Wednesday, 15 November 2017

A Clear Blue Sky

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Jonny Bairstow is one of the most naturally talented English cricketers in recent years.  His ability to alter games with his disruptive batting or take vital catches behind the stumps means he is an integral part of the English cricket team. 

However, a new biography, A Clear Blue Sky, ghost-written with Duncan Hamilton, enlightens the reader upon the hard road Bairstow has had to travel to attain a cemented position in the England team as they seek to regain the Ashes down under this winter versus the dreaded Australians.

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Bairstow, is the son of a cricketer, he is from Yorkshire, cricket is in his blood, and yet it was an event when he was 8 that has created the basis of his desire and will to succeed on the world stage. When Jonny and his sister, Becca, came home one night to see their father David had hung himself, their world unravelled. At the same time, their mother was undergoing cancer treatment, you could be forgiven for the young Bairstow going off the rails and becoming just a statistic in crime and welfare.  However, the next day, Jonny and his sister went to school, education and learning has been a mainstay in his still young life; the need to carry on as normal was key to building character and as he says in the book, he had to grow up fast.

I mention the young life of Bairstow, who still has a long career of himself should injuries not come to the fore, and yet you wonder why are we reading a book about him now when a glorious winter could be on the horizon. Does the misery of his father's suicide explain enough why he has become a celebrated professional? Does the benefit of good education at schools that embraced sports explain his ability to translate to an international calibre athlete?  Or does the fact he have a recognisable name scream of nepotism or luck?

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Naysayers may say, you make your own luck, but the ghost written portion of the novel reads as an opportunity for Hamilton to tell the story of how Yorkshire had to tread water for years of mediocrity before the hiring of Jason Gillespie and a bevy of young talent - Bairstow, current England captain Joe Root, Gary Balance, Adil Rashid - helped them to the County Championship.

Bairstow has benefited from being one of the cricketers who has had cross-over/transitional skills from sports he has played throughout his development - football for explosive speed, hockey for hand-eye co-ordination and golf for playing under pressure.  Hamilton goes to lengths to show the success of individuals like Bairstow within a system based upon central contracts allowing personal as well as professional development along with his peer Ben Stokes.

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The book does at times read like a love letter for Yorkshire cricket and a by-gone era of when David Bairstow played, while the psychological and emotional stress has been abundant on the young wicketkeeper it should nevertheless be applauded at how he carries himself from day to day to perform at the highest level.

Unlike Stokes, who seems to have the shadow of controversy follow him, Bairstow appears to keep a clear head and avoid such vices eager to improve his game and become a vital part of a successful team in all three formats of the game - Test matches, ODI's and T20s.  The lessons and obstacles you overcome in your youth are the foundation for you as an adult, many sportsmen should look at the evidence of Jonny Bairstow to see what results can come to fruition through a combination of support, belief and talent.

A Clear Blue Sky is out now from HarperCollins across all formats

Monday, 13 November 2017

Out of the Shadows

Gary Jordan, a freelance journalist, has written a fan's perspective and history of the 1982 England World Cup side that despite being one of the best accumulation of talent failed to progress beyond the convoluted second round where two 0-0 draws eliminated a team that won its first three games confidently.

Harking back to the 1970 quarter final defeat by West Germany which was the end of that generation's playing time together and the end of international careers of Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters. Jordan makes pit stops at the terrible mid-1970s when England failed to qualify for two consecutive World Cup finals due to a mixture of being unable to change with the times and selection issues off the field as well as on it.

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Ron Greenwood - England manager 1977-1982

Jordan does investigate and explain how England side-stepped Brian Clough twice; initially for his nemesis Don Revie and then the FA darling, Ron Greenwood.  However, the reason England stumbled throughout the 1970s was more a fact to an inflated ego and self-importance of the Football Association following the glory of 1966.  England felt they were the best in the world, yet they did not follow it up despite playing so admirably in Mexico 1970; tactical naivety led to Alf Ramsey substituting Bobby Charlton when 2-0 up prompting a West German fightback which England could not prevent.

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The 1982 England World Cup Squad

Ramsey got too long in the tooth by 1973 when Poland denied England at Wembley, and Revie could not do much better in attempting to qualify for Argentina in 1978.  Revie promptly left England for the oil money of the Middle East leaving England as poison chalice for whomever took charge.

Greenwood comes across as an esteemable figure, lauded by his peers and hugely admired by his players who got the best out of youngsters and was able to combine experience and youth in a dynamic package.  Whilst he had the veterans of Kevin Keegan, Trevor Brooking and Phil Thompson, he equally relied on the brash Bryan Robson, Ray Wilkins and Terry Butcher who would all become mainstays for the next four years.

However, Greenwood still succumb to problems that regularly beset England managers at major tournaments - think of the crippling metatarsals to David Beckham and Michael Owen, for Greenwood it was the lower back injury to Kevin Keegan who did not seek help from a respected German doctor until it was too late; and then tactical downfalls and second guessing. England needing to win the second second round group game versus Spain decided to play tactically and wait for an opportunity to win rather than go for the 'jugular' as Terry Butcher suggests, leaving the calvary of Keegan/Brooking only 26 minutes to save the day.  Greenwood admits he was damned if he did and damned if he did not but the chance of glory should not be passed up.

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Kevin Keegan - injury cost him a starting place

These are familiar pitfalls for all England managers and Gareth Southgate may well encounter these before Russia next summer but ultimately when you have a class of player at your disposal you should not pass it up, and while Southgate is attempting to incorporate youth in with mainstays, the foundation of any campaign requires goals. If you cannot score goals, you cannot win games.

The book is a nice read from Gary Jordan, short sharp chapters that recall the matches fondly bringing in all manner of cultural resonance from the Falklands War to the searing heat of Spanish summers which led to Paul Mariner losing a stone in weight wearing a heavy polyester kit during the opening France game.

Written with passion and fondness for a by-gone pre-1992 Premier League era, Jordan has written a great tome to a team that though full of talent is regularly forgotten about in the shadow of our recall.

Out of the Shadows is out now from Pitch Publishing.

You can follow Gary Jordan on Twitter, he is sports features writer for The American, a magazine aimed at Ex-Pats in England

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Sumlin's Time Slipping in Texas

When Johnny Manziel broke on to the College Football landscape and sport mainstream during his Heisman winning season in 2012, it was not just Manziel who was shouting loudest from College Station. Manziel had at the helm a much admired coach who was at the start of his career also in charge of a fledgling program hoping to make noise in a big state and stepping into a new conference power, the SEC.

2012 which included the Texas A&M Aggies famously defeating Alabama in Tuscaloosa 29-24, a game that led to Manziel's Heisman procession and an eventual Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma finishing with a 11-2 record.

Since then, the Aggies have not matched the much vaunted expectations that the inaugural season did, although 2013 was a 9-4 record and another classic versus Alabama. The team could not cope with the clamour for Johnny Football who although he had a greater season in terms of throwing statistics he had more interceptions yet less rushing touchdowns.  They won a Bowl game, but Manziel left for the NFL as did star wide receiver Mike Evans (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and from there Sumlin has struggled.

Following a 20-6 record for the first two seasons, the Aggies school invested $500m to develop Kyle Field and $10m for the coaching staff including a huge extension for Sumlin himself.  The Aggies currently sit 5-4 in the SEC West and were thoroughly dismantled 41-27 by Auburn at the weekend, leaving them scratching for a Bowl game with games remaining at home to New Mexico and two road trips to Ole Miss and LSU.

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The SEC year on year appears to be a race of who will finish second to dominant Alabama, yet Georgia have showed the potential in good recruiting and good coaching, coupled with consistent offence.

The Aggies have not built upon the brand of Johnny Football in terms of quality although Myles Garrett was the Overall first round pick, there should be a stream of talent to rival that of Alabama or Miami in recent years to have a revolving door of potential coming through College Station.

Sumlin must take the fall for an under par season which started poorly in the first game on the road at UCLA where they gave up a 34 point lead to lose 45-44 to Josh Rosen; they then won four straight wins the best being a 24-17 home victory over a now 4-3 South Carolina Gamecocks; before an inevitable home loss to Alabama although they kept it respectable in a 27-19 loss.  However the losses to Auburn and Mississippi State have put more questions with less answers forthcoming from Sumlin.

With those three games remaining and a .500 record looking a distinct possibility, fans where hopeful of more but instead got more shortcomings and the type of play not expected from the Aggies, who unfortunately where in the headlines for two glorious years but have flattered to deceive since then.