I Dig Sports
Published in SoccerFriday, 10 May 2019 12:38
The end of the Premier League season is upon us, and barring something extraordinary with the Champions League places, there is just one meaningful thing left to decide. And boy, is it meaningful: Manchester City go into their trip to Brighton a point ahead of Liverpool, who face Wolves at home, therefore knowing that a victory will guarantee the retention of the title.
These two sides have more or less been playing a different sport than the rest of the division this season and will finish at least 20 points ahead of their nearest challengers. So let's look at how their campaigns compare going into the final day.
Goals, goals, goals
Let's start with the basics: Manchester City have 91, Liverpool 87. Mohamed Salah is the biggest proportionate contributor, his 22 strikes representing around 25 percent of Liverpool's league total, but Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling are just behind him: they have 20 and 17, respectively, chipping in 41 percent of City's tally between them.
City like to be on the front foot, too: They've scored the first goal in a whopping 83 percent of their games, with Liverpool trailing (just 68 percent) and the rest of the division in the dust. However, Liverpool is your team if you want late drama: 24 of their goals have come after the 75th minute of games, the most in the division by a distance. (Chelsea are next with 19, while City have 13.)
Both sides are fond of an old-fashioned thumping, too: They've each won by four or more goals on six occasions and have only failed to score four times between them, two of which are accounted for by the 0-0 draw at Anfield in October.
If at first you don't succeed, shoot again
It goes without saying that these two sides have scored the most goals in the Premier League this season, but it's also a lot to do with their overall style of play. City have taken 662 shots for those goals, but Liverpool's total is exactly 100 fewer, meaning they score once in roughly every six attempts as opposed to City's once every seven.
Analytic-phobes look away now, but City are more or less matching their expected goals (xG) projection, which is 91.5, while Liverpool are outperforming it: Their xG is 77.8.
Stingy at the back
Both teams have conceded an impressively miserly 22 goals; if both teams keep it tight on Sunday, it'll put them level for third in the Premier League's all-time best defences, alongside Manchester United in 2007-08 and Chelsea in 2005-06, and behind the 17 that Arsenal conceded in 1999 (when they finished second) and Jose Mourinho's first season at Chelsea in 2005, which saw them let in a remarkable 15.
Liverpool and Man City get set for dramatic finale
With both Liverpool and Manchester City able to be crowned champions, Shaka Hislop gives his predictions on what could be a thrilling Sunday in England.
Furthermore, both sides are outperforming their xG against, which stands at 25.14 for City and 28.26 for Liverpool. It's not just for their kicking and play out from the back that Ederson and Allison are considered two of the best goalkeepers in the world.
Of course, money talks
It's a slight curiosity that both teams spent north of £50 million on players last summer who have been relatively peripheral, with Naby Keita and Riyad Mahrez combining for just 29 league starts between them.
The two teams' most frequently used first XIs cost plenty, but it's no surprise that City's cost more. With the caveat that reported transfer fees are often tough to be 100 percent accurate, City assembled theirs for a total of £422.4 million, while Liverpool's set them back £289.8 million, nearly half of which -- £141.8 million -- went on Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, also featuring two free transfers (Joel Matip and James Milner), an academy product (Trent Alexander-Arnold) and two players purchased from relegated sides (Andrew Robertson and Georginio Wijnaldum).
Second place is the first loser?
With the clubs on 95 and 94 points, respectively, whoever finishes second will have the biggest points total for any runner-up in English top-flight history. The Manchester United side that got 89 points but lost the title on goal difference to City in 2011-12 currently holds the Premier League record, just ahead of the 86 Liverpool and Tottenham got when finishing second in 2009 and 2017. To delve into the archives, the only real comparable figures -- when adjusted for a 38-game season with three points for a win -- are Middlesbrough, with 83 in 1902, and Leeds United, with 82 in 1971.
Real Madrid still hold the record for the top five leagues in Europe, when Manuel Pellegrini's side finished on 96 points but still finished behind Barcelona (99) in 2009. Another current Premier League manager, Maurizio Sarri, guided Napoli to 91 points last season but trailed Juventus.
Is there still some drama ahead?
It sounds wild, but there could be a twist ahead. The two sides could finish level if City lose to Brighton and Liverpool draw with Wolves. Even then, City would probably still win the title on goal difference, but consider this: If it's a 4-4 draw at Anfield and City lose 4-0, the teams would finish on the same points, the same goal difference, the same goals scored and the same goals conceded. Thus, a single game playoff would be required to decide the champions.
It's unlikely, to say the least -- the odds on both of those happening are 63,000-1 -- but what a thing it would be...
Saturday, 11 May 2019 11:11
The IPL's 12th edition has earned the blockbuster finale it deserves.
When Chennai Super Kings won last year, they tied Mumbai Indians' record of three IPL titles and opened up a debate about which was the better IPL side. After Sunday, that debate may well be decided.
Mumbai, who reached Hyderabad four days ago, have enjoyed a near-flawless season. They were at the top half of the points table all through and they will end the campaign without knowing what back-to-back losses feel like. It's been a team performance too: a total of four men have scored more than 300 runs for Mumbai and five have taken 10 or more wickets.
This was also the year when Hardik Pandya became Mumbai's premier death-overs batter, taking over from Kieron Pollard. His 386 runs have come at breakneck pace and that's often helped the team put up above-par totals and take down tough targets. Add eight overs of a fitter Lasith Malinga and a fiery Jasprit Bumrah, and you know why Mumbai have reached another IPL final.
For Super Kings, it's about proving popular wisdom wrong once again. A team with an average age near 35 was not supposed to contest in two finals in a row, but MS Dhoni's astute man-management - and a resurgence in personal form - has seen them reach their eighth final in 10 seasons.
With 414 runs, this has been Dhoni's best IPL season and for long it looked like he was carrying the weight of the Super Kings batting on his own. But they come to the final knowing the supporting cast - Faf du Plessis, Shane Watson, Ravindra Jadeja and Mitchell Santner - has produced some match-winning performances too.
Tournament finals are a whole different ball game though and results of yore - including the three times Mumbai have beaten Super Kings this season - carry very little weight in a game where pressure has a bigger role to play than skill. If there's anything Mumbai can hold on to, it's that they return to the same venue where they won their last IPL title in 2017. Oh, and that Rohit - unlike thala - has never lost an IPL final.
Both teams have made very few changes - unless forced - all tournament. But a change in venue from their previous games could see Mumbai dropping extra spinner Jayant Yadav and bringing allrounder Ben Cutting in. Cutting was Man-of-the-Match when Sunrisers Hyderabad won the IPL 2016 final. Super Kings could offload Shardul Thakur, who bowled an expensive one-over spell in Qualifier 2, for an extra batting option in M Vijay.
Mumbai Indians: 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Rohit Sharma (capt), 3 Suryakumar Yadav, 4 Ishan Kishan, 5 Hardik Pandya, 6 Krunal Pandya, 7 Kieron Pollard, 8 Ben Cutting, 9 Rahul Chahar, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Jasprit Bumrah
Chennai Super Kings: 1 Shane Watson, 2 Faf du Plessis, 3 M Vijay, 4 Suresh Raina, 5 Ambati Rayudu, 6 MS Dhoni, 7 Dwayne Bravo, 8 Ravindra Jadeja, 9 Deepak Chahar, 10 Harbhajan Singh, 11 Imran Tahir
Mumbai have won all three games against Super Kings in IPL 2019, the first almost wholly thanks to Hardik Pandya, the second thanks to Rohit and Malinga masterclasses and the third thanks to their spinners out-bowling CSK in their own den.
Don't save Bumrah for the death, save him for Dhoni instead. Overall, Dhoni has a strike-rate of only 102.20 against Bumrah in the IPL, with a dot-ball percentage of 46.20% and three dismissals in seven innings. And this season he is the only pace bowler against whom Dhoni does not have a strike-rate of more than 100.
If Bumrah fails, let Hardik bowl to Dhoni. In seven innings against Hardik, Dhoni has scored only 21 runs in 26 balls. To counter both, Dhoni could promote himself up and take a shot against Mumbai's spin bowlers.
Want to surprise Rohit? Throw in Deepak Chahar with the bat. Chahar's strike-rate of 189.70 between overs 7-15 (in four IPL innings) will allow Super Kings to maximise their run-scoring in a period where designated batsmen Rayudu and Raina have struggled. Ravindra Jadeja, too, could be a useful ploy against Krunal Pandya. Krunal has conceded 9.20 runs per over against left handers this season, while going at only 6.50 per over against right handers.
Stats and Trivia
MS Dhoni, chasing his 100th win as Chennai Super Kings captain, has not struck a boundary off Rahul Chahar, Bumrah, Hardik or Krunal Pandya this year.
The top four run-scorers in IPL finals are all in Super Kings. Suresh Raina (241 runs), M VIjay (181), MS Dhoni (178) and Shane Watson (156) lead the pack.
Teams batting first in IPL finals have won 63.60% of all games.
Mumbai are the only team to have a win-percentage of more than 50 against Super Kings.
Rohit, Harbhajan Singh and Ambati Rayudu will be chasing their fifth IPL titles - the most among any player.
Saturday, 11 May 2019 09:05
Sanath Jayasundara, a performance analyst working in Sri Lanka Cricket's "Brain Centre", has become the latest figure in Sri Lankan cricket to be hit with corruption-related charges.
A long-time employee of SLC, Jaysundara has been charged by the ICC with offering a bribe to Sri Lanka's Sports Minister Harin Fernando, in order to "influence improperly the result, progress, conduct or any other aspect of an international match."
In addition, a charge relating to "obstructing or delaying an Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) investigation" has also been laid. It is minister Fernando who is understood to have reported the alleged attempted bribe to the ACU, in January, less than a month after he had been appointed sports minister.
According to Sri Lanka's high performance manager Asanka Gurusinha, Jayasundera had worked with Sri Lanka's Under-19 team in addition to his duties with the Brain Centre, and had also worked with the national team in the past.
Where coaches Avishka Gunawardene and Nuwan Zoysa had on Friday been charged under the Emirates Cricket Board's anti-corruption code, Jayasudera has been charged under the ICC's own code. He now has 14 days to respond to the charges.
Saturday, 11 May 2019 10:58
Supernovas 125 for 6 (Harmanpreet 51, Punia 29, Jahanara 2-21) beat Velocity 121 for 6 (Sushma 40, Kerr 36, Tahuhu 2-21) by four wickets
The Women's T20 Challenge aimed to pit India's best young talent against the world's best, and in the final on Saturday, Supernovas banked on 19-year old Radha Yadav to deliver the knockout blow. She did, hitting a brace of twos before coolly stepping out to scythe a full ball to the cover boundary to seal a win for the Supernovas. A strong crowd of 13,000 people applauded both teams as the tournament ended much like the way it began: a Harmanpreet Kaur special and a last-ball thriller.
All of it seemed unlikely when Velocity slumped to 37 for 5, playing one rash shot after another. Then, Amelia Kerr and Sushma Verma added 71 to lift them to 121 for 6. In reply, Supernovas slumped to 64 for 5. It needed a Harmanpreet special from there, and she delivered by shellacking a 34-ball half-century to take this right till the end MS Dhoni style.
The Tahuhu impact
Among the fastest bowlers in the women's game, Lea Tahuhu wasn't called into bowl a single over in the previous game as Supernovas banked on their spin riches. On a better batting deck, Harmanpreet turned to her trump card and she roared back in style, picking up two wickets in her first two overs.
She began with a wicket-maiden that brought her the scalp of Hayley Mathews with a peach that swung away late to nick her off. In her second over, she had Shafali Verma toe-end a drive to mid-off after the 15-year old had hit her for successive boundaries, the pull in front of square against pace showing signs of promise in the Haryana batter.
In between these two scalps, Anuja Patil proved why there is still place for her street-smart variations in the shortest format at least. By no means a turner of the ball, she relies on drift and zip off the pitch. She deceived Danny Wyatt in flight when she stepped out to loft inside out, only to be beaten by an away-drifter as Taniya Bhatia completed a smart stumping. The Powerplays produced 24 dot balls and with neither Mithali Raj nor Veda Krishnamurthy able to build an innings, Velocity hit a roadblock.
Kerr and Sushma provide the lift
Kerr possesses the highest score in women's ODIs - an unbeaten 232 against Ireland. Sushma, recently discarded as India's first-choice wicketkeeper, has a T20I best of 12 in 19 innings. With the Velocity innings headed south, they combined to add respectability to the innings by first playing risk-free cricket, and then seamlessly switching over to attack mode at the first sign of the bowlers switching off.
Kerr's use of the sweep, especially against the turn, and her feet to get to the pitch and drive was particularly impressive. Against Poonam Yadav, she displayed versatility by staying back inside the crease, at times getting inside the line and then playing her off the pitch because of her slowness in the air. Sushma proved the perfect ally, at no stage looking to match her partner stroke-for-stroke, yet opened up to treat fans to some gorgeous hits herself, the on-drive off Sciver in particular being a standout.
Once Kerr was out in the 19th over for a 38-ball 36, Sushma managed to pocket 12 more, including a six in the final over. She finished unbeaten on 40 off 32 balls and as she walked back, Velocity smelt hope.
Supernovas hit roadblock before Harmonster rises
Playing in front of her home crowd, Priya Punia provided a perfect start with a 31-ball 29, but her dismissal immediately in the aftermath of Jemimah Rodrigues' wicket left them precariously placed at 53 for 3. Then Jahanara, the Bangladesh allrounder, who may have not featured had the Australian superstars been made available, sent back Nat Sciver and Sophie Devine to open the floodgates. Enter the Harmonster, and things turned, slowly.
A week ago, Harmanpreet Kaur fell agonisingly short of victory despite taking Jhulan Goswami to the cleaners with Supernovas needing 19 off six balls. In the grand final, she didn't let the situation get there, but shepherded a chase that could have gone out of hand very quickly.
Harmanpreet was on 4 off 11 balls, with the side needing 58 off 35 when she hit her first boundary that came via a long hop she cut to bisect point and short third man. As it turned out, this was the trigger she needed. Two balls later, she slammed a half-tracker for six and then got on a roll, so much that Lea Tahuhu was a mere spectator at the other end.
Between Devine's dismissal and Harmanpreet's half-century that she raised off just 34 balls in the 19th over, Tahuhu's contribution was a solitary run off five deliveries. Then it all came down to seven off the final over, with Kerr tasked with the steep ask of defending with a short leg-side boundary to contend.
After Harmanpreet refused a single, she holed out to deep cover agonisingly, to briefly raise Velocity's hopes. But Radha coolly completed the job. After three twos that brought it down to one off one ball, Kerr tossed it up bravely, hoping against hope to deceive Radha in flight to take the game into a Super Over, but it wasn't to be. Radha scorched this through extra cover to seal the win.
Saturday, 11 May 2019 14:17
Buttler thrashed a 50-ball century - the 10th quickest in the history of ODI cricket - to help England to their seventh-highest total in this format of the game.
England plundered 74 from the final five overs of their innings (and 101 from the final eight) to register their 14th score in excess of 350 in 85 innings since the 2015 World Cup. To put that in perspective, they had made 350 twice in 640 innings before that tournament. Despite Pakistan achieving their highest ever second-innings score in ODI cricket - their coach, Mickey Arthur referred to it as a "valiant" chase - England held on to win by 12 runs.
Buttler has never broken into the top 10 of the ODI batting rankings but, in form like this, you wonder if England would swap him for anyone. So much time does he have, so quick are his hands, so wide his range of strokes, that he can make bowlers look utterly impotent. Pakistan attempted yorkers, bouncers, width and to cramp him, but to no avail with Arthur admitting he wasn't sure what the answer was.
"I don't know how you bowl to him," he said after the game. "I've just asked the bowlers the same thing and they didn't have an answer either. But I don't think we're going to stop him, so we've got to try to get him out."
Morgan, who added 162 in 14.5 overs with Buttler, agreed. "He seems to have a gear that not many of us have," he said. "I was in prime position to see the whole innings and his freakish knocks seem to be getting closer and closer together, so that's a good sign for us moving forward. He was brilliant and the difference in the two teams. We are very fortunate to have him in our side."
Indeed they are. And while few will remember the outcome of this series in years to come - we are, in reality, already in World Cup warm-up territory - it's hard to avoid the sense that Buttler could be on the verge of something quite special. For it is global tournaments that define reputations and, at 28 years old, he is about to stride across the biggest stage of all in his home nation. He does so imbued with the confidence of succeeding in the IPL and in the international game, and relaxed and happy on and off the pitch - on reaching his hundred, he celebrated by rocking his bat, in tribute to his new-born daughter, Georgia.
"I'm maturing age-wise as well," Buttler told Sky Sports afterwards. "I've learned a lot about myself and what works for me. I just think I've had some great experiences in the last few years which you can always use [in any given situation]."
He is already, arguably at least, the best white-ball batsman England have ever had and, as he crashed six after six into the stands against Pakistan, you could be forgiven for wondering if he was on the brink of entering an altogether more exclusive league of destroyers: a league populated by the likes of Viv Richards and AB de Villiers.
If that sounds hyperbolic, it is worth reflecting on some statistics. Buttler has now hit five of England's 10 quickest (in terms of balls faced) ODI centuries - including the quickest two - and averages 69.50 deliveries in reaching his eight ODI centuries. Nobody else (with at least eight ODI centuries) averages better than de Villiers' 81.90 balls. Buttler also averages 51.55 (at a strike-rate of 125.46) since the 2015 World Cup and, according to CricViz, scores at a rate of 181.20 in the last 10 overs since that tournament. The next highest (of players who have scored at least 500 runs) is Glenn Maxwell, at 160.55. In conditions like this, where the bowlers have nothing to work with, he represents a daunting proposition for the fielding side.
But, amid the carnage, David Willey emerged with credit. When he returned to the attack, Pakistan had six wickets in hand and required 69 from the final seven overs. For perhaps the first time, they were favourites. But so accurately did Willey bowl his wide yorkers, so well did he execute England's short-ball plan of attack against the left-handers (and Imad Wasim, in particular) that he conceded only 17 runs from his final three overs and picked up two important wickets.
It was a definitive moment in this match and may well be enough to secure Willey's World Cup place. On the sort of surface that could drive bowlers to despair - only once has an ODI in England (or Wales) resulted in a higher aggregate of runs - his economy rate of 5.70 runs per over was outstanding; apart from Haris Sohail, who delivered only three overs, every other bowler conceded more than a run a ball.
"He bowled beautifully," Morgan said. "He normally bowls a couple more overs up front when it swings a bit more but today it didn't actually swing for more than six or seven balls.
"In the last four years, Willey and Liam Plunkett in particular have reacted when they have been put under pressure. You ask them to do more and they respond really well. They probably don't get the praise that they should.
"But I thought that all of the bowlers, including Dave, were brilliant, because they reacted really well. It was a belting wicket and probably got better as the day went on.
"All the bowlers are all pushing each other. It's like our batting unit in the last two or three years. Unfortunately, a couple of guys will miss out and it will be a tough decision because of what they have contributed over a long period of time."
Morgan denied the suggestion that, at some stages of the Pakistan innings, he wished he could call upon Jofra Archer, who was rested from this game. But he could have been forgiven if he did wish for him or Mark Wood. For even without playing, Archer's reputation seemed to improve.
He has only taken two ODI wickets but, as England's bowlers were thrashed around the Ageas Bowl, it was tempting to conclude that it was Archer they were missing the most: the pace, the bite, the incisiveness he adds. Without him they looked, at times, to have no answer to Pakistan's batting here.
It may well be a simplistic conclusion, though. This match was played on the flattest of surfaces that offered little to bowlers of any description. There is no guarantee that Archer, for all his promise and skill, would have fared any better. One of the great truisms of the game is that players' reputations often improve in their absence.
Whether Archer's emergence or Willey's excellence drags Chris Woakes back into the selection mix remains to be seen. But since the start of the Caribbean series, Woakes has bowled in four ODIs and claimed two wickets at a cost of 119 apiece, conceding 7.93 an over in the process. Tom Curran and Plunkett are probably more vulnerable, but Woakes still seems to be struggling to recover the pace or confidence he enjoyed for so long. Joe Denly might feel he was fortunate to miss bowling in this game. It remains remarkable that he is on the brink of going into a World Cup campaign as a spin-bowling all-rounder, having claimed one ODI wicket this decade. And that came from a wide.
There may be some concerns over Wood, too. It is now more than two months since he bowled a ball in anger and it seems unlikely he will play in Bristol, either. While the England management insist there is no serious problem, his history of ankle problems mean some question marks linger.
At full strength, England will find room for Wood and Archer. As Arthur suggested, on these surfaces - and there will probably be some very flat surfaces during the World Cup - it is essential to take wickets to contain batting units to manageable totals. England need the bite those two provide. They can't always rely on miracles from Buttler to save them.
Saturday, 11 May 2019 14:32
The day Pakistan's World Cup squad was announced, Mohammad Amir's exclusion dominated the headlines. That was perfectly natural; the fascination with the revival of his prodigious teenage talent hasn't yet died down, and the prospect of a World Cup in England where Pakistan had voluntarily left him out was perplexing to several. But if you looked past the flashiest headlines, the omission of Asif Ali came as a more surprising move.
Not because his numbers are extraordinary; they're not. An average of 31 is far from sensational, and today's 36-ball 51 is his highest ODI score in nine innings, four of which came against Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. It is instead his strike rate - 132.80 - that marks him out as possessor of an ability no one in Pakistan's middle order can claim. Asif is, with more sixes than fours in his short ODI career thus far, a power hitter. Fakhar Zaman aside, no other player in the preliminary World Cup squad can claim that title.
It was a point Mickey Arthur echoed following Pakistan's spirited attempt at chasing down England's colossal first innings in Southampton today. That Pakistan had got as close as they did was a tremendous surprise to anyone acquainted with their recent batting troubles, and Asif's four sixes and two fours en route his half-century was a major factor in their fight. Without his efforts, this contest would have been a foregone conclusion well before Chris Woakes sent down the 50th over.
"We batted well as a unit there, but fell just a little short at the end," Arthur said afterwards. "Asif played really well off the back of that really good innings from Fakhar, who was outstanding today. It was disappointing not to get over the line."
Arthur made no attempt to conceal what that meant for Pakistan's World Cup plans, and where the 27-year old stands in regard to them. "Asif was very impressive today. It's no secret the one thing we've lacked is a bit of power hitting and he has the ability to do that for us. He did his chances no harm with the innings he played."
"It's no secret the one thing we've lacked is a bit of power hitting. He did his chances no harm with the innings he played." Mickey Arthur on Asif Ali
The idea that Asif may not go to the World Cup is even more incredulous once Pakistan look across to the other camp, where the approach and personnel of the hosts has made them the bookies' favourites to walk away with the trophy. Joe Root aside, there's barely a player in England's top seven who wouldn't count as a power hitter if playing for Pakistan, and to overlook one of the few they can count among their ranks would lead to plenty of head-scratching.
Sure, it poses a dilemma regarding the balance of the squad, and what it means for playing a sixth bowler. Attempts to fit Asif in at No.6 in the Asia Cup last year didn't work, but then again, nothing did for Pakistan at that tournament. This is a headache worth having, not one to be washed away by a bitter pill and a sip of water.
How to squeeze him into the team is a conversation for later though, with the more pressing conundrum being who he'd replace in the 15-man squad. His performance today mean he's unlikely to be rested for the game that follows, a game for which Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik - both in the squad as it stands - will be fit.
It would be astonishing if either were dropped for the World Cup, and that puts more pressure on Haris Sohail's shoulders than is perhaps justified. The left-hander couldn't keep the momentum going when he came in with Fakhar and Babar Azam having departed in quick succession, scoring just 14 of the 41 runs in his partnership with Asif before holing out to deep point. However, his three overs of left-arm spin were more economical than any of those bowled by his team-mates.
It might mean Pakistan take the easy way out and put him in at Abid Ali's expense, a player who burst into the selectors' plans off the back of a debut hundred in the fourth ODI against Australia in March. While not a like-for-like replacement, it resolves the apparent absurdity of omitting Asif while not forgoing the experience of Shoaib or the allround skills of Hafeez, both of whom the selectors appear to set plenty of store by. But Abid's own List A and T20 strike-rate suggest he's more than capable of keeping things moving, and to confuse the most harmonious call with the most discerning one could prove to be expensive folly.
Make no mistake: on the evidence of what we all saw at the Ageas Bowl today and later heard from Arthur, Asif hasn't gone to England just to play a bilateral series. And if that's apparent from the outside, it's a point that will have dawned equally gravely on the men who might be forced to make way for him. The pressure of facing England's bowlers is considerable as it is, but some Pakistan batsman may have more than just that on their minds when the two sides square off at Bristol on Tuesday.
Saturday, 11 May 2019 12:59
Smith posted an Instagram story on Saturday in which he said he is getting irritated with the criticism and reminded people that there is more to life than football.
"Why is it so crazy I want to step away from the game?" Smith said. "Y'all just chill. Everything's solid, you feel me? Stop going crazy. It's getting aggravating. You feel me? Football ain't everything. Y'all better wake the f--- up."
Smith posted a statement Thursday afternoon on his Instagram account saying he would not play football in 2019 because he needed to take time off for his family and his health. He did not rule out a return in 2020 and said that when he does decide to retire, he wants to do it in Jacksonville.
"It was said to me from a great coach, that in order for the man to be his best, he must get his world in order," Smith's post read. "At this time I must take time away from this game & get my world in order. I must give this time back to myself, my family, & my health. I appreciate the support I will & will not get. I just ask y'all respect my decision to not play football this season. I know the rumors of trade talk came about, but I started my career in Jacksonville & the day I do decided [sic] to call it quits it will be right here in Duval. I love y'all & even in my time off it's #10toesdwn ya feel me!!! Love!"
Smith had not been attending the Jaguars' voluntary offseason conditioning program, which began in April, and coach Doug Marrone said Friday afternoon that he still has not spoken with Smith. Marrone also said he wants Smith to know that he and the rest of the organization are there to support him if he wants to reach out.
"I kind of put football to the side," Marrone said after the first day of the Jaguars' rookie minicamp. "I think that [football], to me, is an afterthought right now. I really believe in my heart that Telvin knows that we're here to support him in any which way -- not just myself, the coaches, the organization, his teammates, and I'm sure he's aware of that.
"All we can do is just make sure we pray and he knows that if he needs some support, obviously we're here for him."
ASHBURN, Va. -- The scene was different for a Washington Redskins rookie minicamp, with three dozen or so media members attending. It's been seven years since they entertained that sort of gathering for a rookie minicamp. But, as in the days of Robert Griffin III, the Redskins have a quarterback as their latest symbol of hope: Dwayne Haskins.
The Redskins don't yet know if Haskins will start this season, as coach Jay Gruden has said there will be an open competition for the No. 1 job. They do know, however, that after two days of rookie minicamp, Haskins has impressed.
"It's been a treat," Gruden said. "He's made some throws that turn your head without a doubt."
Added Doug Williams, the Redskins senior vice president of player personnel: "It don't take long for the ball to get from Point A to Point B."
The Redskins, who drafted Haskins with the 15th overall pick, are preaching patience. That doesn't mean he won't challenge for the starting job, however, as he was selected that high for a reason.
They know there's a learning curve for Haskins, and two days of work against other rookies doesn't lend itself to grand conclusions. On Saturday, in his first work with media present, Haskins showed off his live arm.
Gruden said Haskins threw better Friday than he did Saturday, when he missed on several throws -- some were high, some were behind, and others were on target. During one-on-one work, however, Haskins connected on a number of red zone passes -- including a fade to former Ohio State teammate Terry McLaurin in the corner of the end zone on a perfectly placed pass. In full-team drills, Haskins fumbled one snap from under center.
In 7-on-7 work, Haskins had to dump off multiple times. After a number of plays, one coach or another would offer instruction. He made some throws with anticipation, the ball arriving as a receiver would turn around. He threw deep, though one was intercepted.
"It's challenging; you want it to be challenging," Haskins said. "The biggest thing is trying to apply the meetings to the field. [There have been] 50 plays put in so far; a lot of stuff going into it. It's fun to throw the ball around again. You're going to make mistakes. The biggest thing is I rebounded from them and look forward to getting better."
Haskins was patient at Ohio State, sitting behind J.T. Barrett for two years before getting his chance this past season. It remains to be seen if he'll need to be that patient in Washington alongside quarterbacks Case Keenum and Colt McCoy, neither of whom has a firm grip on the starting job.
"We're going to throw the ball out there and let them compete," Gruden said. "He obviously displayed enough skill set to warrant the 15th pick, and we'll give him an opportunity to see how far he can take this thing without a doubt."
Gruden has said he does not like a three-man competition for the starting job because it's hard to divide the reps to give each quarterback enough of a chance.
"The most important thing in the next couple weeks is, let's see how far we can push this guy," Gruden said. "Let's see if there is a chance he can win the job. If we feel like he's coming along slower, then we have to maybe push Case or push Colt. But if we feel like [Haskins] is coming along and he's firing and he's comfortable, then we'll play it out and see what happens."
Haskins said he'll take the same approach he did at Ohio State.
"I'll be ready for whatever the coaches want from me, whether that's starting right away or next year or through the season," Haskins said. "I'll prepare like I'm the starter."
But he also admitted waiting two years to play there wasn't easy -- and he shone a light on his mentality.
"Definitely hard," Haskins said. "Every competitor wants to play, but you have to know it's for the team, it's bigger than you. And if the coaches feel I'm the best option to win games this year, I'll be more than excited. If he says I'm not ready, I'll make sure I'll be ready."
The Redskins want to improve Haskins' footwork. They want him to get comfortable dropping back from under center, something he didn't do with the Buckeyes. They want him to get used to resetting his feet under pressure.
"With the quarterback, it starts with the basics," Gruden said. "He's a guy that didn't call a lot of plays in the huddle. So we're talking about breaking the huddle and calling plays in the huddle, and the snap count, getting guys lined up, going through his progressions, his footwork -- not only in the passing game but in the running game. There's a lot thrown at him. It's a long process, but he's a bright guy. I was impressed."
Williams, who quarterbacked the Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XXII, said he liked how Haskins handled himself at the line of scrimmage, was in control and had players aligned in the right areas.
"You can see he had a lot of work on that in the offseason," Williams said.
It was enough to whet the sporting appetite of the the 100 or so special-invitation fans who attended the workout. They lined the sidewalk outside the Redskins' bubble for autographs afterward, most waiting for Haskins, who was the final player to leave.
The fans snapped pictures, asked Haskins questions about playing in his hometown and shouted his name -- "Mr. Haskins!" -- to get an autograph. It's the most buzz generated by a Redskins quarterback since Griffin.
But all Haskins cares about, he said, is what happens on the field.
"The biggest thing I need to do is play well on Sundays, and that's all I'm looking forward to," Haskins said. "All the other stuff comes when it needs to."
Friday, 10 May 2019 21:44
WESTMINSTER, Colo. -- Pat Barry is standing over a large aluminum bathtub in his backyard, gripping one of those plastic dog-ball launchers with both hands.
He has just poured an aggressive amount of ice chips into the tub and filled it to its brim with hose water. After letting the concoction sit, ominously, for several minutes, Barry begins to stir. The sound it creates is more jagged than you'd expect, because there's so much ice. Occasionally, for dramatic effect, Barry slaps the plastic launcher against the water's surface. Whhhtt!
It's obvious that ice baths are kind of Barry's thing.
"You know, these baths are 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical," he says. "If your mind can handle this for 10 minutes, what's a 25-minute fight? I mean, it definitely helps with recovery, too. But I almost look at it as, if your ankle hurts and you sit in this ... your ankle is gonna say, 'OK, I'm good. I'm healed. Just don't make me sit in that again.'"
If someone were to come to this modest townhouse just north of Denver in search of the world-champion martial artist who lives here, that visitor would almost certainly believe the champion is Barry. He is a larger-than-life personality. Think bull in a china shop. He's talkative, animated. He's also 245 pounds, with tree trunks for legs. He's a guy you'd want to have your back in a dark alley.
But Barry is not the world champion of the household.
As Barry stirs, his fiancée, Rose Namajunas, lies contently in a nearby chair, soaking in the rays of sun. Her arms stretch gently behind her head, and she's smiling. You get the sense there's nowhere she'd rather be than here, at her own home. In the background, Namajunas' best friend, her dog, Mishka, chases a squirrel between two trees. Apparently, the two do this every day.
And even when Namajunas stands, walks to the tub and gently lowers herself into the harshest ice bath anyone has ever created in a Colorado backyard, and you realize she is the world champion, it still can be hard to wrap your head around. Rose? The same Rose who just offered you a bowl of her homemade beet soup? And who will later fill the room with music as she softly plays her antique piano?
Yep, that Rose is one of the baddest women on the planet. And as Barry will tell you, she always has been. She was born for the fight game. The woman's a killer.
Barry himself used to be a fighter. Successful one, too. In his prime, he was a feared kickboxer who also fought in the UFC. But the first time he met Namajunas, nearly 10 years ago when she was still a teenager, Barry knew his career was over. Even at a young age, Namajunas had something Barry recognized he'd never had and never would.
"I can pinpoint the end of my career to when Rose first hit me," Barry says. "The first time we matched up and moved around, she hit me with this punch that took years for me to figure out. I instantly knew she had something special about her. ... I'm good, you know? Some would even say, at a point in time, I was great at what I did. But I didn't have the whole package.
"She's every bit of MMA, all combined into one."
This weekend, Namajunas (9-3) will defend her strawweight title against Brazilian challenger Jessica Andrade (19-6) at UFC 237 ... in Brazil. Oddsmakers have Namajunas as an underdog.
It is unusual for a UFC champion to travel to a challenger's backyard, but due to timing, the UFC's schedule and Namajunas' confidence in her ability to perform amid chaos, she agreed to go. Originally, there was talk of holding the event at a 45,000-seat soccer stadium, but it ultimately landed at Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro. Now there will be only 15,000 fans chanting "Uh vai morrer!" -- Portuguese for "You're going to die!" -- at her on Saturday.
"There is no safe fight," Namajunas says. "There is no safe environment for a fight. ... For me, it's about being in that mentality and being ready for anything."
It could be said that Namajunas' entire life has revolved around this idea of environment -- her desire to find a safe one and her need to explore the chaotic ones. Namajunas grew up in Milwaukee and is a first-generation American. Her parents came to the U.S. from Lithuania. According to Namajunas, her father was schizophrenic and exited her life relatively early. Her mother worked a lot, and her brother was rarely home. She has mentioned several times during her career that she experienced sexual abuse as a child, but has made it clear that she does not want to discuss specific details.
"I lived in a house, but I never felt comfortable there, never felt safe there," Namajunas says. "So that's something I've longed for my entire life, just having a place to feel safe, like no one's going to hurt me."
Namajunas found that safe place in 2016, when she and Barry purchased their home. The two have made significant improvements to it -- including a flower bed that extends around the perimeter. Namajunas wants to plant roses there this year.
This is her safe environment, and it's where she prefers to spend the majority of her time. But another side of Namajunas still seeks the unsafe, because the unsafe is where Namajunas grows.
"She came from a rough lifestyle growing up, and when she started facing those things, her life changed," explains Namajunas' coach, Trevor Wittman. "I think she's kind of become addicted to being in chaotic situations and seeing how she performs.
"When they asked me about Brazil, I was like, 'Eh, I've been down there a few times, judging [can be biased]' -- things like that. But then Pat was like, 'She said she fights the best when she's in chaos.' And it clicked for me, and I said, 'That's what she said? We're going to Brazil.'"
When Namajunas dropped former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk with a left hook in the first round of their title fight in November 2017 at Madison Square Garden, Barry recognized the punch immediately. That punch, which began Namajunas' title reign with one of the biggest upsets that year, was the same punch she hit Barry with all those years ago.
"It looks like a jab, but it's really a hook," Barry says. "There's some magical little twist to it. I remember thinking when she hit me with it, 'That's a really good punch.' We kept moving, and she hit me with it again. Same thing. I was pretty positive I was blocking it, and it just kept landing. I mean, I had giant gloves on, blocking, and my head kept getting knocked to the side."
For some reason, what took Barry five seconds to realize about Namajunas has taken the rest of the sport much longer. Frankly, this sport tends to count Namajunas out. Perhaps that's because Namajunas is so genuinely open about everything -- her fear, in particular. It is not unusual for Namajunas to cry at practice, during fight week or anytime else. Before her last fight, a rematch against Jedrzejczyk at UFC 223 in Brooklyn, New York, she was so tense in the locker room that she clenched her fists to the point her hands bled.
"[Crying] better not be a bad thing, because it be happening on a daily [basis]," Namajunas says, laughing. "It's the yin and yang. I don't know. It's a balance you've got to have, because it's a traumatic experience, getting into a fistfight. If you're not feeling it, you probably shouldn't be doing it."
At 26, Namajunas is the UFC's youngest champion and has already fought four of the strawweights in ESPN's top-10 rankings. The majority of her wins have come via submission, but she is coming off back-to-back fights in which she outstruck a Muay Thai specialist, Jedrzejczyk. "She's stunned me more than anyone I've ever trained with," says Namajunas' teammate Justin Gaethje, a UFC lightweight.
And yet Namajunas has been a betting underdog in each of her past three title fights. And there's a good chance that even if she wins this weekend, that trend will continue. If Namajunas remains champion, it's likely she'll eventually run into the red-hot, undefeated prospect Tatiana Suarez, whom many are already calling the future champ of the division.
The only sense Barry can make of it is that Namajunas, at least when she's away from a fight, doesn't fit most people's concept of a cage fighter. And for that reason, perhaps she'll always be overlooked. But Barry believes this fight against Andrade -- a powerhouse of a strawweight who used to compete in a division 20 pounds heavier -- will go a long way in earning Namajunas the credit she deserves.
"It may seem like she's all over the place outside of fighting and her emotions are everywhere. Can she control them? Can she not?" Barry says. "But as her name gets announced and she's walking towards the ring, man, you can see it all. All the questions. All of the doubt. It just all comes together. And she's fantastic at what she does, man. When Rose is on, she's the best."
Friday, 10 May 2019 21:44
If you're one of those who really enjoy the story behind a fight, the UFC 237 main event might be for you.
I mean, how can you top this? Rose Namajunas (9-3), a UFC champion who is known for wearing her emotions on her sleeve and occasionally acting downright fragile during fight weeks, is going into one of the most intimidating settings in mixed martial arts: facing a Brazilian title challenger, Jessica Andrade, in Brazil.
Andrade (19-6) looks every bit the part of a UFC champion (which is why oddsmakers have made her the favorite). The 27-year-old is a wrecking ball of a strawweight who was competing at 135 pounds less than four years ago. She has UFC title fight experience. And she has knockout power, which she displayed against Karolina Kowalkiewicz in September.
Namajunas' fiancé, Pat Barry, has described this fight as actually more challenging than her back-to-back contests against Joanna Jedrzejczyk. And as crazy as it sounds, all things considered, he might be right. This might be the most frightening combination of circumstances one could come up with in the strawweight division right now. How Namajunas handles it will be good theater.
By the numbers
399: Days it will have been, on fight night, since Namajunas was last in the Octagon (UFC 223 in April 2018, a rematch win over Jedrzejczyk in Namajunas' first title defense).
10: UFC victories by Andrade, tying her with bantamweight and featherweight champion Amanda Nunes for most by a female fighter in company history.
6.58: Significant strikes landed per minute by Andrade, the second most by an active female fighter in UFC history, behind Cris "Cyborg" Justino (6.76), according to UFC Stats.
59.3: Takedown accuracy of Namajunas, according to UFC Stats. That is the second-best success rate in the company's strawweight history.
3: Consecutive bouts in which Namajunas has not been a betting favorite. She has been the defending champion in two of them. Entering fight week, she was a +110 underdog.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
A look back
If at first you don't succeed: Namajunas enters the Octagon in December 2014 for her UFC strawweight championship bout against Carla Esparza. It is the finale of Season 20 of "The Ultimate Fighter," with this season being held to kick off the promotion's 115-pound women's division. Although Namajunas was just 22 years old and 2-1 as a pro when the show began, she has made the final by defeating future UFC fighters Alex Chambers, Joanne Calderwood and Randa Markos. On this night, Namajunas -- with a full head of hair in braids -- will fall short in her first bid for a belt, as Esparza submits her with a third-round rear-naked choke. Namajunas will have to wait nearly three years for another shot at the title, but when the opportunity comes, "Thug Rose" will make the most of it.
Five vs. five
Bumpy road ahead?
Andrade understands why Namajunas would agree to travel to Rio de Janeiro to defend her belt.
"I think Rose probably wanted to have a chance to compete in Brazil, especially Rio," she told ESPN's Marc Raimondi. "It is the home of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. And I think every mixed martial artist would probably like a chance to come to Rio and see what it's all about."
But Andrade says she believes that decision will prove to be a major regret for Namajunas.
"She is gonna feel in this fight similar to what [Brazilians] feel in every single fight," Andrade said. "The travel is not easy, and just adapting to the home of your opponent is not the easiest thing. Just dealing with travel is a big pain. She's gonna have to deal with that for the first time defending her belt. I know maybe she might not feel like it was a bad idea to begin with, but I think once the crowd starts chanting and things start developing, she might feel like it was not the best idea to come down here for this."
"I'm confident in myself and I believe in myself. And really, it doesn't matter where the fight is. There's no safe environment for a fight. I believe in myself and I believe in my abilities. And I have everything it takes to win this fight." -- Namajunas, speaking to ESPN
"The pressure is not just a big threshold in this fight, but it's what makes me different as a whole. In every fight, I know that I can do something that very few people are able to do. I'm able to be in her face, walking forward for five rounds, putting on pressure, trying to knock her head off with every single punch. It might not work out the first time, the second time, but I'm gonna be coming after her for 25 minutes. I know if I can get one punch right, I might knock her block off. And she knows that." -- Andrade, speaking to ESPN
And the winner is ...
Like so many others, I am guilty of underestimating Namajunas. And as tempting as it is to go with Andrade, whose style can quickly create a terrible situation for her opponents, I'm going with the champion.
Brett Okamoto's pick: Namajunas via decision.
Waiting in the wings
You'd have to think Jedrzejczyk will be watching ... and rooting for the challenger. She has lost twice to Namajunas and wouldn't likely get a third shot at her anytime soon. But if the night ends with the belt around the waist of Andrade, whom Jedrzejczyk defeated in a 2017 title defense, the ex-champ suddenly would be right back in the title mix. Other interested observers will be Tatiana Suarez and Nina Ansaroff, who tussle June 8 in a fight expected to be a No. 1 contender showdown.
What to watch for (beyond the main event)
You'll see this fight on SportsCenter in the morning
Jose Aldo should lead the highlight shows simply because he's the one MMA legend on this card who's still performing like one. (Sorry, Anderson Silva and BJ Penn.) Aldo ruled the featherweight division in the UFC and WEC for six years before Conor McGregor and Max Holloway got the better of him. But at age 32, the Brazilian dynamo is on a run again, No. 3 in ESPN's 145-pound rankings after winning his past two fights by knockout. He faces a stiff test in sixth-ranked Alexander Volkanovski, a 30-year-old Australian who is 19-1 and has won 16 in a row, six in the UFC. Which fighter will pass through the crossroads unscathed?
Then again, what NOT to watch for
So, yeah, Penn once was among the greats of the sport. He was fearsome. He was skilled. He was winning titles in multiple weight classes before it was the stylish thing to do. But you wouldn't detect any of that greatness if you've seen only his recent performances -- OK, let's stretch "recent" back a full decade. Penn has only one victory since 2009 and is winless in his past seven. It's sad to watch. So when his lightweight bout with Clay Guida is about to kick off the ESPN prelims at 8 p.m. ET, watch this first, just so you'll know what you're missing:
Nickname of the night