Something is rotten in the game of cricket

Amid all the brouhaha generated by Kevin Pietersen’s divisive personality, it would be easy to overlook what his rebellious actions reveal about the wider health of the game. Above and beyond his digressive complaints about the players’ schedule being too cramped and his problems within the England dressing-room, Pietersen’s sense of empowerment is a direct result of the presence of the IPL. If there were no IPL, Pietersen would have no worries about his cramped schedule, and if there were no IPL, he would not be able to treat Test and international cricket as a bargaining tool rather than a privilege he had a duty towards protecting and upholding.

His is the most high-profile case, and the thought of his retirement from the purest form of the game is startling for how young he is (32). However, zoom out and it fast becomes apparent that the IPL’s tawdry money has long begun ruining cricket. Lasith Malinga’s retirement from Test cricket at just 28 was tantamount to an admission that he was prioritising his fragile fitness for the IPL’s cash reward over any sense of duty to his career and what mattered in the game; Chris Gayle as much as blew smoke in the face of Test cricket by not turning up for a large part of West Indies’ tour of England earlier this year; Muttiah Muralitharan’s abrupt exit from Tests came as a surprise and could be attributed to the fact that easier money was to be had in the IPL in his last few years. The biggest worry is that more fast bowlers like Malinga, who put their body through a burden that cannot shoulder commitments to both the IPL and five-day cricket, will call it quits as early as their mid to late-twenties. This in turn will tilt the Test game even further in favour of batsmen, and render one of its most enthralling qualities – the contest between good batsmanship and quality, hostile fast bowling – redundant (a problem which was apparent during long spells of South Africa’s high-scoring matches with England).

When the game’s best players devote most of their training and efforts towards making sure they can participate in a month-long glamour tournament – or worse, retire altogether to announce themselves as mercenaries available for the highest-bidding T20 tournaments – it devalues Test cricket and means there is little worth in what is on display. England have been obsessing over the No.1 status and their impending battle to keep the crown from South Africa for some time now, without realising that they are big fish in a rapidly shrinking pond. The financially weaker nations of Sri Lanka, West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand have been decimated by their inability through money to command the attention of their players away from the lure of all the T20 leagues that have mushroomed around the world. If Australia, India, South Africa and England think the Test game can survive on the limited appeal of their roundabout contests, they are more myopic and selfish than was previously assumed.

The game I watched and loved is being taken apart at the seams by the onslaught of T20 and its association with money. If even England’s position as one of the financially stronger teams can no longer keep Kevin Pietersen from jumping ship, it will serve as a further continuation of the game’s tragic slide into irrelevance at the hands of administrators who couldn’t care less.

P.S. Faith in the ICC to manage market forces or gamblers from encroaching on areas that fans hold dear to the game has long been extinguished. Indeed, their submissive reaction to the world’s media and expectations in banning three Pakistan players for match-fixing in 2011 may have seemed laudable, but they have not carried out a single initiative since then to target the criminals who represent the heart of the problem and whose involvement in the game is unlikely to be silenced by the jailing of three players. Given how far India dictate matters to the ICC through their monopoly on the game’s cash flow, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the mafias associated with cricket may have penetrated higher up its ranks than just the players. I will examine these issues, and how the banning of Muhammad Amir in particular has dealt Pakistan a body blow at a potentially critical juncture in its cricketing life, in another post soon.

Chelsea’s summer activity: a leopard doesn’t change its spots that easily

For all Chelsea’s recent triumphs and seemingly prudent player acquisitions, there is still something that grates about the manner in which they go about their business. No degree of footballing success can educate Roman Abramovich in the matters of treating a great game and its players with the right respect, and this can be seen in his latest splurging on Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Oscar. Other clubs might have recognised that they were buying players for the future, whose redoubtable talent would need patience and careful management to be unlocked. Yet it is clear by the sums spent on players labelled “starlets”, that Abramovich’s cherry-picking of them has been motivated by the same attitude that saw him spend £50 million for Fernando Torres and expect him to start scoring straightaway. These are players who command the club’s interest for as long as they perceived to be “stars” of the game, and whose lack of a tailored support system once they arrive often means their careers shrivel and falter. It was bad enough for Torres, but to expect three young players – two still in their teens – to shoulder a Premier League title bid next season is an unfair allocation of responsibility that reveals Abramovich’s ongoing failure to understand that signing a chequebook is only the beginning of a club’s investment in a player.

If Oscar, Marin and Hazard thought they had hit the bull’s-eye by signing with a club that reconciled a player’s two great aims of being financially secure and playing at a successful team where they could grow as footballers, they should have taken a second look at the troubles of Romelu Lukaku and Gael Kakuta. Lukaku has spoken openly of the lack of joy and involvement he felt at Chelsea’s double success last season, in which he played a minimal role. It is understandable that his playing time would have been limited by the ceaseless influence of Didier Drogba, but the way his discontent grew away from the pitch suggested that Chelsea have not backed up the money they spend on the best young talent around by investing in a suitable support system and giving them a clear sense of progression and development. Lukaku has now gone on loan at West Brom – something that Gael Kakuta has already done on three separate occasions during his time at the club. Once hailed as the “future of Chelsea”, this young talent is now being discussed in the corridors of power at the club only in the context of including him as part of an exchange deal for the latest young player to catch their fancy – Spanish right-back Cesar Azpilicueta of Marseille. If Kakuta does leave, it will conclude five ruinous years that have seen his career come to a shuddering halt and that illustrate the power Chelsea have to sully even the brightest talents with their myopic approach to team-building.

Wenger and fans in accord over Song

It is heartening to see Arsene Wenger’s unsentimental reaction to Alex Song’s latent courting of interest from Barcelona and other rivals. So used to having to beg players who invariably display a lack of regard for the loyalty he has shown them to stay, he is finally adopting a business-like approach to hiring and firing that recognises Arsenal will no longer be held hostage by any one player. The club ably demonstrated that it could move past the feared ravaging effect of Cesc Fabregas’s loss last year, and that has rightly emboldened them to play hardball with wantaway players this summer.

Song’s betrayal of Wenger’s faith in him was apparent long before he encouraged the advances of Barcelona in the way that he constantly shirked the holding midfield duty Wenger had asked him to perform on the field. Arsenal were roundly mocked for their defensive troubles last season, but that was to ignore how much an attacking 4-3-3 system relied on the holding midfielder protecting the back four to be successful. Much like Sergio Busquets for Barcelona, Wenger would have instructed Song to stay in position to shield an exposed defence whenever Arsenal lost the ball up the field in recognition of the fact that the repurcussions of the holding midfielder neglecting his duty in their system would be far worse than for most teams. Instead Song’s insatiable lust to play the killer pass often contributed to starting opponents’ lethal counter-attacks, while his willfull indiscipline in straying from his position meant that Arsenal’s defenders were often deserted and made to look more silly than they deserved by the goals they conceded. Furthermore his desire to keep the ball to himself for a few additional seconds, while well-executed, displayed a lack of understanding that Arsenal’s possession game required quick exchanges to ensure that the opposition did not settle into premeditated defensive positions and blunt their attacking edge. As a player whose conversion from a central defender to a holding midfielder revealed his footballing intelligence, these acts of sabotage against Wenger and Arsenal’s plans can only have stemmed from a desire to indulge his tendency to do as he pleases overriding his sense of duty to the team.

In the context of enduring such frustration from a player whose position holds the key to so much of Arsenal’s success, it is no wonder that Song’s calm willingness to consider a future away from Arsenal is approaching something teeteringly close to a final straw for Wenger. Financially too, it would make no sense to allow Song to use external interest to hold the club to ransom for a contract once his current one expires in 2015 or to follow Nasri and van Persie in attempting to walk away from the club for free. The new Wenger, hardened by his experiences with three key players who have deserted him in the last twelve months, has finally come to view the transfer market as a means of strengthening the club rather than a destabilising act. If Barcelona follow through with their interest on Alex Song, it will provide Arsenal the funds to go after a different player with a greater sense of team responsibility, whose embracing of the holding midfield role would finally allow them to negotiate the thin margin of error allowed by their system between attack and defence.

Liu Xiang’s Olympic dramas boggle the mind

It is difficult to know what to make of Liu Xiang’s recurring problems at the biggest event for both his career and his country. If pulling out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics whilst on the precipice of starting his first-round heat was not abrupt and mystifying enough, his decision this time to move his training base to Germany from London – the city in which he had to compete – because it was too “wet and cold” would have only further grown suspicions that there was something phony or spurious around the cult of Liu. It was not too long after pondering the complete absence of logic and whiff of panic in his sudden decision to move camp to Germany that I heard he had pulled out of the hurdles yet again after crashing into the first barrier, citing a repeat of the injury suffered in Beijing four years ago and limping to add a kiss to the last hurdle in his lane for good measure.

To pull out of the Olympic hurdles in the first heat, and in almost exactly the same fashion twice in eight years will arouse the suspicions of anyone with enough common sense not to believe in such unlikely coincidences. Liu would have been attended to by the best trainers and doctors China has to offer, and it is inconceivable that they would not have used the intervening four years to ensure that he was able to make his one date with destiny. Although his true health before the event may have been concealed in the wish not to disappoint people, the general impression given by his staff is that they were as surprised by the sudden reoccurrence of his Achilles injury as we were . That is hard to believe. Seasoned sports watchers might also add that an athlete’s instinctive reaction to having his world and lifelong ambition come crashing down upon him in the way Liu did on Tuesday would have been to burst out into tears at the disappointment. Instead, Liu remained admirably controlled enough to act out a photogenic moment that will be replayed time and again despite possibly having very little to do with sport, and everything to do with a prima donna instinct honed by a decade of adoration in his native China.

Yet, it is impossible to dismiss Liu as a complete fraud who has relied on lies and PR to build his image as a super-athlete. He gave the people of China good reason to love him by winning gold in the 2004 Olympics as a prodigious 21 year-old, and setting a world record in the event a little later. It may be that he was afraid to tar that reputation by failing to live up to expectations either in China or London. Whatever has gone on behind the scenes (and despite the recent announcement that he is undergoing surgery on his Achilles tendon, there are still legitimate questions that might never be answered), should he make it to Rio 2016, I would advise the Chinese people to ignore Liu even during his first-round heat. They may then be surprised to find that their champion, miffed at being slighted, would have raced through his heat with a clean bill of health and given them a contest in the final full of the sort of athletic integrity his recent no-shows have – fairly or unfairly – called into question.

van Persie-United talk hits Arsenal fans where it hurts

Both Manchester clubs have given Arsenal plenty of grief in the recent past, but it will still hurt more if Robin van Persie were to go to Alex Ferguson’s team rather than Roberto Mancini’s. City’s recent picking of Arsenal’s ripe talent has its roots in the club’s overall expansion and is devoid of any personal undertones. However, United’s bolstering at Arsenal’s expense, by acquiring their best player, cuts more deeply for a welter of personal reasons. It was not too long ago that Arsenal were United’s strongest rivals, and Wenger Ferguson’s greatest managerial foe. It would have been unthinkable then for Arsenal to be forced to sell their best player for the benefit of their most important rival. For Arsenal to now effectively play the feeder club role to Manchester United through the van Persie sale would be a painful and fresh reminder of how they have diminished in stature while United have kept growing. Add to that the image of van Persie and Rooney dovetailing together to score against Arsenal next season, and it is easy to see why his possible switch to United provokes stronger feelings than to his other two suitors.

Tactically speaking, fans may also wonder what Arsenal’s voluntary strengthening of both their Manchester rivals says about their ambition for the new Premier League season. This is a club that should not accept the status quo proposed last season of both Manchester clubs being a cut above the rest, and preventing United from becoming the first club to reach City’s plane through the acquisition of van Persie would demonstrate this.

If he has to go, better Arsenal explore and exhaust these options in the following order: Juventus, then City and then – only if the price is agreed on Arsenal’s terms without compromise – United.

Cazorla’s and Sahin’s mooted arrivals increase optimism at Arsenal

News that Arsenal are working hard and drawing closer to deals that would bring Nuri Sahin and Santi Cazorla to the club should be encouraging to its supporters. Along with Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski, Arsenal’s four signings this summer represent a change in approach to the transfer market that has every chance of bearing fruit on the pitch – even if Robin van Persie is granted his wish to leave.

Of the two names, it is Cazorla’s who sparks the most interest. Arsenal have never been short of a fine player, but it is exciting to imagine that they are on the verge of acquiring one whose ball-skills are complemented by deep pride and fierce caring for his career. How else to explain his decision to turn down a move to Real Madrid in 2008 because “there are many things in football besides Real Madrid and…he already felt very satisfied and valued at [Villarreal]?” Such surety and individualism in his decision-making bears the mark of a man who does not make his decisions lightly, gives his all once he has committed to a project and is the kind of football-loving professional that Arsenal have been in desperate need of over the last few years. The value of having a player who cares deeply about his football and seeks to build a bond with his club can never be approximated, but when Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal last season in the twilight of his career with his mind uncluttered by thoughts of money and glory at the Barcelonas of this world, he somehow found the right mix of talent and love to score a last-minute winner against Sunderland that led to the point advantage to Tottenham that kept Arsenal in the Champions League. Cazorla’s talent, hunger and actions suggest he can play a similarly inspiring role for the club once he settles in, and help move Arsenal’s young players on from the kind of complacency that has seen them lose countless games in silly fashion over the last few seasons.

Changing circumstances should give cause for hope that Arsenal’s youthful squad are already beginning to locate that missing sense of urgency and pride for their club’s fate and grow into their roles and responsibilities for the team. The prospect of van Persie, their talisman and a player whom they relied upon to get through most of last season departing, comes as a timely shock that should spur on those in need of a push to greater competiveness and maturity on the pitch (particularly Theo Walcott and Gervinho). The growing competition in the Premier League – and particularly the way Manchester City have gorged on Arsenal – would have alerted the players to the fact that the oncoming season will require consistently better performances than they have yet produced, whilst pricking their pride could also yield positive results. Indeed, there have already been hints in stirring performances enroute to beating Chelsea (5-3), Manchester City (1-0) and Barcelona (2-1) over the last two seasons that Arsenal find release in their relatively new casting as underdogs among the Premier League’s elite. Add to this the elevation of a stern defensive taskmaster in Steve Bould, Cazorla’s personal and football qualities, and the likely arrival of a highly determined young player in Nuri Sahin desperate to make up for lost time and prove his worth to Real Madrid, and Arsenal will have set themselves up for the post-van Persie era with a fighting chance.