'Alackaday, and fuck my luck.'

‘Alackaday, and fuck my luck.’

I’ve just watched Chris Froome take the yellow jersey in stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France and it’s got me thinking about how much blind chance plays in sporting success. Froome’s luck, for instance, seems very variable – this year, he’s managed to avoid a big crash today, and be in the right place yesterday when the peloton split to gain time on a lot of his rivals, but last year he spent the first few stages watching everything go wrong for him, and ended up pulling out with a broken arm before the first week was done. In 2012, he managed to lose over a minute on almost everyone on one of the early stages when he punctured towards the end of the stage, and that lost time helped to lock him into the role of supporting rather than challenging Bradley Wiggins later in the race.

There is the old adage that you make your own luck and in some of those cases, that is true – he ended up in the lead group yesterday by knowing where to be in the crosswinds, for instance – but cycling is a sport where luck seems to play a huge role. Consider that getting a puncture at the wrong moment can happen to anyone, even without larger chance effects like this:

That’s from 2003, where Joseba Beloki was probably the closest of anyone to beating Lance Armstrong in a Tour, but chance had him at the front of the chase group (and he, Armstrong and the others would likely have been alternating that role) as they encounter the dangerous stretch of road. Beloki crashes, breaks his femur and is out of the race. Armstrong avoids him, travels through a field without coming off, rejoins the race and carries on to victory. It would be his record-equalling fifth win in the Tour (until they were all taken away, of course) but he could have been that guy who’d won four Tours, not seven, if luck had run differently that day.

Which brings me to the question – which is the physical sport in which luck plays the greatest part? Is it cycling, or does pure randomness have a greater role in something else? And what great sporting moments were we given or denied because of pure luck?

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Bringing American sports to Britain: another unfunded Tory pledge?

Here’s something interesting I noticed in the Tory manifesto over the weekend. In a section headlined ‘We will build on our Olympic and Paralympic legacy’ on page 42, tbere;s a commitment to support elite sports funding along with a list of big events happening in Britain over the next few years and then this:

We will support new sports in the UK, in particular through greater links with the US National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, with the ultimate ambition of new franchises being based here.

It’s curious that this turns up in a section headlined Olympic and Paralympic sport, as only one of those (basketball) is an Olympic sport. They’re also the only new sports mentioned in that section, with no mention of developing any of the other Olympic and Paralympic sports. It feels an odd priority to identify helping major American sports leagues into the UK when talking about ‘new sports’ – not least because there are already long established British leagues in American football, basketball and baseball.

There’s also a question of cost associated with bringing the NFL, NBA or MLB anywhere. While everyone likes to gasp about the huge amounts of money in American sports, a lot of that is supported by government spending, especially on stadiums. The NFL especially is infamous for demanding that cities contribute or pay entirely for new stadiums and new facilities, using the threat of moving teams to cities that are willing to pay to make them cough up. It’s a model where every team is encouraged to demand as much as it can get from its host city, or they’ll decamp and find someone willing to be fleeced, and London’s just the latest city to be waved at others in an effort to make them open their wallets.

Planning to bring an American franchise here is committing to take part in a bidding war with American cities seeking the same thing, with the one willing to give the sweetest deal the victor. It’s another unfunded pledge from the Tories, looking to throw hundreds of millions into attracting already wealthy sports to come here, when that same money could have a revolutionary effect on sports already in Britain. Imagine what it could do for developing women’s sport or para-sport instead of being sunk into enticing someone else?

And I thought Tories didn’t believe in Government picking winners…

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To those that have shall be given more

"And yes, some of that money will pay for artificial turf instead of real grassroots."

“And yes, some of that money will pay for artificial turf instead of real grassroots.”

This announcement actually happened a few months ago, but I’m surprised it didn’t get more publicity then: George Osborne is giving £50m towards supporting grassroots sport. This sounds like good news and surely this will help sports with little funding and support develop and build the infrastructure they need to retain people in the sport in the face of all the money that gets spent on the big sports.

Oh:

George Osborne has pledged £50m of Government funding to promote grass-roots football, in a move he said would make England’s national team “the best in the world”.
The Chancellor unveiled the funds as he hailed Abu Dhabi’s commitment to investing in the UK at the opening of a new £150m football academy by Manchester City Football Club.

Yes, not only is he giving £50m to a sport that has so much money sloshing around that teams can spend £50m on a single player, he’s announcing it as one of the global super-rich who now own large chunks of the game in England is announcing another huge spending of money that’s far beyond the dreams of most entire sports, let alone individual teams.

I’m sure English grassroots football will benefit from that money, but it would benefit much more from the FA enforcing a fairer distribution of income across the game, instead of letting it concentrate more and more in the upper echelons. Giving £50m of Government money to make up for the FA’s inability to support the grassroots isn’t my idea of money being well spent or a long term sporting economic plan.

Imagine what other sports could do with that cash. Grassroots cycling could use just a fraction of it to organise closed-road racing for young riders, giving them invaluable safe experience. Imagine the athletic facilities and swimming pools it could fix up or reopen, the underfunded boxing gyms it could support, the ageing gymnastic equipment it could replace, the community coaches in all sports it could train. But no, giving money to football gets the headlines, so football gets the cash, even if it doesn’t need it.

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A tale of two conferences and cricket championships #ldconf

One of my abiding memories of the Liberal Democrat special conference that approved the coalition deal was the journey back from it. My phone had only a small amount of charge left and I was desperately trying to eke it out as I sat on the train while also trying to keep as up to date as I could with the final of the ICC World Twenty20 championship.

The battery lasted just long enough to get to the end of the game, as England cruised past Australia’s total to win. After years of failing to make a breakthrough and actually win a world championship in any form of the sport, England had finally achieved it. A new era beckoned, one where the long stored up potential would finally be unleashed.

And now here we are five years later, with all that promise of 2010 long gone, and today the final Liberal Democrat conference of the Parliament starts on the same day that England limp out of the Cricket World Cup after one of their most ignoble performances, capping off several years of progressively worse disappointments.

Never mind, the management have promised to go and look at that data, and I’m sure they’ll find what they need to justify themselves there.

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An apology

123rf-apology-button-free-300x180There occasionally comes to every long term blogger a time when you realise that you’e made a huge and colossal mistake. Not a simple error that’s easily edited away or corrected before anyone can notice, but a massive mistake of judgement that would cause anyone who sees it to instantly think less of you as a person. When you realise that you’ve made such a mistake, the only honourable course of action is to hold your hands up, admit that you were fundamentally wrong and throw yourself on the mercy of your readership, hoping you will get a second chance.

That’s where I am today. In two recent posts (here and especially here – I apologise for the title, obviously) I have made horrendous errors that I must apologise for. These were errors in my fundamental assumptions about how the world works, and as such I need to rethink my position on a lot of things before posting on this subject.

Yes, it is true. I assumed England possessed at least a basic level of competence at playing cricket and so would be able to qualify for the quarter-finals of the World Cup. I was fundamentally wrong to believe this and assert it here on this website, and I apologise to those of you who had to read such obvious nonsense with no basis in reality. I can only say that I hope to do better in future and not to make such ridiculous errors and assumptions again.

Now, here’s why England will definitely win the Rugby World Cup…

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The surprising results that have happened in Group B mean that the losers of crucial games in Group A could get easier quarter-final games than the winners. Let me explain why.

Group B has been the more interesting half of the draw in this year’s Cricket World Cup. It’s seen nail-biting finishes, the first World Cup double century, the biggest ODI win by one Test-playing country over another and the question of which four teams will go through from it is still not settled. Ireland’s victories and the mercurial nature of the West Indies and Pakistan have opened up the battle for third and fourth place in the group, whilst India’s win over South Africa puts them as favourites to top the group, despite AB De Villiers’ demolition of the West Indies.

Meanwhile, Group A has been progressing more sedately and more in line with form. There’s the mild surprise of New Zealand’s overnight win against Australia, but the Kiwis seem to have come into form at just the right time as they did last time they co-hosted the World Cup. Behind the two hosts, England’s match against Sri Lanka will likely settle who takes third place in the group, while Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Scotland squabble over the minor places.

However, because of the unexpected results in Group B, the losers of this weekend’s big clashes may find themselves with the easier match in the quarter-finals. Australia’s loss means they’re now most likely to finish second in the group, which will match them up with Group B’s third place side. That now seems most likely to be Ireland, while New Zealand as group winners will face whoever comes in fourth, which will likely be Pakistan or West Indies. While Ireland are good, I’m sure the Kiwis would rather face them rather than risk another Chris Gayle explosion.

Likewise for Sri Lanka and England. The winner of their game seems likely to finish third (though Sri Lanka could still finish second if they also beat Australia), which means playing the runner-up of Group B, while the loser should finish fourth, where they’ll meat Group B’s winner. India seem highly likely to win the group now (they’d need to lose two of their remaining games to not do so), but South Africa seem the more dangerous team to face after their record-obliterating performance against the West Indies. I suspect England especially would much rather face the team they beat twice in the pre-World Cup triangular tournament than discover just how much damage AB De Villiers can do to their bowlers.

While I’m sure Australia are kicking themselves over their loss to New Zealand, and both Sri Lanka and England will be giving their best for victory tonight, they’ll all have it in the back of their minds that losing isn’t the end of the world, and the escape route could be the easier way to the semi-finals.

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England are a long way from going out of the Cricket World Cup

I’m old enough to remember the last time the World Cup was held in Australia and New Zealand. 1992 was my first year at university, and I remember sitting around late at night listening to games with my housemates. One game in particular springs to mind – the group match between England and Pakistan, where Pakistan collapsed to 74 all out, but England ended up having to settle for a draw because of rain. At that point in the tournament, England were looking like real contenders, while Pakistan were clearly on their way out. I don’t think anyone expected that Pakistan’s one point from that game would be the difference between them and Australia in semi-final qualification, nor that they’d beat a previously dominant New Zealand to make the final where, of course, they’d beat England.

This time around, England have been comprehensively battered in their first two games against Australia and New Zealand, but yet again the World Cup’s format means those defeats aren’t terminal for their chances. In a seven-team group where four teams go through to the knockout stage, three wins should be enough for a team to qualify. England have had the bad luck of facing two of the strongest teams in the tournament at the start, but now their schedule becomes a lot easier. Scotland, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan await England in their next four matches and three wins from those four should – without a new Kevin O’Brien appearing – be possible. Indeed, a win against Sri Lanka could even mean England qualify in third place from their group.

That then puts England into the quarter-finals, and up against a team from Group B. This is where the placement in the group becomes important. Fourth place in Group A means they’ll likely be facing South Africa, and probably going home, but third place plays the runners-up in the other group, and that’s a much more interesting prospect. That seems likely to be India, who England have recently beaten twice, or if they have a disaster, one of Ireland, West Indies or Pakistan, none of whom should instil great fear in England.

Suddenly, England have a path to the semi-finals opening up before them. Yes, that’ll likely be against Australia or New Zealand again, but they’d be there and suddenly a tournament that looked like a disaster would be their most successful World Cup since 1992. That says a lot about just how poor England have been at World Cups in the last twenty years, but it looks like a good result from here.

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