Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas and miscellany

Sport Geek #62: tragic

The awfulness of both the football sex abuse story and the Brazil team plane crash are a reminder that what normally passes for ‘serious’ or ‘scandal’ in sport is nothing like. Ball tampering, driving slowly? Get real.

So it is with a heavy heart that I highlight the sports stories of the week. I don’t want to ignore the plane crash and sex abuse story – although both are important and horrifying in completely different ways – but I’m sure you’ve read them elsewhere.

SPOTY

Two items for the agenda. Why no Wiggins or Froome? And can Murray be stopped?

CRICKET

The case for allowing ball tampering.

FOOTBALL

It’s Gareth Southgate for England! Is he really the best person for the job? The answer is yes, if you think England are mediocre therefore need a mediocre manager. Or lets just cut to the chase and say No.

RUGBY

The extraordinary career of Kiwi Sonny Bill Williams.

TENNIS

Don’t ever go changing the Davis Cup. It always delivers. We could change the scoring system though.

plus: How far can a deaf tennis player go?

F1

Should Lewis Hamilton be criticised or even punished for driving slowly in an attempt to scupper Nico Rosberg? In a word – no. It made for a big story, overshadowing Rosberg‘s eventual championship win; but this is hardly deliberate crashing as of years gone by. Hamilton is the better driver, and part of that is the win-at-all-costs mentality. We can’t celebrate his skill and ignore the desire. Plus it was fun.

CHESS

Yes, again. How Magnus Carlsen is making chess cool.

THAT BOOK

By me. You buy.

See you next week.

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Chris Evans show: reprise

In case you missed it: here’s me back in October on the Chris Evans R2 show.

Also check out Squawka, and TalkSport. All good chat.

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Sport Geek #61: religion, rankings and racing

Is sport a religion? An interesting piece in the Cauldron looks at the similarities. One thought occurred to me reading it – there isn’t anything about rivalries and hatred. Religion is usually about love. But in sports, there’s a lot of hate, too. For me, that’s where the metaphor ended.

[PLUG] One quick reminder: do by my book if you haven’t yet – Sports Geek, great Christmas present.

F1

The Hamilton-Rosberg finale should be fun, but you know about that. Instead, let’s look forward. Is F1 in a crisis? I would say that there is certainly one brewing, as both Malaysia and Singapore look to quit hosting races. Bernie Ecclestone made a pivot to Asia long before anyone was talking in such terms, expanding the F1 calendar away from Europe and into new markets. But if those new markets can’t, or don’t want, to host F1 Grand Prix, where does the sport go from here? It doesn’t help calling Singapore “ungrateful“, either.

It’s not just races that F1 needs, it’s faces too. And one of the best is retiring. Here’s what you need to know about Felipe Massa’s farewell.

TENNIS

I make the case in Newsweek that Andy Murray is a bit lucky to be world number 1. Has Novak had the better year? Check out the numbers and decide for yourself.

DRUGS

The sneaky ways athletes try to beat doping tests and the reason why so many are eventually caught – a Quartz explainer.

RUGBY

The Economist does a very thorough job of explaining why the All Blacks are really really good.

FOOTBALL

Cristiano Ronaldo’s goodbye to the Calderón – a great bit of writing by Sid Lowe in the Guardian.

Forget the night-out controversy – Rooney isn’t fit enough these days, and that’s the problem. Compare to Ronaldo: he takes 3am ice baths to improve his metabolism, apparently…

CRICKET

Which are the greatest bowling performances of them all? A book has the surprising answers.

CYCLING

The FT’s Murad Ahmed looks inside British Cycling’s medal factory. Great feature.

Adios.

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Sport Geek #60: welcome to Rome

No grand thoughts, let’s just crack on shall we?

MONEY MONEY MONEY

File under ‘didn’t see that coming’. Football move over – the best paid sports stars are now in the NBA, with eight of the top 12 teams worldwide. OK, it’s not a Leicester City-sized surprise, but still. Last year’s best paying team, PSG, are now 35th – although Man U are the highest-paying football club. Common thread? Ibrahimovic.

TENNIS

As the World finally thingy is underway at the O2 in London, a reminder from the Economist that rankings can deceive. What does the Elo system tell us about Novak vs Andy?

F1

How/what/why on earth is Lewis Hamilton not winning F1 this year when he is so clearly the best driver? (BBC)

CHESS

Yes, chess. A great rundown on a unique world title game from fivethirtyeight, who collectively are probably smarting from the US election. Speaking of which…

NBA

“We are Rome”. Gregg Popovich, one of the greatest ever coaches, gives the US election both barrels. Why are others not joining in? asks Sean Ingle of the Guardian.

FOOTBALL

Should Germany have to play San Marino? Is there a better way? Questions, questions. I think we know how Thomas Muller would answer. (From Vice)

I love it when the American press does small town UK football. Here’s a classic of the genre from the NYTimes on how the checkatrade trophy lost its lustre. Sorry, luster.

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Sport Geek #59: Murray, Cubs, and Mourinho

murray-cubs-mourinho

Not US politics, earlier

No US politics here… Instead, three “things” to get your sports chops around.

1) Murray’s ascent

When Andy Murray made it to #1 this week, there was a rather wonderful outpouring of joy in the British press. After all, the idea of a Brit atop the tennis world rankings a few years back was just crazy talk.

But here he is, the 26th player to hold top spot since the rankings began. More power to him.

The BBC’s Tom Fordyce notes that “It is not a gimmick, or a marketing exercise, or even a reward in itself, but a defining benchmark. You cannot fluke it or get lucky with a judging panel. It is deserved. It is definitive.”

He also suggests that

And this may yet be the start of something even more beautiful, rather than the pinnacle.

After five defeats in the Australian Open final, never will Murray have a better chance of winning it than this January, Federer and Nadal faded, Djokovic – his nemesis in four of those finals – jaded.

Steve Tignor on tennis.com was hardly less restrained in his praise: “One of the pleasures of being a tennis fan in this era has been watching Andy Murray grow up as player and person.” His piece is a more forensic analysis of how Murray got there. Worth a read.

Lastly on Murray: the Guardian’s Kevin Mitchell posts something of a love letter. “Pick up any dictionary and check the definition of honesty. There will be references to integrity, loyalty, candour, right-mindedness, authenticity. All of these describe the Andy Murray I have come to know.”

The only fly in the ointment is that a poor Masters final in the 02 and he might lose the ranking and never get it back. That would rather diminish his achievement – here’s hoping for a decent stint.

2) Those Cubs

The World Series was unforgettable and ended a 108-year wait for a Chicago Cubs win. There were hundreds of articles I could have picked for this, but here is Time, and the Economist, on perhaps the greatest sporting story of the year.

3) Jose Mourinho loses the plot early

Jose has a reputation for losing his players and owner’s faith around the third season of a managerial job. But at Man United it all seems to be happening a bit early.

Jamie Jackson at the Guardian noted:

Mourinho decided he had no option but to question the team’s commitment and effort: the base elements any professional footballer has to possess. It shows the slide Mourinho and his side are on. For any manager, the exposure of players – the men on whom their own success or failure depends – in the media is the nuclear option.

And that was BEFORE he hung Shaw and Smalling out to dry. And then there is the players response. And on it goes.

So will Mourinho last the season at Old Trafford? He’s reportedly unhappy in his posh hotel, kicking his players in public, and Christmas is cancelled. Doesn’t look good, does it?

Plus, a Soccerbrain points out the fallacy about managers – and rips Mourinho’s record to shreds. Lots of fun (h/t Simon Gleave)

See you next week

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Sport Geek #58: 1908 / 1948 and all that

1908, earlier.

1908, earlier.

By the time you read this, the World Series may have come to its momentous conclusion (the game is on Wednesday night / Thursday morning UK time). It’s momentous because if the Cleveland Indians win the deciding game 7, it will be their first World Series win since 1948. That’s a hell of a long time. But if the Chicago Cubs win, it is their first win since 1908. And that is not a typo.

Only those in their mid 70s will have any chance of hazily recalling the Cleveland win. You’d have to be at least 112 or so to recall the Cubs winning. And here in England we moan about 1966.

So here are a few baseball pieces to whet your appetite, from Sports Illustrated and the NYTimes.

One question you might ask: why is baseball so white? Vox has the answers.

Meanwhile

Vice points out that the All Blacks are in Chicago, and hardly anyone knows about it.

In footballing matters:

FiveThirtyEight takes a look at how one man pretty much ruined English football for decades with crap maths.

The Telegraph crunch a few numbers to ask why Arsenal are always so crap in November.

And without a stat in sight, Vice looks at Costa and Giroud – the moody frontmen 

 

 

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Sport Geek #57: the death of sport? Not quite…

What happens when the money runs out?

Many industries have been through profound change; some have completely died. Modern sport has changed, but it has never truly suffered.

Yes, it has suffered from scandal. But not from financial crisis. Even while the world adapted to the crash of 2008-09 it ploughed on, oblivious, a distraction in which even greater sums of money were poured into the bank accounts of young men, generated by billionaire owners, TV networks and pliant fans who put up with ever-increasing costs. Modern sport, which you could argue emerged in the early 1990s with pay TV, the evolution of stats and the emergence of more stringent drug-testing, has only gone one way: bigger.

Is that all about to change? Three recent articles are worth examining. Continue reading

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TalkSport interview

Listen again to the TalkSport interview I gave to Hawksbee and Jacobs on Friday October 21.

We talk about football stats, the greatest boxer, north vs south in rugby, Bolt being slow, drugs in cycling and lots more.

 

 

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Sport Geek #56: sledging, taunting and tanking

As the title of this one suggests, there is a something of a thread. As the Guardian’s Andy Bull notes, most sledging in cricket is really weak stuff about biscuits and mothers. In the NFL, taunting can get you in trouble – just for bobbing your head about a bit. Tanking, though, is properly naawty. And Nick Kyrgios is taking it to a new level.

But before the essential reading of the week – a quick note on MY BOOK Sports Geek which is out tomorrow. It was described by Chris Evans as “the perfect toilet book” and he meant it nicely. I agree. Do buy it. And then tell 10 people about it. That’s how things go “viral”, apparently. Continue reading

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Are Australia now too nice to be cricket winners? The run rate suggests so…

Here’s a thought to enrage a few alpha Aussies. Apparently, the Australian cricket team have become too nice.

This is the team that pioneered “mental disintegration” of the opposition; whose hard-nosed captain Allan Border declared that he would “rather be a prick and win”; the team of Michael Clarke’s “get ready for a broken fucking arm“. Nice? Nice?

Apparently so. According to an article in ESPNCricinfo, Australia have an identity problem, the current captain, Steve Smith, said that his team was at times too quiet and lacks energy.

Smith was quoted as saying:

“We’ve got some pretty quiet characters, so even if it’s not making noise verbally, it might be just about having a bit more presence and the old Australian way of puffing your chest out and making your presence felt for the quieter guys. It’s trying to do that, get into the game that way and try to provide some sort of energy that way.”

How does that translate on the pitch? It’s hard to measure attitude or hostility, especially in fielding and bowling. Maidens and wickets don’t reveal whether they were taken with guile or brute force. Catches aren’t graded on alertness.

But there is one measure that shows the attacking intent of a team: the run rate. Aggressive teams score fast. The Australians had a reputation of scoring hard and fast to put the game out of reach, and deliberately targeted opposition bowlers. If we want a proxy for hardness, this isn’t a bad place to look.

Of course, it’s is not a perfect measure – run rates can be influenced by the pitch, the opposition, the prevailing style of umpiring (restricting bowlers), and the match situation.

Still, it’s interesting to look at the run rate under successive Australian captains. I have averaged it over a rolling 10 innings to smooth out the effect of some of the factors above. What does it reveal?

The data is taken from Cricinfo for the following captains:
Allan Border (1984-1994)
Mark Taylor (1995-1998)
Steve Waugh (1999-2004)
Ricky Ponting (2004-2011)
Michael Clarke (2011-2015)
Steve Smith (2015-present)

(I’ve rolled Adam Gilchrist’s matches in charge into Waugh and Ponting’s figures – he was only captain for six Tests, rather than a long-term appointment.)

aus-rpo

Source: ESPNCricinfo

What can we see?

Essentially, the massive change is from the Border-Taylor era to Waugh-onwards. That’s where the run rate goes up from around 3 per over to 4 and above. That’s the equivalent of an extra 90 to 100 runs per day scored, which is a big difference in terms of finishing games off rather than getting a draw. Waugh took Australia from hard to beat to utterly ruthless – and the run rate shows.

Under Ponting, the run rate starts to drop. When Clarke took over it had hovered around 3.5, and was getting close to 3. Clarke then presides over the greatest swing, from under 3 to over 4.5, and back to around 4, partly as the team’s fortunes swing from series whitewash to series whitewash, both victories and losses. As nice vs nasty goes, Clarke’s most comprehensive wins came when fast bowler Mitchell Johnson was at his mustachioed best.

And now under Smith, the rate is dropping fast again. The current decline under Smith is from 4.4 to 3.3 in just 10 innings – the most consistent drop on the chart.

While a lower run rate might not be conclusive proof of being too nice, you can certainly see that under Waugh the Australian Test side was a run machine. And under Smith, there is clearly a problem.

Perhaps the question is better rephrased: not whether nice teams can win, but whether winning teams are ever seen as nice.

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