HE IS the Socceroos’ best-known and most popular player – and possibly the man most likely to win the crucial match against Peru off his own boot. So surely Tim Cahill’s World Cup will not end in total anti-climax without him even setting foot on the field, says chief writer RON REED:
THE WEEK THAT WAS: IT’S HARD to remember Australian sports fans being more polarised by an international selection issue than Socceroos coach Bert Van Marwijk’s so-called snubbing of Tim Cahill. It was all anybody wanted to talk about on the morning after the impressive performance against Denmark, a 1-1 draw which kept Australia in the mix to progress to the next round of the World Cup if they can beat Peru on Tuesday night.
While many are full of praise for the team’s performances so far, Van Marwijk has aso copped plenty of heat – from casual fans and expert observers alike – for his decision to leave Australia’s greatest-ever goal-scorer cooling his heels on the bench when Andrew Nabbout hurt his shoulder and had to be taken off with 15 minutes to go, a seemingly perfect opportunity to unleash a Cahill cameo with everything to play for. Instead he opted for Tomi Juric, having already injected the brilliant young Daniel Arzani for Robbie Kruse. It meant that Cahill, whose 50 international goals include at least one at each of the past three World Cups, and who is a much-proven matchwinner, has now taken no part in the campaign with two matches completed.
If that is still the case after the Peru encounter, and the Australians are on the way home after yet another near miss, the wailing over “what might have been” and “we’ll never know now” will be something to behold. It would also be, from anybody’s perspective, a deeply disappointing way for a national sporting hero’s international career to limp to a close. Therefore, it seems inconceivable that Van Marwijk will not give Cahill a chance to do what he has always done so well one last time.
Of course, sentiment is unlikely to play much part in the veteran Dutchman’s thinking, although he has shown a glimmer of romance in his initial selection of the hugely promising Arzani in the first place, making him the youngest player in the tournament, and then using him briefly against France and for longer against the Danes, where he looked right at home. The 19 year old Iranian-born winger was so impressive, firing in dangerous crosses and almost scoring himself, that he now seems likely to start against Peru in his third game at a World Cup, a huge step up for a kid who only became a regular in the A League with Melbourne City a few months ago. Now, good judges are tipping he will never be seen in Australia’s domestic competition again, with a transfer to Europe in the $30m-$40m range looking likely sooner rather than later. “By the next World Cup, he could be in the top 10 players in the world,” it has been suggested. Arzani is handling the pressure and attention with aplomb, saying: “I am just happy to have got out on the pitch and happy to have a good impact. But I fell short – I wanted to assist or create a goal. I had a big chance in the end there and I feel I should’ve put that away. If I just hit that on the ground it would’ve either gone to the left of the keeper or gone through his legs. Definitely my confidence is growing. You go out there and see it, and think to yourself, well, everyone’s human. Even the top players in the world are making mistakes and you kind of relate to that and it gives you confidence. I just came on really excited and also relaxed because that’s when I play my best.
“I’ve learnt a lot of what to do off the field and also coming on the field, there’s a lot more responsibility when you’re coming on for your country and I feel I’ve handled that okay.” Van Marwijk said: “Everybody knows he’s a big talent. I trust his qualities. He has to learn a lot but he is very talented and also an intelligent player. I think it’s good that for now he plays 25 minutes and I will see what I will do in the next game.”
It is lost on nobody, of course, that Cahill, at 38, is precisely twice Arzani’s age. This is a changing of the guard, writ large. Cahill is no longer able to get through a full game which is why his two most recent clubs, Melbourne City and Milwall, have given him very few minutes of match time, which underscores the risk factor involved if Van Marwijk decides to run with him. Cahill himself is well aware of this and appears to have accepted the situation with class and dignity. He hasn’t said a word out of place or even looked unhappy as he has warmed the pine for long periods. After the match he tweeted: “Massive effort by the lads today against Denmark. Team performance as fantastic and gutted we couldn’t get all three points.” Soccer tactics often seem arcane to the casual observer, of which there are many when the World Cup hoves into view. It just seems a no-brainer that if you have a potential matchwinner sitting there, fresh and keen, you give him a crack. But Van Marwijk’s vast experience needs to be respected. However three ex-Socceroos in the commentariat, Mark Bosnich, Craig Foster and Craig Moore, have all questioned the non-use of Cahill and most of the public sentiment has fallen into line. Australia desperately wants to see one more edition of Timmy Time, win, lose or draw, just to see what might be – and it will be a brave coach who decides not to find out.
WITH ALL the attention directed at the soccer, the Australian one-day cricket team have been have been able to sail slightly under the radar as they string together one of the worst performances in any form of the international game – ever. And at the hands of the Poms, too. It is now 4-0 in this series, all absolute thrashings, with eight defeats from the last nine ODIs and 15 of the last 17. It is a nightmare start to Justin Langer’s coaching career, ditto for captain Tim Paine, who may not survive it – in this format anyway. However, there are some saving graces. The current squad will be barely represented by the time the World Cup arrives next year, with Steve Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Patrick Cummins and Mitchell marsh all likely to be back in action, so the amount of talent and experience missing at the moment is massive. Secondly, they are up against an England outfit that must be saluted for taking limited overs batting to a new, once unimaginable level. They now regard every delivery as a potential boundary and while that has been more or less achievable across just 20 overs, Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler, among others, are maintaining a breakneck pace for the full 50 overs without losing many wickets along the way. They got to 481 the other night, smashing their own world record, and would almost certainly have got to 500 if the momentum hadn’t been interrupted by a couple of late wickets. Call it slogging if you will, but that would be to seriously undersell it — it was simply brilliant batsmanship and entertaining to watch because of the skill factor involved, which is no doubt a spin-off from T20. You had to feel sorry for the inexperienced Australian bowlers, and if fact there is now emerging a suggestion that the time has come for a more level playing field for all bowlers. Eminent English cricket writer Mike Selvey, a former Test player, got the ball rolling, so to speak, with a suggestion that the Australian Kookaburra balls be banned in favour of the English Duke version, which swings and seams more. Perhaps more to the point, India’s best-ever batsman Sachin Tendulkar wants to scrap the practice of using two balls in each innings, which was introduced a few years ago to keep them in better condition. That has become a recipe for disaster, Tendulkar said in a tweet. “Each ball is not given the time to get old. We haven’t seen reverse swing, an integral part of the death overs, for a long time,” he said. Tendulkar has a very valid point but I suspect the spectacular scoring will prove irresistible to the powers that be for some time yet. But it might not sit comfortably with Australia, whose batsmen are a long way off the new pace and would probably still be even with Warner in the side. England, of course, have never won the World Cup, and already armed with a home-ground advantage for the next one, they won’t be in favour of ticking off any changes in the immediate future.
TIM CAHILL hasn’t been the only controversial non-selection in Australian sport in the past week. Mitchelton-Scott, Australia’s only World Tour cycling team, has surprised many by aborting what seemed to be a guaranteed Tour de France debut for rising sprinter Caleb Ewan, who will now almost certainly be looking for another team. He was shattered when he learned his fate, tweeting: “Devastated is an understatement of how I feel about @MitcheltonSCOTT’s decision to leave me at home this July. I was on track to being more than ready for my TDF debut. So much hard work has gone into this from my sprint team and I to be ready for our big goal this year.” Grin and bear it? Not this boy.
Ewan. 23, who has long been seen as a near-clone of Australia’s best-ever sprinter, Robbie McEwen, winner of 12 stages of Le Tour, was held back from the big race last year because team director Matt White deemed him in need of another year of development. Whether or not it amounted to a guarantee – the team is now saying it didn’t, it was just a plan – Ewan and the rest of the cycling world were certainly led to believe last December that he would be given his big chance. But White now says his form – he hasn’t won a race since February – hasn’t been good enough, and in any case they have decided to concentrate on British rider Adam Yates, who they believe is capable of a podium finish. With teams now reduced from nine to eight, there is not room to provide adequate support for Yates in the mountains and Ewan on the flat stages.
The decision is another confirmation that simply being Australian does not guarantee you anything at an outfit that was formed to fly the Australian flag on the sport’s big stage. Last year, the team’s most successful rider in its early years, Simon Gerrans, was also dumped from the Tour squad, and he is now with BMC where he will be riding shotgun for Australia’s best hope, Richie Porte, when the race starts the weekend after next. In recent years, there have been more foreigners than Australians in the Mitchelton-Scott colours, although there will be four of each this time with Luke Durbridge making his fifth Tour appearance, Matthew Hayman his fourth, Damien Howson his second and Michael Hepburn his first.
Porte will again be the centre of Australian attention, along with Michael Matthews, another former Mitchelton-Scott rider, who won the coveted green jersey for best sprinter last year. Time is on the march for Porte, who is 33, one year younger than Cadel Evans was when he became the first Australian to win in 2011, and who will be contesting the race for the eighth time, the third as a contender rather than as a domestique helping others. He will be among the favourites, as he was last year until he was in a horror crash. He won the Tour de Suisse, an important lead-up race, last weekend, days after his wife Gemma gave birth to their first child, so he is on a roll and morale is high even if he does admit that he is not quite as fit as he was at this stage 12 months ago. He is also delighted to have his old mate Gerrans on board. “Racing with him means the world to me,” he said. “Money can’t buy experience like Simon’s, so he’s a great addition to the team. I think he’s done a lot to make our team more professional.”
Meanwhile, there is still no firm word on whether reigning champion Chris Froome, winner of the recent Giro d’Italia, will be allowed to start in the Tour if his near year-old positive test for a partly-banned asthma medication remains unresolved.
PETER THOMSON, who died at 88 this week, was much more than a great golfer to those who had the privilege of knowing him, as this column did for many years. He also designed courses and wrote about the game with distinction. In the latter role, he was a pleasure to be around, always generous with his time and knowledge when he recognised that a little help might make life easier for blow-ins like me whose golf IQ was, shall we say, not entirely gilt-edged. In this – and in some other ways, too, he reminded me of the late Richie Benaud, who was also immensely helpful to young sportswriters. They were kindred souls in that Thomson’s first love was cricket and he might well have pursued it seriously if he had not quickly realised that golf paid much better, while Benaud’s other sporting passion was golf, at which he was more than useful.
In an early profile of the five-time British Open winner, published in his 1961 book Young Men In A Hurry, sportswriter Harry Gordon said that while Thomson was a placid personality he had a will-to-win to match Don Bradman or Herb Elliott. “His is a characteristic Australian sporting quality: a compound of superb basic technique, burning determination and cool, quiet relentlessness. He is magnificently equipped both physically and mentally for the taut, nerve-testing trade of bashing a stationary ball into a tiny hole in the grass, with his income depending on how he plays each stroke. He has an incisive, calculating mind and can be very pleasant company. On a number of excursions through Fleet Street (London) pubs I have found him informative and intelligent on many subjects other than golf. He mixes well, is always alert, has no pretensions and – although he’s never over-keen to talk about golf – will suffer with admirable patience the questions of the duffer who wants to brush up on his tee shots.”
Thomson’s is the third prominent name I have had to delete from my old contact books in what has been a melancholy week. The others were popular Olympic swimming coach Ken Wood and well-known bookmaker Eric Tymms, who were also both 88 – so at least all three had good innings. Wood was best known as the mentor of breaststroke champion Liesel Jones, who made her Olympic debut at the age of 14. Because she was still virtually a child when Woods – whose sense of humour was a trademark — detected her vast talent, he adapted his motivational methods accordingly, telling her to imagine she was being chased down the pool by an jmaginary creature named Freddie the Fastskin Sandcrab – it worked. Most biographies describe him as a former Footscray footballer but there is no record of that, while he also played first grade cricket in Sydney and was a top-line surfboat rower and lifesaver – and a champion bloke. Tymms was the original organiser of the Racing Mass at Christmas, and used to supply the betting markets used in newspaper formguides as well as taking it upon himself to act as a sort of unofficial PR voice for the bookies in general.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.