Rotting fish

Cricket Australia released its report into the culture of the Australian cricket team yesterday. It was scathing, not just of the culture within the team, but of the ethics and culture of cricket administration in general. It was welcome news.

What’s not so welcome is how CA have effectively siloed responsibility. We have three high profile cricketers banned from playing international or local domestic cricket for 12 months – a penalty that much exceeds what the statutes recommended. The penalties were widely accepted by an Australian public shocked and horrified by the events of South Africa, and in general, wearied by the petulant behaviour of the national team. I was one of those.

It’s no surprise to find that the actions of a few players on-field were in character with the general ethos of the administration in general. To be clear, I’m not suggesting CA condones cheating or abuse, but in the quest to be number one I doubt there was any clear distinction and much that was blurred. Certainly, there appeared much that was accepted, if only by omission.

The problem now is that while the players have been vilified and penalised much of the administration has got off scot free. True, the coach left of his own volition, and Pat Howard, the performance manager, is going also (as he should), but the higher echelons of CA are unscathed. This imbalance was highlighted by the fact that the chairman was reinstated (upon his insistence) before the report was sighted. If nothing else this is a perversion of due process, but very much aligns with the criticisms outlined in the report. It doesn’t inspire one with confidence.

If only for the optics, there should have been a root and branch review of positions, and I would have hoped that key figures would have accepted it was time for them to step aside, as James Sutherland did. Instead, we have a situation where the administration, by and large, survives – despite explicit criticism – while the penalised players carry the can. Now that’s un-Australian.

Everyone has an opinion on something like this. They talk about culture and so on, and yeah, that’s valid, but it comes down to leadership in my book. This situation would never have occurred had there been strong, just leadership. Unfortunately – as in many industries – CA has fallen into the habit in recent years of promoting people to roles they’re not fully capable of.

Let’s start with Steve Smith, a great batsman and, on the strength of that, made captain, as so often is the case, as if the ability to wield the willow automatically equates to superior leadership qualities. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I’ve been saying this for years, Smith never had the innate authority required to do the role effectively. To be a leader you need to stand for something, you need to be strong in your principles and character, and you must compel those who follow. Smith lacked all of those qualities. It was unreasonable and unfair to put someone like that in that role, and we paid the consequences.

Then there was Boof Lehmann. Nice guy by all accounts, and probably a handy (but limited) coach. He’s also a bit of an old-fashioned yobbo very much out of step with the mores of society today. Smith allowed things to develop out of weakness, and Lehmann because he never took them seriously enough.

Then you’ve got the chairman, who took an adversarial approach in the pay negotiations last year, and who has a history in adversarial industrial relations when he was at Rio Tinto. It’s the wrong character set and wrong approach all down the line, and we see how it’s played out.

I think this report is good and some of the steps taken thus far are appropriate – Tim Paine, for example, epitomises the sort of leadership we should be aspiring to. That’s not enough though. Changes have been made within the test team, but at the top end, nothing has changed. I don’t think there are many who would disagree when I suggest that Peever should have stepped down, and still should. Until that happens there cannot be complete confidence in this board, or in the steps they take to rectify the sins of the past.

PS Peever resigned as Chairman a couple of days after I wrote this, as he should have from the start. The whole thing poorly managed. In a situation like this doing the right thing and being seen as doing the right thing are almost equally important. They got the optics wrong – more evidence, unfortunately, of how out of touch and arrogant they are. Hopefully the new chairman, whoever he is, will make a difference.


This week’s outrage

The big sporting news over the weekend was Serena William’s blow-up in the final of the US Open. As so often these days it has taken on a much greater and political significance than it merits.

The bare facts are these. Having lost the first set it is early in the second set when the chair umpire penalises Williams’ for ‘coaching’ – her coach had been spotted in the stands giving hand signals to her, which is disallowed. She protests vociferously but the penalty stands. She loses that game on serve and violently smashes her racquet and is penalised another point, as the rules dictate. It’s at this point she goes ballistic.

Williams starts to abuse the chair umpire, upset that she has essentially been branded a cheat, and invoking her colour and gender. She calls the chair umpire a cheat. It continues in ugly fashion and finally the umpire penalises her for abuse by calling the game on her. Williams’ calls in the referees, but to no avail.

The match goes on in front of a restive New York crowd who hoot and catcall and boo and in the end Williams loses to Naomi Osaka. The circus continues, robbing Osaka of what should have been a great moment in her life.

Afterwards Williams’ continues her spray in the press conference, once more suggesting that the actions by the chair umpire were both racist and sexist in nature. This theme is taken up by many thousands across the world outraged by what they believe to be the victimisation of Williams’. Social media is bitter with competing perspectives on the events. It’s all very 2018.

I had an immediate reaction to the news when I heard it, before it became political. I’m one of those people who dislike Serena Williams, and have done for a long time. I think she’s a graceless and insincere person who’s all smiles when things are going her way, but who turns into a hostile and aggressive person when it doesn’t. She may claim persecution but the fact is she has form. In past finals she has turned on umpires and linespeople when the game has gone against her, spouting vitriolic bile – and these have been female officials. My general feel is that her actions are those of a person of entitlement who becomes petulant when the game doesn’t go her way, and when her exalted status counts for nothing. Let’s not forget she is the most successful tennis player of all time, and has the riches to go with it, and playing a young, humble Japanese in her first final. She’s not the David here, she’s the Goliath, and her behaviour is a form of bullying.

Those are my observations, but let’s set them aside for the facts in this case.

Firstly, there’s no doubt coaching occurred – her coach admitted it. Whether Williams’ saw or acted on the coaching is irrelevant, as are her claims of lilywhite behaviour. Her coach is not going to wait until the final to begin coaching, so there’s little doubt that Williams’ has been a recipient of it in the past, contrary to her claims. So, there’s that, but should she have been penalised?

The letter of the law says that the penalty was justified. The issue with that is that coaching is commonplace and rarely called. The chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, is known to be one of the best umpires, as you would expect for a final, as well as being a stickler. I don’t think he can be blamed for what he did, but a warning might have been appropriate in the circumstances.

In regards to the broken racquet then that’s a clear code violation and penalty.

The remaining question is how he should have responded to Williams ranting and abuse. Personally I’m all for umpires taking a hard line. Like many people I’m sick and tired of the petulant antics of these professional sportspeople. By all means crack down on them.

That may be so, but was this fair? That’s where a great deal of the contention comes from, with many suggesting that men are allowed to get away with much more.

I’m thinking hard on this and its difficult because there are degrees of abuse. I can recall McEnroe being penalised repeatedly, and even having a match forfeited at one stage. Most of the leading men these days are very well behaved. The outliers perhaps are players like Kyrgios, who has been penalised occasionally, and who’s rants more generally tend to be against the world. I think Williams’ was unnecessarily personal in her abuse, but in any case I would totally support anyone – male or female – being penalised as she was when justified.

I certainly don’t believe it was either sexist or racist and the suggestion is offensive in general and, more particularly, to the chair umpire, who has no opportunity to defend himself. He is being effectively bullied by a powerful sportsperson and her legion of fans. It’s very unseemly.

To summarise, the chair umpire ruled to the letter of the law and shouldn’t be criticised for that. What makes it controversial (putting aside the political spin) is the inconsistent application of these laws.
This is not a view that will be popular with many. I don’t care, but I think any possible ambiguity can be removed going forward if the rules of the game are applied consistently and evenly.

  • Crack down on coaching. Penalise any who transgress.
  • There’s already a rule in place about racquet abuse. Stick to it.
  • And when it comes to abuse of any umpire go hard. It’s not to be tolerated. It might make a difference to the sport, and it sends a wider message to the community.

This is what the tennis authorities should do now. Come out in support of Ramos, and make it clear in future that no infraction of the rules will be tolerated.

That time of year again

The footy finals began last night and I love this time of year. There’s a vibe, a throbbing pulse, even if your team isn’t involved. I got home last night dead-set looking forward to the first final between Richmond and Hawthorn. Tonight the Dees take on the Cats in a match I’m really looking forward too, before tomorrow the Swans play GWS at the SCG in a bit of a grudge match, and in Perth the Eagles host Collingwood. Fair bet I’ll be glued to the screen for most of that.

Richmond are the favourite to go back to back, and logic dictates they’ll probably play the Eagles in the grand final. For me, Melbourne are the big dark horse. They hit good form at the right time and finally broke through a crucial psychological barrier. They have the talent and on their day are irresistible. Their consistency has been an issue, and occasional flakiness, and though I rate Goodwin, I think some of their coaching has been too funky at times. I suspect most of those issues have been ironed out – the big query now is finals experience.

We’ll know tomorrow. Geelong are a seasoned finals team, and have some all-time champs on their list. They had two cracking games during the year, both of which Geelong won, both of which Melbourne should have won. Geelong go in with the experience, but they don’t bat deep. I expect Melbourne to win and will certainly be cheering for them. As my team didn’t make it I’m on the Dees, and I think they can go a long way.

While this has been building up I’ve been listening to a podcast about my favourite season of footy, 1993. There’s a pdcast about that year because they believe it to be the best year of footy too.

I remember it well because my team went from wannabe to contender to ultimate premier. It was a very even year of pure footy and high scores. There was drama along the way, and seminal moments, and in my recollection a series of close, thrilling games. It was also an era of great key forwards – Ablett, Lockett, Modra, Dunstall, Carey, and sundry others.

As an Essendon supporter there are particular games that stand out: the draw against Carlton when famously Kernahan kicked out on the full when he only had to score to win; the shoot-out against Geelong when Ablett kicked 14 (and Salmon 10) and we still won; I remember a cracking game against Fitzroy at the G when we won on virtually the last kick of the game. 1993 was the year when Sheedy famously waved his jacket after we beat the Eagles by a few points at the MCG. There was also a loss against the Kangaroos when we led into the last quarter before Carey – the best player I’ve seen – put on a show; and the night we absolutely flogged Collingwood. I watched from a corporate box and very merry it was. All that was before the finals.

We flogged the WCE at the MCG with Hird putting on a clinic. We lost by a few points to Carlton on a Friday night with a half a dozen of our best players missing – sorry to lose, but very encouraged too. The next game was the famous preliminary final against Adelaide. Down by 43 points at half time we stormed home to win by a couple of goals. What a pulsating game that was. I remember sitting behind the goals at half time almost resigned to the fact that we’d thrown our chance away.

After that we were never going to lose the grand final, and we duly flogged Carlton by eight goals. Michael Long was electric. Good times.

So, let me recommend it to you: The Greatest Season That Was ’93.

Watching the Socceroos

I’ve written absolutely zero about the World Cup in the lead up to it though, as always, I am a keen spectator. I think I probably watched every qualifying match the Socceroos played, as well as a random sampling of other games. Regardless I followed the results closely.

Coming into the World Cup had that native Aussie optimism that says we’re always a chance because we always have a red hot go. That’s a notion that gets pooh-poohed by the soccer snobs who subscribe to the view that craft and artistry count for more, but I’m confident enough to believe that we have enough craft to get by – our edge is our mentality. It won’t win us the cup, but it’s sufficient to cause the odd upset and progress beyond what most other pundits predict. Tough as it will be, I still think the Socceroos will progress to the next stage.

Our first match was on Saturday night. I joined Cheeseboy and his son (who is quite a player himself) at their place where over a bottle of wine we watched the game against France. The French are one of the big picks to win the whole shebang and have stars all over the park. I think I read they’re valued collectively at about $1.8 billion, whereas the Socceroos squad are valued at less than $180 million. Never a great respecter of reputations that meant fuck-all to most Aussies – the game isn’t played on paper.

As it turned out it was a compelling match. As expected France came on strong early, but Australia resisted. The thinking was the longer the French went without scoring the more pressure they would feel. At half-time the score was 0-0, with the Socceroos having asserted themselves more in the back half of the period.

Come the second half they looked the better team at times, but fell behind to a controversial, and probably incorrect, VAR penalty ruling. The French would have heaved a sigh of relief, but within minutes the scores were level again thanks to a penalty of our own.

Watching it there was the belief that Australia could pinch a win, but then a Paul Pogba shot took a deflection, hit the top bar, and bounced just inside the goal before out of it. We were down 2-1, with both goals decided by technology, and both with centimetres in it.

That was the final score. I know I’m biased, but we were pretty stiff. The penalty given was probably incorrect, and the legitimate goal was a matter of good fortune. We played determined, disciplined football, much as you expect from an Aussie team. As we always say, we were brave.

It was quite a contrast to the French team, who have style and talent and quality to burn, but play more as individuals, and indulge I what are – to Australian acts – shameful acts of staging. I was disgusted, as was the Dutch Cheeseboy, how even the slightest touch (and sometimes not even that) would result in a French player falling to the ground in alleged agony and the gullible ref whistling them a free kick. It’s pretty cheap, and borderline cheating.

France is a team I wouldn’t mind winning it in general, probably because I remember Zidane, one of my favourite players. I might re-think that now. Playing honest is an Australian virtue, and they didn’t do that.

Despite the loss the Socceroos can take a lot out of the game. They played well without winning, but the goal difference will work in our favour should France fire up against the other teams. We’re certainly capable of winning against both Denmark and Peru, in what will be very different games. The Danes were lucky winners against Peru, who I see as the real danger.

On to next Thursday when we take on Denmark. Will be watching.

The James curse

I just want to make the point that LeBron James is making a big bid towards being the clear GOAT, and that you’ve got feel for someone who has such a mighty heart, and such a poor team around him.

Against expectations the Cavs made it to the final against the Warriors. Both semis went the full seven games, and it was LeBron who just about single-handedly won it against the Celtics to make the final.

The first final was today. I followed it early and then lost track of it as work built up around me. I went to lunch for once in my life decided to sit down to eat it. Most days I don’t have any lunch – a habit formed out of poverty – or if I do it’s something I pick up and eat along the way. Today I wandered into a sparsely populated mall, saw some food that looked appetising, and on the spur of the moment chose to eat in (as it happens it was a Thai meal that was so bad I left it unfinished).

So anyway I’m sitting there picking at my food and I decide to check on the scores. It’s inside the last 5 minutes and the Warriors lead 100-94. I don’t have the NBA pass and so I’m relying on the score updates on the app, and glued to them as the Cavs create a few turnovers, LBJ scores, and they draw level, then ahead. It looks like they may actually win and I’m up for that – who likes the Warriors? – and besides, I’m rooting for LeBron. Much man-love there.

Then the Warriors draw level with 30 odd seconds on the clock, then draw a point ahead. I don’t know where the clock is at, I don’t know what’s happening on court, until it updates with 4 seconds left with the Cavs down by one and at the line for two free-throws. Spot these and they’ll be odds on.

I’m waiting, waiting, hitting refresh, then see the scores level as the first-free throw goes down. Again I’m waiting, waiting and then it refreshes with the news the second free-throw was missed, but there was an offensive rebound.

And I’m thinking fuck, if only it had’ve gone down but I’m waiting for the update thinking maybe the Cavs got fouled on the rebound or got a shot away but when the update comes through the scores are level and it’s FT.

I get up then. I know, I just know that the Warriors will cruise it through OT, and that’s what happens and my heart breaks for LeBron. What more can he fucking do? He’s carrying a whole fucking team and scored near enough half their fucking points. Give him a break someone. It’s his curse to be a truly great player with mediocre teammates around him.

I can’t see the Cavs winning the championship now, but if they do it’s all down to James and he can be truly called the greatest of all time then.

Sheeds, you legend!

Last night Kevin Sheedy was finally announced as a legend of the AFL. It’s hard to imagine anyone more worthy than him. He’s had a continuous involvement with the game since the mid-sixties, when he began playing for Richmond. He was a battler who became a star, first in the back pocket, then as a ruck-rover. By the end of his playing career he was rated so highly that he was ultimately named in Richmond’s team of the century.

That was only the start for Sheeds, and the much greater part of his football career lay ahead of him.

In 1981, not long out of the game, he was appointed as coach of Essendon Football Club. Essendon was one of the great clubs of the league, but had become conservative and mediocre. I remember because I sat in the stand most Saturdays and watched them take the field. There were some good wins in the seventies and promising moments, though nothing came of them. There were also some great players, and some who came in young who were destined to become greats.

Sheeds came at the right time. He was hungry and ambitious and full of ideas and energy. He was determined to shake up a club that had slumped into a stupor. It was a young team with a bunch of players who looked good on the outside, but had yet to grasp the essential physical elements of the game. They played pretty, but not hard.

I remember that season very well. It was one of the most exciting years of football I can remember. We played well early, but lost a bunch of close games until six games in we were 1 – 6. Sheedy threatened to pull on the boots and take the field, and no-one was certain that he wasn’t serious.

The next game we won, and the game after was against Collingwood at VFL park. I remember the game vividly. There was a big crowd and Collingwood went in as hot favourites, but we blew them away right from the first bounce. The footy was exhilarating, but no wonder given so many of the young players taking the field that day would become stars of the game – Tim Watson, Terry and Neale Daniher, Paul Van der Haar, Simon Madden, Merv Neagle, Glen Hawker, and so on.

That win was the second in a sequence of 15 wins in a row, and many of the wins memorable. We made a habit of coming from behind and snatching an unlikely win. A few times it looked like the run might be broken, but every time Sheeds would pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Perhaps the most memorable, and certainly the most famous of those victories were against Carlton at Princes Park. Carlton were the reigning premiers, and would go on to make it back to back. On that day they led by 4 goals with 20 minutes gone in the final quarter. Sheeds threw Neale Daniher forward and it was the matchwinning move. Playing against one of the greatest defenders ever, Bruce Doull, Daniher set-up goals and kicked them himself after strong marks. When the siren blew we’d won a famous victory (I wasn’t there that day, but remember listening to the last minutes sitting in a hot bath).

We were the hot team that year, but a slow-start and a final 5 left us behind the eight-ball. A loss, finally, in the last round left us vulnerable, and then we lost to Fitzroy in the elimination final.

That was the start of Sheedy’s reign, which was to go on for 27 years. In that time there was no-one more creative or innovative, he was the biggest personality, the most extravagant thinker, a visionary, and a coach touched by genius. At times it would backfire, but many more times his inspiration led to great victories – none more so than the 1984 grand final when a 24 point ¾ time deficit became a 24 point victory (a great victory, and one of my favourite ever games).

He made Essendon relevant again, and in time a powerhouse on and off the field. He made Essendon the club it is today, and along the way brought great success – the 1984 premiership, followed by 1985 (the best team I’ve ever seen), the unlikely and exhilarating premiership of 1993, and the inevitable victory of the 2000 invincibles (the second best team I’ve seen – they lost one game out of 25).

Sheedy is the father of the Anzac day game, and Dreamtime at the ‘G (once more this Saturday), as well as the Country game. He went to Sydney and became the first coach of GWS, evangelising the game. He remains ever present, and back at Essendon, where he belongs.

Curious to think there were some who resisted this recognition. There are few people in the history of the game who have had such a profound influence – the only rival to him I can think of is Ron Barassi. Yet there were some, like Tim Lane ( a noted pretentious tosser), who were up at arms at the thought of it. I can only think it’s because for all his geniality he was a tough footballer and occasionally an outspoken commentator.

But guess what – who gives a fuck what the inconsequential think? It may be overdue, but now, finally, Sheeds is recognised for his unequalled contribution to the great game. Well done Sheeds, no greater legend than you.

The play-offs

Like millions all over the planet I’ve been following the NBA finals series with rapt attention. By and large it’s been a pretty good series to watch with some great contents and fantastic moments – come on down LBJ.

There are a lot of NBA fans in Oz, but greater interest than ever this year with the emergence and star power of Simmons. He’s going to be big name for a lot of years, one of the greats potentially, especially if he can get his jump shot going – and I’m sure he will. He’s earned a lot of comparisons with Magic Johnson. Totally different personalities, but otherwise a lot of similarities – both of a size they could play as a permanent forward, both with great athleticism, both great passers of the ball with a touch of wizardry, both smart with the ball in hand, and both superior defenders. Long way to go, but a great start for Simmons.

Unfortunately for his Aussie fans he’s out of it now, as are the Phillies. That came as a bit of a surprise. Simmons more or less bombed against the Celtics, who ended up winning the series 4-1.

They’re my two favourite teams – the Celtics and the Sixers, but I probably lean towards the Celtics. With Hayward out and Irving more recently I didn’t expect them to beat the Sixers so convincingly. What they have is a great coach though in Brad Stevens. He put a team on the floor and a game plan that blunted the Sixers strengths, on top of which players like Terry Rozier really stepped up. Throw in Tatum (another star in the making), and Horford making some big plays and they did it easy.

With Hayward and Irving back next year they’ll be really formidable and just about favourites going in. This year they have to get by the Cavs first.

The Cavs are pretty much a one man team – but what a man! LeBron James has been the best player in the league for many years, but some of his performances in the play-off have been out of this world. He has single-handedly carried a pretty ordinary team into the semis, and pulled off some unbelievable clutch baskets to win games that looked lost.

The Cavs are taking on the Celtics and trail 0-1. A lot are touting the Cavs, but even with LBJ I reckon the Celtics will progress. These play-offs, minus key players, has really steeled them. They’ve got better as they’ve gone along and have a roster in which someone like Brown or Morris or Smart, or even Baynes, will step-up to get the job done. They’re playing with belief, and a lot of that is down to Brad Stevens, their coach.

One of the questions arising out of the series has been suggestions that perhaps LeBron is now ahead of Jordan as the GOAT. I love LBJ, both as a player and as an individual. He is immense. I grew up watching Jordan though, when the league was a bit tougher I think, and he was next level then and has been ever since. No-one has ever been more athletic than Jordan, no-one more competitive – though James rivals him. He’s one of the greatest offensive players ever, if not the greatest, and he was fantastic on the defensive end to. Great as LBJ is, I’m pretty comfortable believing Jordan is still GOAT.

I tipped Houston to win the whole thing before the play-offs begun, but I reckon the Warriors might get them first. I watched Steph Curry practice his 3 point shooting the other day and I reckon 15-20 shots in a row went swoosh. He’s not great defensively, but he’s as big an offensive threat in the league. He’s now back from an injury lay-off just in time to take on the Rockets. Add in Kevin Durant and they’re scary.

Against them is James Harden, scary in himself, but I wonder if the team has the hard-edged play-off experience to get past the Warriors. Harden fired big time in game one, at home, and they still lost.

I’m tipping a Warriors-Celtics final, and can’t see the Warriors losing that. Next year though…