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Sport  


 

The enigma that is Pakistan

By Pranav Soneji
Pakistan are playing England for the first time in a Test match since the infamous Oval encounter in 2006.
For the tourists, the four-Test series represents the opportunity to establish a new era under the guidance of Salman Butt and conclude a debilitating period of internal turmoil blighted by extraordinary politicking.
Butt is the fifth captain in 18 turbulent months which have left Pakistan homeless and without their two most experienced players, currently serving indefinite bans.

But as ever with Pakistan, the nadirs are interspersed with astonishing peaks - their World Twenty20 victory on English soil in 2009 coincided with the emergence of arguably the most talented teenager in cricket, Mohammad Aamer, as well as their first Test win against Australia in 15 years last week.
It’s almost impossible to predict how Pakistan will perform this summer but for England, this Test series is their last chance to assess their prospects ahead of the Ashes this winter.
If the off-field chronicles of Pakistani cricket were ever turned into a stage play, it would make Macbeth look like an episode of the Teletubbies.

Betrayal, deceit, treachery and conceit were just some of the words used to describe the most turbulent of 12 months for a country already on its knees suffering the effects of its extremely unstable security situation.
Pakistan have been forced to use England as their foster home because no international team will tour the country following the deadly terrorist attacks on Sri Lanka’s cricketers in Lahore last year.
But as if the crippling effects of a cricket embargo were not debilitating enough, the lowest nadir in the country’s 58-year Test history was brewing during a disastrous tour to Australia at the end of 2009.
After losing all three Test matches, five one-day internationals and a Twenty20 match, the Pakistan Cricket Board concluded former captains Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan were responsible for “in-fighting which…brought down the whole team”, slapping both men with indefinite suspensions in March.
As if that wasn’t enough, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Shoaib Malik were each given one-year bans while Shahid Afridi, Kamran and Umar Akmal were fined and placed on six-month probations following an inquiry to determine the extent of the mutiny to undermine Yousuf’s captaincy.

Yet bizarrely, and despite the heavy fine and probation, Twenty20 captain Afridi was then appointed to take over the Test duties - even though he last played five-day cricket in 2006.
But more poignantly, Pakistan lost four of their most experienced players - Younus and Yousuf have over 13,000 Test runs between them, with the latter announcing his retirement from cricket shortly after the ban.
And with a ‘home’ two-Test series against Australia, a team who had beaten Pakistan in 12 successive five-day matches, to contest on neutral soil, their prospects looked bleak.
Through the constant back-stabbing and politicking, new coach Waqar Younis, Pakistan’s 14th in 15 years following the sacking of Intikhab Alam in March, promised to unite a deeply divided team by playing aggressive cricket.

That’s not the easiest pledge to execute in the absence of your most experienced players, but Pakistan have a long history of throwing in raw talent not long out of short trousers.
And every so often they unearth a priceless gem such as Mohammad Aamer.
It’s practically impossible not to admire the fleet-footed run-up, whip-like left-arm and discernable movement on and off the pitch and not scream “Wasim Akram”.
The 18-year-old has 32 Test wickets in 10 Tests, including the scalp of Australia captain Ricky Ponting on five occasions.

But according to Wasim, Pakistan’s record wicket-taker with 414 wickets, Aamer “is definitely a much cleverer bowler at his age than I was”, which should send shivers down the spines of England’s top order.
Aamer is integral to Pakistan’s future aspirations, along with Salman Butt, appointed captain less than 24 hours after Afridi announced his retirement from Test cricket following Pakistan’s 150-run defeat by Australia at Lord’s earlier this month.
The elegant but frustratingly inconsistent opening batsman became the country’s sixth captain in 18 months but instantly became a hero when he broke Pakistan’s 15-year winless run against Australia in the second Test at Headingley last week.

A 100% record is unlikely to last - but if overhead conditions are anything like they were on the first day in Leeds at Trent Bridge, then England’s batsmen are in serious danger.
Trent Bridge is the type of ground swing bowlers dream about - and Pakistan are blessed with three of the most gifted exponents in world cricket.
Aamer and Mohammad Asif, the closest bowler to Glenn McGrath around, tore through Australia’s first-innings top order at Headingley with an exhibition of movement in the air and off the pitch, while Umar Gul can cause havoc reverse swinging the older ball.

The triumvirate are brilliantly supported by the guile of leg-spinner Danish Kaneria, the most experienced of the bowling quartet with 260 Test wickets in 60 matches.
Each bowler offers a different examination - Aamer’s pace, angle and late inswing to the right-handers, Asif’s leg-cutters, Gul’s late movement and Kaneria’s deceptive variety.
And if conditions are in their favour, England’s top order will struggle to contain the best bowling unit in world cricket.

Unfortunately for Pakistan fans, the batting department remains frustratingly inconsistent. Flashes of brilliance are too often interspersed by poor shot selection or indiscipline when running between the wickets.
The absence of Yousuf and Younus has left a chasm in the middle order, with little option but to give untested Azhar Ali and Umar Amin their Test debuts against Australia at Lord’s.
Neither looked out of place at the highest level, but when you consider openers Butt and Farhat have Test averages of 32.61 and 33.98 respectively, Pakistan’s top four is as vulnerable as it is talented.

However, the dashing Umar Akmal, younger brother of wicketkeeper Kamran, has the ability to win matches single-handedly with his brash and often barbaric batting, although his reluctance to play the match situation will inevitably frustrate and enthral in equal measure.
Pakistan’s fielding has the tendency to look distinctly village at times, while Akmal’s wicketkeeping is either flawless or useless.
Standards markedly improved during the Australia series in England, with most slip catches sticking, but the outfielding remains inconsistent and behind the likes of Australia, South Africa and England. – [BBC]

 

Lance still centre of attention

By Matt Slater
He was never going to go quietly, was he?
Despite being 40 minutes off the pace and reduced to “tourist on a bike” status, Lance Armstrong’s leaving of the Tour de France was in keeping with his 17-year relationship with the world’s greatest bike race.
When Tour officials noticed Armstrong’s Team RadioShack were wearing unauthorised jerseys for Sunday’s final stage, they halted proceedings and made them put their official kit back on.
Farcical scenes ensued as Armstrong and co changed by the side of the road, safety-pinning race numbers to their old shirts, while the rest of the riders wondered what was going on.
If the intended message was that nobody is bigger than the Tour, it ended up very mixed. The officials made their point but Armstrong got his photo opportunity.
“The Boss” might not be bigger than the race that made his name but it has been a close-run thing for the last decade or so. The most successful cyclist in Tour history, he is also - and this changes almost everything - arguably the most famous cancer survivor on the planet.
Those jerseys were not the cycling equivalent of football’s second away kit released in time for Christmas. Emblazoned with the number 28 (to signify the 28m people suffering from cancer worldwide) they were billboards for Livestrong, the charity Armstrong set up in 1997, a year after he was told he had a less than a 40% chance of beating testicular cancer.
Long odds have never daunted him - the Texan was a world champion at 21 - and by 1998 he was back on the bike. A year later he won his first Tour de France, a feat he repeated six more times in succession.
Like him or loathe him, you could not ignore him. If he was not revolutionising his sport with new techniques and equipment, Armstrong was dating a pop star, raising millions for his foundation or dragging cycling’s profile up by the collar.
But if that is all there is to say about him he would not be the sporting Marmite he has become.
For some fans there was more to his “new techniques and equipment” than spinning a low gear, meticulous preparation and team radios. For them Armstrong is the one who got away with it.
Allegations of doping - never substantiated, always denied - have dogged him for years.
The “did he/didn’t he” debate has almost spawned a book genre of its own and his legal victories are nearly as numerous as his cycling wins. Look at almost any cycling website and you will find both sides battling over a No Man’s Land from entrenched positions.
This argument (of almost no interest to the average punter) could have gone on forever if Armstrong had stuck to his plan to retire at the top in 2005. But that would have been a denial of what made him so special in the first place: the widest competitive streak in professional sport.
So having flirted with celebrity life and politics for three-and-a-half years, Armstrong returned to the sport in 2009.
This was either the greatest comeback story ever told or a shameless attempt to cheat justice once again - the for/against front lines had not moved an inch during his absence.
So why come back at all? Was an eighth title really worth the risk of re-opening hostilities with his enemies in cycling?
For his fans, the comeback was an opportunity to reassert his greatness, proclaim his message of hope for cancer patients and answer his critics with a concerted effort at anti-doping transparency.
For his knockers, it was a sham and a retrograde step for a sport starting to emerge from a tainted era.
That he managed to ignore this and claim a third-place finish in Paris was probably the least surprising part of it. When he confirmed plans to return in 2010 with a new team, few were willing to write off his chances completely.
There was no Hollywood-style ending for the LA story, though. A calamitous eighth stage saw him crash twice and lose almost 12 minutes to the leaders. When he got off his bike at the end of a horrible day in the Alps, he admitted: “My Tour has finished.”
So the cycling world has changed with a new generation replacing the last: more worrying for Armstrong is that the world outside cycling may have changed too.
When disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis revealed two months ago that his previous denials of doping were lies, it caused a few ripples.
Having spent four years proclaiming his innocence (even writing an autobiography called “Positively False”), Landis was hardly the most credible of witnesses but what he had to say demanded attention.
When he started saying it about his former team-mate Armstrong, those ripples became waves. The confession came in a stream of leaked emails to cycling officials in the US and within days the mainstream media had taken the story on.
If Landis is telling the truth this is not just one man’s quest for absolution, it is an indictment of a decade of American cycling. And that means Armstrong.
The Landis accusations (and they are many and wide-ranging) are now the subject of an investigation led by Jeff Novitzky, a senior officer at the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations in California.
If Novitzky’s name sounds familiar it is because he was the lead investigator in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (Balco) case that brought down Olympic sprint star Marion Jones.
The federal government’s involvement represents a considerable raising of the stakes for Armstrong, hence his hiring of a high-powered legal team.
Details of the investigation are still sketchy, although Armstrong’s lawyers are annoyed we know as much as we do, but it seems it will focus on the possibility federal money was used to fund a doping programme during the era Armstrong’s team was sponsored by the US Postal Service.
But this will not be a straightforward case and recent reports suggest all aspects of the Armstrong network - the deals with bike manufacturers, other sponsors and the sport’s governing bodies - will come under the microscope.
The next stage in the process comes on Friday when Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour, goes to a federal court in Los Angeles to add his testimony. Coming from the generation of cyclists before Armstrong and Landis, it is unclear what he can say to substantiate Landis’s claims but his feelings about Armstrong are unmistakeable.
“I think (Landis) is telling the truth,” LeMond told The Denver Post. “I think the level of detail, the descriptions, it rings true.”
Despite LeMond’s instincts, it should be made clear Armstrong has taken more than 300 drugs tests during his long career and passed them all.
The concern for Armstrong should be that this bout of claim and counter-claim will be played out in front of a grand jury, on home soil and in prime time. There will be leaked testimony, running commentary in the media and numerous shots of serious-looking people on the steps of federal courts.
Whatever happens in the coming months, Armstrong’s legacy is going to be tested like never before. – [BBC]

 

Scientists find the key to golfing success

By Paul Gittings
LONDON, (CNN) -- It’s one of the oldest adages in golf: you drive for show and putt for dough.
Tiger Woods agrees. The world number one blamed his lack of success on the greens at St. Andrews for his failure to win a 15th major title at the recent British Open.
“This was one of my worst weeks for putting,” moaned Tiger, who said he felt the ball was “on a string” with his longer shots from tee to green, but he could not capitalize where it counted.
Perhaps the American should have had a quick lesson from researchers at Exeter University in south-west England.
They claim to have invented a technique known as the “Quiet Eye” which can help golfers of all abilities -- even Tiger and his professional counterparts -- to trim a few shots from their score.
Studies by staff from the university’s School of Sport and Health Sciences have shown that focusing your eye on exactly the right spot at the right time can be vital to success in sinking the ball into the hole.
Samuel Vine, who led the research, told CNN: “Putting is a hugely important part of golf, accounting for around 45 percent of the shots taken in an average round.
“It’s vital to success and requires high levels of precision and accuracy, making it susceptible to breakdown under high levels of pressure and nerves.
“Our research shows that assessing visual control, using state-of-the-art eye trackers, and coaching golfers to use the Quiet Eye technique can lead to dramatic improvements in putting performance.”
The Exeter researchers studied film of top golfers when they putted and saw they followed a familiar pattern of visual control, before and during a shot. When lining up the putt, experts quickly look backwards and forwards between the ball and the hole.
But just before they are about to putt, and as they make the stroke, they focus on the back of the ball for about two to three seconds.
Even after hitting the ball with the putter, their eyes remain steady for a further half a second. This technique has been christened the Quiet Eye.
Poorer putters tend to allow their focus to waver to other points on the green, flooding their brains with unnecessary visual information which hinders their ability.
To test their research, Vine and his team called on the services of two groups of low handicap golfers -- with an average of 2.5.
The first trained using the Quiet Eye technique and found they were sinking six percent more putts and cutting their scores by an average of two shots.
The crucial test came in a money contest against the second group, who had not trained in the technique.
Competing in a putting contest for a $150 first prize, the Quiet Eye golfers came out on top, sinking 17 percent more putts than their rivals.
A variation on the idea of total concentration and cutting out all distractions was employed by the winner at St. Andrews, South Afican Louis Oosthuizen.
He admitted that before the British Open that his thought process was “a mess” so he employed sports psychologist Karl Morris to help.
Morris introduced Oosthuizen to the “red spot” theory, and the rest is history.
The spot was marked on his golf glove, and rather like the advice from Exeter University researchers to the putters, the 27-year-old was told to focus only on the red mark before and during his swing.
It clearly worked wonders as Oosthuizen won by seven shots with a remarkable display of composure under pressure.
Woods trailed in 13 shots behind with his wayward putting, but at his best he was renowned as one of the best in the history of the game.
Vine added: “Obviously just keeping your eye on the ball won’t make you Tiger Woods overnight, but our research shows that changing small but important elements of your pre-shot routine and learning to control your vision can improve your accuracy, allow you to maintain focus under pressure and ultimately make more putts.”
Findings from his study are be published in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology.