The couch potato’s guide to sports over the holidays

 

 

Cricket

It doesn’t feel very ethical, but the Proteas are playing England at a time when Cricket South Africa (CSA) has let everyone down and our players are picking up the shards of their shattered confidence. Still, loving punishment as we do, most of us will watch anyway. Eskom permitting.

Driving home in the rain two weeks ago, slightly peeved after watching CSA president Chris Nenzani take up a Saturday afternoon parrying off his responsibility, it was easy for the mind to wander and reminisce on the sunnier days of cricket.

A year ago it was Pakistan that we invited to share in our festivities. And then, like now, the tour began at SuperSport Park.

There are few places better to watch a Test match in the country. With its spacious embankment, the place really does live up to its name and is not overwhelmed by concrete. Huge trees cover the braai area and the surroundings — you can take a nap under their shade should you take on too much beer, or too many wors rolls. Time seems to falter as one ball turns into another and the Gautrain hypnotically whooshes by.

Had you missed the live experience last year, there was still a show to be enjoyed on television. Although not the most enthralling match, or series for that matter, it was devilishly entertaining watching the Proteas beat down on their opponents. Even on a screen, the Pakistani distress was palpable; the sun blazed on their brows and fast balls threatened their craniums. The Proteas essentially bullied the batters into submission, paralysing them at the crease and not allowing them a moment to consider how to get out of their pickle.


What we were watching was an exciting moment for South African bowling. Duanne Olivier, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and, for the next two games, Vernon Philander — all healthy and bullish. Each player’s overs carried a baseline of intensity, ensuring the bombardment didn’t relent. Olivier would still find a way to stand out, taking 11 wickets in Centurion and 24 overall in the series. Factor in the inspiring debut of Lungi Ngidi a few months earlier and the glut of pacers became the reason you went to the grounds, or flicked the channel to cricket.

That moment would reveal itself as a fleeting one. Olivier would sacrifice his promising international career for a county deal while Steyn realised that retirement is the only way to rest muscles that have given so much for the cause over the years.

What it means for the present is that we’re less likely to get the kind of thrill that would have us spitting our mince pies onto the living room. Not impossible, just not highly likely.

At best, the Proteas could field a foursome almost as fierce as a year ago. Rabada, the undisputed leader, and Philander remain. Ngidi has returned and Anrich Nortje has the potential to be equally deadly. In theory everything is dandy.

The problem is we don’t live in theory. Rabada has been pumped of every gram of his sweat and we await the toll of being asked to carry the team. Philander and Ngidi will probably be coddled to varying degrees to keep them fit. And questions remain about whether Nortje can consistently operate at an elite level — see the India Test series for reason for scepticism.

Should we get the worst of those circumstances it’s going to be a long few days in the sun. Or on the couch. Should it be the latter and you find yourself staring at the empty wall instead of the 55-inch box of broken dreams, it might be time to change the channel. Begrudgingly, one must admit that Australia is offering a decent show. They begin their second Test in a series against New Zealand on Boxing Day as the David Warner/Steve Smith redemption story marches on to its next locale. Given that it began on our shores it almost feels as though we’re protagonists in the tale — or perhaps we’re just confounded about how South Africa are the ones so much worse off nearly two years after #SandpaperGate and the duo’s cheating.

If that is too depressing, well, you can always watch the “438 game” to bring back some festive cheer. It’s easy to find online and sports channels air it from time to time. What we would give for South African cricket to make a comeback of that magnitude right now.

Premier League

It’s at the cost of ceaseless cries that you get to enjoy a December chock full of Premier League action. Every year we have to listen to one or another British rent-a-pundit yabber on about how desperately the world’s most watched football competition needs a Christmas break. You know, like how the Germans do it. It’s hurting the teams in the Champions League, they say. It’s why England always suck at the Euros. Harry Kane would have won the Ballon D’or if he weren’t so knackered. Et cetera.

But you don’t care about any of that do you? More football means more excuses not to play Boggle with Grandma. Just make sure you don’t buy any Christmas video games for the kids because you’re going to be needing the TV.

Liverpool have the chance to become world champions this December. They will duel it out for that honour in the Club World Cup — another competition not short of criticism for its inconvenient scheduling and, arguably, low stakes that end with getting a shiny badge to increase shirt sales. Still, Jürgen Klopp has taken a strong squad to Qatar and they will meet Brazilians Flamengo in the final this Saturday.

Liverpool is almost certain to take the Premier League trophy. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

On their return, we commence pondering the quintessential question of the holiday period: Can Liverpool continue their march to the league title without slipping up? It’s been a romp so far and the long wait for a Premier League trophy looks to finally be over. The only side capable of entertaining fantasies about catching them are Leicester City, who are setting up their Boxing Day date at the Kingpower Stadium as the most important match of the season, let alone the month. A few years ago that would have felt like asking for a Christmas miracle but now it just feels like a normal conversation. That’s how good Leicester have become.

The bad news — at least for those of us not affiliated to the Reds — is that the race for first can be written off should the Foxes lose. No one-point difference hustle this season.

Fortunately, there remain a number of interesting subplots that will carry on well into the new year. Chelsea, for one, need to figure out if they’re brilliant or hopeless. The young squad have offered equal quantities of both under Frank Lampard and would do well to find a base level of consistency to secure a top four spot.

Key to that journey of enlightenment will be two big games over the next two weeks. First up, new Tottenham Hotspur coach José Mourinho is salivating at the thought of a groggy Blues rocking up on his doorstep. The Portuguese’s idea of a perfect gift is getting one over any of his former teams and he will whip his current lot as hard as it takes to achieve this. Add in the resentment that has been simmering over the past few years between these two and things are going to get messy. This is not to be missed.

Chelsea, under coach Frank Lampard, face two big games – against Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal.

From one derby to another, Arsenal await the following weekend. And if we’re talking about disorderly Londoners, they don’t get much more so than Mesut Özil and friends. But recent history suggests they too are quite capable of ruining Chelsea’s ambitions. At the very least watching two trainwrecked entities collide offers certain goals and a happy jaunt for the neutral viewer.

The top four race is shaping up to be the most intriguing battle of the season. Manchester United, of course, hope they are still invited to the party. Ole Gunnar Solskjær will spend the next few weeks trying to prove he knows what he’s doing. That too involves a visit to the Gunners — a perfect tonic on the first for any New Year’s Eve hangover.

This subplot — which team is the least worst and which formerly great team can cling to fourth place — makes Christmas watching worthwhile. It will hurt if you support a team that used to win trophies, or even matches, at a consistent rate. But football support makes little sense. So sit back and watch the goals (and there will be goals because nobody seems to have a defence).

For the fighters

UFC Fight Night 165

The Ultimate Fighting Champion-ship’s main events take a break over the holiday period, but hungry fighters who want to prove themselves will step into the Octagon on December 21 at UFC Fight Night 165.

Although the card boasts three fights, there is only one that is worth paying attention to.

Frankie Edgar takes on Chan Sung Jung. The Korean Zombie never fails to produce enticing fights, in which he makes you wonder whether you are watching a disciplined five-round bout or playing an exhibition match of Street Fighter on your Playstation. At times, it has cost him dearly, but when it has worked, it is a joy to the eye.

Ones to watch: Frankie Edgar will take on Chan Sung Jung, The Korean Zombie (left).

For Edgar, he will look to erase any memories of his last fight, when he went five rounds with then featherweight champion Max Holloway but eventually lost by decision, and get back into contention for a title rematch. He claims he is focused on the Korean Zombie and has admitted that this fight is no joke — that is when he is not chasing a fight against Conor McGregor. Edgar has been stirring the pot hoping McGregor will react but, until now, the Irishman has ignored the cries and looks set to battle Donald Cerrone in January.

IBF flyweight title

South Africa’s 2019 sportsman of the year Moruti Mthalane defends his International Boxing Federation flyweight championship against Akira Yaegashi in Yokohama on Monday, December 23. This will be Mthalane’s third defence since regaining the title in 2017. He is in the best form of his career and near invincible for the past 12 years.

Mthalane has given Yaegashi tons of respect, but is confident that he will retain his belt after 12 rounds. Yaegashi’s record is not as impressive as Mthalane, but he has mauled his opponents in his last three fights, winning all by technical knockout. The Japanese fighter will also have most of the crowd backing him.

But Mthalane fought Masayuki Kuroda in his last fight in Japan as well and thrived in the face of adversity. If he wipes his sweat and focuses on the opponent, he could add to the success South Africa has experienced in sport in the past year, particularly in Japan.

Moruti Mthalane beat Masayuki Kuroda (right) and will now face Akira Yaegashi.

Documentaries

Keane & Vieira: Best of Enemies

Manchester United vs Arsenal used to be the symbol of excellence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As the decade turns and they face each other on New Year’s Day, the fixture now occupies a bar just above mediocrity. What’s worse is that the fire and passion has left these fixtures.

This documentary takes you back to when Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira captained the sides, which was at the peak of their rivalry. It features the pretty pictures and ugly moments. From Ryan Giggs’s solo goal in the 1999 FA Cup semifinal to the Gunners winning the English Premier League title at Old Trafford, from the Arsenal players crowding in on Ruud van Nistelrooy and screaming at him to the foul-mouthed Keane incident in the tunnel at Highbury, this documentary might just make you miss the toughness football no longer has.

Icarus

This documentary dives into the world of sport and doping. After the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, author and actor Bryan Fogel, an amateur cyclist, sets out to document how easy it is to use drugs to enhance performance and evade detection. Fogel decides to take drugs to compete in an amateur cycling race and links up with Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre, who helps him break all the rules. Rodchenkov oversaw doping in Russian sports, including the 2012 London Olympics. The Russian doctor eventually blew the whistle on a state-sponsored doping scheme that had been going on for decades.

News update: Earlier this month the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russia from hosting and competing in all major sporting events for the next four years.

Calum von Moger: Unbroken

This one is for aspiring bodybuilders or even if you just enjoy lifting a few weights now and then. This documentary might motivate you to get back on the bench.

Calum von Moger won two Mr Universe titles and became an instant star after being compared with Arnold Schwartzenegger. He might have been on his way to surpassing the Austrian, but a bicep tear brought his world crashing down.

His comeback, which is what this documentary is about, is inspiring. It also explores how passion about something can help a person overcome depression. It’s almost like listening to an Eminem song, except that this documentary runs for more than 90 minutes. But it is certainly worth a watch.

And We Go Green

There is certainly a case for making Formula 1 eco-friendly. The sport has made some effort in recent years to do so. The aim is to make racing carbon neutral by 2030. Six-time champion Lewis Hamilton is part of the push.

And We Go Green explores the idea of Formula 1 racing with electric cars and using renewable energy technology. Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the fun in this documentary is inspired by the thrill of driving these electric cars on the circuit. Obviously, the noise of the vehicles is eliminated, but colourful personalities and imminent danger on the track makes exciting watching.

The racing game is heading in the direction of electric vehicles, so And We Go Green will give a taste of the races we cold be watching in the future.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia is a member of the Mail & Guardian's online team.

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