In sport, as in life, you just don’t know where you stand any more. Look at the Premier League: no club knows where they stand except for Crystal Palace, who are being stood on by all the others. Everyone else can beat everyone else. Manchester City, who must be one of the best teams, are eighth; Southampton are good for the Europa League but currently could end up in the Champions League. But it’s all good for business. The England football team are about to find out exactly where they stand after two friendlies and the World Cup draw next month.
The England rugby team are about to find out exactly where they stand too. Their stated aim is to end the season the second best team in the world: that means they will have to win the Six Nations and the Grand Slam, beating Wales, France and Ireland — not easy. Before that they have to play a team who know exactly where they stand — top of the pile. New Zealand are the best team in the world and Saturday’s engagement at Twickenham is the last game of a long and unbeaten season for the All Blacks. The last team to cast doubt on their standing were England, a year ago. Now they want to stand all over England.
As for cricket, England must be starting to doubt their standing. The Ashes victory this summer was closer than the scoreline suggested, and England are now defending the urn Down Under. This is not a good Australia team yet you suspect they could have the beating of England. But if one man could make all the difference, it is Michael Carberry, the beefy Hampshire left-hander. If he isn’t picked to open for England in the first Test next week then the world really should split asunder. Carberry is a fine shot-maker who will greatly improve England’s watchability. The 33-year-old opener hasn’t had an easy ride to his current position: he recovered from blood clots on the lung, nearly quit county cricket altogether, and left Kent because he couldn’t get into the side. He is marvellously resilient, plugging away after being dropped after one Test a few years ago. On this tour he has seized his opportunities, making 78 and 153 not out. Alastair Cook’s back suddenly going in Perth could prove to have been a good thing for English cricket, and given his age Carberry’s selection would be a victory for wise heads over the kids.
Those who know him have nothing but praise. He is just a very good bloke, his own man, and often on the wrong side of the dressing-room inner circle (invariably a good sign). He has a very generous nature, and is a fine athlete in the field. There is also his skin colour. Black cricketers used to be everywhere in county cricket — DeFreitas, Small, Lewis, Malcolm — but now there are very few left, and almost none are batsmen. Alex Tudor, who played for England a decade ago, recently said in the Voice newspaper that the only black Britons interested in cricket now were in their thirties or over. The youngsters are all into football and basketball. Let’s hope Carberry’s renaissance revives a declining interest in the greatest of games.
Eagle-eyed readers may recall that two weeks ago this column noted how forlorn Gareth Bale looked in his first El Clásico. It even went so far as to suggest that the lantern-jawed Welshman was not really up to the job. Luckily, that proved to be just the fillip the Real Madrid winger needed, and since then he has hardly put a foot wrong, slotting in several dazzling goals, assisting in countless more, and with Benzema and Ronaldo forming what is universally regarded as the most devastating forward line-up in Europe, the BBC (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano). It just goes to show what influence this journal has at the highest levels of European sport.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.