All posts by Eddie Ikin

Cricket balls

Will white ball contracts spell the end for Test cricket?

Test cricket was once the cornerstone of our great game, it was the pinnacle, the ultimate stage on which to showcase your skills. The La Scala of the cricketing world.

Grace, Bradman, Hutton, Lloyd, Gavaskar, Botham, Lillee  — the list goes on of greats whose careers have been defined by their performances in the Test arena. But is this a thing of the past?

In case you missed it, England internationals, Adil Rashid, Alex Hales and Reece Topley have all turned their back on red ball cricket as the trio have signed ‘white ball’ contracts with their respective counties and in doing so, almost certainly ended their Test careers.

All white now

As we all know, cricket is not what it once was. With a new, more dynamic audience craving speed, innovation and power, white ball cricket is thriving. So much so that worldwide domestic T20 competitions and their teams are now investing astronomical sums of money in players that have little hope nor little ambition of Test selection.

Tymal Mills is earning more in the IPL than England captain Joe Root

I present to you, Tymal Mills. The Sussex T20 specialist recently landed a whopping £1.4 million from Indian Premier League side, Royal Challengers Bangalore, which rather astonishingly, is just shy of double the salary of England Test skipper, Joe Root.

Not bad for a guy that has taken just three international T20 wickets in four matches.

Players such as Mills certainly cannot be begrudged or blamed for committing to the shorter format, but can the same be said about those with realistic hopes for Test match selection? Do players have a duty to support the game’s most traditional format?

Not according to former England bowler Chris Tremlett: “Some people will be disappointed that Hales and Rashid are no longer putting their hats in the ring for Test cricket, but the game is moving forward.

“Like it or not, this is the way modern-day cricket is going and it’s a personal choice for the players in question. You look at IPL contracts and that is where the money is – players are bound to follow it.”

Dagger through the heart

So, as the game continues to evolve into a calendar full of limited overs games, will higher profile players make themselves unavailable for Test selection as they eye the big bucks?

One man who could indeed do that is South Africa’s A B De Villiers. The quite brilliant Protea batsman is one of the most sought after one-day players in world. Despite being in the middle of a Test series battle against Australia, rumours persist that this could be his last outing in white clothing as he looks to cash in.

If that is the case then it would be a dagger through the heart of Test cricket and could potentially encourage other high profile players to follow suit.

Testing times

So how do the players see it?

“No one is watching it [Test cricket] and soon, it won’t be viable. There’s no money in it because it’s all in T20 leagues and we have to be worried about that,” says England Test opener, Alistair Cook.

Whilst England’s current limited overs captain, Eoin Morgan echoes those thoughts:  “Test match cricket has had a lot to worry about for a while now. If something was going to be done about it, it should have already been done already.”

Make county cricket great again

I agree with Eoin Morgan that something should have been done but the rapid rise of T20 cricket has made it difficult for the ICC and the respective governing bodies to come up with a solution. Or perhaps I’m being rather naive and in fact they see T20 as a lucrative cash cow they want to milk for all it’s worth, even if it means the Test arena is neglected.

So what are the options?

Financial Incentives

If players want the big bucks, then give it to them.

The ‘Test Championship’ has been talked about for some time now with no sign of it forthcoming. The ICC need to introduce this as soon as possible and offer big rewards, not only for the team winning it but for standout individual performances.

Show the players they can be rewarded.

Make county cricket great again

The stereotypical view of first class cricket in England is that it’s miserably cold, viewed by a solitary fan accompanied by his or her Jack Russell and played by glorified club cricketers.

Whilst that isn’t the case, it’s not a million miles from it and that should be a huge concern.

The ECB has to start engaging the youth of Britain and raise interest levels in the longer format and they need to do that by introducing a friendlier schedule.

Nobody wants to watch cricket in April with a flask of coffee in their hands and a blanket over their lap, so stop shaping the schedule to suit limited overs games and start playing first class games in school holidays, even if that means a shorter schedule.

Prioritise quality over quantity and make it fun.

Let the kids see a fiery spell of fast bowling on a quick bouncy pitch in July, not a 200 ball half century in April.

Innovate in the Test arena

The shorter formats are innovative, so why isn’t Test cricket?

Day/night Test matches have been a great hit with the crowds — let’s have more of them.

What about introducing penalty runs for slow over rates? Even as a cricketing purist I can acknowledge that the longer format can be painful to watch at times. So why not introduce an ‘over clock’? All overs must be bowled inside an allowed time or penalty runs are awarded to the batting teams.

Yes, these ideas aren’t perfect, but it’s a start.

Whatever is done can’t come quickly enough, because as it stands Test cricket and its future looks bleak.

Cricket balls photo by Farrukh via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Resurgent Solihull Moors plot the great escape

Whether it be Leicester City’s remarkable escape from relegation in the 2014/15 Premier League season or Liverpool’s revival in Istanbul, football has a knack of producing comeback stories like no other.

Fortunately, it doesn’t look like ending any time soon as yet another story brews, this time away from the bright lights and the glamour of the Premier League.

Sitting just two points away from safety is far from an ideal situation but for Vanarama National team, Solihull Moors, it’s a quite an achievement after what was in truth, a truly horrific start to the season, both on and off the pitch.

With two managerial departures by October, numerous player departures and just eight points from their first fifteen games, things were looking rather bleak at Damson Park.

However, under new boss, Mark Yates, the West Midlanders are thriving, and after five wins in their last seven league games, a season which looked certain to end in relegation, could now finish in comfortable survival.

Doing the impossible

“It was a tough start to the season of course,” says Moors midfielder, George Carline. “We took something like eight points from our first 15 games which meant we needed to do the impossible but the boss has come in and turned us around.”

Since the former Birmingham City player has taken over, Solihull have taken 22 from points from 14 games, including three wins in their last four, which saw Yates scoop January’s National League manager of the month award.

So, what’s changed?

“I think stability. After Liam (Mcdonald) and Richard Money left, we needed someone to come in for the rest of the season, not just a few games,” says Carline. “We’ve also signed some top players. Carts (Darren Carter) and Jamey (Osbourne) are for me two of the best players in the league. They have come in and been superb, so too has Adi (Yussuf). These guys have all had Football League experience and it really shows.”

‘Carts has been phenomenal in midfield’

The 34-year-old Carter has Premier League experience with Birmingham City and West Brom, and is now the Solihull club captain. He has scored seven goals from central midfield this season.

“Carts has been phenomenal. Not just on the pitch but off it too. He’s a great lad and a hell of a footballer. His quality on the ball and from set pieces has really helped. The combination of him, Jamey and Kyle (Storer) in midfield is for me one of the best in the league,” adds Carline.

The team comes first

Carline was a  regular under former boss, Liam McDonald, who bought Carline with him from Vanarama North side Hednesford, But the midfielder has recently seen his playing time limited under Yates (just two minutes in the last five games) but admits he is delighted with his team’s upturn in form.

“It is what it is. The guys who have the shirt have performed brilliantly and the club is moving up the table which is fantastic. Of course you want to play. Any footballer will say they same thing and it’s a slight frustration, but the team comes first and as long as we’re winning I’m over the moon,” says Carline.

Survival mode

With just under a third of the season left, the Moors have plenty of work left to do but just how confident are they of survival?

“The mood in the dressing room is great. Some of the lads have been talking about it being the great escape but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves, that would be disastrous. We’re playing well but we know how things can change in this league.”

With their next three league fixtures at home, the Moors have a great chance to plough ahead of the relegation zone but with promotion chasing Maidstone and Bromley in town, it will be far from easy.

There will be plenty of twists and turns to come, but Solihull now have a fighting chance of survival.

Gridiron try-out: a rookie gives American football a go

American football is growing rapidly in Britain and it’s doing so right in front of our eyes.

With the overwhelming success of the International Series, the National Football League now claims to have more than three million ‘avid’ UK fans.

This got me thinking, as one of those avid fans, wasn’t it time I give it go? After all, how hard could it be?

68 adult teams compete in three tiers in locations spanning the length and breadth of Britain but one team in particular caught my eye — the Leicester Falcons. I live in Leicestershire, so geographically they made the most sense and they compete in Tier 2, so in my head, they seemed a perfect fit.

Smashed to pieces?

Rather fortuitously, the Falcons were holding Saturday ‘try outs’ for veteran and rookie players at Fullhurst Community College, just a stone’s throw away from my beloved Leicester City’s King Power Stadium.

Rugby wasn’t my sport growing up, so would I get smashed to pieces, or could I call on my cricket background to cling on to some one-handed stunners? In my head I was going to be the Odell Beckham Jr of British gridiron. In reality, I’d be lucky to come home in one piece.

Saturday was upon me, and so was the anxiety. Would I be made to look like a fool? I weigh 75 kg, have no oval ball background and little idea about the sport’s intricacies.

Alas, after a motivational speech from the mother, which would rival the likes of Martin Luther King and Sir Winston Churchill, I was ready. Thanks to mum, I now knew just how the people of France felt after Charles de Gaulle’s rousing  ‘Appeal of 18 June’ speech summoning the resistance.

Rookies only

Picture this. Your stereotypical sports playing field in January. Bare, lifeless, rock hard and a skinny lad (me) standing there in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts. This wasn’t going to end well.

As I jogged over I was immediately greeted by one of the coaches who asked, “Veteran or rookie?” “Rookie,” I said and was pointed in the direction of what looked to be a pack of lost individuals who, like me, were wishing they were sitting in front of the fire at home.

I introduced myself and it became clear rather quickly that we were going to be part of a ‘rookie only’ practice session. We were asked what positions we wanted to play. I opted for wide receiver, so we  split up into groups based on those positions.

The drills were basic. We’d run a simple slant route and take a catch from the coach, acting as the quarterback. My handling was good, as I expected it to be, but what I didn’t have was breakaway speed.

Many of the guys were in fact speedsters, but didn’t have the handling skills which I guess, levelled the playing field.

Nod of approval

The second hour of practice was by far the most enjoyable. Our opposite numbers, the rookie cornerbacks, joined our group as we played ‘mini games’ of seven versus seven.

The objective was simple. Beat your man, get into space and make a catch from the quarterback.

Space however, was hard to come by. Due to the small area we operated it, to say it was congested would be an understatement, but with a shimmy or two, I finally managed to get the hang of it.

The highlight of the day was when a ball was inadvertently tipped by another receiver and I clung on to a one-hander right under the gazing eyes of my opposite number who, to be fair, gave me a nod of approval.

As practice came to an end, we headed over to the much larger group of veterans where the session was ended by a team huddle and some feedback from the coaches, which was, in the main, very positive.

Give it a go

It wasn’t until I got home that I started to reflect on my day.

What didn’t strike me at the time, but did hours later, was the fact that complete strangers engaged in a huddle just a few hours after meeting each other.

Why doesn’t this happen in other sports? My thoughts are that because the sport is so physically demanding, respect between players is immediate.

For those, who like myself, may be anxious about trying American football, don’t be. Give it a go. It may just surprise you.

Oh and Odell, I think you’re safe. For now, anyway.

To find an American football club in your area, visit the britishamericanfootball.org website.

NFL logo

NFL mid-season review

It’s a short regular season in the National Football League, and we’re already halfway through the 16-game schedule.

So it’s time to take stock of who’s hot, who’s not, who’s surprising or disappointing – and who might make it all the way to Super Bowl LII on February 4th in Minneapolis.

Best bet for MVP – Carson Wentz (Philadelphia Eagles)

Let’s take you back to April 28th, 2016. For most of you, it was most likely to be just another uneventful Thursday, but for Philadelphia Eagles fans, it was the day they found their franchise quarterback.

 

As the draft approached, two young QBs were vying for the honour of being named the number one overall pick. Jared Goff of the University of California and Carson Wentz of North Dakota.

Luckily for Philly fans, the Los Angeles Rams selected the former, which meant Wentz was heading east to Pennsylvania.

In his rookie year, the North Carolina-born quarterback showed a huge amount of promise with very few offensive weapons at his disposal.

Wentz led his side to a 3-0 start, which included a hugely impressive week three win against Pittsburgh.

Results took a turn for the worse as Doug Pederson’s side slipped to a 7-9 record, but Wentz certainly showed why Eagles fans had reasons to be optimistic.

In the 2017 off-season, free agency allowed the Eagles to add the weapons Wentz had been craving.

LeGarrette Blount, Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery all joined the roster to ‘beef up’ their offence.

Wentz has responded in magnificent fashion by throwing a leasgue-high 23 touchdown passes, with a passer rating of 104.1.

The former number 2 pick has led his side to a 8-1 record – the best in the NFL – which puts them top of the NFC East, arguably the most competitive division in football.

The play-offs loom and, with quarterbacks’ careers often defined by post-season results, Wentz, 24, will have have a chance to begin cementing his legacy very early on.

Notable mentions: Jared Goff (LA Rams), Alex Smith (Kansas City Chiefs) and Tom Brady (New England Patriots)

Outstanding Rookie – Kareem Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs)

Kareem Hunt had one of the most memorable NFL debuts in recent memory.

He fumbled his first career carry (against the defending Super Bowl champions, the NewEngland Patriots) before going on to break the record for most yards from scrimmage by an NFL debutant (246) – quite a way to introduce yourself.

Despite being the sixth running back taken in the 2017 draft, Hunt has shone with his electric speed and exceptional hands in the back field –  illustrated by his 800 total yards, the most by a rookie running back this season.

The former Toledo star has four touchdowns, which is the second most by a rookie and tied with the likes of NFL legend Marshawn Lynch.

Under the stewardship of Andy Reid at the Chiefs, Hunt is in the perfect place to learn, improve and ultimately, become a star (if he’s not one already).

Surprise package – LA Rams

Let’s not beat around the bush, the LA Rams were terrible last season and if we’re honest, they were always going to be with Case Keenum at quarterback.

 

Therefore it came as little surprise when midway through last season, Keenum was dumped for the number one overall pick, Jared Goff.

Initially, Goff struggled to come to terms with the professional ranks. He threw interception after interception in loss after loss which ultimately left question marks over his selection over Wentz.

However, the Rams were always going to give their number 16 time to develop given what they had invested in him and that faith is now starting to pay off.

The California born quarterback has transformed himself from a rabbit in the headlights into a calm, quick-thinking MVP candidate.

So, what’s made the change?

For me, it’s not what it’s who and that who is newly appointed head coach, Sean McVay.

The former Washington offensive coordinator has transformed a turgid, one dimensional team into statistically the best offensive unit in the NFL. His ability to get the most out of Goff and third-year running back, Todd Gurley has been a huge reason for this.

Gurley, the former Georgia university running back, has seven touchdowns so far, which is one more than he had after the entire 2016 season. His ability to occupy defenders has given huge amounts of space for the likes of Cooper Kupp, Sammy Watkins and Tavon Austin to exploit.

The LA Rams really do have a well balanced offensive unit.

But what’s a great offence without a solid defence?

Led by Aaron Donald, this Rams defense is relentless at getting after the quarterback.

They stand sixth on the list of sacks but where they can improve is in the run defense. Far too many times have opposition backs been able to get into the secondary and keep the chains moving.

If they can improve that aspect then who knows, we could well be looking at Super Bowl contenders!

Underachievers: New York Giants

Warning! Look away now Giants fans…

If at the start of the season someone would have said the Giants would be 1-7, nobody would have believed them.

So how can a side that reached the play-offs last year now be talked about in the same breath as the Cleveland Browns?

The fact that Paul Perkins and Shane Vereen share the workload at running back contributes but the overriding factor is their quarterback.

I’m sorry, Eli Manning fans, but your man is past his sell-by-date. Yes, his offensive line isn’t great, but with weapons like Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepherd and Brandon Marshall at his disposal, he should be doing better.

To give some perspective, the Giants offence currently ranks 23rd and 27th in passing and rushing respectively – thats on Manning and the running backs.

Let’s take some of the heat away from Manning now as we ponder just why their defence has gone from the number one ranked last year, to the 26th ranked this year.

 

Has fatigue set in? Has all that time on the field because the offence cannot string consecutive first downs together finally taking it’s toll?

Or is it simply good players under achieving? Who knows, but what we do know is that head coach Ben McAdoo is on borrowed time.

The temperature in the Giants hot-seat is rising, and it will be surprising if he makes it until the end of the season.

Now, here’s where the fun begins. Lets dish out some mid-season awards…

Catch of the Season – Cole Beasley for the Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants

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Best Play – Kansas City/Tyreek Hill v Dallas Cowboys

I feel like we could have a whole section of awards dedicated to Tyreek Hill, given his special ability to make jaw dropping plays. This amazing team effort finished off by the speedster makes it to the top of the pile for best plays. Check it out…

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Memorable Trick Play – Seattle Seahawks v New York Giants

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Fail of the Year – Tyreek Hill v Denver Broncos

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Most Impressive Announcer – Tony Romo @ CBS

Tony Romo’s career as an NFL quarterback may be over (for the time being) but his life as an announcer is just getting started. Romo has breathed fresh life into CBS with his amazing knowledge of the game and unique ability to call out plays prior to the snap of the ball.

If you haven’t seen the video of him doing so, here it is…

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And finally…

Superbowl LII prediction: Eagles v Chiefs

The old adage, defence wins championships may have been applicable before, but not many defences can stop these two sides.

The Cheifs may be in the middle of a slight wobble, but under the guidance of Andy Reid, I believe they will be resurgent in the second half of the season.

Their main rivals in the AFC are the New England Patriots, who have struggled to replicate the form of last season, and I believe the Chiefs will pip them to the conference title.

Over in the NFC, it’s wide open.

The Eagles and Rams currently stand out to me but don’t discount Dallas, Seattle, New Orleans, Minnesota or Carolina of making a play off charge.

However, the Eagles are the best team in the NFL right now, regardless of records and stats. Carson Wentz is a superstar and I feel he will be the difference when games get tight.

Prediction: Carson Wentz and the Eagles to be wearing Super Bowl rings in February.

Feature image of NFL logo photo by Jonathan Moreau via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Heather Knight

‘Let’s not make World Cup win a one off’

Accusations of under-performing in big tournaments are now a distant memory for Heather Knight and her England team after they defeated India at Lord’s in a nail-biting contest to win the Women’s World Cup for the second time in three attempts.

“To do it on home soil at Lord’s in front of 26,000 people, and millions watching all over the world, it’s what dreams are made of,” said Knight.

The 26-year-old is, however, not keen to dwell on that success. “We don’t want to stop here, it’s important to keep pushing, and we want to drive the women’s game forward.”

Women’s cricket has already taken tremendous strides in recent times – in the space of just 10 years, it’s seen a rise of more than 650% in new women’s cricket clubs.

The ECB’s Director of England Women’s Cricket, Claire Connor, is excited for the future, saying: ‘There is a great area of potential, especially with the arrival of the All Stars Cricket programme. The future is bright, that’s for sure.”

So how does it get better than this for the female game?

Spotlight

“Of course, the World Cup win is going to be difficult to top, it was such a great day for women’s sport and you don’t want that to be a one-off,” said Knight at the launch of a new salad she has helped to create with health food company Squirrel.

Heather Knight
Knight is relishing England’s upcoming Ashes challenge

“We recognise these sort of days don’t come around that often, and that’s why it’s vital that we keep the women’s game in the spotlight.”

That spotlight should continue to shine on the England team for some time yet as there is a small matter of an upcoming Ashes series in Australia, which Knight admits won’t be easy.

“It’s a tough place to go as you feel like the whole country is against you.”

“As everybody knows, the Australians love to beat the English, so that’s something you have to deal with, but we’re just concentrating on ourselves.”

Influential Australian captain Meg Lanning will miss the series through injury, but the England skipper believes the void left by her opposite number will be filled.

“Of course, any team in the world would miss Meg, but they have a great batting line-up as we saw in the World Cup, with many able replacements, so we’re expecting a tough battle.”

Determination

The Rochdale born right-hander has proven in her time in charge that she is exactly the person you want to lead you into such a battle.

She handled the fall-out from predecessor Charlotte Edwards losing the captaincy with professionalism and an inner determination to prove people wrong – all characteristics of this current England team.

‘We’ve got a lot of younger players and lots of potential, so we want to keep dominating for as long as possible’ – Heather Knight

So what of the future?

Long-term ambitions in sport often fall foul of fluctuating form and fortune, but Knight has no qualms in discussing hers.

“I want to continue as captain and see how far we can go. We’ve got a lot of younger players and lots of potential, so we want to keep dominating for as long as possible.”

One of those younger players is 18-year-old, Sophie Ecclestone. The Lancastrian missed last winter’s tour of Sri Lanka due to school commitments, but Knight believes she’s a star in the making.

“Sophie has a great future ahead of her with plenty of potential, and we’re looking forward to having her in Australia.”

England have recently overtaken Australia as the world’s number one-ranked women’s side, which will add some extra spice heading into that first ODI at Brisbane in late October.

Heather Knight was speaking at the launch of the ‘Green Knight’ salad, part of the ‘Best In Field’ series of dishes from London-based healthy eating outlet Squirrel. Images courtesy of KK Communications. You can follow Heather on Twitter