Monday, August 24, 2009

Cliff's Notes version

To those who bore easily where sports are concerned, the post below can be summed up with 'England good, Australia bad.' But read it anyway, ya ingrates!

(That's right: the beatings will continue until morale improves. Or at least until I get a job.)

Why is this man kissing an egg cup?

Photos in this post shamelessly, uh, borrowed from the Times.

To an Englishman, they are some of the sweetest words in creation.

To an Australian, they are devastating, deeply painful words, on a par with 'We're all out of Foster's' or 'The dingo ate your baby.'

And to most of the rest of the world, they are utterly, bafflingly meaningless.

'England have regained the Ashes.' A five-word summation of a month-and-a-half-long roller coaster in a sport that I can all but guarantee will never catch on in the United States.

Cricket has a curious reputation outside the eight or 10 countries that follow it -- and even within them. What kind of sport takes five days to play and has 'tea breaks,' the general line of reasoning goes. Surely nothing interesting can take that long.

And it's true. There are tea breaks. It does take five days (well, sometimes). And there are extended periods of time when nothing happens. But even when nothing's happening, something's happening, and in following this series (because, well, it's something to do), I've come to realise that.

So why 'The Ashes?' Because, well, because England are sore losers, pretty much. Back in the late 1800s, England lost to Australia (then still a colony, and a penal colony at that) in a test match at a ground called the Oval. So humiliating was this defeat that a paper called The Sporting Times published an obituary of English cricket that included the line 'the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.'

When England visited Australia next, the tour was dubbed 'the quest to regain the Ashes,' a group of women presented a small urn, allegedly containing the ashes an item of cricket equipment, to the England players and a (slightly bizarre) tradition was born. (The urn pictured above is not the real urn, which is pretty much in a museum.)

More than a hundred years later, it remains international cricket's biggest rivalry.

In its modern-day form, the Ashes is contested every other year, alternating between England and Australia. Australia dominated the late 80s, the 90s and the early ... whatever we're calling this decade, but England finally ended the run with a 2-1 series victory in 2005. (A series is five matches, but a match can end in a draw -- which isn't the same thing as a tie.)

Australia, though, won them back in late 2006 (cricket is a summer sport, and so the Ashes is conducted in December when it's held in Australia), whitewashing England 5-0. And there was little to suggest that England could put up much of a fight this year, because, well, England weren't very good.

But they were good enough.

(Quick interlude for a very quick overview of the rules: Each team can bat twice in a match. Each turn at bat is called an innings. (Not an inning.) In each innings, a team gets 10 wickets, the equivalent of outs, and as much time to use them as they want. Scores reach into the hundreds.)

The first match ended in an improbable draw, which, as I said, isn't the same thing as a tie. What it basically means is that over the course of the five days, the two teams are unable to complete two innings(es?) each. And that means that even if you're hopelessly unable to win, you can hold out until the end of play and at least not lose. It's the equivalent of hitting 69 straight foul balls with two outs in the ninth of a 10-1 baseball game and the umpires saying 'You know what? This is going nowhere. You boys had enough?'

(There are those who would argue that stuff like this is the reason Test cricket isn't as popular now, having been passed in the eyes of many by the shorter versions of the game, especially Twenty20. And it can be very boring. But that's why they sell beer.)

And in England's case, what they did, with the last two batsmen seeing out the final 69 balls of the match without making an out, was the equivalent of two relief pitchers standing at the plate and hitting those 69 foul balls. (This would be one of those times where, although nothing is really happening, everything is happening. They weren't scoring runs, but they didn't have to.)

But so dominant were Australia, despite not winning, that there seemed little reason to expect they wouldn't win the series, especially with the second match at Lord's (remember when I went there?), where Australia hadn't lost for 75 years.

Like I said, hadn't. England steamrolled to victory, making history and surprising pretty much everyone.

By the third match, I was pretty much hooked, even though I can't afford Sky and therefore couldn't watch on TV. But because it rained the entire third day, Australia were able to force a draw of their own.

Then they bashed England's heads in in the fourth match, evening the series with a victory so dominant they didn't even have to bat their second innings, England scoring less in its two combined that Australia did in its first.

And since a drawn series means the Ashes stay with whoever has them, England had to win the fifth match, and Australia only had to draw. The English never having been famous for their optimism, hopes were not high, to say the least.

England batted first, which was crucial, but didn't make a very good score. Australia then started their innings really well, and it all looked like it was going wrong. But then, in two hours, England took eight of Australia's wickets, an incredible achievement at any point of any match, but even more incredible in this one.

It was a 22-1 run in basketball, back-t0-back-to-back home runs in baseball. You felt a wicket was going down with virtually every ball. In literally two hours of a series that lasted a month and a half, England had, essentially, won the Ashes.

Having finished the Aussies after, yes, tea, England managed a better score in their second innings, and with more than two days to go, Australia needed 546 runs to win the game, the equivalent of scoring 10 runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 11-10.

The all-time record for such a situation is 418 -- though England managed to allow a successful 'chase' of 387 against India just last year. But remember, Australia didn't need to win. If they could somehow bat out the final two-plus days, they could draw the match and keep the Ashes.

And after a strong start, it all looked sickeningly possible. I was worried, the radio commentators were worried (well, except for the Australian ones), everyone was worried. And not just about a draw ...

But when Australia's third wicket went, early in the afternoon, everything changed again. We knew we were going to win. It was only a matter of when.

And a few hours later, when we did, I will admit, I got a little emotional.

Over cricket? Really? Yep.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Who's Extra-special? YOU'RE Extra-special

On May 15 of next year, some 90,000 people will crowd into England's national stadium, Wembley, to watch the final of the Football Association Cup, or F.A. Cup as it's known by, well, everyone. Millions more around Britain will watch on TV, and quite a few more will watch around the world.

And with any luck, the 2018 World Cup final, too.

It is a grand occasion, one of the highlights of the English football calendar, and that is reflected in its prominence, scheduled for the week after the regular season ends and the only game in town, so to speak. (The tournament itself is conducted alongside the normal league campaign, rather than as a postseason playoff as is typical in American sports.)

The final itself has been contested, in recent years, mostly by members of 'The Big 4,' the four large clubs that have dominated the past decade and a half of English football. (Even anti-fans of soccer have heard of these: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.) A glorious exception came two years ago, when the local Premier League side, Portsmouth, were the winners.

Fifteen months later, the club is nearly bankrupt!

For the average fan, the F.A. Cup begins in January, when the teams from the top two divisions enter the draw for the third round. Most will know that lower-level teams come in for the first round, a couple of months earlier.

But before the 'first round,' there are six other rounds, starting with something called the Extra-Preliminary Round, followed by the Preliminary Round and four Qualifying Rounds. For a club to advance from the Extra-Preliminary Round to the First Round thus requires six victories -- as many as would be required for Manchester United to win the Cup.

That's because the F.A. Cup is open not only to the country's biggest clubs, but also to some of its smallest. (Briefly, the Premier League is at the top of the 'pyramid,' which goes about 20 levels deep. There is theoretically promotion and relegation to and from each of these levels, though stadium restrictions put a limit on that. The F.A. Cup is open to teams in the top 10 levels of the pyramid, though many at the 10th level aren't eligible because their grounds don't have things like floodlights.)

And part of the 'magic' of the F.A. Cup comes from the fact that, theoretically, any team can reach the Final, even if, in practice, that never happens. And more magic is found in the way games are set up -- there is no seeding at all, and any team can play any other team. Manchester United, therefore, could play Chelsea in the third round, or it could be drawn against some lucky lower-level team that's won through a half-dozen rounds already. And even more remarkably, Manchester United could be forced to play at that team's ground! (Although a club of Man U's size would generally require the tie to be moved to a larger ground.)

It's all highly unlikely, of course, but it's not impossible. Just two years ago, a team called Chasetown entered the Cup in the Preliminary Round and made it all the way to the Third Round, where they were drawn against Cardiff City, a side from the second-highest division in the country. And Cardiff were forced to travel to Chasetown, where the average attendance is something like 200. More than 2,000 packed into a tiny ground to watch Chasetown improbably take the lead before bowing out to a respectable 3-1 defeat.

Four months later, Cardiff lost the F.A. Cup final to Portsmouth.

So less than three months removed from the last final, contested on the day I touched down in England, the F.A. Cup began again last weekend. And because I am hopelessly romantic about things like this, I had to attend. Saturday saw me at a familiar venue, Fareham Town's delightfully quirky little ground, where the home side were playing local rivals Moneyfields. (The draw is heavily regionalised in the early rounds, so local derbies, as they're called, are common.)

Attendance at Fareham's first two home games was 102 and 103, and the excitement of the F.A. Cup swells the crowd for this game to, um, around 160. With 203 Extra-Preliminary Round games, that likely means that the attendance at ALL of them was less than half the total that will watch the final in nine months.

But although Fareham Town's players are more likely to walk on the moon than appear in the F.A. Cup final, there was no lack of energy about the game. A decent cup run can mean a financial boost for a club, if nothing else. And with Fareham's players all on, at least according to the man standing next to me, £10 a week (plus undisclosed bonuses for winning), even the £750 prize money for winning in the Extra-Preliminary Round will go quite a long way.

But there's to be no prize money for Fareham this year, even after they take the lead early in the second half. A pair of goals from free kicks by Owen Elias, the second in the final minute of the match, knocks them out, the fact that Elias is an ex-Fareham player only making the sting worse.

Drawn games in the F.A. Cup are replayed at the ground of the visiting team. Once upon a time, they were replayed as many times as necessary, but the constraints of the modern game mean replays are now decided by extra-time and penalty shootouts, if necessary. The semifinals and finals now have no replays at all.

But the Extra-Preliminary Round does, and that offers me another chance to dip my toe in the pool. A Google search helps me decide that I'm going to Pagham, a small town about 40 minutes to the east, where the local team is replaying a match against Banstead Athletic. (Pagham itself is a small seaside town and is apparently becoming popular with the celeb set, including Emma Bunton, the once and future Baby Spice. I don't recall seeing her at the game ...)

The pre-match announcements remind us that extra-time and penalties are on offer, and it doesn't take long to reach the conclusion that that's where we may be going. There are few real chances, as both teams defend rather desperately, and the match seems destined either for a shootout or a late, late winner.

That winner, much to the home fans' chagrin, nearly comes at the end of regulation, when Banstead are awarded a penalty kick. Most of the fans appear already to have given up hope of victory -- at least until the kick is blazed at least a foot over the crossbar, still rising as it hits the net behind the goal.

Extra-time, then, with the game still 0-0. But it doesn't take long for Banstead to redeem themselves, with a scramble near the goal ending when one of their substitutes bundles the ball over from about two yards out.

Not surprisingly, this is just the thing Pagham need to finally inject some urgency into their game, and they come close to scoring a couple of times. But their lot appears up when one of their substitutes flattens a Banstead player (during a Pagham attack, no less) and is ejected, leaving Pagham short-handed for the final 10-12 minutes of the game.

But they overcome the odds, and a scramble of their own ends with the ball crashing into the hand of a Banstead player in the penalty box, giving Pagham a penalty kick of its own. There is no repeat of the earlier calamity, and we go to the dreaded penalty shootout.

If, however, the keepers are feeling any nerves, they don't show it, seeking each other out to wish each other luck. And after the first Pagham penalty beats Banstead keeper Dave Tidy, he remarks to the fans behind the goal that nothing much can be expected of him, as he is just 'a fat, slow old ...' (He never finishes that sentence, leaving it to our imagination.)

A shock, then, when he saves the next one, though it is, in his words, 'the worst penalty ever.'

He saves Pagham's third as well, but his team's struggles continue, with their second crashing off the crossbar and the third saved by Pagham's Wes Hallett, whose pink-torsoed, black-sleeved goalkeeper's shirt is about two sizes too small, leaving him looking as though he turned up late at the Hello Kitty Football Shop's summer clearance sale.

In the end, Pagham can thank the goal frame for their spot in the Preliminary Round, Banstead's fifth penalty crashing off the post before Pagham's Andy Fox wins it with his side's final kick.

£750 in the bank, then, and a home game in the Preliminary Round against Walton Casuals. Only 13 wins from Wembley...