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Kell Brook: Ready for the big time

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

With the possible exception of Amir Khan, Kell Brook is the most talented fighter of his generation in Britain and now, after 27 fights and 27 wins, he is ready to prove himself on the world stage.

On Saturday night (17th March), the 25 year old welterweight from Sheffield faced what was supposed to be the toughest fight of his career when he took on Manchester’s Matthew Hatton in a fight dubbed ‘The War of the Roses.’ Hatton was coming off a recent valiant showing against WBC light-middleweight champion and rising superstar Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, in which he took the much bigger Mexican the distance. Brook has looked highly impressive in his seven-and-a-half year career, but has not been extended. The thinking behind a matchup with Ricky Hatton’s younger brother was that he would provide the Sheffield man with a stern test and give him chance to show how he can perform when he does not have things all his own way.

This test did not materialise as Brook put on a clinic, dominating Hatton from the first bell to the last. Alvarez has earned rave reviews on the other side of the Atlantic, but the man dubbed ‘Special K’ looked even more impressive and beat Hatton even more convincingly than the Mexican did. The 25 year old utilised his trademark ramrod job to dictate the pace of the fight, keep his more experienced opponent at bay and set up hurtful right hands. Brook simply looked a class above on Saturday night and gave a clear indication that he is operating at a level way above domestic. Now is the time for Brook to be let loose on the division’s elite.

Being a product of Sheffield’s famous Wincobank gym, comparisons with Prince Naseem Hamed are inevitable, but Brook is a very different fighter. He does however have the necessary tools to emulate Naz’s success in the ring. Whilst 18 knockouts in 27 wins shows that Brook can punch, he does not possess the stunning one-punch knockout power that Naseem had and he is nowhere near as arrogant as Hamed. The quick reflexes, however, are there and if anything, Brook is technically superior. He has a exemplary jab that allows him to control fights and he delivers his punches correctly, punching through the target. He times his punches impeccably, particularly when fighting on the back foot and his hand speed is impressive. If there is a criticism, it is that he is open to the overhand right and although he has shown a good set of whiskers to this point, it is something he will want to eradicate as he moves in to a higher class of opposition. It could perhaps also be said that he is sometimes a little one-paced, as was seen against Hatton. It appeared that Brook could have finished the fight within the distance, particularly after flooring the Manchester man in the ninth round but he did not manage to do so. At the highest level, such chances need to be ruthlessly ceased upon.

Kell Brook impressed against Matthew Hatton on Saturday night (This image is the property of Lawrence Lustig)

Brook undoubtedly has the talent and desire to go all the way to the very top and there are currently few better divisions to inhabit than welterweight. The division contains Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Andre Berto, Victor Ortiz and Mike Jones, all of whom have top ten rankings. This means there are plenty of money-spinning and career-defining fights for the Sheffield youngster and whilst he may not yet be ready for Pacquiao or Mayweather, he would stand a very good chance against any one of Berto, Ortiz or Jones. All are aggressive fighters and Brook’s supreme counterpunching ability and perfect timing would leave him well placed to come out on top.

Whether such a fight will come to pass remains to be seen. Jones has a fight with Randall Bailey scheduled for 9th June, whilst Berto and Ortiz face off in a rematch on 23rd June. A fight against Jones (should he come through) or the winner of the latter fight would propel Brook in to boxing’s elite. Jones represents the best option for Brook as he provides a fan-friendly style. His over-zealous attacks leave him open to counter punches and his eagerness to throw punches can lead to him flagging as fights continue beyond the opening rounds. In short, Brook is well equipped to beat the American in an entertaining fight, something which could help make him a star on both sides of the Atlantic.

Brook himself realises that he is now ready to step up to world level and has repeatedly called out fellow Brit Amir Khan. With Khan slated to rematch Lamont Peterson in May, this may have to wait, but the 25 year old from Sheffield is making all the right noises. Frustrated at what he perceived to be a lack of progress, he left Frank Warren’s promotional stable in 2011 and signed with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Sport. Hearn has promised to make Brook a global star. Let’s hope he lives up to his promise because at 25, Brook is reaching his physical peak and is now ready to become the latest in a long line of British world champions.

Categories: Boxing

Tendulkar’s achievement is Bradmanesque

March 18, 2012 1 comment

By Faisal Hanif

Like most sports the game of cricket has its internal debates concerning those it sees as the standard bearers of excellence throughout its long history. Unlike many, cricket has at least managed to single out one individual above all others; Don Bradman. Bradman is widely regarded as the undisputed greatest player of all time.

Bradman’s claim to this title comes as a result of extraordinary statistics. The Don finished a 52 test match career in 1948 with a batting average of 99.94 and in a sport seemingly obsessed with statistics this is beyond compare.

Of course statistics like most things are relative but Bradman’s numbers are lauded for this very reason. His average dwarfs that of any of his rivals who have played over 20 test matches. His three closest competitors are Graeme Pollock, George Headley and Herbert Sutcliffe, who all achieved averages of just over 60, with the former two having played less than half the number of tests.

The Don’s numbers are so prolific that on a statistical basis alone he has claim to not only be hailed as the cricketer supreme, but also the greatest sportsman of all time.

However, if Bradman’s achievements are held in such high esteem, then Sachin Tendulkar’s achievement of scoring one hundred international centuries must be placed on a similar pedestal. Tendulkar may not be near the Don when it comes to career average, but similarly nobody comes close to India’s Little Master where international centuries are concerned.

Tendulkar celebrates one of his 100 centuries

Like Bradman, Tendulkar is way ahead of his compatriots with Ricky Ponting heading up the chasing pack on 71 international hundreds. With the Australian having had his limited overs international career brought to an end in recent weeks and seemingly being one bad run of form away from demotion from test cricket, he has little hope of catching Tendulkar. South Africa’s Jacques Kallis comes next on 59 centuries but at 36 years of age will likewise fall someway short of Tendulkar’s feat.

Ponting and Kallis like Lara, Gavaskar, Richards and Sobers before them, will be considered amongst the giants of cricketing history. Yet when Bradman’s name crops up only Tendulkar is mentioned alongside the Aussie maestro. Even Don Bradman himself mentioned that amongst modern players, Tendulkar resembles him most in terms of technique; a technique which comprises picture perfect balance and is exemplified by a beautiful range of stroke play that has put the best bowling attacks to the sword. Even when age has curtailed some of the flamboyance Tendulkar’s brilliance has shone through, as seen in his epic battle with Dale Steyn to reach his 51st and most recent test century in 2011.

This ability to face any challenge that has come his way has put Tendulkar ahead of his contemporaries and made certain that he outlasted them all. Many point to the idiosyncrasies of the different eras that Bradman and Tendulkar inhabit to decide on who is the superior batsman. The nature of the pitches, the quality of opposition and the different types of game with the advent of limited overs cricket all major points of contention. Even if such factors could be analysed to give a definitive answer the sentiments of one billion plus Indians and millions of Australians would be little affected. Such an argument can be left for another time, perhaps when Tendulkar finally hangs up his gloves will the ultimate comparison be fully discussed and settled.

What has sustained Don Bradman’s legacy however is the acceptance from many within the cricketing fraternity that Bradman’s average is unattainable and no one will ever come close to it. Likewise Tendulkar’s feat is also being hailed in similar terms as a record unlikely to ever be broken. At present it seems as if Sachin’s desire for the game is the only thing that can prevent him from adding to his tally of international hundreds and such an occurrence would solidify such a viewpoint.

Whatever becomes of Tendulkar’s records his achievement must be seen for what it is. To score one hundred international centuries is an astonishing feat. It’s a testament to the longevity and adaptability of the Little Master that he has carved it out over 22 years at the top. Wherever he takes his place in the pantheon of cricketing legends it is safe to assume that no player has possessed Tendulkar’s ability to seamlessly transform his game according to the demands of the time and situation.

The argument has always held sway that statistics show that that no one comes close to the Don. If that has been fact for over half a century then on one level we may now pose a challenge. To adopt poker parlance, we will see Bradman’s average and raise you Tendulkar’s hundreds.

Categories: Cricket, Guest Blogs

Flying under the radar: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar

March 18, 2012 Leave a comment

In this, the second instalment of our ‘Flying under the radar’ series, we take at look at Schalke and Netherlands goal machine Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

Some players are simply born to score goals; Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is one of them. The Hunter follows in the footsteps of other great Dutch goal getters such as Marco van Basten, Patrick Kluivert and Ruud van Nistelrooy, continuing a rich footballing tradition in the country. Huntelaar’s record measures up to that of almost anybody playing in Europe and very few can match his strike rate at international level. However, the Schalke striker is not held in the same high regard as the likes of Wayne Rooney, David Villa or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Why is this the case?

When it comes to flair and eye-catching moments of skill, Huntelaar cannot compete with the likes of Rooney and Ibrahimovic, but a striker’s primary job is to score goals and there are not many better than Huntelaar at doing this. He does not drop deep to find the ball in the same way that Rooney and Ibrahimovic do, he is instead a good old fashioned striker whose game revolves around finding the back of the net. He seems to have an innate sense of when a scoring opportunity will present itself, always being in the right place at the right time – the mark of a top-class striker. He makes excellent runs to get in to scoring positions and once he has a sight of goal, he is unerring in his finishing. Huntelaar scores goals with both feet and has also earned a deserved reputation for being an excellent header of the ball (as England fans are all too aware after last month’s friendly at Wembley). You are also unlikely to find a better penalty taker anywhere in Europe. All of this means goals, goals and more goals, but in recent years, Huntelaar has had to cope with a fair amount of disappointment.

Huntelaar first came to the attention of those outside the Netherlands when he played for Ajax (2006-2009). Just as the likes of Marco van Basten and Ruud van Nistelrooy had done before him, Huntelaar found the net with astonishing regularity in the Eredivisie. 76 goals in 92 league games and 105 in 136 in all competitions attracted the attention of a whole host of bigger clubs. This quickly turned in to a scramble for the then 25 year old’s signature, with Manchester United, Chelsea, AC Milan and Real Madrid reportedly all involved. In the end, the Spanish club were successful and in January 2009, Huntelaar moved to the Spanish capital for an initial fee of around €20 million.

The move to Los Merengues proved to be a strange and ultimately short-lived one as Huntelaar spent only half a season at the Bernabeu. The Dutchman did not exactly flop as he scored eight goals in 20 appearances, only 13 of which were starts, but Real were seemingly unimpressed and decided to offload him after just six months at the club.

Huntelaar has already scored 31 times for his country (This image is the property of The Sun)

Huntelaar was given another chance to prove himself at a top European club when AC Milan paid €15 million for him in August 2009. Huntelaar showed glimpses of his brilliance at the San Siro but again, the move was ultimately a disappointment. The form of Marco Borriello meant that the Dutchman made only 25 appearances in Serie A, many as a substitute, and he could only muster seven goals.

Huntelaar’s failure to establish himself in Madrid and Milan led to some doubting his ability to cut it in Europe’s top leagues and is probably the reason that he is not as highly regarded as he should be. Nonetheless, German club Schalke were keen to acquire the services of a talented striker and so paid €12 million for him in 2010.

The striker has re-found his scoring touch in Gelsenkirchen and has again started to attract the attention of bigger clubs. In fact, Schalke are rumoured to be tabling a new contract worth a reputed €7 million a year to ward off potential suitors, such is his importance to the team.

In his first season in Germany, Huntelaar managed a solid but unspectacular total of 13 goals in 35 appearances, but during this, his second season at the Veltins Arena, he has exploded in to life and has already fired home a career best season total. So far, The Hunter has netted 37 times in 36 appearances, including 19 in the Bundesliga. If you except Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, this scoring form is as good as anything in Europe. Huntelaar has become the go-to guy in a Schalke side gunning for Europa League glory and pushing for a place in next year’s Champions League, and he is seemingly revelling in this role.

The 28 year old has taken this form in to the international arena. He was the top scorer in qualifying for Euro 2012 with 12 goals, and with 31 goals in 50 caps for the Oranje; he is already his country’s seventh leading scorer of all time. With only 10 more goals needed to usurp Patrick Kluivert at the top of that list, Huntelaar may very well go on to re-write the Dutch football record books. In fact, at international level, Huntelaar’s strike rate is superior to that of Robin van Persie, Denis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Marco van Basten; no mean feat.

Following disappointed, short-lived spells at Real Madrid and AC Milan, Huntelaar has flown under the radar for some time, but now he is back to doing what he does best, the transfer rumour mill is in overdrive again. Perhaps, just perhaps, people are starting to realise what a world-class striker he is. Schalke will just hope that his good form does not cause them to lose their prized asset.

Name: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar

Place of Birth: Voor Drempt, Achterhoek, Netherlands

Nationality: Dutch

Date of Birth: 12th August 1983

Club: Schalke 04

Previous Clubs: PSV Eindhoven, De Graafschap (loan), AGOVV Apeldoom (loan), Heerenveen, Ajax, Real Madrid, AC Milan

Career League Appearances: 274

Career League Goals: 177

Total Career Appearances: 348

Total Career Goals: 227

International Caps: 50

International Goals: 31

Categories: Football

Sport Report Video Blog Episode 3

March 4, 2012 Leave a comment

In this week’s edition of the Official Sport Report Video blog, I answer the following questions:

Why are so many clubs on the brink of bankruptcy? (Football)

Is there any justification for the so-called British premium on players in the transfer market? (Football)

Owen Farrell may be the brightest spark for England Rugby at the moment, but will he be a mainstay and the next Jonny Wilkinson? (Rugby Union)

What more can Scotland do? (Rugby Union)

Categories: Video Blog

Flying under the radar: Robert Lewandowski

March 3, 2012 Leave a comment

In this, the first of a five-part series looking at players who do not get the attention their talents deserve, Sport Report looks at the story of Borussia Dortmund and Poland striker Robert Lewandowski.

In the age of internet and satellite TV access, football fans are now more familiar with players in foreign lands than ever before. It is not uncommon to hear people in an office in Manchester talking about ‘last night’s Real Madrid match’ or to see kids in English playgrounds pretending to be Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Lionel Messi. However, ask people you know to list some players who they feel are currently amongst the best in Europe and you are unlikely to get a list that includes the name of Borussia Dortmund’s Polish striker Robert Lewandowski. This may, at least in part, be down to the fact that the Bundesliga does not have the ‘glamour factor’ of La Liga or Serie A, but Lewandowski does not get the hype afforded to others even within Germany. In short, he is one of those players that fly under the radar.

Lewandowski is, simply put, a very good all-round striker. He has two good feet, is good in the air and at six foot, offers a reasonable physical presence. He is strong and his style of play is more akin to that of an old-fashioned centre forward than that of the speed merchants we are so accustomed to seeing these days. Crucially for a striker, he is ice cold in front of goal, always giving the impression that he WILL score when he bears down on goal.

The 23 year old first came to prominence with Znicz Pruszków in Poland’s second tier. As a 19 year old, he scored 21 goals in 32 games, attracting the attention of bigger clubs from the Ekstraklasa (Poland’s equivalent of the Premier League). Eventually, Lech Poznań signed the youngster for a fee reported to be 1.5 million złoty (about £305,000) and quickly realised that they had secured a bargain.

The striker spent two seasons in Poznań, netting an impressive 32 times in 58 league matches, catching the eye of scouts from bigger clubs in the process. Borussia Dortmund, Genoa and Blackburn Rovers were all reputed to be interested but in May 2010, Dortmund’s general manager, Michael Zorc, announced that the club had secured Lewandowski’s services for a fee of €4.5 million (£3.75 million), representing a tidy profit for Lech Poznań. Since joining the Schwarzgelben Lewandowski, or Lewa as he is affectionately known by the club’s fans, has enjoyed great success.

On a personal level, his first season in Germany was solid but unspectacular. He impressed in fits and starts but took time to adapt to the quicker pace and superior technical standard of the Bundesliga. He did however, find the net eight times in 33 league appearances and Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp was more than satisfied with his overall contribution during the club’s title-winning season.

Dortmund’s title win attracted much attention within Germany as it was something of a surprise and achieved with a team of which the average age was only 24 years and two months, the youngest in Bundesliga history. It was however Mario Götze who won the plaudits, with players like Kevin Großkreutz and Shinji Kagawa lauded as the main supporting cast. Not many were raving about the contribution of the club’s Polish striker.

This has continued to some extent in to the current season, despite Lewandowski’s improved form. The striker has been simply sensational this season, scoring 16 times in 23 Bundesliga appearances and 21 in 33 matches in all competitions. Add in seven assists and you have the picture of a player bang in form. Furthermore, the Pole’s form has helped Dortmund build a four point lead at the top of the Bundesliga as they look to seal back-to-back title triumphs. In fact, it is the main reason for it. Großkreutz has struggled to hit the heights of last season, strike partner Lucas Barrios has misfired all season and club superstar Mario Götze has struggled for fitness. Lewandowski has stepped up and shown that he is a big time player and if Die Schwarzgelben do indeed go on to win the title, it will be impossible to overestimate the importance of Lewandowski’s contribution.

He still does not receive the attention given to the likes of Mario Gomez, Lukas Podolski or Franck Ribery and continues to fly under the radar somewhat, but it does appear that some of Europe’s bigger clubs have started to take note. Both Arsenal and Liverpool have been linked with the £10-15 million rated striker, but the 23 year old’s representative, Cezary Kucharski, insists his client is happy in Germany. He did, however, tell Polish sports daily Przegląd Sportowy that a move to a major club could not be ruled out: ‘We are only interested in the top clubs, such as Chelsea or Manchester United.’

Lewandowski's goals will be crucial if Poland are to enjoy success on home soil (This image is the property of Marek Zakrzewski)

Lewandowski has also become a key part of the national set up and a player that the team looks to for inspiration. Although he is only 23, he has already amassed over 40 caps and scored 16 goals for Poland. A look through Franciszek Smuda’s squad shows very little in the way of goal scorers. The next two highest scoring strikers (Pawel Brozek and Ireneusz Jelen) have only eight and five goals respectively. Poland are looking for a good showing on home soil at this summer’s European Championships and with a group containing Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic, they have an excellent chance of progressing to the knock out stages. If they do so, Lewandowski’s goals will be a factor. If he impresses for the national team, he may even find himself on many people’s radars, perhaps even those of the biggest clubs.

Name: Robert Lewandowski

Place of Birth: Warsaw, Poland

Nationality: Polish

Date of Birth: 21st August 1988

Club: Borussia Dortmund

Previous Clubs: Delta Warsaw, Legia Warsaw, Znicz Pruszków, Lech Poznań

Career League Appearances: 146

Career League Goals: 77

Total Career Appearances: 187

Total Career Goals: 87

International Caps: 44

International Goals: 16

Categories: Football