Left field http://blogs.reuters.com/sport The Reuters global sports blog Thu, 01 Jan 2015 05:33:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 Dhoni: the legacy of a cricket champion http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2015/01/01/dhoni-the-legacy-of-a-cricket-champion/ http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2015/01/01/dhoni-the-legacy-of-a-cricket-champion/#comments Wed, 31 Dec 2014 18:56:13 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/india/?p=16196 India's Mahendra Singh Dhoni chases a pigeon off the pitch during the fifth cricket test match against England at the Oval cricket ground in London August 15, 2014. REUTERS/Philip Brown/Files

(This essay is commentary. Opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters Corp.)

In 2004, Indian cricket discovered a new drug - MSD. And ever since, well almost, it's been on a high, highs it had never experienced before. Perhaps Mahendra Singh Dhoni's greatest legacy will be his spirit of a champion, a spirit that believed in carving out victory when defeat seemed imminent. It's the same spirit that galvanized the Indian team into world champions in all three formats of the game between 2007 and 2011 under his captaincy.

And quite true to his spirit, when victory began to elude him in test cricket after a spate of highs, he knew his time was up. And he wisely chose to quit test cricket with the detachment of a monk, without any press conference or usual fanfare.

Dhoni marked a new era when cricket, in a way, got more democratized in India. It wasn't a preserve of Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai and Bangalore anymore to produce players for the Indian team. They now started mushrooming from everywhere. Ravindra Jadeja came from Navagam-Khed, Saurashtra, Suresh Raina from Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. And the harvest was rich.

What Sachin Tendulkar brought to Indian cricket, Dhoni transformed into a national culture, a brand of counter-attacking cricket that pulverized the greatest of opposition. The Indian dressing room patented its own version of aggressive cricket, be it batting, bowling or fielding; even spinners exuded aggression of a fast bowler. And in all of this, Dhoni led from the front even when the likes of Sachin, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sehwag, Saurav Ganguly and Anil Kumble were around. Dhoni's cricketing skill, shrewdness and charm weaved these stalwarts into an unbeatable side. On Dec 6, 2009, India became world's top test team after beating Sri Lanka at Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai. And the team stayed at the top for 18 months, a feat India never achieved in its 77 years of test history.

Dhoni's wicket keeping skills may have, at best, been mediocre (no international-level keeper stopped the ball with his pads like Dhoni did, as it's considered not just demeaning but a sacrilege), but he diligently camouflaged it with his catching and stumping abilities. He rarely snatched a catch in front of the first slip, but he somehow hung on to catches that came his way. His figure of 256 catches and 38 stumpings in test cricket defines the cricketer Dhoni was.

As a batsman and a skipper, he was uniquely gifted. He wielded the willow with a ferocity and brilliance of a typical Indian summer. Endowed with agility and power, he was ruthless against the most incisive bowling attack, including Australia, South Africa and England. His innings of 224 against Australia's Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon in Chennai, and unbeaten 132 against South Africa's Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell and Jacques Kallis in Kolkata showed how he took opposition to the cleaners.

India's captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni smiles while talking to his teammates during a practice session ahead of their second test cricket match against New Zealand in Bangalore

What Dhoni the captain achieved is much beyond mere statistics. He instilled the belief in his teammates that they could beat any side. And they did. Even Sachin has acknowledged that dressing room atmosphere had been the best during Dhoni's tenure as a captain, where players not only worked hard for team's victory, but also reveled in each other's success.

His only blemish, perhaps, is his overseas record as a captain - only six Test victories and 15 defeats out of 30 Tests. India's fortune has been disappointing since April 2011 as the team lost 13 out of 18 tests abroad and won only one. Still, he led India to 21 Test wins at home, making him the most successful Indian captain of all time.

What will transcend everything is the memory of his astounding six, with his signature helicopter shot, which gave India her second ODI World Cup.

When Dhoni finally hangs up his boots for good in all forms of cricket, he'll be best remembered as a handsome and charismatic leader who inspired India to scale cricket's greatest heights.

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Zivojinovic: Novak’s greatest weapon is his mind http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2014/09/26/tennis-novaks-greatest-weapon-is-his-mind/ http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2014/09/26/tennis-novaks-greatest-weapon-is-his-mind/#comments Fri, 26 Sep 2014 18:37:56 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/?p=8768 SThe Davis Cup, where the pride of playing for the country is the overriding sentiment, has done different things to different players.

On Dec. 5, 2010, it transformed Serbian player Novak Djokovic’s career. Djokovic guided his team to the historic title victory against France on home turf in Belgrade. And from there began the fourth-longest winning streak in the Open Era. Djokovic went on to win 43 matches on the trot, going back to the Davis Cup final.

What changed in Novak Djokovic? “The Davis Cup victory helped Novak throw out all the dirty tennis aspects from his game,” said Bogdan Obradovic, who was the non-playing captain of the Davis Cup-winning Serbian team in 2010. “All the doubts and negativity were washed away from his mind. The victory triggered that confidence in him where he started believing he can be the champion player he always wanted to be.”

The Serbian team began playing in the Davis Cup under the name of Serbia only in June 2006. To inspire his team, representing a tiny nation of 7 million people, to win the most coveted team event in tennis was monumental. The immensity of the achievement can be measured from the fact that Roger Federer, perhaps the finest tennis player of all times, is yet to do it for his country, Switzerland.

It must have been life-defining. “I always felt Novak’s greatest weapon is his mind. But winning Davis Cup is a kind of achievement which gives you the confidence and self-belief that you can achieve anything,” said Slobodan Zivojinovic, who was president of the Serbian tennis federation when the team lifted the Davis Cup trophy.

“Tennis is about confidence. The Davis Cup victory completely opened Novak’s mind and he began playing his game with the kind of freedom he hadn’t known before and that brought the difference in him. It made him more hungry as a player,” said Zivojinovic, on the sidelines of the India-Serbia Davis Cup tie at the KSLTA courts in Bangalore.

Then it was time to focus on reaching the top of ATP singles ranking. What started soon after were grueling training sessions designed to acquire physical and mental strength that could outlast both Rafael Nadal and Federer, the only two players who were in his way to achieve his childhood dream of becoming the world champion.

During the training, work began on his fitness, footwork and serve. And now focus also shifted toward diet. “The idea was to build muscle strength to such an extent that he could tire out any opponent in a match. Now his diet included more meat and other protein content,” said Bogdan.

The planning was meticulous as the road ahead was the most difficult – from world ranking of three to one.

“He’s a chess player; he plans his moves well in advance. He was nine when he first came, with his dad Srdjan, to the club in Belgrade where I was a coach. Without even having a word with me, he kept his bag on the sidelines of the court and went for jogging and stretching exercise. Little later, he told me he was ready to go on to court for practice. And when he opened his bag, I was impressed to see that everything was kept neatly. He had extra pair of shoes, socks, shirts and racquets. It was rare to see a nine-year-old to be so organized,” said Bogdan.

The planning and hard work showed results in 2011. Djokovic was a different player now and he started the year in a sensational fashion, winning the first seven tournaments he entered (Australian Open, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome). He compiled a 41-match winning streak. His incredible run ended with the semi-final loss to Federer at Roland Garros. It was the longest winning streak to begin a season since the legendary John McEnroe’s 42 in 1984.

The Roland Garros defeat was a momentary lapse. He finished the year with 10 ATP titles in 11 finals, including three Major titles (Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open). In the process, he achieved 70-6 win-loss match record and an all-time men’s record in prize money in a calendar year – a whopping $12.6 million.

Even though Djokovic has remained a top three player ever since, currently top-ranked, he hasn’t quite dominated the opposition in a similar fashion.

The last hardcourt season has been particularly indifferent by his standard, losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Toronto and to Tommy Robredo at Cincinnati, before losing to Kei Nishikori in the US Open semi-final.

“It’s difficult to sustain that kind of intensity and hunger for long,” said Zivojinovic, himself ’86 Wimbledon singles semi-finalist and former World no. 1 doubles player. “He doesn’t seem to be that hungry this season.”

Bogdan was more forthcoming. “A lot has been happening in his personal life. He got married last July and is now expecting his first child in couple of months. Isn’t it normal to get affected by these important life events? Federer is one player who has handled it fairly well in the past. Let’s see how Novak handles it.”

May be Djokovic needs another Davis Cup victory to reignite that hunger in him.

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Pete Rose Jr.`s long long journey http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2014/08/19/pete-rose-jr-s-long-long-journey/ http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2014/08/19/pete-rose-jr-s-long-long-journey/#comments Tue, 19 Aug 2014 18:52:05 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/?p=8752 Hagerstown, Maryland

By Mike Theiler

I’m a baseball nut. I live and breathe baseball. I dislike football. I dislike basketball. I dislike soccer. A real baseball fan only loves baseball in my opinion.

I believe baseball is a metaphor for life.

It is life and death. It is also re-birth with spring training. It is marriage and divorce as players are joined together and then are either traded, discarded or fail.

Major League Baseball is, of course, the very pinnacle of the game. The best hitters, the best pitchers, the unrivaled history; The Babe, DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams’ .406 season, Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters.

But while MLB has all that and so much more, my real, true enjoyment of the game starts with the minor leagues. “The bushes”, and the struggle of the players to advance up to “The Bigs”. The crackerbox ballyards. The intimacy with players not yet full of themselves. Free parking. Cheap beer. The whacky between-innings carnival of gags.

I first heard of Pete Rose, Jr.’s playing days in 1994 when he was in Prince William County, Virginia, near where I live. Like any serious fan, I knew he had grown up on the ball field, around his famous father, Pete Rose, “The Hit King”, with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970’s.

Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose gives batting tips to his son Pete, Jr., aged 2 1/2, in Cincinnati, October 11, 1972.      REUTERS/Bettmann

I remember he played for the Lincoln (Nebraska) Salt Dogs, my hometown, in 2004.

I read about his prison time in 2006 for supplying teammates with GBL, a steroid alternative and sleep aid.

Finally, I saw him playing for the York (PA) Revolution in 2009, playing under the name “PJ Rose” and couldn’t help but think what a long, strange trip, to quote The Grateful Dead, he has been on.

Five years later I heard he was now managing in Low-A ball for the Chicago White Sox in Kannapolis, North Carolina. A Google search turned up the fact that he has been beating the bushes for 27 years! Astonishing!

I just had to see what made him tick.

Would he even talk to me? Would he be defensive? A check of the schedule showed his Intimidators would be playing the nearby Hagerstown Suns over the Fourth of July weekend.

Speaking of his father, Pete Rose, baseball aficionados know he has the record for the most major league career hits: 4,256.

Trivia question: who has the most career outs?

The same man, Pete Rose, 10,328.

It’s well established that baseball is a game of failure. A player gets a hit once every 3 plate appearances and he is a star. Hitting a 100-mph fastball, or a dipping, curving, dancing baseball is arguably the most difficult thing to do in all of professional sports.

Michael Jordan is probably the greatest athlete of our generation. He couldn’t hit a baseball. Jordan’s one year, playing for the Birmingham Baron’s minor league team, he hit .202, only .002 points above the “Mendoza Line”, baseball’s threshold of incompetency.

Plenty of contemporary hitters are getting multi-million dollar contracts for hitting .268. Get two and a half hits for every ten at-bats and you get rich. But statistically you are still a failure.

Pete Rose hit .303 for his career. You could say that failure runs in the Pete Rose family.

You could say that his son, Pete Rose, Jr., is an even bigger failure.

Pete Rose Jr. awaits the start of a South Atlantic League game between his Kannapolis Intimidators and the Hagerstown Suns at the old 1931 Municipal Stadium, in Hagerstown, Maryland, July 6, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Except for one very brief “cup of coffee” in 1997, when he spent 28 days with the Cincinnati Reds, Pete Rose, Jr. has been chasing the major league dream for 27 years. He has played or coached over 2,000 games and he has worn the uniform of 29 teams – in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico.

Frederick. Erie. Sarasota. Columbus. Kinston. Gulf Coast. Hickory. Prince William. South Bend. Birmingham. Indianapolis. Chattanooga. New Jersey. Nashville. Reading. Winnipeg. Joliet. Lincoln. Florence. Long Island. Bridgeport. York. Newark.

Oh, and Cordoba and Aguascalientes in the Mexican League and Tigres del Chinandega in Nicaragua. Winter ball in Puerto Rico.

Throw in the last four years coaching and managing in Florence (KY), Bristol (TN), Great Falls (MT) and his current employment with the South Atlantic League Intimidators, and that is a lifetime of hard times. A road with a lot of bumps and potholes.

Minor League baseball is a slog ….

Exhausting eight- and nine-hour bus rides, provided the bus doesn’t break down. It all adds up to thousands of mind-numbing miles over the course of a 140-game season – moldy clubhouses, cockroaches in the locker rooms, no-door toilets, wheezing air conditioners, lousy food, sapping summer heat, nagging injuries.

And if that wasn’t trying enough, for Rose, there was the 30 days in a 10×10 cell in Boone, Kentucky for the Gamma-Butyroldactone rap.

And if you are Pete Rose, Jr., there were always the drunks at “Thirsty Thursday” buck-a-beer games, heaping abuse on you with language that would make Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet blush, ranting about his father’s troubles: for tax evasion, his prison time, his banishment from baseball for betting on games, lying about it and now selling memorabilia in Las Vegas with autographs of “I’m Sorry I Bet on Baseball.”

Yes, you could say Pete Edward Rose, Jr., now 44, is a failure.

But you would be dead wrong.

There’s no pity party around his clubhouse.

I discovered that the moment I walked into the visitor’s locker room in the ancient, broken down, Babe Ruth-era 1931 Memorial Stadium , where Rose’s team was preparing to play the Hagerstown Suns.

I asked Rose what drives a guy after all the years, the miles, the trials, the abuse, the setbacks?

“My players, my kids,” as he points to his gaggle of players shagging fly balls and taking batting practice, on the murderously hot field of a July day. “They make it a joy to come to work”, he says proudly. “It’s definitely family here,” he adds.

The Intimidators, after a 7-hour all-night bus ride from Kannapolis, arriving at dawn, and a 9-0 pounding by the Suns on the Fourth of July, look like they won the Maryland Lottery.

“We make it fun,” Rose says. “I am not a drill sergeant, I don’t bark orders, I don’t yell at my kids,” he adds, as he explains his theory of surviving the relentless dog days. “Let them play, you lose one, tomorrow is another day.”

Any thoughts I had about Rose being a tough interview vanish, as he warms to the subject. Rose demands only two things from his players: “Be on time. Play the game the right way”.” He wants his kids to share his passion, but he also demands good character.

“They are extremely good baseball players, but even better kids,” he notes.

Manager Pete Rose Jr. jokes with his Kannapolis Intimidators players in the dugout, prior to a game in Hagerstown, Maryland, August 9, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Rose tries to be a real father figure in the clubhouse. “First and foremost we are family. These kids know I’m not only their manager, I can be their Dad, best friend, whatever. It’s a tough game, it can be a lonely game, it can drag you down.”

With obvious regret, he recalls not being able to leave a pass or have his dad in the locker room, because of his father’s official banishment from MLB clubs and its affiliates. He encourages his players to have their families experience the thrill of their playing days while it lasts.

He laughs when he recalls the duties he performed in his first year of coaching at Bristol, at the bottom of the barrel Advanced Rookie Appalachian League, “You teach them how to sign autographs the right way, you teach them how to put their socks on the right way, teach them how to pay the rent …”

Although clearly relishing the opportunity to manage in the bushes, Rose admits that “Not a day goes by that I don’t miss playing.”

Drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1988, in the 12th round, he was the 295th player taken. Not exactly a Number 1 draft pick.

Eight years and 12 teams later, during a breakout season with the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1997, Rose got the call up to the parent Cincinnati Reds, his father’s old team, in September. His stat line:

11 major league games
2 hits
0 home runs
0 runs batted in
.143 batting average

He never got back to “The Show.”

Rose never quit. But time overtook him. Although he had productive years in 2007-2008 with the Long Island Ducks, an arthritic knee hobbled him. He gutted it out one more year with the York Revolution and one game with the Newark Bears, and then his playing days were done.

He was planning on leaving baseball in 2010, going home for family time, when he got a call from old Chattanooga teammate Toby Rumfield, managing at Florence. Rumfield needed a hitting coach. Would Rose be interested?

And with that, Rose accepted the challenge and embarked on a career with the same passion he brought as a player. Last year he marked a proud milestone by managing the Great Falls Voyagers to a division title.

Rose gets a little emotional when he speaks of the promise of some of his “kids.” There is the fleet center fielder Adam Engel, hard-playing Jacob Morris, Danny Hayes, Christian Stringer, pitcher James Dykstra and 19-year-old third baseman Trey Michalczewski, among others.

Kannapolis Intimidators infielder Toby Thomas of Eight Mile, Alabama (R) and outfielder Chevy Clarke of Atlanta, Georgia, clean their spikes outside the visitor's clubhouse, in Hagerstown, Maryland, August 9, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

“Seeing these kids play, I want to come back, dig a trench and jump in there with them, the way they play hard, running everything out, wide open and with passion,” he says.

When I note the tenderness in his voice, Rose laughs and says “I get that from my Dad. People say he is this big, tough, macho guy, but he’s really a softie at heart. A lot of people don’t get to see my Dad the way I do. Sure he is Charlie Hustle. Mr. Mean Guy. Mr. Tough Guy. But there is a softer, funnier side that we get to see.”

There is another Rose in the ballpark today. Pete Edward Rose III, 9, is along for the bus ride. Rose III plays catch with his dad, shags balls and gets in step with the workouts. Earlier in the season, Rose’s daughter, Isabella Marie, 7, got to spend time in the dugout with her Dad.

There’s that all-important family connection again. Rose notes that his two kids have 25 Big Brothers to watch over them, when they visit.

Any conversation with Rose is sprinkled with references to his return to Major League Baseball. Not if, but when. His Odyssey continues.

Rose nods in agreement when I mention that the beauty of baseball is that there is no clock. Time doesn’t expire. You keep playing for nine innings.
He sees himself as only in the 2nd or 3rd inning of his managerial career.

Manager Pete Rose Jr.  and his Kannapolis Intinidators players participate in the playing of the National Anthem prior to the start of a game in Hagerstown, Maryland, August 9, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

He muses about what it will be like to be a big-league manager, but on this night he has a seven-hour overnight bus ride to Greensboro, North Carolina, to look forward to.

With that thought we begin to trade mutual memories of sad-sack, but charming, ballparks like Pulaski’s Calfee Park or Bluefield’s Bowen Field, both 1930’s relics in impoverished Appalachia. Then there are the shuttered parks in places like Newark, Kinston and Fayetteville. Baseball left those locales and only the memories linger.

“I tell anyone who will listen that when I get to the big leagues, we’ll be sitting back and laughing about this hard road, but we’ll be in first class seats, shrimp and lobster, all that good jazz … Rose says. “That’ll come in time. That’ll come in time.”

Pete Edward Rose, Jr. loves baseball as he loves his Dad, his family and his players and coaches.

“I’m going to manage in the Major Leagues. That’s what’s going to happen,” he says without a sliver of doubt.

Don’t bet against him.

Pete Rose Jr. is hugged by his son, Pete Rose III, 9, as they watch batting practice, prior to a game in Hagerstown, Maryland, July 5, 2014.   REUTERS/Mike Theiler

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If I unfollowed you, it’s because you tweeted about the World Cup http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/06/26/if-i-unfollowed-you-its-because-you-tweeted-about-the-world-cup/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/06/26/if-i-unfollowed-you-its-because-you-tweeted-about-the-world-cup/#comments Thu, 26 Jun 2014 20:06:50 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=2879 WC Tweet

At the rate I'm going, the number of people I follow on Twitter will have dropped from 640 to zero on July 13, after the last World Cup match concludes.

I've never been sentimental about Twitter, randomly unfollowing gassy and predictable feeds when flooded by their abundant and stupefying tweets, or pruning my list to make room for new voices. I can only assume that other Twitter devotees similarly budget their accounts, otherwise how could one keep up with the traffic?

Last month, soccer enthusiasts simplified the editing of my follow list by tweeting expansively about the World Cup. They published pre-game tweets. They live-tweeted matches. They offered post-game tweets. They tweeted about soccer fashion, about the officials' bad calls, about the stadiums, other fans, the weather, other tweets, and more. If you're a heavy Twitter user, you know what I'm talking about.

As a soccer agnostic, with no hatred for or interest in the game, these many tweets hold a negative value for me. So, on June 12, when Brazil took on Croatia in the first match, and fans filled Twitter with the written equivalent of a vuvuzela orchestra, I tweeted my minor rebellion: "If I unfollowed you, it's because you tweeted about the World Cup. Nothing personal."

U.S. soccer fans react after a missed goal opportunity during the 2014 World Cup match between Germany and the U.S. in New YorkSince that tweet, I've thinned my follow list by 140 accounts, down to 500. I've even unfollowed Twitter buddies for the misdemeanor of retweeting a benign World Cup tweet. As I write this during the United States vs. Germany match, I'm still unfollowing -- so long, Carl Bialik, so long, Lizzie O'Leary, so long Tim Carney, so long, Damon Darlin, so long, Clara Jeffery, so long, Hilary Sargent, and so long, Dave Weigel!

I've unfollowed most every Brit I know, including my Guardian pals Janine Gibson and Stuart Millar, for their World Cup tweets. After I Twitter-ditched my good friend Bill Gifford, he used Twitter to call for vigilante action against me, urging the soccer faithful to "cc #hater @jackshafer on your #WorldCup" tweets. (I took a contract out on his life. You always wanted to die in some hot car-on-bicycle action, didn't you, Bill?)

I've unfollowed other close friends, valued colleagues, academics, fellow Reuters employees, Twitter-wit NYTFridge, and others whose feeds amused or enlightened me until their World Cup pronouncements interceded.

But don't blame me for over-reacting, blame them for over-sharing.

I, too, am a sports fan, so I understand the intensity of the soccer mob. Yet my sports devotions have never induced me into tweeting about games or matches. My opposition to sporting tweets, while deep, is not absolute. You've got to expect a Twitter din during college football bowl season, the World Series, Wimbledon, the Masters, the Triple Crown, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, and other events. But none of these spectacles run on for a month like the World Cup.

To put my complaint in perspective, suppose the frat boys in the apartment below yours threw a noisy, one-night kegger. You could probably endure it without calling the police. But what if they held a kegger every afternoon and every evening for a month, and even when they weren't drinking and screaming, they were singing songs about drinking? Even if you liked beer and were invited to their parties, you would not last long before calling 911.

Social media encourages writers toward conciseness and cleverness, the better to attract a larger audience. But these rules have dissolved during the World Cup interregnum. Ordinarily smart people are typing "Goooooaaaaall!!!!!" into Twitter as if other soccer fans are blind to what they just saw on TV. In an earlier era, sports fans limited their victory dancing to their own living rooms or, if exuberance swayed them, went into the streets to tip cars over and set them on fire. How I miss those good times.

The secret of Twitter's appeal, like the appeal of other communications technologies -- Facebook, text, email, the phone, the telegraph, the postal letter -- is that it gives everyman the opportunity to fill the human need to say, "I am here." Ever since the first cave-painter pressed his hand in paint and palmed his print on the rock, we've been finding new ways to say "I am here." For that reason, I should probably be a little less critical of the average soccer fan's desire to connect and commune with their comrades via Twitter. I should put my head down until mid-July, and stop my complaining.

But uh-uh. You’re free to tweet what you want to tweet, and I’m free to unfollow whom I want to unfollow. Consider this column my can of black spray-paint, aerosoling your soccer tweets into oblivion. For the time being, you're not here.

******

Several Twitter-users suggested that I use the mute function to silence World Cup offenders or to block them. That would be too tactful. To quote the Ramones, I don't wanna walk around with you, so why do you wanna walk around with me? After mid-July, I hope to refollow many of those I unfollowed, but I won’t take it personally if they don’t reciprocate. It’s their accounts, not mine. Send the latest soccer scores to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and unfollow my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: U.S. soccer fans react after a missed goal opportunity during the 2014 World Cup Group G soccer match between Germany and the U.S. at a viewing party under the Manhattan Bridge in New York June 26, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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Time to rebuild for South Africa cricket http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2014/03/06/time-to-rebuild-for-south-africa-cricket/ http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2014/03/06/time-to-rebuild-for-south-africa-cricket/#comments Thu, 06 Mar 2014 15:51:10 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/?p=8737 First Jacques Kallis retired. Then Graeme Smith called it quits. In between, South Africa lost a test series against Australia, their first at home since the 2008-09 season.

What stares the Proteas in the face now, however, is a far bigger challenge than just replacing two great cricketers.

The real test lies in rebuilding the team once again, with a new leadership and vision.

South African cricket is now known for what Smith achieved, and not for those World Cups where they ‘choked’. They deserve to be the No. 1 test side in the world but retaining that position now will be a different task all together.

The onus is now on the likes of AB de Villers, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and Dale Steyn to herald a new era which takes forward the good work put in by Smith.

It won’t be easy, like their re-admission to cricket, but it isn’t impossible either.

Firstly, de Villiers will need to give up keeping completely. He is the team’s best batsman and looks the most likely candidate to take over the test captaincy. Relieving him of keeping duties will help him cope with the demands of the game, both physically and mentally.

Quinton de Kock, who now keeps wickets in ODIs, deserves to get a run in tests. He may fail with the bat initially, like in his debut test, but seems to have the talent to last at international level.

Secondly, South Africa needs to resist the temptation of playing a spinner just for the sake of it. Robin Peterson and Imran Tahir haven’t made the most of opportunities handed to them and have at times let the opposition get away with easy runs. They may still have a role to play in sub-continent conditions but for that to happen they need to improve and be consistent.

South Africa need to look into their domestic stocks and find a opener to partner Alviro Petersen. Dean Elgar isn’t a natural choice for the opening slot but South Africa may experiment with him given the fact that he has a central contract now after Smith made way.

South Africa, though, will be better served if a younger player dons that role. Rilee Rossouw and Reeza Hendricks are two young players who have shown promise and this is the right time to give them a chance. Elgar can come in for any of the middle order players if they lack form or suffer injury.

With Vernon Philander improving with the bat, South Africa don’t need to be consumed by the lack of a genuine all-rounder. JP Duminy has done well too as a part-time off-spinner.

Instead, the Proteas need to blood a fast bowler to partner Steyn, Philander and Morne Morkel. They could look at Kyle Abbott or Wayne Parnell. Left-arm paceman Beuran Hendricks and Under-19 star Kagiso Rabada also look the best among domestic options.

All these changes now may cost South Africa some tests, denting their reputation as the No.1 test side, but it would strengthen their future, one that could see them beating Australia once again.

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Kevin Pietersen failed by ECB mismanagement http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2014/02/05/kevin-pietersen-failed-by-ecb-mismanagement/ http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2014/02/05/kevin-pietersen-failed-by-ecb-mismanagement/#comments Wed, 05 Feb 2014 19:12:46 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/?p=8733 Cricket boards can ruin careers and no example demonstrates it better than the England and Wales Cricket Board’s treatment of their star batsman Kevin Pietersen.

The decision to retire is always best left to the player unless he carries on without form and fitness, and Pietersen, England’s highest run-getter across all formats, should have been allowed to make that call.

The ECB, however, decided that the time had come to move on without Pietersen and after informing the batsman announced the news to the cricketing world.

It was nothing new. Just like they had done in the past, the board yet again demonstrated their inability to manage Pietersen.

The ECB could have left Pietersen out of the squad for the tour of the Caribbean, and asked the batsman to lay out his plans, but the board went further in deciding that it was “time to start the rebuilding process”.

After England’s disastrous tour of Australia, where Pietersen failed like most other batsmen but was still the top scorer, heads were expected to roll but the ECB should have tried to integrate old with the new rather than looking for scapegoats. It is not as if Pietersen was holding back the development of a talented domestic cricketer.

With coach Andy Flower quitting, the ECB had a chance to put Pietersen under a different regime, which could have helped the batsman to regain some much-needed confidence and form. The ECB, however, lacked the desire to do so. It seems his larger-than-the-game image became too big for the ECB to handle.

Former England skipper Michael Vaughan hit the nail on its head when the BBC asked him about the ECB’s announcement.

“The ECB need to explain exactly what KP does inside the dressing room that they can’t manage any longer. You have to manage mavericks; you can’t have clones around you all the time,” he said.

In fact, the ECB has never been able to work with Pietersen; sometimes being too harsh on his indiscretions and at times ignoring him completely. There was no middle ground between them and often that was due to the divided opinions that Pietersen inadvertently built as his career progressed.

The ECB failed to handle the situation properly in 2009, when he got into a tiff with then coach Peter Moores. Pietersen, who had been handed the captaincy, was forced to work with Moores despite criticising his coaching style. Predictably, it all felt apart with Pietersen resigning and Moores being sacked.

Pietersen reiterated the desire to lead but it fell on deaf ears.

The ECB turned their back on Pietersen again when he sought their permission to play in the Indian Premier League. He was made to choose between national and IPL commitments, which eventually led Pietersen to resign from one-dayers and T20 Internationals in 2012.

He did make a U-turn on that decision but the ECB never took him seriously for a role in limited-over formats, one of the many reasons for England’s decline in ODIs and T20Is.

Pietersen must share the blame too. He often put himself in trouble with his Twitter tirades that forced the ECB to take disciplinary action, some of which forced him to sit out key international fixtures.

Strangely, the ECB was tight-lipped in January when Pietersen was selected in the 30-man provisional squad for next month’s World T20 in Bangladesh and suddenly they say he is no longer part of their plans. Once again Pietersen was fooled into believing that things were getting better for him in the England set-up.

Pietersen could have gone on to achieve a lot more in his career had the ECB shown more faith in him and treated him better.

Cricket will always have mavericks like Pietersen but the key lies in managing them, a job that the ECB couldn’t fathom.

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Test cricket bids adieu to conqueror Kallis http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2013/12/31/test-cricket-bids-adieu-to-conqueror-kallis/ http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2013/12/31/test-cricket-bids-adieu-to-conqueror-kallis/#comments Tue, 31 Dec 2013 12:57:31 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/?p=8729 Time has come for the world of test cricket to move on without its biggest conqueror – Jacques Kallis. He is arguably the greatest cricketer to have played the game  and his retirement ends a career that has been both revered and envied.

The 38-year-old has set a benchmark for excellence in cricket. His test record boasts of 13,289 runs from 166 matches at 55.37, which includes 45 hundreds, to go along with 292 wickets and 200 catches. Any test cricketer would easily settle for any one of the above statistical landmarks in their entire career, let alone all of them together.

While longevity and consistency set Kallis apart, his hunger for runs and wickets, almost-perfect technique and sound fitness levels ensured his performances never dropped.

The time he realised he wasn’t performing to the high standards he set himself, he decided to call it quits.

The year 2013 was turning out to be the leanest season in Kallis’ career and it wasn’t surprising that he decided to end his Test career at Durban, the venue where it all began for him in 1995.

Not surprisingly, Kallis wrote the same familiar script. A century followed despite the deluge of emotions as his team mates and fans watched in admiration.

Like all great players, the sense of occasion was never lost on Kallis. Even in his last test, he ensured that his team got what they expected of him. Picture-perfect backfoot punches, pulls and cover drives were unleashed to light up the gloomy skies at Durban. The opposition were reduced to a sub-plot.

It all seemed like a fairytale as South Africa went on to win the test by 10 wickets and the series 1-0, with Kallis playing a key role in their triumph.

Kallis has often been compared to legendary West Indian all-rounder Garry Sobers. Their batting averages and wickets tally are also quite similar apart from the fact that Kallis played for a longer duration – 73 tests and 324 ODIs (to date) more than Sobers.

However, both were vastly different cricketers. Sobers was a fluent strokemaker known for his languid style and Kallis a purist who put caution ahead of flamboyance and hence comparing them won’t offer a ‘fair’ conclusion.

Kallis’ achievements, however, are unparalleled. No cricketer has ever had more than 11,000 runs and 270-plus wickets in both tests and ODIs. This record alone would stand for decades to come. He is third in the all-time run getters list, behind Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting.

The fact that Kallis could have made it into the South African team either as a specialist batsman or as a pacer indicates the quality of cricket he played.

Rahul Dravid put it aptly when he labelled Kallis as “the most complete cricketer of his generation”.

Test cricket will now have to wait for an eternity before another like Kallis turns up.

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England cricket selectors have got it all wrong in the Ashes http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2013/12/19/england-cricket-selectors-have-got-it-all-wrong-in-the-ashes/ http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2013/12/19/england-cricket-selectors-have-got-it-all-wrong-in-the-ashes/#comments Thu, 19 Dec 2013 15:16:04 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/?p=8725

It’s not only the on-field performances that let England down in the Ashes. The selectors too got it wrong starting from the initial announcement of the squad to the playing XI that was chosen for the third Test. The team management must also share the blame for going 3-0 down and losing the urn.

They made their first mistake in denying paceman Graham Onions a place in the touring party, a move that then came under harsh criticism in the English media. He has long been considered the second best swing bowler in England after James Anderson and his omission especially after a good season with Durham was baffling if not downright foolish. Instead, Onions is now in South Africa, playing for the Dolphins.

Of course, it is easy to criticise the selectors on the basis of hindsight but there were early signs that should have been heeded.

England were drained after winning the home Ashes 3-0 in August and it would have only been prudent to inject some more firepower into the playing XI for the return series, knowing that Australia would fight back hard.

The selectors preferred Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin over Onions and still didn’t give any one of them a go in the crucial third Perth Test, given that the WACA surface offered more for the fast bowlers than Adelaide. Chris Tremlett too went out of the reckoning after a sombre showing in the first test in Brisbane.

Add to that skipper Alastair Cook’s tendency to lean towards all-rounders when faced with a selection dilemma. He went in with both Tim Bresnan and Ben Stokes in Perth when the situation demanded a specialist pace bowler, and the result wasn’t surprising.

Only just fit-again Bresnan is no Andrew Flintoff and it is foolhardy to expect him to run through sides and Stokes is more of a batsman who bowls. England should play either of them and not both in a Test ever again.

There is no point in having nine batsmen if you can’t take 20 wickets in a Test. England got so absorbed in fixing their batting woes that their bowling lacked the penetration it needed.

There were moments in the Perth Test when England could have taken an upper hand but they had nobody else apart from Stuart Broad who could make use of the conditions. Australia were 143-5 and went on to post 385 in the first innings, negating the early advantage England had.

To compound Cook’s problems, Anderson has looked a shadow of the bowler one saw in England and it would do no harm if he were given a break.

Now England must focus on avoiding a whitewash and that will only be possible if their bowling is strengthened. Unleash Rankin or Finn or both together.

There is also the wise option of calling up Onions from South Africa, who we can safely bet won’t be too far from his phone.

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Magnus Carlsen dethrones Viswanathan Anand as world chess champion http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2013/11/22/magnus-carlsen-viswanathan-anand-world-chess-champion/ http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2013/11/22/magnus-carlsen-viswanathan-anand-world-chess-champion/#comments Fri, 22 Nov 2013 14:18:23 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/india/?p=12073 World number one Magnus Carlsen toppled local favourite Viswanathan Anand in Chennai to add the world chess championship title to his already impressive resume on Friday.

A draw in the crucial 10th game after 65 moves of play gave the young Norwegian an unassailable lead in the 12-match contest and put an end to Anand's hopes of retaining the FIDE title he’s held since 2007.

Carlsen, about a week shy of his 23rd birthday, led 6-3 before Friday’s game and needed just a draw to become the first champion from the West since American Bobby Fischer's reign ended in 1975.

"I really hope that this could have positive effects for chess both in Norway and worldwide," Carlsen said at the post-match news conference.

Anand, who has slumped to eighth in the rankings, did not win a game in a series billed as the "War of the Wizards". In this battle of youth and experience that kicked off on Nov. 9, both players started out with draws before the Norwegian won the fifth and sixth games to pull ahead. Anand drew the next two games before Carlsen prevailed in the ninth.

On Friday, Anand was playing with black pieces -- a disadvantage as white moves first -- and could not make much headway in a game that lasted nearly five hours.

The world title was the one accomplishment that had eluded Carlsen, often called the "Mozart of chess". He earned the right to challenge Anand by virtue of winning the candidates’ tournament in April.

The baby-faced Norwegian wasn't even born when Anand became India’s first grandmaster in 1988 and was just 10 when Anand won the first of his five world titles in 2000.

A grandmaster since he was 13, Carlsen now has the highest rating in the history of the game, breaking chess great Garry Kasparov’s record this year. He became the world’s number one at age 19, the youngest player ever to do so.

Kasparov, who coached Carlsen for a while, described him as "a type of Harry Potter" destined "to leave a deep mark" on the game.

A household name in India, Anand is widely credited with firing up the nation's passion for chess more than two decades ago. Friday's result was a disappointment for the 43-year-old, who had been the undisputed world champion since 2007.

"This year, I've had a lot of problems with mistakes creeping into my game," Anand said at the post-match news conference.

"(Losing) the fifth game was a heavy blow," he said, adding that it was time for him "to take stock".

The 2013 championship, played on a glass-encased, soundproof stage at five-star hotel in Chennai, drew unprecedented media interest, despite reams of newsprint and TV coverage devoted to Sachin Tendulkar's swansong series happening concurrently in cricket-crazy India.

More than 100 million TV viewers in India and Norway watched the chess championship broadcast, organisers said on the championship website.

This year, the chess title comes with a cash prize of $1.5 million for Carlsen while Anand will receive around $1 million.

(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty; Follow Tony on Twitter @tonytharakan and Amlan @amlan_reutersThis article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

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Tendulkar’s retirement a boon not a bane http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2013/11/20/tendulkars-retirement-a-boon-not-a-bane/ http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/2013/11/20/tendulkars-retirement-a-boon-not-a-bane/#comments Wed, 20 Nov 2013 12:50:00 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sport/?p=8720 While Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement may have been looked upon as the saddest chapter in Indian cricket, the fact remains that his exit can only work to the benefit of MS Dhoni’s emerging Test side.

There is no doubt about Tendulkar’s contribution to Indian cricket but as statistics show his impact was on the decline, more so in the last two years.

Tendulkar averaged only 31 in Tests in last two years, highest score being 94 against the West Indies in November, 2011. His average is lower than that of Dhoni (41.3), Virat Kohli (41.1), Cheteshwar Pujara (80.2) and Murali Vijay (55.4) in the same period.

With time, Tendulkar’s batting also transformed itself. The right-hander curbed his aggression and focused more on protecting his wicket without the attacking intent of the past. His recent knocks haven’t been free-flowing essays, but jerky outings.

His last dismissal against the part-time off-spin of Narsingh Deonarine is a case in point. Tendulkar tried to score of a ball that he could have left alone, and then could only guide it to first slip, whose very presence should have acted as a deterrent to the shot.

Tendulkar’s insistence on carrying on and the selectors’ faith in him meant that many promising youngsters were devoid of an early opportunity to get a taste of international cricket.

Now that the dust has settled over Tendulkar’s retirement, Ajinkya Rahane seems to be the most likely replacement despite his poor Test debut against Australia in March, where he could only accumulate eight runs in two innings.

Rahane, 25, averages almost 60 in the domestic circuit and possesses a good technique for Test cricket.

India can also go in with an all-rounder in the form of Ravindra Jadeja, which will add more balance to the Test side, which normally features just four specialist bowlers.

Replacements may take a while to get going but it is an investment for the future. Tendulkar’s retirement, though delayed, has opened a slot for a new face in Indian cricket. 

Whether it is a batsman or an all-rounder, the Indian team will be a better one than that which featured an out-of-form Tendulkar.

Indian fans may find it hard to see a Test side without Tendulkar but opposition teams know that their task just got harder.

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