A 2021 risk-free IPL sets the stage for T20 World Cup

By Mariah Ramharack April 11, 2021

On many a Sunday, I realize that people have looked at the stories they have seen throughout the week with different lenses. I have my own personal take on some of these trending issues and I will share them with you. Welcome to #INCASEYOUMISSEDIT the 2021 edition with Mariah.

   A 2021 risk-free IPL sets the stage for T20 World Cup.

The 14th edition of the Indian Premier League, IPL is off to a competitive start despite concerns over spikes in Covod-19 infections in India. India has averaged 90,000 new infections daily but the richest T20 tournament has proceeded with eight teams playing 52 games at six venues.

On April 1, India became the second country after the U.S to report 100,000 new cases in a single day.

Before the start of the tournament, four cricketers and a team consultant tested positive for Covid-19 and were isolated. In addition, 10 members of the ground staff at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium tested positive.

The stadium has been earmarked to host 10 games, and as such, the number of infected grounds men raised questions regarding the tournament being played in six cities when spectators are not allowed.

There is no doubt that managing these bubbles will be difficult but once executed properly it will go some way into reassuring organizers of the ICC men’s T20 World Cup scheduled for October.

Cancelling the tournament would cause massive financial losses and have a potentially disastrous ripple effect if a large number of players become infected. The spillover could significantly impact India’s cricket calendar which includes 14 tests, 12 ODI’s, 22 T20’s as well as the World T20.

What is making a difference are the vaccines that are now available.

  Real Madrid looks dangerous.

Saturday’s El Clasico had a bit of everything as defending La Liga champions Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium to move to the top of the table.

There was controversy, yellow cards, goals, rain, and a thrilling end.

Los Blancos, fresh of their 3-1 Champions League win over Liverpool on Tuesday, went into the match with similar energy. When Karim Benzema scored the opening goal, his ninth in the last seven games, he became one of four Real Madrid players to ever score in consecutive El Clasico encounters joining Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Toni Kroos doubled the lead before half-time and even though Óscar Mingueza García pulling one back late in the second half, Real Madrid was simply tactically superior.

 The firepower and finesse displayed by Real Madrid clearly demonstrate that they are not ready to concede the title without a fight.

  Draymond Green knows better and should do better.

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green last Thursday said his tweets about the pay disparity between men and women’s sports have been “misconstrued”. “I am on their side,” he declared.

His response came after U.S women’s soccer team star Megan Rapinoe lashed out saying Green’s tweets were “unfortunate” and that she expected he would have had a more informed opinion.

In his tweets posted on March 27, Green blamed women for making “complaints rather than taking action to reduce the pay gap between men and women playing the same sport.  Green’s response that they want the same thing is not enough.

Initially, I found his tweets quite alarming, especially his use of the word “complaints” because he comes from a household where his mother Mary Baker is very expressive and he has been cited saying he has adopted that quality from her. There is no doubt that Green wants to see the women thrive but he can do better.

The first step to allyship is listening and then assisting. The first response of posting on Twitter did more harm than good.  The fact that he is now the centre of the conversation shifts the focus from the issue of wage parity. It would be only fair that Green use his political capital and resources to assist where he can.

 

 

 

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  • New York Knicks: Cause for optimism at last but Julius Randle reliance a worry New York Knicks: Cause for optimism at last but Julius Randle reliance a worry

    It did not end as they might have hoped, but the 2020-21 NBA season was undoubtedly one to remember for the New York Knicks.

    Playoff basketball returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years, even if a typically passionate crowd could not carry their team beyond the first round. The subsequent show of strength from the Atlanta Hawks – the fifth seeds behind the Knicks – should cast a 4-1 series defeat in a slightly different light, though.

    And New York's progress under Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau, led by Most Improved Player Julius Randle, can only encourage optimism. The 25.1 improvement in win percentage from the previous campaign (31.8 to 56.9) was the largest in the franchise's history.

    But Thibodeau and the front office have work to do this offseason if they are to ensure the Knicks do not fall short when it really matters again next year.

    Time to assess the franchise's situation with the campaign now over...

    Randle raises the level

    Well established as a leading defensive coach in the NBA, it came as little surprise that Thibodeau's influence was most clearly seen on that end of the floor. The Knicks had given up 112.3 points per game in 2019-20, ranking 18th in scoring defense. That improved to a league-best 104.7 last season.

     

    On offense, though, Randle's ascension to All-Star selection and the fringes of the MVP debate made all the difference. The former Kentucky forward joined New York for the 2019-20 season and contributed 19.5 points per game – his total of 1,248 making up a team-high 17.9 per cent of the Knicks' points. Marcus Morris Sr (12.0 per cent) was the next most influential Knick despite leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers after 43 games.

    Pessimism at that stage was understandable. Randle had also scored the most points on his previous teams across the prior two years – the pre-LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers and a New Orleans Pelicans outfit Anthony Davis decided was not worth sticking around for – and neither of those came close to making the playoffs. It was a miserable trend that seemed certain to continue.

    However, Randle was determined not to let that happen and put in the work to improve his game heading into the new season, focusing particularly on his three-point shooting. "Obviously, the big thing was the three," Thibodeau said in May. "It stood out right away during the summer, but you're in the gym where there's no defenders. It looked a lot better coming off his hand, the arc was better, and he looked real comfortable with it." The Knicks' leading scorer went from shooting 27.7 per cent from three the previous year to 41.1.

    Randle's free-throw percentage also improved by nearly eight points to 81.1 per cent. "I thought he would have a good year, but I didn't see this level," his coach added.

    While Randle's increased output (24.1 points per game) saw him supply 22.2 per cent of his team's points – ranking sixth in the league in that sense – and his usage rate rose to 29.3 per cent, he also provoked better performances from his team-mates.

    "That was a big concern, the three-point shooting for our team," said Thibodeau. "Not only for Julius, but that was huge for him and our team. All the other guys put in the extra time as well. Julius set the tone for that. You see him work on it every day. He's in early, he stays late. He comes back at night, and we have a number of guys that do that. If you put the time into it, usually you’ll get a good result."

    No team improved their accuracy from beyond the arc as dramatically as the Knicks, up from 33.7 to 39.2 per cent.

    With increased options around him – including RJ Barrett shooting 44.1 per cent from the field and 40.1 per cent from three in his second year – Randle also had a career-high 6.0 assists per game. Of his 427 assists, 115 were for Barrett and 117 for Reggie Bullock. Considering he was assisted by Barrett on 68 occasions and then a further 55 from Elfrid Payton, Randle was involved in the Knicks' four most common assist-scorer combinations.

    Following a narrow late-season defeat to the Lakers, Davis said of his former Pelicans team-mate: "I think he's an MVP candidate, he for sure should win Most Improved, what he's doing, got this team in the playoffs right now for a team who hadn't been in the playoffs for a while. He's playing his a** off and you can do nothing but respect him."

    Julius just too important?

    Of course, this reliance on Randle is all well and good so long as the former seventh overall pick is delivering. Worryingly, though, a debut postseason series prompted an apparent regression to the mean – or worse.

    Although that three-point practice kept his shooting from dipping below 33.3 per cent from beyond the arc, Randle slumped to an alarming career low from the midrange, a miserable 14.7 per cent. He was also 44.4 per cent at the rim as the Knicks struggled to get points in the paint – Hawks center Clint Capela averaged a double-double for the series, his 13.4 rebounds including 10.4 on the defensive end – and ended up with just 18.0 points per game in 36.0 minutes, even as the usage rate ramped up even further to 31.8 per cent.

    No team can afford for their superstar to go missing in the playoffs. Randle had posted 28, 44 and 40 in three wins over the Hawks in the regular season, but he was swiftly stifled in round one. Meanwhile, Trae Young, revelling in the role of villain in New York, established himself as one of the league's most exciting scorers.

    Young's 29.2 points against the Knicks set the standard for his postseason as a whole, the Hawks beating the Philadelphia 76ers and only losing to the Milwaukee Bucks after their point guard was injured, having repeatedly risen to the occasion. The contrast with Randle was stark.

     

    Randle had entered the playoffs all but certain to be the subject of a hefty contract offer from the Knicks one year out from unrestricted free agency. Now, that deal is not quite so secure, with the team perhaps pondering their options.

    Big spenders or big savers

    As in 2020-21, when Thibodeau and the front office chose not to gamble, the Knicks are set to have the most cap space in the NBA, projected at $51.3million. With money to spend in a big market, New York will – yet again – be the subject of speculation involving the league's top free agents heading into the new season, especially if a Randle deal is delayed.

    This is a somewhat underwhelming free agency class, though, with two notable exceptions. Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul both have player options – the latter an interesting name given the Knicks' issues at point guard.

    Thibodeau finally lost patience with Payton after 13 playoff minutes, one point and one assist, while Frank Ntilikina appeared fleetingly in three games. That meant Derrick Rose starting at the point; although he led the team with 19.4 points per game in the postseason, they lost all three of his starts and badly missed his consistent contributions from the bench. The trio are all on expiring contracts and only Rose is likely to be retained. It is a position that must be reinforced.

    Despite their repeated attempts to strike a blockbuster deal, a move for Paul or similar would represent a step into the unknown. The Knicks are far more familiar with blooding draft picks and will hope Barrett (2019), Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin (both 2020) will be boosted by getting a taste of the playoffs, albeit if the experience was brief.

    Ideally, third-year center Mitchell Robinson would also have had that opportunity. He has the best career field-goal percentage on record among NBA players with 400 or more attempts all-time (70.5) but fractured his right hand in February and his right foot in March.

    A rare watching brief

    The free agency rumour mill might continue to churn, but Knicks fans have this year at least been spared the pain of sitting through another draft lottery.

    While not be able to take Cade Cunningham, just as they were not able to select Zion Williamson in 2019, this time that is due to their own on-court achievements, rather than the luck of the draw. Two first-round picks – 19 and 21 – should still see New York able to bolster their roster.

    Verdict: Evolution

    Why would the Knicks do anything but build on the foundations of a popular, hard-working, fast-improving team? Whether Randle signs or not, whether a player like Paul can be tempted to MSG or otherwise, the bulk of this roster will remain the same. They have enough room under the cap to bring back a number of key pieces regardless of any expensive, eye-catching additional business.

    A new man running point would allow Rose to return to leading the second unit. Another way to add scoring depth might see the arrival of a wing who can compete for minutes with Bullock, whose accuracy from the field, three-point range and the foul line tailed off in the postseason.

    Up the middle, despite the team's struggles against Capela and Co, Robinson remains under a team option and both Nerlens Noel ($6m last year) and Taj Gibson ($1.7m) should be cheap and useful enough to return. In 1,547 regular season minutes, Noel had the third-best block percentage (8.7) and 23rd-best steal percentage (2.3) in the league.

    New York may still be some way off contention, but this must be a patient process. Another playoff campaign should be regarded as a success, particularly if they can be more competitive. That will require tweaks, not a drastic overhaul.

  • Solskjaer's new contract: With Sancho signed, what weaknesses do Man Utd still need to address? Solskjaer's new contract: With Sancho signed, what weaknesses do Man Utd still need to address?

    Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

    But there's still plenty to press on with for Solskjaer and United. While the signing of Sancho addresses one area that has been a problem in recent years, it appears there are still two glaring weaknesses in the first-choice starting XI.

    It would seem United have identified the man to take care of one of them, with Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane reportedly set to bolster their defensive options. In one sense it will have been a signing long in the making, given the club were supposedly close to buying him from Lens as a teenager only for Los Blancos to get the deal over the line in the end.

    Although it took Varane a little time to truly establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's gone on to enjoy a hugely successful time in the Spanish capital, winning three LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns, among a host of other trophies.

    Below, Stats Perform delves into the Opta data to see how Varane might improve United and where else they could do with reinforcements.

     

    Physical dominance is the key

    There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

    While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

    Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

    In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

    In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

    Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

    Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

    But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

     

    And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

    While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

    That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

    But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

    United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire, and in Varane they may have identified a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

    Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

    Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

    The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

    That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

    Now, it must be said that both players have clearly improved significantly over the past couple of years and they do offer a lot to United in certain areas.

     

    For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

    But neither are particularly creative. Fred laid on 25 key passes with an expected assists (xA) value of 2.1, while McTominay created 17 chances that combined to an xA total of 0.7.

    Of course, you can't expect every outfield player to offer creativity. In many cases a player's productivity – or lack of – is intrinsically linked to the role they're playing or system they're part of, and Fernandes has done a lot of the heavy lifting. But United are a side who generally have more of the ball than their opponents – do they need two 'destroyers'?

     

    If Solskjaer is to implement a more forward-thinking setup in 2021-22, he would be wise to finally ditch the Fred-McTominay axis. More often than not, it comes across as extremely conservative.

     

    But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

    Pressure now on Ole

    Who's to say if another midfielder, Varane and Sancho will be enough to overthrow Manchester City while also holding off a Liverpool side who promise to be back with a vengeance and defending European champions Chelsea.

    But such decisive addressing of the team's weak points should at least give Solskjaer the right tools to work with. It'll then be on him to prove conclusively he's the right man for the job, because further under-achieving with such a strong squad won't be tolerated for long, regardless of his new contract.

    Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

  • Real Madrid striker Benzema tests positive for COVID-19 Real Madrid striker Benzema tests positive for COVID-19

    Karim Benzema has had to delay his return to training at Real Madrid after testing positive for COVID-19.

    The 33-year-old striker was on holiday in France when he was found to have the virus, and it means he must isolate before heading back to Spain.

    Benzema played for France in the Euro 2020 finals after being called up to Didier Deschamps' squad for the first time since 2015.

    He scored four goals in four games, hitting doubles against Portugal and Switzerland, but could not help France advance any further than the second round, with the Swiss ousting Les Bleus in a penalty shoot-out after a 3-3 draw.

    According to reports in Spain, Benzema is undergoing his quarantine period in Lyon.

    A short statement from his club read: "Real Madrid CF confirm that our player Karim Benzema has tested positive for COVID-19."

    Benzema has been Madrid's leading scorer in each LaLiga season since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus in 2018, scoring 21 goals in 2018-19 and 2019-20 before improving to 23 goals last term, adding nine assists.

    Madrid, who appointed Carlo Ancelotti to succeed Zinedine Zidane in June, begin their LaLiga campaign on August 14 with a match against Deportivo Alaves.

    Looking to dethrone reigning champions Atletico Madrid in 2021-22, Ancelotti's team will step up pre-season efforts with a friendly against Scottish champions Rangers in Glasgow on Sunday.

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