The diary of a lesson in racism (and basketball)

Joe’s Tour Diaries Part 5 – National Basketball Association Western Conference Playoffs game 5 – Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers – Staples Center, Los Angeles, 29 April 2014

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It’s taken me a while to finish this post. In fact, it took almost three months to write a post which should really just be about going to watch a basketball game, being the third of three US sports that were ‘in season’ during our visit – hockey, baseball and basketball (NFL had finished in January). But it’s taken me so long to get it done because it’s the first time I’ve written about as serious a topic as this one (oh, and also I started a new job and had multiple trips out of town on weekends). At one stage I was worried this would be my Chinese Democracy, or Avalanches new album, always sitting unfinished.

Why is it a serious topic? Well, it started because this happened.

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Let me explain…

Taking our last chance

As you would expect, I had rigorously analysed the draw to work out how I might be able to go and watch some Basketball. The NBA regular season would end on April 15, midway through our trip. As a follow on from following the Red Sox, my nominal NBA team has been the Boston Celtics. I looked at the possibility of watching them play in Atlanta before we went to the Masters, but the netball Hong Kong trip wouldn’t allow it. I looked at games in Chicago, but we had commitments that would prevent us going. This meant I would have to hope the playoffs draw worked in our favour. My first hope was that the Brooklyn Nets would play their first playoff match while we were in New York – and I could watch former Boston players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in action for the Nets. But, Toronto had home court advantage for the first game while we were in New York. Finally, we might have been able to see Miami Heat v Charlotte, but our plane arrived in Miami about 10 minutes after the game started. So, looking ahead to the last night of our trip, I noticed the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors were scheduled to play game 5 of their 7 game series at the Staples Center in LA – and we would be in LA then too. We would get to see a game – but only if it wasn’t a 4-0 sweep! When the teams split the opening two games, guaranteeing the need for a 5th, we got tickets for the Clippers match.

The Clippers appealed to me as a Melbourne Demons supporter because they are a team which wears red and blue and which has been abysmally poor – but have hit back to have a team that’s a contender (giving hope that the Demons can do it too). Also there was a Boston Celtics connection as they were being coached by former Celtics leader Doc Rivers. It seemed like a good choice – and we were looking forward to a great end to our trip. But…

A Sterling Effort

We bought the tickets, then news broke of a major controversy. Clippers owner Donald Sterling had been recorded making racist comments and gossip website TMZ had released the tape to the public.

The picture above was the trigger. Sterling’s girlfriend, V.Stiviano, had posted the above picture with basketball legend Magic Johnson on Instagram. In response, Sterling told her “not to bring black people to games”. Hypocrisy much? The majority of the team’s playing roster and fan base is black!

The outcry was immense. Some called for disqualification of the team. Some called for the players to forfeit their next home game – the one we would be attending. We read about threats of boycotts and of sponsors withdrawing. It was a disaster for all at the club – not just the racist owner.

We would get an indication of how the players and staff felt about the situation when they played game 4 on the Sunday afternoon. Prior to the warm up before the match, the players congregated in the centre of the court, and simultaneously threw their track suit jackets down on the ground, revealing they had turned their warm up t-shirts inside out to hide the Clippers logos. They were (justifiably) pissed off, and lost the game to make the series 2-2.

To attend or not to attend, that is the question

Well, after spending over $100 each on tickets, it probably wasn’t that big a question – of course we would go. But, then we started reading the local news, with more calls for boycotts. We had some doubts creep in as to whether this was a good idea. However, I noticed one of the calls for boycotts was from the Warriors coach. You couldn’t help but think it was a ploy to upset the opposition.

One of the suggestions in the news was to wear black in protest. I inadvertently complied with this request – I was at the end of a long trip and my black t-shirt was clean!

Our first task for the day was to travel to CBS television city for a recording of “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson”. That was hilarious – he’s a brilliant comedian and his jokes in the ad breaks were just as funny as what goes to air, if not funnier!

With big grins on our faces we got in a cab after the recording and went straight to Staples Center. The grins slowly faded as, in the cab on the way there, you could see on the driver’s screen warnings flashing to “Avoid Staples Center – Clipper protest”.

Hmm.

On arrival the cab dropped us a short distance from the stadium – next to the convention centre – as you couldn’t get right up close to the stadium. As we walked up we could start to hear the chants – not chants supporting the team, but chants abusing Sterling. I also heard one of the protesters say on their megaphone “Why are all these white people going to the Clipper game?”. I wanted to answer “Because we’re Australians who want to watch some basketball and this was our one and only chance” but obviously I said nothing. We walked directly to the door and scanned our tickets. I figured once we were inside there wouldn’t be any protests.

Game Five

Inside the stadium was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve been to some emotionally charged sporting contests before – the Troy Broadbridge game in the AFL and the Cricket Tsunami match at the MCG. This one had the same amount of intensity, but rather than mourning death, this seemed (sorry about the cliche) a rebirth.

Prior to other games in the NBA playoffs, the stadium looks a bit like this – as free t-shirts decorate the stadium for the fans to unite in their team’s colours.

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But, in the absence of sponsors, having all withdrawn from supporting the Clippers in light of Sterling’s comments, there were no freebies, or sponsors willing to put their name next to the team logo. Tonight, on the other hand, ingenious shirt sellers had already been doing a roaring trade outside the ground selling shirts featuring anti-Donald Sterling messages and pictures. Inside the Staples Centre a DJ (a black man) was warming up the crown, encouraging people to show the signs they had made, in support of the team. Once again, there were heaps of anti-Sterling signs, basically saying “we support the team and the players – not Donald”. One of the more amusing ones were variations on this one…

There were plenty of protests – including people who had turned their clippers shirts and singlets inside out like the players had during game 4 – but unlike the dark atmosphere outside of the stadium, this was an emotional, joyous reclaiming of their team by the fans. Prior to the game, the phrase

“The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it”

was shown on the screen and the crowd cheered loudly. It was an amazing build up.

Oh, and there was also a game of basketball.

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This had been a closely matched series, with both teams winning one home game and one away game each. On one side you had Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, and on the other you had Steph Curry, so we were watching some gun players in action. But, the player who impressed me most was DeAndre Jordan. He was on fire early, pulling out blocks and some amazing shots to get the Clippers out to a lead. Early on he ripped a rebound out of the hands of his opponent and the whole crowd went crazy.

One thing you get from watching live sport is a greater appreciation of the role of each player. Sometimes, watching on TV, you just can’t pick that up. For example, watching Griffin’s positioning to be the guy who ploughs his way to the basket, as opposed to Paul or Curry who are being watched by everyone to be the go-to-man when the shot clock is almost done, because they can land it from anywhere. Well, early on Chris Paul wasn’t landing them from anywhere, but that’s where DeAndre stepped in!

Coming from an AFL/VFL background, I’m used to watching games with half the stadium supporting one team and half the stadium supporting the other team. To come to America where the home advantage is so great was a very unique experience for me. I loved hearing everybody chanting as the Clippers defended their end of the court.

As with the other American sports venues we’d visited, the food and drink options were awesome. Again there were great craft beer oprions (a pale ale and a pilsener) and dinner was delicious, although I can verify that a kransky is not exactly health food…

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We Are One!

Now, I had not looked at the website that day, but the Clippers Website had changed its front page to this:

Clippers

What a tremendous slap in the face to Sterling. As the Clippers were challenged by the Warriors in the third quarter, this logo came up on the big screen and the DJ led the crowd in a chant of “We are one”.

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It was spine tingling. I tried to take a video of it.

I’m not sure it captures it fully but it’s the best I could do!

During the third quarter the Warriors got a run on and briefly held the lead. But, Chris Paul fired up late in the game and started landing some great shots.

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The lead grew again and stayed there. Because there was a decent margin, we didn’t see one of those game ends where there’s heaps of fouling and set plays. The Clippers got home comfortably and, after a quick celebration to acknowledge the fans, got off court to prepare for game 6.

I was impressed by the physicality of some of the players, as well as the skill of others. I obviously loved the atmosphere.

If you want to read a proper review of the match, try this one from the Clippers website. For a more light-hearted look at the game, check out this one from Bleacher Report, which features some tweets with more signs and reactions from the game.

The ride home

Having seen one of the more interesting sports events of my life, you may think this is the point where I sum up the post by telling you how amazing the game was and how Americans are totally against discrimination. Wrong!

After following the signs to where the cab rank allegedly was, we saw it filled with police cars and TV vehicles. We did a full lap of the stadium to find another rank and hailed a cab. The driver told us he was of Ethiopian descent. He then asked what the game was like, and if there were many protests.

No sooner had we said that we agreed with the punishment handed out to Sterling, our taxi driver – a black man – proceeded to argue that the punishment was too harsh. He said that they shouldn’t take a team from someone because of a few comments. We wondered what was going on – why wouldn’t he be in favour of the punishment. The rest of the trip became surreal as he denounced the American school system – giving the example of how his son came home talking about homosexuality and how he “didn’t want his son taught how to be gay”. I was thinking of all the things we could say in response, but I decided to keep quiet and stay out of trouble. Geri was also fuming, and I encourgaed her not to say anything.

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The next day – our final day in the USA, I wore the Clippers shirt I’d bought the previous night, with DeAndre Jordan’s name and number on the back. We took a Hollywood tour that had been recommended to us and the tour guide asked me if we went to the game (yes), if we knew about what had happened (yes) and what we thought of the atmosphere (awesome). The tour started well, visiting places where outdoor scenes of great movies were filmed, but when we got to the houses of the rich and famous, things began to take a turn. First, our guide defended Sterling, saying the comments were private, and to take his team away was stealing. Then, as we went past Sterling’s house (Funnily enough, the house was a lovely shade of… White), our guide told us about his black friends and how they probably wouldn’t have a problem with what Sterling did. An Aussie on the tour from Dubbo tried to say it was similar to an incident involving Eddie McGuire in Australia, and Eddie did nothing wrong. Finally, as the tour ended, our guide recounted a time he told a racist joke to rapper the Game‘s dad (about being shot at, and using black people as a shield) and he didn’t get it, but our guide reassured us it was “funny”. I was perplexed at the attitude. As Geri and I sat having a drink while waiting for our plane home, we recounted the tour and just how much of a contrast there was in attitudes.

So what next?

As for me, when I look back on that night, I think about how great it was to watch that game and be part of that atmosphere of people sending out a message that racism has no place in modern society. And then I wonder why there were those other people who didn’t get the message. But now, after some time to think about it, I realise why they don’t get the message – because I never told them the message. Am I complicit in the racism that took place in front of me because I didn’t pull it up? Perhaps. Actually, probably. While I was in a mindset of “lets not get into any trouble on our last night in the States”, I look back and realise that maybe there have been people who have done the same thing in front of Sterling all these years, which has allowed him to do what he has done, both in relation to the Clippers and some of his other business ventures.

The lesson I learnt – it’s really important that when we see examples of racism, even when they are in private, that we call it out. It’s not acceptable.

And I think that’s the main reason I wanted to finish this blog post after so many months. Not just to record what was a memorable night, but to acknowledge my failings that day as well.

As for the Clippers, well, they ended up winning the series against Golden State, but lost in the next round to Oklahoma City Thunder. More positively, the media coverage changed from this:

to this:

Obviously they didn’t get him, but still, there’s hope. With a takeover (worth a mere $2 BILLION!!) about to occur thanks to former Microsoft Man Steve Ballmer, and the retention of a number of key players (although the free agency period has only just commenced so there could be changes) there is real potential for the 2014/15 season, especially when freed of the burden of this controversy. Here’s hoping that the Clippers players can stay together, that the new ownership is settled quickly (although there’s still a court case to be run and won – there’s talk about Doc Rivers not coaching (and players not playing) if Sterling remains in charge, so let’s hope this is resolved very quickly), and they can attack the 2014-15 season strongly. And hopefully Donald Sterling is watching on TV, preferably on his own, when the team he used to own wins the title one day.

Yours in Sport

Joseph

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The diary of the birthday boy at the ball game

Joe’s Tour Diaries Part 4 – Major League Baseball – Atlanta Braves at New York Mets – Citi Field, Queens NY, 18 April 2014

I’ve never really followed baseball all that much. I’ve obviously been more of a cricket fan – let’s face it, I live in Australia where cricket is on at the right time of day and gets considerable coverage, whereas baseball is on early mornings in Australia, and really only gets a mention when an Aussie plays, or the World Series is on.

As part of our trip to the USA I was keen on seeing a match of “America’s favourite game”, and given that there are thousands of matches each season I had hoped this would be an easy task. As was the case with the ice hockey, I had made the decision that I would adopt as “my team” the first team that I was able to see live. I have always been a nominal Boston Red Sox fan, because they wore red and blue, same as my AFL team. There was a chance we may have been able to go to a Red Sox v White Sox game while in Chicago – meaning I could convert my support from “oh look they won the World Series”, to actually seeing how they went during the season, but other commitments got in the way. We also looked at Yankees tickets on the night of our arrival in New York, but this would have required a second mortgage. An easy and accessible option was to head along to Citi Field in Queens, New York, to watch the New York Mets play. There were two games on while we were in New York, on 18 and 19 April. I chose to go to the game on the night of the 18th, which, due to time differences, would be when friends and family in Australia were waking up on my 35th birthday.

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Acclimatising and meeting uncle Nolan

On our trip so far, we had been to the snow at Whistler, Canada, which was warm and sunny, and been to Chicago, where it snowed. Neither of these places were as cold as New York that night, despite the fact that it didn’t snow. While I normally would have preferred to pick up some merchandise after the game, I was determined to search for a Mets beanie pre-game for practical purposes.

On arrival at Citi Field, I was pretty impressed with the facilities, as it is a new stadium built to replace the Mets old home, Shea Stadium. It was “Free T-Shirt Friday”, so everyone was given an extra large New York Mets tee. Kids were wearing them around like dresses. There was a giant team store on the lower level, but it was sold out of beanies. We went upstairs to the second level, where there was another big store, also sold out of beanies. I asked people wearing beanies where they had got theirs from, but most had received them from friends or bought them from elsewhere. Finally, we got to the top level, where tucked away in the corner there was a small supply. I would be able to keep warm that night!

The other thing I noticed were the player t-shirts. I had done a bit of research and knew some of the key players – Wright, Granderson, and Young Jr. There were proper playing shirts with their names and numbers, as well as cheaper t-shirts. I also found those same t-shirts with names and numbers of club legends such as Darryl Strawberry. Being a Simpsons fan, Geri thought it would be funny if I bought one of those. I thought it would be funnier if there was an Apu Nahasaheemapetilon Mets shirt.

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Then I found one with “Ryan” on it, and number 30. There was a player with my last name playing for them? I had to get this shirt!

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Beerwatch

I’ve been warned that American beer is crap. I forgot to mention in my Masters blog that we tried a Coors. It was as the warnings predicted. But, at the Baseball, and at most bars and even sporting events, there are boutique or craft beer options to try. We thoroughly enjoyed the IPAs available on tap. We bought a beer each and then walked out to our seats on the fourth level. If I thought New York was cold, it was about to get worse. With the swirling winds of the stadium blowing around icy cold air, we were glad we had brought ski jackets and gloves!

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Anyway, back to Mr Ryan. The scoreboards were huge and informative. I looked at the board to see if Ryan was playing, but his name wasn’t listed. So, using the free, and fast, wifi available in the stadium, I googled his name. Turns out I had bought a legend’s shirt. Nolan Ryan was a great pitcher for the Mets in their World Series winning team of 1969. Even though I wouldn’t be seeing a Ryan play tonight, I was still very happy with my purchase!

Speaking of wifi, how good is it to have free and fast wifi at a sports stadium? I was able to look up stats during the game, and more importantly, receive messages from friends and family back home to say happy birthday!

I’ve seen teams suck before, but…

Tonight’s game was sponsored by Caesars Palace Atlantic City – so the ceremonial first pitch was thrown by “Caesar”, who was accompanied by “Cleopatra”.

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Watching the game live in the stadium taught me a few things I didn’t really know about baseball. Because I had never really sat and watched a full game on TV, I’d assumed that team batting orders reset at each innings, just like cricket. This isn’t the case. I’d never understood what pinch hitters do – and now I’ve seen them in action replacing the pitcher when it is his turn to bat. I enjoyed watching the changes in strategy when there’s a runner on base – the pitcher was always looking over his shoulder, the base fielders stood in different places, and the mindset of the game seemed to change.

Also, I’d never understood pitching rotations – boy did we get a lesson in that during this game – because this was clearly an off night for the Mets. Initially their pitcher barely managed a strike, with each out coming from a catch. Atlanta scored early from an error. In contrast, Braves pitcher Aaron Harang had a “no-hitter”. Changes to the Mets pitching rotation seemed to help with keeping Atlanta off the bases, but then, Freeman, in the 8th inning, with two runners on base, smacked one that just seemed to hang in the air for ages, clearing the right field fence.

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[A bit of a mid-innings “what the heck are we doing?” conference]

Comeback story?

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No.

The atmosphere was much like soccer – when it is low scoring you have nothing to cheer about, and the tension builds until it is released. When you only have one hit to cheer, it is a bit of a release. David Wright managed that sole hit in the 8th inning and the crowd let out a groan. As if to say, “finally”!

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By this stage up in the 4th level we were one of the few that stayed. Entering the 9th inning 6 runs down and with 3 of your last four batters to come, there was little hope of a miracle. The game petered out to a muted conclusion.

Despite the result, it was still a very entertaining night. As was the case with hockey, watching live has given me a far better understanding of what is going on and the skills required to play the game.

Having been forced to sit in the cold all night, watching a game that she didn’t find very interesting, Geri told me at the end of the game she would start following the Yankees. This could be the start of another great in-house rivalry.

Let’s go Mets!

Yours in Sport

Joseph

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The diary of an [ice] hockey rookie

Joe’s Tour Diaries Part 3 – NHL Canucks v Avalanche – Rogers Arena, Vancouver, 10 April 2014

The majority of our trip during April is based in the USA, so you could be certain I was going to use this opportunity to watch some of the sports that are popular in the USA – Basketball, Baseball and Ice Hockey. I’m sorry, did I say Ice Hockey? I meant “Hockey”, which is what it’s called over here, as opposed to “Field Hockey”. However, in Canada, it’s not just called Hockey, it’s more of a religion. So, it seemed appropriate that when looking for the opportunity to watch a hockey game, I should try to see one in Canada.

During our 4 night stay in Vancouver, Canada we learned that news coverage of hockey in Canada is like watching coverage of the AFL back home – on at all hours and either going into far too much detail or rehashing the same story. We heard one-hour pre game shows on the radio and watched a little bit on TV before our departure. If I had a drink every time I heard the words “Trevor Linden” I would have needed medical attention. One aspect which is a little bit different to Melbourne-based AFL coverage was the severe bias in the coverage toward the home team – maybe Adelaide and Perth AFL fans would be used to this!

The game we would be seeing was between the Vancouver Canucks and the Colorado Avalanche. When I knew I would be coming to Vancouver, I asked Chris, one of our hosts in Vancouver, to line up some tickets. He promptly arranged tickets 5 rows from the ice so we could watch the game and get the full experience.

Now, it should be noted I probably chose the wrong year to visit. The Canucks have been a sensational team in recent times, winning two Presidents trophies, making one Stanley Cup final and being one game from the title. Chris and his wife Tanya have lived in Vancouver for six years now, and I’ve been able to follow the fortunes of the team through his social media updates. This year however they have been poor, and the clean out of players and staff had already begun – their goaltender Roberto Luongo had been traded to Florida, and a new president of hockey operations has been hired – club legend Trevor Linden. To give you a comparison point, it’s kinda like how James Hird became coach at Essendon, but with less peptides. In the previous game, their playoff hopes had been snuffed out. Just my luck – I would be watching a dead rubber!

The fast and the furious

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Chris took us to the game early so we could watch the pre-game skate, and I was amazed at how quick they were. Pucks were flying around everywhere as they all took practice shots at the goals. And they go to great lengths to pump everyone up before the game, including the Canadian and American anthems.

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When the game started I was interested to see the strategy and tactics involved.

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(No zoom required – I told you we were sitting up close!)

Chris gave me a crash course on the rules and I started to understand what was going on. The fans got excited in the first period when Henrik Sedin tipped in a goal for the lead. But we were more interested in the collisions and the violence – even the refs weren’t immune to the hip and shoulders from players!

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Markstrom was the starting goaltender in this game, which I was told was his first start for the Canucks. He seemed to be doing really well, until an intercept left him all on his own defending an unmarked Paul Stetsny, who scored.

Are we going to Red Lobster after this, Shooter?

There was a couple of fans who reminded me of this guy.

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(Check out this link for more)

He’s the heckler from Happy Gilmore, whose favourite heckle was “you suck!”. These two spent most of the game naming Avs players and saying “You suck!”. With the subdued atmosphere, their voices were clear over the others. Early in the 3rd period, they screamed “Stetsny, you suck!” just moments before Stetsny slammed home Colorado’s 2nd goal. The Avs fans turned on these two with big smiles on their faces.

“Who sucks now, jackass?”

The 3rd period

Soon after Stetsny’s goal the Canucks hit back through Booth to make it 2-2, a goal which managed to find just enough room to hit the top corner of the net. The fans started to find some voice as the prospect of a win arose. Unfortunately Colorado scored through Tyson Barrie promptly afterwards. (This annoyed the locals as it turns out he’s a British Columbia export – a local product twisting the knife into the local team’s dead season). As the minutes went on the cheers rose in hope of an equaliser and overtime, and a minor scuffle broke out which gave the fans something to yell at…

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…but a penalty against the Canucks leading to a player being banished to the penalty box made it 5 on 4 with two minutes to go and a miracle would be needed. A quick turnover put the Canucks on the attack, and they pulled the goalie hoping for a goal. But, they conceded possession and with no goalie the Avs scored an easy empty net goal to seal the game. The fans rushed for the exits.

On the way out I bought a Henrik Sedin t-shirt. I would have bought a Markstrom one but I guess they haven’t got around to printing any!

I think I’m now armed with enough knowledge to watch games on TV and enjoy them – I’m no longer watching the puck fly around with no idea of what is going on! There’s heaps of strength, skill and speed required – and (pardon my language) you need massive balls. The players were being crunched from all angles so if you were the sort of person who shirks a collision this wouldn’t be the right sport for you! I would happily go back to another game because it was a fun experience and very entertaining. Although, I would probably try to go early in the season when the team’s playoff hopes are still alive – or to a playoff game later in our trip if all goes to plan – so that the atmosphere would be at its best.

In the meantime, I can now say I have a hockey team that I support, and I look forward to seeing how they recover next season.

Go Canucks Go!

Yours in Sport

Joseph

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The diary of a 34 year old kid in a golfing playground

Joe’s Tour Diaries Part 2 – US Masters Practice Round – Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Not quite Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket, but close enough.

I’ve blogged about golf many times before. It is my one great sporting love, (amongst many sporting loves, I admit) and I really do need to make more time to play it more often. It has been a sport which has given me many great memories as a player – competing in and winning junior tournaments and other club competitions, playing at great courses in Australia, and playing in and winning team competitions such as pennant golf. As a spectator I’ve been lucky to watch the best players live in Australia at events such as the Australian Masters and World Cup of Golf.

I also spent large chunks of my childhood/teenage years watching these guys on TV at the majors and other big tournaments. I had always wanted to go to one of the majors one day, but in particular, in my mind, there were two tournaments that sit over and above all of the others that I would want to go watch, mainly because these were the ones that I would get up early each April and each July to watch on TV. One is the British Open, particularly if it was at one of the famous Scottish courses like St.Andrews. The other is the United States Masters, played each year at the Augusta National Golf Club. But, tickets to these events are rarer than hen’s teeth, unless you have a lot of spare coin.

A few years back, Andrew Farr, one of partners at the firm that I worked for told me about the public ballot system that had been introduced by Augusta National for the provision of tickets. The general public were able to enter their details online and if they were one of the the lucky few to score a ticket, they would be charged the quite reasonable face value price for a legitimate ticket, and not the exorbitant scalper rates (which came with an added risk of counterfeit). There would be a limited number of tickets that would provide access to tournament days, with that ballot to be drawn first, and those who missed out would go into a further ballot draw for the practice days.

I applied and was unsuccessful a couple of times. Following Adam Scott’s momentous win in 2013, I applied again one more time thinking how good it would be to see Adam defend his title. But in May 2013 I got the email from Augusta saying that I had missed out on a ticket to the tournament days.

One morning in (I think it was June) 2013 I checked my email when I got up in the morning. I saw an email from Augusta National, saying “ballot application successful”. I looked again. Yep, it said “congratulations on being successful in the ballot for Masters practice round tickets”. It said I would have 2 tickets on Tuesday, 8 April 2014. Was this serious? I read through the email and it referred me to the official website. I double-checked the link before clicking on it in case it was spam. It was all legitimate.

Holy crap – I’ve got Masters Tickets!!

I went into work and told Andrew, who promptly called me a “bastard”! This was a similar response to what other golfers would say to me. Golfers such as Andrew get it. This was a chance to walk on hallowed turf. Non-golfers were less amused, saying words to the effect of “why would you go all the way to America to watch players practice?” and “you’re not playing? You’re only going to… watch?”

Yeah, ok, it sounds unusual, I admit, but this was a once in a lifetime opportunity I wasn’t going to waste.

A slight diversion

So then I was set – I would be holidaying in the USA in April 2014. It was some time before the details would be finalised, as my girlfriend Geri runs her own business and needed to confirm she would be available. But then she threw a spanner in the works. She was given the opportunity to play netball in Hong Kong for the Melbourne Cricket Club, which I was excited about, but then she told me the dates – the games would be on the weekend of 5 and 6 April – just hours before I needed to be in Augusta. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with this idea. The thought of being stuck in Hong Kong and not making it to the tournament sat uncomfortably in the back of my mind. We did some research and identified one Korean Air flight combination that would allow us to be in both Hong Kong on 6 April and Augusta on the 7th – with a mere 22 hours between take off in Hong Kong and touch down in Atlanta. As you will hopefully have already read, it was a great few days in Hong Kong, but my enthusiasm began to waver as the heavy rain tumbled down in Hong Kong on Sunday. I fretted about whether we would take off. Fortunately, we were in the air at 12.45am Monday, 7 April 2014, transiting in Seoul, Korea from 5am through 9am Korean time, before arriving 15 hours after that in Atlanta at 10am Eastern USA time on the same day.

Welcome to not-so-sunny Georgia

The third-last thing you need after a 22 hour journey is a two hour drive in unfamiliar territory, on the opposite side of the road to your usual side. The second-last thing you need is for that drive to take place in torrential rain. Fortunately, Geri (who is the far more talented driver in the household by some margin) negotiated the low visibility, right hand side driving and speeding trucks to get us to Augusta. On the day that I won the ticket, I had immediately made a reservation for a motel in Augusta for the two days we would need to be there, and we arrived at that motel mid-afternoon, some 9 months after making that booking.

The very last thing you need after a 22 hour journey and 2 hour drive in torrential rain is to learn that the purpose of your visit may not even happen. Monday’s practice round had closed the course. We watched the local 5pm news telling the stories of people who had made long journeys to watch the play at Augusta who had been turned around without a single ball being struck. The weather prediction was that the conditions would improve the following day. We went to bed early for a long sleep to throw off the jet lag, hoping it had not all been for nothing.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014 – Bucket List item ticked.

When I woke in the morning I opened the curtains to see a cold and cloudy day. Never before have I been so happy with such miserable conditions, as at least they were better conditions than the previous day!

Our hotel was 3km walk from the course. We had considered driving, so we could leave wet weather gear in the car and not have to carry it with us, but when we saw the traffic queues continued all the way to our hotel, we decided walking was the best option. The walk was a dreary one – no footpaths, past fast food outlets, bars, and car retailers. There were people holding up large “I need tickets” signs, which was not a classy look. Surely one of the world’s most prestigious golf courses wasn’t based in this town?

We rounded the corner to the course and all of a sudden it was like we had walked into an oasis. The concrete and dead grass was replaced by a sea of emerald green grass and stately buildings, and friendly service staff saying “Welcome to the Masters”.

Going from 2D to 3D

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As I said above, my only experience of Augusta National had been on TV. To see it in person helped add depth to the on-screen experience, or to even give an experience in the first place. This was true especially of the first nine holes. I had seen very little of the first nine, as I usually woke up in Australia to watch the TV coverage when the leaders were starting the back nine. There were some challenging holes here, and watching the near 180 degree breaks on some of the greens showed how tough they can be.

Seeing holes 10 and 18 in person allowed me to appreciate just how big a hill the two holes negotiate. 10 goes down the hill, and 18 goes up it. It’s a severe drop/rise where players have to then account for the ball not being at their feet level, hitting into greens at a different level. I took time to inspect the 10th green where Adam Scott won his playoff. I also made an effort to see where Bubba Watson played his 2nd shot on the 10th hole in the playoff in 2012. Here’s what the view to the green actually looks like. I was in awe of the shot when I saw it on TV, I am even more amazed now!

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It was also interesting to see the famous Amen Corner – holes 11, 12 and 13. No spectators are allowed on one side of the fairway, allowing for clear views of the forest and flowers behind each hole, and the postcard-worthy bridges over Rae’s Creek. It was very picturesque. 12 is just as short a hole as I had always pictured, but the bend on 13 was much sharper than I had imagined. As for 15, 16 and 17, I had realised they were close together on TV, but never as close as they are when you see them live. I could point at different places in each of those creeks and lakes and identify where Aussies had sunk their golf balls into the depths over the years, ruining their chances of winning!

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On course

It’s hard to give you an interesting ball-by-ball description of what we saw, because being a practice day there was no competition. As a golfer, I was taking notice of the routines the players took and seeing if I could learn anything. Some of the highlights were:

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Rory McIlroy practicing in the bunker and leaving two shots back in the same bunker. It happens to all of us!

Phil Mickleson on the 2nd. It was nice, until he bombed one over the green causing everyone to scurry for cover.

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Ian Poulter playing a ripping shot out of the pine needles on the 13th onto the par five green for two.

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Watching veteran golfers Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw play. Watson birdied the 9th when I was watching him. He’s currently 64 years old!

Following the reigning champ.

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A large chunk of the day was spent following a group of four Aussies around the course. We had missed Marc Leishman’s brief practice session but wanted to catch as much of the other Aussies as we could. Matt Jones had won on the previous Sunday, scoring the very last invite to the tournament. We saw him on the 4th and 5th getting advice from past champion Craig Stadler about the course. At just after midday the information boards posted that a group of four Australians, reigning champion Adam Scott, Oliver Goss, John Senden and Steven Bowditch were about to tee off. We raced to the 2nd green to get front position.

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It was entirely worth the short wait, as we watched the Aussies approach the green and then practice from a range of angles. I listened in as Steve asked Adam about pin placements. As we walked up the next hole, I saw Oliver’s parents and Golf journalist Luke Elvy chatting about Oliver’s career and the great opportunity he had to play here. After watching them for a few holes, we rejoined them on the 10th (minus Bowditch) and then again later on, on holes 15 and 16.

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Watching Adam on the 10th was kinda cool knowing what he did here one year ago.

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On the 16th they joined in the tradition of skimming golf balls across the lake. On practice days, players get out old golf balls and pitching wedges and try and hit the balls low, bouncing them off the water and onto the green. This led to some of the biggest cheers of the day, including one particularly loud one we heard from the other side of the course when Mike Weir of Canada holed out!

A weird ending

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Late in the day a convoy of mowers came out and we knew our visit was almost complete. Definitely an efficient way to ensure the whole course is mowed before the next day’s play! As I left for the day I just tried to soak up as much as possible. It may be the one and only time I get to do this, after all!

As we walked back to the hotel, carrying a large bag of souvenirs (mostly for me, but some of you family members might get lucky) we went past the many fast food outlets and bars, which were packed to the brim. Outside “Hooters” was a bus selling “John Daly Merchandise”. John Daly was a famous golfer in the 1990s who won the USPGA as the final alternate player, before eventually going on to win a British Open as well. He was probably more famous for his hard drinking and hard smoking ways. Not exactly a pure athlete. We wandered up to the bus wondering why a bus like this was selling merchandise relating to a guy who wasn’t even playing?

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Because John Daly was driving the bus. Yep, he was selling signed golf balls, flags and shirts. How the mighty have fallen.

The soppy bit

I had wanted this piece to be less of a diary entry and more meaningful, but I guess it’s turned out to be a diary entry! I shouldn’t be surprised – on Tuesday I was just a giddy kid walking around a theatre of dreams so when I write about my experience, of course it’s going to be a bit of a mind dump. When you have ideas about what a place is like for so damn long, and you finally get to visit, you’ll obviously have a whole range of emotions run through you and want to recount each and every one. I guess for me, walking around that course made me realise how lucky I am to get these opportunities – not everyone’s ideal holiday involves travelling to a what is basically a well manicured garden to watch men chase a white ball in order to win a piece of clothing – but it’s been a great part of my holiday and I’m very grateful that the computer at Augusta National drew my name out.

Yours in Sport

Joseph

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The diary of a HAB in HK

Joe’s Tour Diaries part 1 – MCC v HKCC netball – 3-6 April 2014

Some people tell me that I love sport. Yeah, I do. Hey, I started a blog about it. My girlfriend Geri loves sport too. So I guess it should come as no surprise that in constructing the itinerary for an overseas holiday, a large chunk was based around sport. The first leg was a trip to Hong Kong, to watch the Melbourne Cricket Club’s Netball Section compete against the Hong Kong Cricket Club.

A homecoming of sorts

The MCC Netball Section has it’s roots in Hong Kong. No, really! In 2011, the HKCC travelled to Melbourne on a multi-sport tour to compete against the MCC, in sports including cricket, hockey, tennis, golf and bowls. They also suggested that their netballers come to play, and MCC almost had to say no – because they didn’t have a netball team. An expression of interest was sent out, and the response was strong. They formed a team, trained beforehand, and then played their initial match against HKCC that February. As a flow on from the formation of this team, a further expression of interest was called for about starting regular competition teams, and three teams were entered at The state Hockey and Netball Centre, Parkville. Now, five teams compete their regularly on Mondays and Tuesdays. The MCC committee has offered support in growing the club, and have acknowledged the important role they play in the club, given it is a predominantly female sport in a club which used to be male-only. It’s pretty cool to think that from having no team only three years ago, on this tour they would be bringing half of their entire membership along, forming the largest group within the MCC touring party.

The Trophy Game

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The first of the five games that they would be playing would be the trophy game, where the respective “first VII” teams would compete in a full-length game. Geri, my girlfriend would be playing in this team and was very nervous about the opportunity. She would be playing in her preferred position, Goal Attack, for the first time in a while, having played GS for her regular team during this season. She wanted to impress. There were also some early nerves amongst other members of the squad on learning that the HKCC team had a number of very tall forwards, and some Hong Kong international representatives!

The nerves were not helped when, in an attempt to beat Hong Kong’s traffic, taxis were organised quite early to head to the Hong Kong Indoor Sports Centre at Hong Kong Park. Not only did they beat the traffic, they beat it some margin, leading to about an hour of waiting around before warming up!

Are you familiar with the term WAG? It means “wives and girlfriends”, referring to the partners of sportspeople, particularly the more glamorous ones focused on by the paparazzi. Well, on this trip, myself and another bloke, Ben, would be the HABs, supporting our respective partners on the trip before heading off on other holidays. The cheer squad constituted not only the HABs, but some members of the other MCC sports sections on tour, including cricket, squash and tennis, as well as the other netballers who were competing in the later games.

When the game started it seemed HKCC were the nervous ones. The MCC shot out of the blocks early, and grabbed a lead. The cheer squad was deafening, roaring for each goal. The mid court players Claire, Emily and Jane, were ridiculously quick and fed the ball well to the shooters. Geri played second fiddle at this point, often working the ball around until she or one of the others got the ball to Jen (GS) under the ring. The team was working well together.

One thing their coach, Heather, told the girls before leaving Melbourne was that there may be some unusual interpretations of the laws of the game, which vary from country to country. This was certainly true, as the “contact” and “obstruction” rules (yes, two of the basic rules) were somewhat ignored during the game. Perhaps it was because they were leading, but MCC did not let themselves be thrown by some interesting calls, and just got on with the job.

The solid performances continued, including in defence where Cassia and Renee placed so much pressure on the tall attack that passes to them would often miss the target and the ball would be turned over. Geri kept working really hard in the circle, always providing an option for her teammates, and landing a few goals. MCC led by 6 at half time.

Go Back. Wrong Way!

In the 3rd quarter though it all unravelled in spectacular fashion – not because MCC started playing badly, but HKCC started to click. Their passing to their GS was spot on, leaving very little the defence could do. The mid court became frustrated with the calls as the lead slipped away, and the ball rarely got to the shooters who, when it did make it, started to feel pressure. A 14-2 quarter turned a 6 goal lead into a 6 goal deficit, and MCC were staring down the barrel of defeat.

The real premiership quarter.

I support a lot of teams that don’t win often. Even the team I support that wins – the Storm – have started losing recently. So when a team I follow hits it’s straps and plays well, I get a bit excited. A couple of key turnovers by the defenders led to MCC pegging back some of the lead early in the last quarter, which led to a few of us getting excited. Then, as the lead came back to two, I got very excited when Geri steps up to drain two big goals. I may have jumped out of my seat with a motion that was a cross between a fist pump and a Brett Lee style chainsaw. I can’t tell you much about the detail of that last quarter as I just reverted to fanboy mode – cheering every goal and moaning at every penalty, even when it was obviously a correct call against MCC! Geri continued to sink goals and the lead grew. They had undone the third quarter, reasserting a six goal lead at the final whistle. Success!

When they came off-court I gave Geri a big hug – a decision I partially regretted when I recalled that she had just been sprinting for 48 minutes in humid conditions – and she was drenched! Still, I was thrilled I could be there to see her play so well – and to see the team play so well – and bring home a win.

The two games that followed saw Hong Kong win the first match and Melbourne win the second. There were also two more games on the Friday afternoon that were both won by Melbourne, and a Friday night cocktail party that kicked on to the early morning in Lan Kwai Fong.

On court, I was impressed by the speed of players, the way in which so many of the players read the play so well leading to intercepts, particularly defenders. This trip also taught me a little about why team squads are often entrenched for entire seasons in netball. I had often wondered why it wasn’t more like footy or cricket, where teams get named each week and good or bad performers move up and down sides. But, for Friday’s games, they mixed up the combinations and it was clear to see that there was a lot of hesitation when players did not have that built-in knowledge of exactly where their teammate would be. Though, as you can see from the results, this did not deny them a win!

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Off court, well, they partied hard, and this old man couldn’t keep up! On Saturday, our third night out in a row, we were invited by HKCC to watch their teams participate in grand finals, then come to an after party where the trophies for the Grand Finals and the MCC/HKCC competitions were presented. In an added bonus for Geri, she was named MVP for the trophy game! She refused to believe it – Then again Geri could score from every shot she takes but still be negative about her performance – she’s her own harshest critic. But she had played a great game and deserved accolades.

She gave reasons why any of the other players on court deserved the title, but in this writer’s unbiased opinion, I thought she was great.

🙂

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Yours in Sport

Joseph

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Day/Night Sheffield Shield cricket – a taste “test” for things to come

Victoria v Tasmania, Sheffield Shield at the MCG, day 1 (D/N)

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When describing something that is certain, people tend to go for one of two cliches. One involves taxes and death (not necessarily in that order) and the other goes something along the lines of “as surely as night follows day”.

This cliche has become something of a fact for professional sport, as much of it has progressed from a daytime event to being played under lights, whether it’s a football code, horse racing, or tennis, night sport seems to be in the majority now. Even lawn bowls has experimented with night games! There are exceptions – a few sports have held off on moving to nighttime due to practicality (Golf) and some have moved back to daytime to take advantage of the clear TV schedules (basketball, netball), but the majority of major sports seems to favour a night time slot.

One form of sport which has held off on the nighttime experiment so far has been test cricket – leaving its 50 and then 20 over short forms to take the “spotlight”. But, clearly, that’s about to change. This week, Cricket Australia is playing a full round of Sheffield Shield cricket in a Day/Night format, with a view to playing Tests which stretch into the nighttime as soon as 2015.

Essentially, four things have changed.

1. The timings;
2. The colour of the ball;
3. The colour of the sightscreens; and
4. The lights are on.

That’s it, but against over a century of tradition, these are big changes.

The timings mean the matches start at 2pm and stretch to as late as 9.30pm. This makes it easier for people to attend after work, and this was the case for me tonight as I wandered down to the MCG after clocking off. I saw on twitter that a few others, including a few CBD workers, had made the same decision. Although I left about 8.45pm to catch a train (obviously there was was no extra public transport for a Shield game), I think a 9.30pm finish is far better than the almost 11pm finish for some T20 games. It would have been even earlier if the over rates had been quicker! That being said, one aspect of Shield cricket which had not changed was the crowd – it was still tiny, with only 2 of the 4 stands open and they were far from full.

The pink ball didn’t seem to be a problem to me as a spectator. I found it as easy to follow the pink ball in the air as I do a red one. The batsmen clearly found it easy as well, as they got good shots away, especially former test players Tim Paine and Rob Quiney. There was no suggestion that the ball was difficult to see when bowled by the pacemen. It seemed to be swinging and seaming in a manner similar to a usual red ball. If anything, the bowler who performed best in the conditions was a spinner – Fawad Ahmed.

When I arrived, Tasmania were 2 for 127, and as I stepped into the ground, the 3rd wicket, Wells, fell. When I left, At about 8.45pm, Tassie had collapsed to be all out for 206. I don’t think there was any suggestion that the wickets were caused by the pink ball. Ahmed bowled well and the ball seemed to retain its shape, colour and seam.

At around 5.45pm the lights came on. Around this time, the shadows were across the pitch and it seemed the conditions might be tough for the batsmen. However, the batsmen got away some great shots which suggested they had no problem. When the players returned after the Tea (or should that be dinner?) break, the artificial lights had taken over and the lighting in the ground was consistent.

As for the sight screen, the big black sheets did the job, and I would be interested to hear what the batsmen had to say about visibility. The big tarps certainly didn’t take up any space that a crowd would otherwise have occupied though…

Those four things are the only changes. There was no coloured uniforms, music, or anything else which might change the game or make it like a T20. All in all it seems a worthy experiment, and I will be interested to hear the players views. If there are no loud objections, I expect the first day/night tests to be scheduled soon – and I expect them to be in Adelaide and Brisbane, who are hosting the two other day/night shield games on at the moment. Brisbane gets great crowds on weekends but never gets a clear stretch of holidays on which to host their tests, like Sydney and Melbourne do. Maybe a day night match might help? The initial novelty of the night test and then the convenience of the timings will hopefully boost crowds in each venue, and even be a tourist draw card for people to travel to those states while the concept is new and unusual. I don’t expect the Melbourne Boxing Day test to go Day/Night (it’s successful anyway, and a move would also occupy space being used by the Big Bash), but a second Melbourne test may be an option?

If you’re heading along to a game this week I’d be interested to hear your thoughts – I’m heading along again tomorrow with a couple of mates and I’ll let you know if my opinion changes (maybe it might if the Vics collapse)!

Yours in Sport

Joseph

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Afghanistan v Queensland in Sydney – How Australia can help avoid more Boyd Rankins

Australia should use it’s condensed one-month domestic one day tournament as a way to develop associate nations

For someone else’s Queen and Country

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When Boyd Rankin stepped out to make his test match debut on January 3, 2014, I was both happy and sad. Obviously I was thrilled for Boyd that he was graduating to the highest level of cricket available, having played T20 and One Day internationals previously. He’s a tall, talented fast bowler, and has worked hard to get a crack at the top level.

But, he’s not English. He’s Irish. And in my view, Ireland has reached a point where it should be playing test cricket.

Now, there are lots of reasons that people not born in England end up playing for England. As Mark Nicholas so eloquently put to James Brayshaw on Channel 9’s commentary a few days ago, England has people from all nations emigrate there, and some of them grow up to play cricket. Dual passport holder Darren Pattinson took his opportunity because he could, Kevin Pietersen escaped South Africa’s quota system, Graeme Hick left a war-torn Zimbabwe. In Boyd Rankin’s case, he left Ireland in order to play test cricket, because that opportunity was not available to him at home.

Ireland has been making great strides in its cricket development. It qualified for the World Cup super 8 in both 2007 and 2011, famously beating England in Bangalore with Kevin O’Brien hitting the world cup’s fastest Century. It has plenty of players who have performed in T20 and ODI, but they cannot progress to test level. Players move to England to play county cricket professionally, and eventually qualify for England by residence. And when the opportunity to play for England at the highest level becomes available, even for an Irishman you cannot say no. In June 2013 there was a farcical situation where Irish Eoin Morgan captained an English side featuring Boyd Rankin in Ireland in an ODI, at a time where both were trying to get into the test side. Surely that can’t be good for cricket’s image in both Ireland and England? We need to do what we can to grow the associates so that if they are good enough, they can play for their home nation.

How Australia can help the associates – bring them to Sydney!

Ireland are now past the point where they want to compete against other associate nations. As pointed out in this recent ESPN Cricinfo article, they measure themselves against the Full Member nations now. But I do not intend to further press the case for Irish full member status here. This blog is intended to highlight that there is much more for the custodians of cricket, including the Full Member nations, to do in developing other nations rather than enriching the existing test nations. The more we can do to encourage players such as Rankin and Morgan to stay in their home nations and develop cricket in their own nations will help develop cricket around the world will make the game greater. But they need to have opportunities.

In addition to Ireland, there are plenty of other associate nations who could use some support from the Full ICC Member sides, such as Afghanistan, who recently secured qualification for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015. And Australia can help by copying the idea mentioned in the Cricinfo article that is being implemented in the West Indies this year to assist Ireland’s continued development – inviting an Associate nation to participate in our domestic one-day competition.

Now that our ODD competition, the Ryobi Cup, is being played as a tournament in one city (Sydney in 2013), this would make the logistics of inviting a side from overseas a lot simpler. They could be based out of one location without the need for multiple airfares. The TV coverage could be streamed back to the home nation, most likely online rather than by a TV network. It would give players for the Associate nation exposure against international class players. This year’s Ryobi Cup featured 2013 test players Warner, Smith, Wade, Cowan, Lyon and Siddle. A player from an associate nation would relish the chance to play against these guys. As a guide to how much a bit of limited exposure can help, Brad Haddin was part of the short-lived 1997-2000 side the Canberra Comets, who were added to the Australian One Day competition. Look how well he turned out!

In my view, the precedent has been set in the 1970s, when in seasons up to 1975-76, a team of New Zealanders participated in the Australian domestic one-day competition. Players such as the great Richard Hadlee came to Australia and played in our domestic one day tournament, won it on three occasions, and were runners-up once. Only 5 years later they were beating us in ODIs (or nearly beating us, leading to questionable tactics – the underarm ball – by the Aussies to avoid defeat) and 10 years later they were back in Australia in test matches knocking off the Aussies at the MCG. The assistance these games can give in development of a national team are outstanding.

Obviously this idea doesn’t automatically create a test side, and it may not necessarily be Afghanistan that we invite to Australia – Afghanistan has received an invite to compete in the “Asia Cup” ODI tournament, so they have plenty of powerful friends. The added bonus of supporting an Asian nation is that we could win favours with an otherwise very powerful Asian bloc of nations in the ICC, but Kenya, Nepal, UAE and Scotland could all be options. The aim is that in the long term it helps develop players in tougher completion and under different conditions so that when they do play in World Cups and World T20 championships, they lead their nation to wins over full test nations and build their own case for test inclusion.

Have a think about it, Cricket Australia.

Yours in Cricket,

Joseph

POSTSCRIPT – 30 January 2014

Today, the Papua New Guinea team finished fourth in the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifying Tournament in New Zealand. Why is this important? It gives them one-day international status. Perhaps, instead of Afghanistan, Australia can look a bit closer to home to implement this idea, and invite PNG to play the Ryobi Cup, and help develop a team right on our doorstep?

Joe

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