how they can build on this success. Responsibility lies with the likes of the youth of Broad and Ravi Bopara, who will return to the England set-up, while less experienced players like Trott, Robert Key and Yorkshire’s Adil Rashid are likely to be called upon more frequently, and will want to be up to the task.

In 2005, it had been 16 years since England had last held the precious urn, while they only won 1 from 5 tests following the exuberant celebrations in Trafalgar Square and Downing Street. Unlike 2005, the current side need to maintain the momentum from this summer’s successes, using it as a spring board to shoot up the cricket rankings.

One day games, and twenty20s are all well and good, but it’s Test cricket, the most important form of the game, that determines truly great cricket teams. Test cricket, as shown by this series, is gripping sporting drama, and this England team will be judged by performances in South Africa and Bangladesh, while the next Ashes in Australia is just 15 months away. So rather than remaining stationary, or going backwards after an emphatic victory, all eyes turn to South Africa, and the progression and continuation of this group of players.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Sport continues to shock and surprise me

What have we seen? I couldn’t believe the sprinting I saw last night, and it seems that England’s cricketers have taken inspiration from the Jamaican speedster, by skittling the Australian batsman during the second session of today’s Ashes test at the Oval, a day when 15 wickets fell for just 243 runs.

Australia were sailing at 73 for 0, the opening batsmen making a steady start to the innings. England’s bowling attack looked useful, but had nothing to show for their efforts. Then, after composed and committed bowling from Broad, the first wicket fell, which set the wheels in motion for a remarkable 2 hours of Test match cricket.

The combined 2nd session figures for Broad and Swann was 8 for 45, off 106 deliveries, Broad with 5 for 19, and Swann with 3 for 26, decimating the batsmen of the touring party.

Broad claimed the first four wickets of Watson, Ponting, Hussey and Clark, answering his critics in an exuberant fashion. It was then Swann’s turn to further beget the Australian collapse, as he twirled at the other end, taking the wicket of North, followed by Kaitch, while Broad claiming his 3rd 5-wicket haul, bowling Haddin for 1. Broad not only produced his standout performance as an Englishman, but possibly the finest display of bowling in Test match history.

After resistance from Johnson and Siddle, it was the former who couldn’t resist a tempting off drive, but edged to Prior, who seized his opportunity to take his tenth catch of a successful debut Ashes. This dismissal made it 8 for 111, capping an astounding session of cricket.

After tea, despite further Aussie defiance, the remnants of the tail was cleaned up. Swann dismissed Clark, and Flintoff just couldn’t help getting in on the wicket taking, by clean bowling Hilfenhaus, leaving Siddle not out with 25.

England hardly demonstrated compact batting, losing 3 wickets for 58 runs, but have 7 wickets intake and with a lead of 230, which illustrates a firm grasp on this Test. The first session tomorrow is huge, and if England can get a lead of 350-400, then surely Ashes victory is imminent.

A talking point of the series has been England’s lacking middle order, now the Australians have shown their batting inadequacies, and have little margin for error over the remaining days. The 3 wickets taken before the evening’s close, give the Australians some hope, and jangle the nerve of the English.

It remains to be seen how pivotal Ponting’s decision to omit a spinner from the XI, especially on a wicket renowned for turn and spin. If the Aussie captain had heard Tufnell’s jibes on TMS singing, “where’s your spinner gone?” it would have made his blood boil. England undoubtedly a firm favourites for this game, but it remains to be seen what further antics this notorious Oval pitch will play.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

This Bolt has struck again

What have we just witnessed? Its all been said before, and is likely be repeated for years to come, but when this guy gets on a track and produces runs of such verve and overwhelming velocity, audiences are purely mystified as to how a human being can perform such feats.

Usain Bolt has just severed his 200m world record, taking 0.11 seconds off it, the same amount he reduced his 100m record by just 4 days previously. He was so determined to break his record, as he puffed and wheezed his way down the home straight, after an impeccable bend, the title became a foregone conclusion, as Bolt strived for perfection.

In the rounds of the 200m, Bolt look fatigued, yet he still won with consummate ease, without a test from him fellow competitors. But 19.19secs seemed unlikely. Bolt refrained from smiles and jovial antics in the heats, indicating that he didn’t have a big 200 metres inside of him, how wrong such assumptions were. Instead, Bolt chose the moments prior to the 200m final as the time to release tension, or maybe nerves, by singing into the camera before the sound of the starters’ gun.

The lack of shock on Bolt’s face as his new world record registered in his brain, demonstrates the sheer confidence the man has in his own ability. Many commentators in the world of athletics had claimed that Bolt wouldn’t break his 200m record, which he set in Beijing last summer, but Bolt had other plans.

Bolt was back to his funny-loving self immediately, posing with ‘Berlino’, the mascot, for the hordes of cameras wanting a shot of the hottest property in world sport. You’ve got to feel for the 7 other guys running today against Bolt, 4 who ran sub 20 seconds, while Alonso Edward, who picked up the silver medal, was 0.62seconds behind Bolt, a country mile in sprinting terms. What can they do to challenge the champion? How can they make up the metres that Bolt crushed them by? Unanswerable questions for sure.

It seems that beyond the male sprinters, all athletes in Berlin are copying the man from the Caribbean. Within minutes of the 200m final, the British 110m hurdler, William Sharman was smiling and joking with the cameras, before his own World Championship final. While the German High Jumper, “Sssssshed” her home crowd, with her very own fingers to lips moment, now a typically Boltesque trait.

It is important to remember that all this has come from a man who was involved in a car crash four months ago; a man who slowed down in the last 40m, didn’t feel 100%, and due to going through the draining process of 100m and 200m heats. World championships follow Olympics years, which is recognised by athletes as a time when they struggle for their top form, due to the strict regime of Olympics preparation. So, taking theses impeding factors into consideration, imagine how fast Bolt is going to run when he’s undergone a full period of training, and has reached his peak performance level. Frightening, simply frightening.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Bolt that keeps on striking

Pre Usain Bolt, I’ve always found men’s 100m sprinting a mesmerizing spectacle. The power, elegance, and sheer speed of the 8 men who propel themselves down the track, is one of sport’s great sights. No one has ever had such an immediate impact on athletics in the way Bolt has, breaking records with consummate ease, claiming a horde of titles and gold medals, all at the youthful of 22.

All eyes this week in Berlin are fixed on one man, a man who in little over 12 months has become a household, global superstar. It’s not just that Bolt is just an outstanding athlete; he portrays the image of a genuine, likeable guy, who enjoys chicken nuggets and nightclubs as much as any man in their 20s.

In a sporting event, where focus; composure and male bravado have previously dominate, Bolt manages to instil, with ease, an element of relaxation and fun to his running. When compared with top sprinters from yesteryear, Maurice Green, and Linford Christie, Bolt chooses to laugh and joke on the line, thoroughly enjoying, and savouring his moment.

The four 100m races Bolt ran over the weekend illustrated his horizontal, laid-back approach to sprinting. In his quarter-final, after his Round 1 jog, he exchanged smiles and laughter with his training partner, Daniel Bailey, despite there being 40m of the race to go.

Yesterday’s semi-final, and the jaw-droppingly compelling final, showcased Bolt at his supreme best. Prior to the semi-final, as the camera panned across the start line, Bolt’s nonchalant and humorous approach to his running was apparent, as he patted his hair, smoothed his eyebrows, while waggling his tongue like a dog on a hot summer’s day.

It’s as if he knows that he’s going to win the race due to the confidence oozing from every pour, or maybe Bolt finds that his sprinting comes easier to him through relaxation, a further example of his re-writing of the sprinting manual. Even after two false starts in semi, the first which he committed, Bolt still has the composure to hold his fingers up to his grinning mouth, instructing the crowd to quieten, so that the race can commence. Yes, he knew he was going to win.

On the start line for the final, it appeared that Bolt is chatting, yes, chatting to the other competitors. Covering and revealing his beaming smile, like a child who is under the impression that their antics are going unnoticed, Bolt proceeds to dance on the startline, itching to get the race underway and claim the gold medal he’s envisaging hanging from his neck. 9.58 seconds later, and with 0.11 seconds slashed off his own world record, the title, record and adulation is his, but we already knew that was going to happen.

It’s clear that this particular bolt will continue to strike repeatedly for years to come, and there’s the small matter of the 200m during the week. Let’s hope Bolt left some chicken nugget fuelled energy in his tank.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Call centre life - an inside perspective

Within hours of failing a job interview for a customer service role at Barclays bank, I was contacted by a Liverpool based recruiter informing me of “exciting customer service opportunities” available through, you guessed it, employment with Barclays. My failure to cement a second interview was entirely self inflicted, I did not prepare sufficiently for the telephone interview, because I knew, deep down, that I could not bring myself to step back into the heinous call centre environment. The thought of donning my fiddly headset, to talk twaddle with someone who places themselves on a precariously high pedestal when taking to call centre staff, did not appeal to me in the slightest. I don’t mean to cast all call centre customers as ignorant individuals, but the sweet and delightful ones are few, and even further between.

For my sins, I’ve worked in call centres before, amounting to two mind-numbing periods of employment, totalling 10 months. For those of you reading this that have also had the pleasure of working in call centres, you’ll know where my grouch manifests from. Remaining stationed in a chair, staring at a computer screen for hours on end causes time to pass painstakingly slow. Adding to the frustration is the clock, at the bottom right-hand corner of your screen, which you glance at every available moment. It feels as if this tiny, grating clock is smiling at you, winking your way, as your day drags and drags. Ex and current call centre staff can identify with the exasperating ‘BEEP’, ‘BUZZ’ or ‘HUM’ which molesters your ear-drums, acting as a signal to indicate a new customer’s presence, or contrastingly, the joy and rejuvenation one feels, when required to come off the phones, and complete some routine form regarding your employment. The latter of these two examples is unfortunately not as frequent as the former.

I believe there’s a toxin residing in the unsightly water –containers, arbitrarily dotted throughout offices, which renders staff miserable, critical and docile. I’ve never worked in such a negative environment, with continual waves of complaints from staff and customers alike. It’s the fuzzy, unconvincing attitude that representatives are required to convey, and overtime, such falsities simply don’t cut the mustard. Towards the end of my last role, I purposely annoyed customers, instigating disputes, to get a rise from them. This was a very childish and unprofessional attitude to work, but I despised the role and did not see myself at the company long-term. I was feeling well and truly unperturbed after a particularly heated debate, when my manager informed me she’d listened to the call in question. How I did not get fired, I’ll never know, but I was the talk of the office for the remainder of the day.

Team leaders have the undesirable job of making call centre life seem fun, enjoyable and (laughably) worth-while. The meaningless targets, emphasised despite lacking in value, make for the most uninspiring of goals, such as ensuring your call time is the desired length, or that comfort breaks, (breaks in addition to allotted rests and lunches) do not exceed stated times. I once spent 5 minutes of ‘comfort’ stood in a toilet cubicle as light relief from being on the phones. Feeble encouragement from managers, telling their team that they can be ‘the best team’ fall on deaf ears, no one cares about being the team with the ‘best’ statistics, and I’m sure the mangers couldn’t give two hoots either. Staff are aware of the limited career progression available, resulting in their diminished enthusiasm, not concerned with impressing managers. Add to this the repetitive, and tedious nature of the work, it doesn’t make for an enjoyable, stimulating job.

It’s this emphasis on protocol that seems unnecessary, becoming wearisome the longer one remains in the job. Agents are required to advise customers while reading from scripts, taking the form of brain-dead robots, unable to add an ounce of individuality or personality to the job. Difficulty booking holidays and changing shifts is another customary obstacle that arises due to the strict rigidity governing company policy. It’s this lack of flexibility that fuels the fire of frustration in such roles, and it’s no surprise that call centres have such a high turnover of staff, when you bear in mind the rules and regulations governing staff.

Graduating students, or individuals considering employment in call centres, need to be aware of what such work holds for them. I understand that jobs are scarce, with people having to apply for jobs they wouldn’t have considered doing previously, and call centre work is one area recruiting in abundance at present. I understand that many people enjoy working in customer service roles, seeing the job as a stand-up, honest way to make a living, which it is, when compared to some of means by which people come about money. However, I feel so strongly about some of my negative experiences from call centre life, where I worked with people who really did not want to be there, putting minimal effort in, but continuing to complaining about the situation they’re in, without instigating change. When you’ve witnessed one of your co-workers swearing at customers while their phone’s on ‘mute’, and flicking V-signs into a handset mouthpiece, to relieve work based frustration, you would suspect that they’re in the wrong line of work.

England's last roll of the dice

As a 24-year old, I’ve seen fewer centuries made, and wickets taken than the average cricket fan, and struggle to recall an English cricket match that has received as much anticipation as next week’s 5th test decider. Over the past fortnight, people with little interest in cricket have caught ‘Ashes flu’, each with differing opinions regarding England’s strongest team.

It’s not that this year’s Ashes has produced the best cricket, batting averages are lower than previous series, while neither an Australian, nor Englishman can claim to be the star of the series. Quite the opposite has occurred, with several players being criticized and slated as the summer passes by. Despite this, it’s been engaging sporting drama, ever since England snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat at Cardiff, we looked well in control. That was, until a shameful batting display at Headingley, which leaves the series delicately posed at 1 -1.

Calls for the inclusion of Marcus Trescothick, who has retired from International cricket, followed by the 42 year old Mark Ramprakash, to bring a calm and composition to England’s batting, have been suggested. The addition of Ramprakash has become more likely as the week has progressed, which would be a bold move by the selectors, opting for someone who has been in the test cricket wilderness for 7 years.

Bopara has struggled with form throughout the series; while his 1 for Essex in the week’s Division 2 county championship match will not be helping his claim for a place in the squad. Bopara also made an undefeated 52 but these scores highlight the inconsistence that the player is currently showing. The remaining middle order batsman, Bell and Collingwood, have also been wayward for country of late, so it remains to be seen which, if any of the 3 will be jogging out with the rest of the team on Thursday morning at the Oval. Big scores from Bell and Trott for Warwickshire this week, gives the England selectors further food for thought.

The confidence boost for England comes in the return of the talisman, Flintoff, who was hugely missed in Leeds. Big Fred’s last test appearance for England is set-up for the perfect Roy of the Rovers type finish. Flintoff has that quality that few sportsmen have, the ability to instil confidence and verve into dour team performances. Steven Gerrard has it, and Rugby’s Jonny Wilkinson had it in abundance, and if England are going to regain the Ashes this summer we’re going to require a similar Herculean performance from Lancashire’s finest. However, if England’s suffer further middle order dismay, then its unlikely even Flintoff’s last test showdown would be enough for Ashes glory.