Monday, 4 April 2011

Pilot - Michael Clarke's Popularity, Golden Slipper and more...

        With cricket season being washed away with Sydney’s March downpour, I have been alarmed at the amount of concerned comments from People more or less saying ‘What on earth will we do during winter without your insightful and entertaining commentaries during the season?’ (I swear I didn’t just make that up). More importantly, what will I do with the void that has now been pried open on Saturdays and is threatening to be filled by 4th Year Civil Engineering? 
  1. Grow a beard, wallow in my own self-pity and have the same ‘we need to go back’ attitude that Jack had once he left the island on Lost. Since my pathetic excuse for facial hair (sparse, sporadic growth with reddish tints throughout – think the young, nerdy guy in every Survivor season who makes it about 25-30 days) is disrespectful to the likes of Brian Wilson, Brett Keisel, Dan Vettori et al, I won’t even attempt it.
  2. Sit at the computer all day researching fracture processes of steel fibre reinforced concrete, finite element analysis, elastic theory, transport systems and the latest work of Charlie Sheen’s girlfriend and her colleagues. Sadly, I only made one of those up. Maybe…
  3. Sit in front of the television and grow increasingly frustrated as my hard earned gallops away with every dodgy tip I receive from ‘experts’ and ‘insiders’ at Sydney’s Autumn Racing Carnival.
  4. Satisfy the People’s demands as well as my own creative urges by keeping a semi-regular blog about anything sport, fantasy NRL, gambling, entertainment and offseason progress of the Carlo Waratahs Cricket Club (the Harlem Globetrotters of Park Cricket).
Since the ship has well and truly sailed on any potential ‘The Decision’ gags and you have spent approximately the past 74 seconds reading the twaddle above, it’s pretty clear I have decided to write a blog. Besides, it allows me to sit at a computer, browse the net, watch sport and still gamble/complain about my losses all in one go. Everyone wins. Here’s what has been happening the past couple of weeks:

Michael Clarke was appointed Test & ODI Captain of the Australian Cricket Team, a position considered the second biggest in the country behind Prime Minister – and the citizens of Australia stood up as one and toasted their new leader.

(Erm…not exactly)

The fact is, despite impressive statistics (almost 5000 Test runs at 46.5, over 6000 ODI runs at 44, 2 Allan Border Medals and probably the best fielder on the team) Pup remains about as popular as an STI. A Daily Telegraph poll in January revealed only 15% of punters wanted him in the job – and these are people in his home state! He’s like that guy in high school who tags along with all the cool kids, somehow gets an invite to all the parties but everyone else is muttering ‘I don’t know what it is about him, but I just don’t like that guy’. Let’s try and break it down by comparing Pup with the past four beloved skippers in the areas that resonate with the Australian People: Legacy, toughness, clutchness (it’s a word), memorable performance and off field persona.

Mark Taylor (Captain 94-99)
Regarded by Shane Warne as the best captain he played under, won home and away Test series against every nation (including winning in 95 in the West Indies for the first time in 22 years), 1999 Australian of the Year, and as Wisden put it “Border stopped Australia losing. Taylor made them into winners”.
Toughness: Opened the batting for 10 years against the likes of Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and Allan Donald to name a few. Also this was back in the days where Test wickets weren’t as friendly and docile as Kenneth from 30 Rock.
Clutchness: No Australian Captain in the past 25 years had been under more pressure to retain his spot than Taylor prior to the 97 Ashes Tour of England. He had not passed 50 in his past 21 Test innings, and after contributing just 7 in Australia’s first innings capitulation of 118 on a seaming Edgbaston track in the first Test, a second innings failure would surely spell the end of his career. In typical Tubby fashion, he scratched around early but went on to score 129 to show everyone he wasn’t finished yet. While I would have loved for Tubby to deliver a big up-yours to the media (much like when Bernard Hopkins stared down every member of the ringside media after his upset win over Kelly Pavlik), he was too humble and instead focused on retaining the Ashes 3-1. (It should also be noted that during this period Taylor fronted the media alone, without management – unlike Clarke, who palmed off press conferences until the Boxing Day Test this season).
Clutchness Scale: In the last four minutes of Game 7 for the NBA Championship, Tubby would look awful with ball in hand but somehow get to the line and drain all his free throws.
Memorable Performance: Batted two whole days in 50 degree Rawalpindi heat to amass 334 (equaling the Don’s Australian Record), then unselfishly declared overnight with the record in sight to allow Shane Warne to spin Australia to victory. He obliged.
Off Field Persona: Respected member of Channel Nine’s Commentary Team, star of tasteful Fujitsu commercials, and now famous for blowing his O-ring during Peter Siddle’s hat trick.

Steve Waugh (Captain 99-04)
Continued Australia’s dominance post Taylor, including winning a record 16 consecutive Test matches, broke the record for most wins as captain as well as winning the 1999 World Cup against all odds (after a slow start Australia had to play seven sudden death matches to win the Cup). One of the great sledgers of all time.
Toughness: A burnt steak would cower in the presence of Tugga. Never had the most elegant technique, but made up for it through sheer guts and a will to stay at the crease. On a green Trinidad pitch in the ’95 series, Waugh famously confronted the 90s most fearsome fast bowler, 6 ft 7 Curtley Ambrose during a gritty 63* out of just 128. The following test, Tugga defied the menacing Windies attack for 9 hours with a career best, series winning 200. He wore so many 150km/hr thunderbolts to the body that Paul Reiffel later wrote “when he came back to the dressing room at the end of day two, we could see the spots and bruises on his body”. The man was hard as nails and the poster boy for Australian grit.
Had ice water for blood, and always preferred to come in at 3-50 than 3-350. The most memorable clutch performance came at the 99 World Cup, in the final Super Six game against South Africa. With Australia needing a win to progress to the semis, things weren’t looking good at 3-48 chasing the rather imposing SA total of 271. Enter the Australian skipper, who proceeded to hammer the SA attack to all parts of the ground for an unbeaten 120* – including the now famous ‘you just dropped the World Cup’ sledge to poor Herschelle Gibbs, who had decided to celebrate like Peter Griffin scoring a touchdown without having first caught the ball. Another measure of Waugh’s clutchness – his highest scores in Test and ODI cricket came in the grandest stages respectively during his career.
Clutchness Scale:
Would be able to take on The Undertaker at Wrestlemania, and win.
Memorable Performance:
With the axe hanging over his head during the 2003 Sydney Ashes Test, Waugh brought up his 10,000th Test run (3rd person to do so) and hit the last ball of the day to the fence to bring up his century and walked off the SCG to a standing ovation.
Off Field Persona:
Won Australian Father of the Year in 2005, appears in awesome Johnnie Walker ads that show highlights of his career, released one of the longest autobiographies ever, worked as an advisor to the 08 Olympics Team, and is desperately required as Head Coach of the Australian Cricket Team.

(Note: this is the first of what will be about 145670 demands for Waugh to replace Nielson as National Coach – I even tried asking the great man himself in the Members Stand at the SCG this year, although after about 8 beers in the sun I don’t think I came across as eloquent as I can be.)

Ricky Ponting (Captain 04-11)
Legacy: Second best Australian Batsman of all time, most statistically successful (say that 5 times fast) captain of all time – 2 World Cups, 2 Champions Trophies and one of the most popular cricketers Australia has produced (what fan wouldn’t like a guy nicknamed Punter?).
Toughness: Got into a street fight outside the Bourbon in Kings Cross in 99, and proudly displayed his black eye at the media conference. Can anyone imagine Michael Clarke in a street fight? He would be the guy that hangs around the outskirts trying to look menacing until the Peacekeeper (there is always one of these guys in every group) steps in to hold him back, at which time Clarke would start kicking and screaming insults like Ronnie and Sammi during Season 3 of Jersey Shore.
Clutchness: Scored 140* in the winning 03 World Cup Final – is there a better crunch time situation than that?
Clutchness Scale: Needing 2000 points to win a 3 trek safari on Big Buck Hunter, Ponting would be able to take out all 3 bucks, 5 critters the trophy kill (even if it was the Black Panther) and any hidden bonus on the site. Then he would Double Perfect the final Bonus Round just for good measure.
Memorable Performance: Hard to pick just one , but his 156 on day 5 at Old Trafford to save the third Ashes Test (2005) against one of the best fast bowling quartet’s ranks as one of the greatest captains knocks I have seen.
Off Field Persona: Loves a gamble on the greyhounds, has a 2 handicap at golf (once beat Aaron Baddeley in match play), appears in a little too many ads on TV but we can forgive him because hey, his nickname is Punter!

Michael Clarke (Captain 11-)
Captained one Test. Australia lost by an innings and 83 runs. Extremely good batsman when Australia is coasting, not so good under pressure.
Toughness: I am drawing a blank here…
Clutchness: When Pup walks to the crease does anyone think “It’s ok. Clarke’s coming in we will be alright” like we all thought when Waugh and Ponting strode to the wicket? More importantly, I can’t think of a single example where I can safely say “Thank god for Michael Clarke, if it wasn’t for him we would have got smashed”. And before anyone brings up Sydney 08 v India, let me quickly quash that:
  1. His performance came with the ball, not the bat. That’s like if Season 3 of Eastbound and Down became an Emmy winning gritty drama centering around Kenny and April’s tumultuous relationship while trying to raise a child and still juggle Kenny’s spiraling drug habit. Danny McBride gets paid to make people laugh. Michael Clarke gets paid to score runs (he doesn’t even bowl anymore).
  2. Andrew Symonds won that game for Australia on day 1 with his career best 162* when Australia had their backs against the wall at 6-134. Incidentally, Clarke had the impressive returns of 1 and 0 in that Test Match. A few months later and Clarke had orchestrated Roy’s dismissal from the Australian team.
In fact, one of the main reasons Australian cricket fans dislike Clarke so much is because of knack of performing when Australia really needs him. Here are a couple of Clarke’s recent acts of anticlutchness (and I didn’t just make that word up).
  1. Day 4, Adelaide 2010. Australia has been bent over for 4 days by England, and is desperately batting for a draw with rain forecast for the following day. Leading Australia’s staunch resistance is Clarke, who is looking comfortable on 80. With one over left in the day, England skipper Andrew Strauss tosses the ball to Kevin Pietersen (with a whopping 4 test wickets to his name), probably because he is sick of hearing the Aussie contingent chant ‘KPs a wanker’ while fielding on the fence. Two balls later, and Clarke has somehow gotten himself out and subjected Australian viewers to more footage of KP fist pumping than Vinny at Seaside nightclubs. What was worse, instead of fronting the press or better still, going to his hotel room and performing self-mutilation all night (like this) he immediately goes on Twitter and APOLOGISES for not walking. Michael, Australians don’t give a shit if you walk or not (in fact you would probably be more popular if you stay put – can you imagine Tugga walking? That would be as shocking as finding out Mr Blonde owned a beloved cat called Chloe) but they do care whenever we fold to England.
  2. World Cup v Pakistan 2011. Australia are 3-90 and in the process of rebuilding with Clarke and Cam White at the crease. Clarke then proceeds to run White out, then a few overs later plays a shot that was less graceful than Jason Stevens on Dancing with the Stars to get himself out. Australia gets rolled and loses at the World Cup for the first time in 12 years.
Clutchness Scale: John Terry in the 2008 Champions League Final penalty shootout.
Memorable Performance: Scored a brilliant 151 on debut in India which basically earmarked him as Australia’s Next Captain from that point on.
Off Field Persona: Where do I start: Broke up with long term girlfriend for Lara Bingle (known only for a tourism catchphrase and breaking up Brendan Fevola’s marriage), angered team members by allegedly wanting to sing the victory song quickly so he could make a dinner date, appears in ludicrous Bonds ads where he plays tennis with a cricket bat and catches the ball in his crotch, flew home during a tour of NZ to break up with Bingle after buying her a 200k Aston Martin, sports a very un-Australian diamond studded ear-ring  and probably likes FTV and orders vodka martinis instead of beer.

And that’s another problem with Clarke – he doesn’t identify with the common Australian. Punters can relate to the tough, uncompromising, Australian manner of cricket that Waugh, Taylor and Ponting played and are worried about the reins being handed over to the product of a well-oiled PR machine they couldn’t imagine sharing a beer (or vodka) with. That guy in high school who no-one really liked but was allowed to tag along with the cool kids has now become the alpha dog of the coolest group in Australia…

In other news,

  • Golden Slipper Day was harder to pick than a broken nose, with 6/9 trifectas paying more than $1000 (No I did not benefit from any of them). Ironically one of the easier races for punters was the Slipper itself, which is usually like watching a game of under 7s mixed soccer – no concept of strategy, at least eight players all madly chasing the ball, one or two get distracted by the crowd and slow down to show off and there is usually a couple of kids with advanced libido’s hungrily eyeing off the young fillies (with names like ‘Smart Missile’ and ‘Fast and Sexy’, no wonder the gun colt and fancied filly were controversially scratched from the race...)
  • The Canberra Raiders managed to grind out a tough 79min win over the Titans 22-16 despite an injury to Josh Dugan and the Titans putting on early points after Coach Furner inexplicably benched their two best defenders (Fensom & Buttriss). Unfortunately, I had just started my victory dance (a little like this) when I forgot ‘marquee’ signing Matt Orford has hoofs for hands – why else would they call him ‘The Ox’? It’s excruciating to talk about, but Ox fumbled the scrum feed with 20s to go, Titans scored after the buzzer to force the game into golden point (22-22), Blake Ferguson dropped the kick off the first set and Bird nailed the field goal for the Titans to somehow win 23-22. So to sum up my NRL Super Saturday: My team (Canberra Raiders) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, my most hated team (Parramatta Eels) snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and one of my star fantasy players (Fensom) produced a rubbish score due to reduced minutes. Now if you’ll excuse me while I go and see what drain cleaner tastes like.
  • The Brumbies continue to get beaten, and Tottenham will struggle to make the top 4 this year after continuing to drop points to relegation threatened teams. Where is that Drano…?
  • The Boston Celtics looked to be finally getting over the Perkins trade in toppling the Spurs away (with Rondo no longer acting like a grieving Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) but lost to Atlanta the next day to concede the #2 seed in the East. The Lakers still look like the team to beat post All-Star break after dismantling the Mavs, and my 10 day, $571.51 gambling streak was broken when Portland squandered a two point final quarter lead to New Orleans.
  • Sebastien Vettel took a comfortable victory at Australian Grand Prix, and poor Mark Webber would have felt like Salieri to Vettel’s Mozart after struggling for pace and grip on race day. And of course a disappointing Webber weekend would not be complete without Brian Taylor (former Richmond full forward and self-proclaimed F1 expert) continuing his personal attack on the F1 ace on The Back Page. Incidentally, I have never seen BT on The Back Page following a Webber victory – after all, he has six more wins than any other Australian not named Jack Brabham or Alan Jones.
Tip of the Week: Oklahoma City Thunder to win the NBA Western Conference ($10). Despite going down to the Clippers Sunday, they are pretty much guaranteed at least a 4 seed in the West, have the league’s best scorer (Durant), a prolific scoring point guard (Westbrook) and two tough guys suited to playoff basketball (Ibaka and Perkins). Worth a sneaky 20 bucks – $10 odds are way too high for such a solid team.

Finally, after Dave pulled off a shocking upset in the weekly Buck Hunter tournament, the market for this week looks like this:
  • Karl - $1.45 (Class runner of the field. Will be looking to bounce back after a disappointing Kudu safari) 
  • AB - $3.00 (The Cal Naughton Jr. to Karl’s Ricky Bobby. Loves a second place finish)
  • Dave - $2.50 (Will be out to prove last week was not a fluke)
  • Nesh - $4.50 (Solid Nico Rosberg-type points accumulator but perhaps not ready to make the leap yet)

Stay tuned for the results...