The greatest ride in sport

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On Monday, the cricket lover in your house was probably hopping up and down on the couch like a toddler left in charge of the supermarket sugar section, because there was Test match cricket happening. 

To the fans, it was utterly gripping. To the rest of the household, it was as perplexing as herbal tea.

To be fair, some of its concepts are pretty mystifying. At the end, Pakistan were refusing to score runs even though they needed less than ten to win, as the decent batsman tried to protect the one picked last.

These days everyone gets one day and T20 cricket, roughly. The math is straightforward – Grant Elliot needed five runs to get us in the world cup final, he hit it for six, simple. Plus you only have to put up with it for a day , tops. 

But Tests… for fans, every win represents not just the time you’ve managed to spend watching over the last five days, but a commitment to the game that builds up over a lifetime.

Frustration, rain, boredom, defeat… they’re all part of a Test cricket fan’s burden. It’s no co-incidence we usually refer to ourselves as tragics. 

Then suddenly, like a bus losing its brakes and coming right at you, a match gets close and you’re plunged into agony and hope, your heart beats in a genuinely alarming way and concerns like work, family and your reputation as a sane, functional member of society fade away.    
When your team wins a close one, fans often declare their love for the game, as well as the team. Cricket Twitter was full of ‘How great is Test cricket?’ and ‘How can you not love it?’ on Monday night. You don’t often get All Blacks fans declaring ‘I love rugby!’ at their moments of triumph. 

There’s no doubt five day cricket is an anachronism, and fans  genuinely worry it could all come crashing down one day, when the economics of putting on such a resource-hungry game for a small section of fans doesn’t work any more. 

We need to find a common language, so we can share the intense highs and lows of the format without presenting as a slacker lunatic fringe. A great Test is often compared to reading a novel, that feeling of either triumph or anguish and something you don’t want to finish coming to an end. 

White clothing, long shadows and unparalleled drama are a heady combination, team. Without wishing a lifetime of angst and lost productively on you and yours, I highly recommend giving Test cricket a go.  

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone – the stages of coping with an All Black loss

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Stage one – Hope
Happens at around 20 minutes to go. All the subs are on and we’re not pulling away. Remember to breathe. Offer positive support. If you’re unable to do so, focus on the referee and his nationality. 

Stage two – Crushed dreams
We’ve lost. The boys are walking around the park in a daze, aimlessly spraying sports drink around and doing mournful nose clearances. You’re tempted to turn on talkback and listen to  some angry people. Don’t to do that. Go to bed, toss and turn until 6am before falling into a dreamless sleep. Be aware your dreams may now be over forever. 

Stage three – Distraction
Sunday. Get the paper. Pretend to be interested in the restaurant reviews and business analysis. Sneak away and angrily read the sport section the loo. Emerge. Go for a run. Have a sneaky cry on the shared path. Stop for a McDonalds Hunger Buster and devour it at the bottom of the drive, putting the rubbish immediately in the wheelie bin. Fake a migraine for the remainder of the day.   

Stage four – Cautiously rejoining society 
Monday. Drive to your place of work. Be gracious if you encounter colleagues from the nation you’ve just lost to. Don’t punch anyone in the balls. Should discussion of the match occur, mentally retreat to your ‘happy place’ ie enjoying Argentinian steaks beside the Sheraton Denarau pool with the Barrett brothers and Graham Henry. Go home at 3.20pm.  

Stage five – The wallowing time 
Breathlessly read the opinion pieces that cram the nation’s media for the week. Bargain with the devil around this loss and the next scheduled World Cup. Assign blame to individuals. Change your mind on those individuals frequently. Consider leaving comments on Tony Veitch’s Facebook page. 

Stage six – Phoenix from the flames 
Take the family out for a late afternoon stroll around the neighbourhood. Bake some bread. Enjoy tennis on the TV. Update your LinkedIn page. Call an old friend. Avoid talking about potential goal kicking options within the match day squad, angry shouting and abruptly hanging up. Send an email of apology no later than 12 hours after ending the call.  

Stage seven – Acceptance
Prepare to watch the next weekend’s match. Responsibly enjoy three quarters of your beers before kick off. Hide sharp objects. Direct any remaining negative energy at the television commentators. Be ready to switch to rowing on Pop Up channel 8 should the game go against the All Blacks. Remember you are a  valid individual with unique gifts whose worth is not defined by sporting results outside your control. If that fails, just yell at the referee.  

Ric Salizzo’s Instagram is New Zealand sporting taonga

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Ric Salizzo has probably done more for your enjoyment of sport than you realise. Starting as a TV reporter and All Blacks media officer, he’s produced everything from the ground breaking The Good, The Bad and The Rugby documentary from the All Blacks 1989 Wales and Ireland tour through to today’s The Crowd Goes Wild. He’s responsible for making New Zealand sport vastly more interesting, and funny, than it was before. 

And he’s posting the best bits to Instagram, including the best of SportsCafe, the midweek monster that gave the nation some of our most iconic TV moments.

It was like nothing else that came before it, and put sporting regulars like Eric Rush and Zinzan Brooke alongside Lana Coc-Kroft, Graeme Hill (fresh out of BFM), Eva the Bulgarian, Leigh Hart and Salizzo himself, bemusedly and barely holding it all together, despite the best efforts of Marc Ellis, scarfie icon and the show’s jester.  

It was wonderful TV, with sportspeople in much more relaxed conversation than the breathless pre- and post-match carry on, in times before media training etc. It also pioneered audience participation through Legends of the Lounge and National Nude Day in the pre-smartphone and internet era where people would have to mail in video cassettes. 

Anyway – Ric is posting some of the best bits to Instagram and they’re wonderful. Here’s a top five: 

George Best and Zinzan Brooke talk about trying things in matches – spanning continents, codes and generations, two  extremely gifted and singular sportsmen talk about trying the outrageous in matches, and not letting anything stop you putting on a show. 

All-in mascot brawl, with Frank Bunce – what else are mascots for, really? Just give the public what they want.

Marc Ellis boots a ball into the crowd – Ellis was MASSIVE in the 90s, moving from rugby to TV with a run of shows giving him a platform for his set-jaw comedy and fondness for taking his clothes off in public. He’d sometimes turn up drunk and push the good taste / health and safety line very hard indeed. 

That guy – Leigh Hart is a national treasure, and got his start on the show with his band and skits, adding a deeply weird layer to the sport chat that shouldn’t have worked, but really, really did.  

Lana slaps Marc – if you’d had enough of Ellis’ shit, this one was for you. Looked like it hurt, too. 

Bonus link: Zinzan rides a donkey from The Good, The Bad and The Rugby. Features the All Blacks in the late 80s holy trinity of boat shoes, knitwear and moustaches. 

Bluffer’s guide to the English Premier League

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number twenty two – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here
The English Premier League (EPL) is the biggest domestic football competition in the world, and hot on the heels of the World Cup, it kicks off this weekend – here’s all you need to know.

A quick history lesson
English football has come a long way from muddy pitches, men with spiderwebs tattooed on their necks fighting on council estates and Big League Soccer on a Sunday. 1989’s Hillsborough disaster meant stadiums were made all-seater and family friendly, moving the game away from its working class roots, while Rupert Murdoch’s SKY injected plenty of TV cash when the Premier League as we know it was born in 1992.

Fast forward to 2018, and some of the best players in the world earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a week (a week!) in exotic London, Manchester and, um, Bournemouth for kicking a ball about, doing a bit of training and trying to stay out of the tabloids.

What they’re playing for 
The top of the table has has been dominated by the top London and Manchester clubs, along with Liverpool, who all want to finish in the top four to get a lucrative and sexy place in the Champions League, Europe’s top competition. Three teams get relegated at the end of the season, prompting some desperate football and woe in May, the favourites are Cardiff, Huddersfield and Watford at this stage. In between is a whole lot of mush, really.

The teams

  • Tottenham Hotspur – From the North East of London, they’ve hovered around second place for the last few years, but last won the league title in 1961. In England, ‘Spursy’ means choking, but in actual fact they are the greatest football team the world has ever seen (I support them, ahem.)
    • Star – Harry Kane, the World Cup golden boot
    • Storyline – they move into a sumptuous new stadium this year, but tight finances mean they’ve become the first EPL team to not sign a single new player in the off season, much to their fans’ annoyance
  • Manchester City – won it last year without too much trouble. Were perennially shit and a really solid laughing stock for years until they were brought by Abu Dhabi sheiks, who gave them the cash to buy pretty much any player they wanted. They’ve done pretty well since.
    • Star – take your pick
    • Storyline – can they be stopped?
  • Manchester United – dominated the 90s and 2000s thanks to the bombastic Alex Fergusson, who oversaw an admittedly fantastic series of teams. Replacing him was hard though, and they’re onto their third post-Fegie manager Jose Mourinho, who’s either a genius or an unpleasant shyster depending on where you sit
    • Star – Paul Pogba, the dynamo world cup winner
    • Storyline – pressure is on to stay in touch with deadly rivals Manchester City
  • Liverpool – dominated the 70s and 80s but have struggled to reach the same heights for some time. Charismatic German (not a typo) manager Jurgen Klopp has brought wisely in the break, and they should be there or thereabouts
    • Star – the wonderful Egyptian striker Mo Salah
    • Story – with some decent signings, they’ll be hoping this is the season they can break through
  • Chelsea and Arsenal – the other two London clubs have both had disappointing (for them) runs lately and go into the season with new leadership – the former goes through managers like rugby goes through rules changes, while Arsenal have just replaced the venerable Arsene Wenger, who’d been in charge since the late 90s
    • Stars – for Chelsea it’s Eden Hazard from the tremendous Belgian world cup run, while for Arsenal Mesut Oil is the least underwhelming
    • Story – both aiming for top four, it’s hard to see them doing much more

The kits 
None of this World Cup retro sophistication – they’re all shocking. The league’s global popularity means many of the sponsors are in Chinese characters, which is fine but makes it all look a bit Blade Runner.

Where to watch
In New Zealand, unless you’re doing something untoward with your computer, you need beIN, who partner with SKY to bring you every game, the Spanish league and more to your dish or laptop for $16.10 per month.

Where to follow 
The Premier League app has all the fixture and tables etc. I like the Guardian’s football pages, and recommend their podcast too.

Super rugby is (finally) getting interesting(ish)

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number nineteen – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

When Super Rugby arrived on the scene in 1996, it was brilliant. Colourful jerseys, mullets, cheerleaders. Even the word ‘franchise’ sounded exotic back then. 12 teams, everyone played everyone else, two semi finals and the whole thing took about three months. Fans were more interested in smoking a packet of durries before the match and going to an Exponents concert afterwards than loading up the credit card on replica jerseys at Rebel Sport.

But – no-one tinkers with a winning formula like rugby, and in 2018 we have a schedule that starts firmly in cricket season (the BLACKCAPS and England played a three Test-series during the 2018 Super Rugby season) and takes a three week break for a meaningless Test series to be played in June.

Teams from Argentina and Japan are included now, but overall, southern hemisphere rugby is going backwards faster than post-Joshua Tree U2, with former powerhouses Australia and South Africa nowhere near their 1990s form or organisational strength.

For New Zealand rugby fans, it means the same interminable local derbies week after week, with hard earned quarterfinal spots going off shore thanks to a complicated conference system that makes as much sense as those self-service machines in McDonalds.

Drivers for this mess are the desire to grow the game in new countries and the need to generate revenue, but we’re left with a competition solely geared to TV that leaves fans bloated and bored by the time it’s finished. 

It’s not *all* bad – the Chiefs and Hurricanes produced a fantastic match last Friday night, despite star players being out injured, and are set to do it again tonight. The playoffs, now they’re finally here, look tasty.

What’s the solution? For fans, I say don’t reward bad behaviour and vote with your wallet. Watch cricket in the summer, and don’t watch rugby until after the international break, when the matches start to mean something.

Let’s rip the game back from the administrators, referees and sponsors and bring back the Super 10, that ran for three seasons between 1993 and 1995. Four NZ teams, two Aussie, Three South African and a Pacific Island international team. Two round robins, one final. Simple. Let’s do this.

No future in England’s dreaming

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number eighteen – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

World cup business ends aren’t a pretty place. Minnow nations’ fans waving frantically at the camera, probably dressed as their national parrot, are replaced by people quietly weeing themselves with tension.

England, who’ve previously gone for shyster foreign coaches and superstar-ego-pandering, are young, open, funny and likeable this time around, lead by the superb Gareth Southgate, all waistcoats and earnestness.

They’d overcome the long shadows of world cups past by winning a penalty shoot out for the first time and actually having a strategy on the pitch to reach their first semi final for 28 years. That’s roughly the same length of time between Martin Crowe’s 1992 semi final heartbreaker and Grant Elliott’s Eden Park heroics.

Going ahead early yesterday morning, they were reeled in and eventually passed by Croatia, every football hipster’s favourite team, all never-say-die determination and hard Adriatic noses and elbows.

Like someone said on Twitter, it’s the hope that kills you.

This is a young England team with an exciting future ahead, but with big guns like Brazil, Germany and Spain more disappointing than a dropped ice cream, 2018 may have been their chance to win it.

It’s France’s to lose now, although underdogs Croatia have some magic about them.

Big picture, England seemed to be part of a new wave of team-first-cultures, where it’s all about the group rather than superstars, along the lines of the BLACKCAPS under Mike Hesson. It’s a modern, inclusive way to do things, diametrically opposed to say the Australian cricketers, with their sandpaper and shouting at people.

These teams are fun and rewarding to support, but are they a way to win trophies? Let’s hope the BLACKCAPS show us how it’s done at next year’s world cup.

We’re nearly there for Russia 2018 and disappointingly, life will soon be back to normal. It’s been one of the best ever, with plenty of goals, upsets and a different set of teams at the pointy end. We still haven’t solved the problems of nations South America and Europe dominating the tournament – and hard to see that changing in Qatar next time. It’ll still be fun.

Best goal – Kevin de Bruyne v Brazil. Fantastic run from Luakaku, and a stonking finish

Best fan – the guy dressed as chips

Best meme – Neymar. So good.

Welcome to planet football

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number fourteen – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here
World Cups generate memories – goals, like Micheal Owen’s solo effort as an 18 year old in ’98 and Brazil 70’s supreme team goal in the final. There’s the craziness of Luis Suarez biting a defender, or the great Zinadine Zidane’s red card for a brutal head butt, and even whole games, like Italy v Brazil 1982 or West Germany v England 1990.

You can watch at the pub of course, but the real work is done on the couch, with a milo. Football fans live a half-light solitary existence, mapped by World Cup wall charts, time differences and time-shifted recordings for the month. You basically turn into Renton in Trainspotting, but for football. It’s hard to resist.

Hosts Russia kicked things off this morning with a match against Saudi Arabia and, inexplicably, Robbie Williams. And we’re off. Here’s the build up, teams and how you can follow along.

Last time out
Germany won the last tournament in Brazil in 2014, taking the hosts down 7-1 in a seismic semi final. The champions are just as strong this time around, and seeing how Brazil, who live for World Cups, bounce back will be one of the great storylines.

Russia welcomes you! 
Russia won hosting rights in 2010, with Qatar announced as 2022 cup hosts at the same time, in a bidding process shonkier than your un-consented deck. Since then, FIFA has been discredited by massive systemic corruption while Russia has hosted the drug, human rights violation and judging scandal-plagued 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, had state-sponsored  athlete doping exposed, interfered with the US elections (allegedly!) and annexed Crimea. Expect some pretty painful Putin photo-ops over the next month.

The telly
It’s a fairly challenging time difference for New Zealanders, with most of it happening in the middle of the night, but there’s a game on at 6 or 7am most days. All the matches will be live on SKY Sport, with quite a few free to air on Prime including the semis and final – here’s the list.

The internet
The FIFA World Cup app looks pretty decent for yer fixtures and standings, but they’re not giving much video away – for that, sashay over to r/soccer, where you’ll find goal clips within seconds of them going in, and all the highs and lows of internet fandom.

I really like the Guardian’s football coverage – this preview is an amazing effort and achievement – and recommend the Football Weekly podcast, which is going daily. At home, Radio New Zealand have the Squeaky Bum Time podcast running for the duration.

Selected team previews
Brazil 
History: Winners in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002. Often called the All Blacks of Football by people who don’t know much about either sport, those yellow shirts and languid skills are everyone’s favourite second team.
Chances: Depends on how they bounce back from 7-1. They have the best players around, but as always, it depends on how they knit together.

England 
History: Winners in ’66. Penalty shoot-out horrors, comedy goal keeping, non-qualification and general over promising and under delivery ever since.
Chances: Harder to predict than what’s going on with David Seymour. Harry Kane is the marvellous Tottenham striker who can’t stop scoring, if he can do the same for England they’ll be well placed. Come on!

Spain
History: Winners in 2010. Perennial underachievers, they finally put together a special team and tactics to match in South Africa, starting a golden run.

Chances: Boldly sacked their coach a week out, but are still laden with talent. The world’s caught them up somewhat, but this golden generation will have some life left, no doubt.

Germany
History: Winners in 1954, 1974, 1990, 2014. England’s worst nightmare.
Chances: More efficient than a Kraftwerk bassline, but not quite as stylish. Will be very, very organised and very, very hard to beat.

Argentina
History: Winners 1978, 1986. England’s worst nightmare.
Chances: If Messi gets injured, they’re in trouble. It’s not a LeBron – Cavaliers situation but close.

Elsewhere
There’s loads more of course. France have a fantastic team, Ronaldo’s Portugal are flying and all previews are obliged to mention Belgium, who have their own golden generation happening, and replace Croatia as hipster tipsters’ European dark horses.

Australia are there, but up against France, Denmark and Peru, who put the All Whites out, so will have a tough time making it out of the group.

Brilliantly, there’s always an unlikely nation like Cameroon in 1990, Romania in 1994 and South Korea and Turkey in 2002 who become global superstars for a couple of weeks. And there’s no way of knowing who it will be. Enjoy it.

Magic Mike – a Mike Hesson top five

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number thirteen – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here
When Joni Mitchell wrote ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’, she probably had this golden BLACKCAPS era in mind. We’ve gone from one great captaincy run to the very start of another under coach Mike Hesson’s leadership, and after he dropped yesterday’s resignation bombshell, everyone on Twitter pretty much wanted someone to just carry on doing what he’s doing.

He’s made a monumental and worthy contribution – here’s a Mike Hesson top five:

5. Mikes Hesson and Sandle, Brendon McCullum and Bob Carter meet in a South African hotel room to lay out the plan for the team’s future, shortly after being bundled out for 45 in a Test innings. They set the blueprint for building a team with flair, a united culture and that New Zealanders could relate to and be proud of. We’re still reaping the benefits.
4. Planning, planning, planning. Remember when Grant Elliott was a surprise selection and Trent Boult wasn’t a white ball bowler? When was the last time we had so many all rounders? The preparation that goes into talent identification and team selections is meticulous in the extreme, and Mike’s hit rate is high.3. Just getting on with it. When he was appointed NZ coach, only people paying attention knew who he was, and the  captaincy change meant he was well on the back foot with the talkback crowd from the start. He kept his head down and let the results speak for themselves, slowly revealing his deep thinking and dry humour as he went on. It wasn’t the Mike Hesson show, but he was running it.

2. Forming the right team around the team. The core support staff are the part of the story you don’t often hear about, but they’re a massive part of the consistency and results we’ve enjoyed over the last few years. These guys work super hard to make sure everyone knows their job, has what they need to succeed and the encouragement to pull it off.

1. Building one of the great eras in NZ cricket. We’re a tough Test team to beat, can take down  anyone in ODIs and were even the number one bloody T20 side for a while there. We were World Cup finalists for the first time ever, hover in  respectable Test ranking spots, and put together a really solid run of wins, especially at home. These are wonderful times to be a NZ cricket fan, and we’re well placed to build on what we have now, with the right appointment.

And so, rarely for an NZ cricket coach, he gets to leave the job with oodles of goodwill and on his own terms. If he ever sits down in Dunedin to write a book, I’d love to read it, as it’ll be more The Art Of Captaincy than Lifting The Covers. It’s a great shame he’s lost to the ICC Cricket Committee before he got started as he’d have loads to contribute.

Let’s see what happens next – if he does end up in the Big Bash or the IPL, he’ll Moneyball it like nobody’s business. And when they hand the trophy out, he’ll just be standing to the side, looking proud of his players and satisfied with doing his bit and a job well done. Go well.

Auckland stadium power rankings

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number eleven – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

Auckland’s stadiums are like Stuff commenters – there are too many of them, and they’ve all got something wrong with them.

This week’s Auckland venue development strategy, handily summarised at sportsfreak.co.nz, confirmed that as ever, the sticking points are Eden Park, Mount Smart and Albany Stadium. There’s an argument for knocking at least two out of three over and starting again.

A waterfront rugby / league/ football / concerts stadium must happen, with a retractable roof and meaningful connection with the CBD. To help push things along, behold the Sport Review Auckland stadium power rankings:

#5 – Eden Park 
What’s it good for? Rugby, and history. It was fantastic for RWC 2011, but that relied on temporary seating being put in. The number two ground is lovely for second tier cricket, with the old stand and the service station over Sandringham Road to aim at.
What’s wrong with it: It’s basically the world’s largest Back Yard Cricket venue, and no-one turns up for Test matches despite best efforts to put on a show. It’s too far out of town and your transport options are highly variable. Residents permanently terrified of Otago students vomiting on the Q7. No concerts allowed.
Personal high point: Cricket World Cup 2015 v Australia and the semi final, Waikato winning the Ranfurly Shield in 1993.

#4 equal – Albany Stadium
What’s it good for? Has potential but needs lots of work. Why not embrace the Shore’s culture and make it Stadium South Africa, home base for visiting Super Rugby teams, with Braai?
What’s wrong with it: Frustratingly far away from the bus station. Could be an ideal NZ Football venue and high performance set up but needs to get a pro team of its own, which is a can of worms bigger than Dune.
Personal high point: I saw the Kingz there once.

#4 equal – Mount Smart
What’s it good for? Spiritual home of the Warriors, in spite of itself. Close-ish to public transport if you’re up for a bit of a walk or are into industrial areas.
What’s wrong with it: Tired, needs a lot of fixing up. Despite having roots in South Auckland, the owners are keen as beans to move into town. Where Carlaw Park was. Ahem.
Personal high point: Paul McCartney last year, Big Day Out ’94.

#3 – America’s Cup village 
What’s it good for? Drinking beer beside the Waitemata water while watching yachts. Simple pleasures. It’s right beside the Viaduct where it all started, and takes advantage of all the development since.
What’s wrong with it? Nothing so far – there’s a lot to do, but it’s going to be in Auckland, not Italy, which is a great start.
Personal high point: When we retain it.

#2 – Vector Area 
What’s it good for? It’s downtown, still pretty modern and great for netball, basketball and concerts.
What’s wrong with it? The trains go straight past it, meaning an awkward walk back from Britomart. Would be the ideal location for a waterfront stadium.
Personal high point: Luckily, courtside for the Breakers one time, Pixies Dolittle tour in ’10.

#1 – Western Springs, cricket venue 
What’s it good for? The boutique ground to rule them all. OK,  it doesn’t technically exist, but if we can build a venue that can handle 5 or 45k fans just as easily, with lights, green top pitch, craft beer and some kind of artisan meat snacks that can still handle big summer concerts, it’s going to be an absolute winner. Victoria Park would be even better but it’s hard to see this flying.
What’s wrong with it: Residents permanently terrified of Guns n Roses showing up in speedway cars to poo on their begonias.
Personal high point: U2’s Love Comes To Town show in 1989, it was ace.