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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Cricket rematch spectacle for Afghanistan

The Ditchling v Afghanistan cricket match in Kabul (1 May 2009)

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Kabul

It could have been any village green in Britain.

But the barbed wire, blast walls, and spectators in military uniform, meant this was no ordinary match.

The cricket team from Ditchling, a small village in East Sussex, were taking on the Afghan national side in a heavily fortified military base.

It had taken eight months to organise this "away game", a trip which was causing some worry back home.

"My mum's been pretty quiet about it but my dad had a lot to say," said James Emmons, 23, one of the Ditchling players.

"He wasn't overly keen on it."

We will invite Ditchling again, when we have a decent ground and good security
Khalik Dad Noori

"The security restrictions we've had to go through have been pretty intense. But there've been no scary moments so far."

More than 100 spectators turned up to watch the game, an almost unheard of spectacle in Kabul.

They ate cheese and tomato rolls and turkey sandwiches, and drank green tea, which were laid on for the match.

Occasionally the flat notes of an Afghan trumpet player floated across the ground.

Deeper ties

The Afghan team celebrate their victory against Ditchling in Kabul (1 May 2009)
The Afghan team overwhelmed the players from Ditchling

The Afghan national side had first placed Ditchling in 2006 after an English country team they were supposed to play dropped out and the village club offered to step in as opponents.

After the game, the Afghans suggested a rematch, this time in Kabul, an event no-one in Afghanistan thought would ever happen.

"It's amazing that the team visited Afghanistan," said Hamid Hassan, one of the Afghan national cricketers. "We're thrilled to have them here."

Another Afghan player, Khalik Dad Noori, said that he hoped the event would deepen ties between the two sides.

"We will invite Ditchling again, when we have a decent ground and good security," he said. "We also want to ask other country teams to come to Afghanistan."

Since the teams' first encounter three years ago, the Afghan side have improved dramatically.

Last month they almost qualified for the Cricket World Cup.

And during the match in Kabul, the Afghan team, batting first, quickly found their stride. The balls were flying over the boundary.

Ditchling were overwhelmed.

The Afghans won the match by 124 runs, retaining the Kabul Cup, a trophy contested between the two sides.

The players from East Sussex now say they want a rematch - but next time it is expected to be at home.

Score board

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First Stanley Cup ring sold for $60,000

The Vancouver Canucks Shane O'Brien (55) greets St. Louis Blues David Perron (57) while Canucks Alex Burrows (14) greets Blues Jay McKee (77)  after the Canucks 3-2 win at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on April 21, 2009. The Canucks defeated the Blues 4 games to 0, eliminating them in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. (UPI Photo/Bill Greenblatt)
The Vancouver Canucks Shane O'Brien (55) greets St. Louis Blues David Perron (57) while Canucks Alex Burrows (14) greets Blues Jay McKee (77) after the Canucks 3-2 win at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on April 21, 2009. The Canucks defeated the Blues 4 games to 0, eliminating them in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. (UPI Photo/Bill Greenblatt)

An 1893 Stanley Cup championship player's gold ring found in a Vancouver, British Columbia, attic sold at auction for more than $60,000.

The Province newspaper in Vancouver said only one other ring from the first Stanley Cup championship is known to exist, and that's in a vault at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

The ring belonged to the Montreal Hockey Club's George Lowe, the newspaper said.

It was sold at auction to an undisclosed buyer by Quebec's Classic Auctions service, which also declined to reveal who found the ring in an older Vancouver home's attic.

Lowe finished eighth in league scoring and was the team's third-highest scorer with six goals in five games during the 1893 season, a year after the Stanley Cup was donated by Lord Stanley of Preston, then Canada's governor general, The Province said.

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Celtics, Bulls Put On Show

By Michael Wilbon

Chicago's Joakim Noah, left, goes up for a shot past Boston's Paul Pierce as the teams took an NBA-record fourth game of their series to overtime. Chicago's Joakim Noah, left, goes up for a shot past Boston's Paul Pierce as the teams took an NBA-record fourth game of their series to overtime.

CHICAGO The NBA would be well suited to dump Atlanta, Miami and Orlando, and just hold on to the Celtics and Bulls for another month, best-of-15 series, winner to play Cleveland for the Eastern Conference championship. How do you get rid of one or the other when together they keep producing classics, when the athletic theater is almost too much to bear? It's become must-see TV, each episode more ruthless and more compelling than the previous.

The sixth game, all by itself, should go down as one of the great tests of will in NBA playoff history. Every time it appeared one team had the game won, the other would answer with an improbable run or surreal shot. If it wasn't Brad Miller making a three-pointer, then a driving layup when the Bulls seemed dead and gone in regulation, it was Ray Allen hitting yet another three-pointer to tie when the Celtics were down to their final breath in the second overtime. Or Chicago's 6-foot-11 Joakim Noah stealing the ball from Boston's Paul Pierce and driving two-thirds of the court for a dunk and free throw. That play fouled Pierce out of the game with 35 seconds left in the third overtime and gave the young Bulls, finally, a margin they could manage, though not without near calamity for Chicago, which won, 128-127 on Thursday at United Center.

Whoever wants to see this end after Saturday night's Game 7 in Boston is a fool.

For the fifth time in six games, the Bulls and Celtics took the NBA playoffs to basketball nirvana with another desperately played confrontation that looked for all the fallen bodies and swinging elbows like it should have been played in one of Chicago's West Side alleys inside a cyclone fence, with chains on the rims, shirts and skins. For the fourth time in this series, which has never happened in the playoffs, the teams needed to play beyond regulation to decide the outcome. And this time they needed three extra periods.

As the Bulls' Derrick Rose told the Associated Press, "It's crazy, but you got to love it."

The defending champs looked like just that when they put together a devastating 18-0 run that turned a 10-point Chicago lead into an eight-point Boston lead with just a couple of minutes to play in regulation. The young Bulls, not wise enough yet to know how to grab and hold after being clipped on the chin, choked away a double-digit lead for the second straight game. The Celtics, Allen and Pierce draining bombs, made Chicago pay dearly for every careless mishandling of the ball and every dumb shot, of which there were plenty. You could see the Bulls' players, even Rose, begin to melt under the pressure . . . until he blocked Rajon Rondo's shot with a few seconds left in the third and final overtime, and dribbled down court to get himself fouled.

Rose, who played 59 minutes, then missed a pair of foul shots, of course, to prolong the drama. But the Celtics had no timeouts and Rondo -- who played 57 1/2 minutes with 19 assists and no turnovers -- couldn't hit a desperation heave at the buzzer.

Whatever the Bulls lack in poise they more than make up for in guts, and perhaps athleticism, too. They're neophytes in every sense, yet the champs are unable to shake them. The combination has produced a stunning contrast, making the tension even more delightful, whether it's the wondrous plays or a few jaw-dropping mishaps.

Asked if he was watching the series between the Bulls and Celtics, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said, "That's not Game 6, that's the 'Thrilla in Manilla,' Round 19."

It's about as apt a description as anyone has come up with for Celtics-Bulls. It has been the series with everything, just maybe the best first-round series in NBA history. No other series has had even three overtime games. And don't forget, Game 2, which the Celtics won, was decided by an Allen three-pointer with less than three seconds to play in regulation.

"This series is a lot of fun for the fans, the people of Chicago, the people of Boston," Noah told the AP Thursday night. "It's a lot of fun for us, too, playing in environments like this on the big stage. It's special to be part of this, and I know that it's a series people will be talking about for a long time."

There have been great performances from all-stars (Allen and Pierce), the greatest playoff debut since Lew Alcindor (Rose), one of the rare triple-doubles over a full series (Rondo), and one impossible shot after another by the best bad-shot maker in the NBA (Ben Gordon). That, in most other circumstances, would have been theater enough . . . but not in this series.

Anger and, uh, bloodshed didn't enter the mix until the final seconds of overtime of Game 5 in Boston on Tuesday night, when Rondo, all 6 feet of him, hacked the 7-foot Miller across the face on what turned out to be the critical play of the game and perhaps the series. Miller took seven stitches in the mouth, but not until after missing two free throws that let the Celtics walk out of the arena with the game.

Bad enough the game officials missed calling a flagrant foul on Rondo, which would have given Miller two free throws and the Bulls the ball on the sideline with two seconds left. Worse that Stu Jackson, the NBA's czar of discipline, blew it again the next day by not realizing that Rondo's hack job was absolutely excessive, thereby warranting a flagrant designation.

But Jackson's failure to make the proper call probably just gave Rondo the green light to push the envelope even further in Game 6, which he promptly did at the end of the first quarter. After dragging Kirk Hinrich down intentionally, Rondo swung an elbow at Hinrich, which should have called at least for him to be ejected from this game. Instead, officials gave Rondo only a "flagrant 1" foul and left him in the game. The Bulls were up 10 at the time, and having to play the game without Rondo must have sent a shiver through the Celtics.

One could see the Celtics' coach, Doc Rivers, a native of Chicago, screaming at Rondo during the stoppage in play, in essence, "I told you about that before the game!" Just before the game, sensing the same tension and edge, Bulls Coach Vinny Del Negro said: "We can't afford to get a bunch of technicals and flagrants. We have to be as physical as we need to be to win . . . whatever that means."

The anticipation that something nasty and even more dramatic might happen had much of Chicago on edge all day, as people talked basketball everywhere, like they did in the 1980s and 1990s when Michael Jordan's Bulls made basketball the pride of the city, an identity that made Chicagoans feel they were better than anybody's Second City.

But that's just the kind of widespread expectation that young teams -- and these Bulls are one of the youngest teams in the NBA -- don't handle especially well. They built a 13-point lead in Game 6 but clung to a 59-57 halftime lead after briefly falling behind.

The tag-team of Rose (28 points) and John Salmons (35 points) battled Boston's tandem of Allen (who scored a mesmerizing 51 points, including nine three-pointers to tie a playoff record) and Pierce, who had to retreat to the dressing room for a while in the third quarter to fix a bloody nose, the better to set up one more quarter, and as a result one more dramatic evening back in Boston.

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President Obama Shoots Some Hoops With The Lady Huskies

President Obama Shoots Some Hoops With The Lady HuskiesTotal Pro Sports - Recently the 2009 UConn Lady Huskies National Championship basketball team traveled to the White House for a ceremonial visit with President Barack Obama.

During the visit, the Lady Huskies were treated to a special Presidential shoot around at the White House outdoor half-court. Obama a former high school basketball player, absolutely dominated a few of the Huskies in a short game of P-I-G.

“He was pretty good from 17 feet,” said coach Geno Auriemma. “His shot’s a little unorthodox, but it goes in ... He’s got a little bit of that swagger.” [NHR]

Like every other ceremonial visit to the White House the Lady Huskies gave Obama a basketball signed by the players and a Uconn jersey with #1 and his name on the back.

"Number One - that's what I'm talking about," Obama joked. "I will wear it when I'm playing.

Truly a special day that the 2009 Lady Huskies will always remember. Video after the jump.

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New book: A-Rod demanded food, toothbrush be prepared; Yankees teammates viewed him as phony

BY Teri Thompson and Michael O'Keeffe

Alex Rodriguez takes a break from working out in Tampa on Thursday. Theodorakis/News

Alex Rodriguez takes a break from working out in Tampa on Thursday.

Loyal Fans Are Batting Cleanup

John Brandon never dreamed of owning season tickets to the Kansas City Royals, let alone four in this location: First row, upper tier, directly above third base. A few nights ago, the 52-year-old baseball fanatic caught his first-ever foul ball in these seats. "I thought you had to be rich to have seats like these every game," says Mr. Brandon, a machinist, his arms dangling outside the railing.

The cost of his four tickets: $30 a game -- or $7.50 each -- which is a 50% discount.

In an age of fallen circumstances and concerns about revenue, major-league baseball teams are training their attention on a long-overlooked and increasingly endangered species -- those unfailingly loyal fans who buy tickets for every game. In addition to offering lower prices, clubs around the league are rewarding season-ticket holders with other benefits, such as early entrance to games, access to services that resell unwanted seats, exclusive gatherings with players and team executives, and concierges to address their every need.

Ed Zurga for The Wall Street Journal

John Brandon, a Kansas City Royals season-ticket holder, got his seats at Kauffman Stadium this year at a 50% discount.

Wooing baseball's hard-core fans reflects a major-league seat change. In the past, when attendance was rising, the clubs' marketing departments focused on big-dollar sales, such as corporate suites and stadium-naming rights. But last year, attendance at ballparks fell 1% even before the economy crashed. Suddenly, clubs remembered that nobody matters more than loyal fans -- people like Frances Ingemann, a retired linguistics professor who drives 50 miles from Lawrence, Kan., to every Royals home game. "Even if the Royals aren't playing well, you see other teams playing well," says Dr. Ingemann, a 24-year season-ticket holder who fell in love with baseball as a girl listening to games on the radio.

Dramatic Reductions

Last year, not a single club reduced its average season-ticket price, according to Team Marketing Report. But ahead of this season, 10 teams -- a third of the total -- did so, in some cases dramatically.

Season-ticket seats can still cost thousands of dollars. But some teams with high prices are experiencing reality checks. On Tuesday the Yankees slashed premium-seat prices in half and awarded season-ticket holders with gobs of free seats. In Boston, Fenway Park has sold out every game this year, but only after recession-worried Red Sox officials engaged in unprecedented levels of marketing during the off season.

Ed Zurga for The Wall Street Journal

The Kansas City Royals are catering to loyal fans like Ralph Sauceda, a season-ticket holder for 10 years.

Counting on Gate Receipts

That's bad news for baseball. With broadcast rights contributing a smaller percentage of revenue than in other sports, baseball clubs depend on gate receipts for as much as 60% of revenue. And the season-ticket holder typically accounts for about 15,000 seats in stadiums that generally hold between 30,000 and 40,000.

For fans, the discounts are proliferating. Under pressure from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, every team is participating in a campaign to offer new and numerous price promotions, with a majority of teams regularly offering tickets for $5.50 or less. To advertise discounts around the league, this month launched a page called Fan Value Corner. "Baseball has always served as a diversion for its fans during difficult times," Mr. Selig said.

A visit to Kansas City, Mo., illustrates the depth of the recession, as well as the tenacity of some of baseball's most-devoted -- some would say masochistic -- fans.

After making the playoffs seven times during its first 17 years, Kansas City hasn't entered the post-season since winning the World Series in 1985. Only the Florida Marlins had weaker attendance last year. Even so, the Royals had 9,200 season-ticket holders last year, many of them baseball nuts such as Ralph Sauceda, a 58-year-old former high-school slugger whose brother-in-law and nephew -- Diego and David Segui -- had stellar major-league careers.

For 2009, the Royals hoped for an increase in season-ticket holders. A $250 million remodeling of Kauffman Stadium, financed 90% by taxpayers, added a giant new scoreboard, seats near the outfield water fountains, greater spaciousness throughout the park and expanded food offerings. Moreover, after three consecutive seasons of improvement -- from 56 wins in 2005 to 75 in 2008 -- the club made some off-season acquisitions that boosted its payroll 20% to a team record of $70 million.

But last fall, the economy started wreaking havoc. The club had expected to retain 90% of its season-ticket holders, up from 87% last year. But as it turned out, that number dropped to 75%. "I've never seen so many longtime customers -- some with season tickets dating back to 1969 -- saying they have no choice but to bow out this year," says Mark Tilson, Royals vice president of marketing and sales. Adds Terry Loose, a season-ticket salesman for the team, "I've literally had my customers say it came down to buying the tickets or feeding their families. I told them to feed their families."

Rewarding Longevity

With season-ticket sales down 8% as the season approached, the team rolled out promotions such as the $400 season-ticket offer, and the decline eased to 5%.

Like a few other teams, the Royals are bending the golden rule of season-ticket sales, which awards the best seats to those with unbroken longevity. Long-time holders who bowed out of Kauffman Stadium this year can retain their priority status for 2010 by going to as few as 12 games in 2009. Should the Royals make the playoffs this year -- as many prognosticators expect -- holders who dropped out can reclaim their seats for the post-season by committing to season tickets next year.

The most effective reward, of course, is performance. After the Seattle Mariners lost 101 games last year, Jack Bray canceled his season tickets, telling club officials that his construction company would go broke if he ran it as poorly as they ran their team. In the off-season, however, the team replaced its general manager, hired a new coach and shook up its roster -- moves that persuaded Mr. Bray to return. "I felt like they had listened to me," he says.

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"The season-ticket holder represents an annuity that is the life blood of the organization," says Mark Fernandez, senior vice president of the Tampa Bay Rays, whose 2008 World Series appearance along with some new promotions have boosted that club's season-ticket base.

In San Diego, the Padres are studying rewards models akin to those used by airlines, including speedier trips through security. Even as clubs add benefits, they are widening the discount that comes with buying a seat for 81 games. This year, the Padres dropped their average season-ticket price 27%. In Kansas City, the Royals have introduced a season ticket for $400, or $5 a game. The Pittsburgh Pirates, a club that hasn't raised prices in seven years, this year launched four new season packages covering 36% of the ballpark at an average savings of 25% from last year's season-ticket prices.

Yet in many markets, the recession is winning. The Padres say their season-ticket sales are off about 20% from historical levels. In distressed Detroit, season-ticket sales for the Tigers fell more than 40%. Most clubs won't divulge those numbers, and league executives won't comment on national season-ticket figures. But some team executives say the league-wide rate of retaining season-ticket holders -- a percentage usually in the mid-80s -- has fallen into the 70s.