Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons fly in under the radar

Saudi Arabia will have to scrap for every ball in Russia next summer, but they also know that a lot of pressure will be placed on the hosts when the two sides do battle on Jun. 14 at the Luzhniki Stadium. (AP)
Updated 05 December 2017
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Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons fly in under the radar

LONDON: About the nicest thing anyone said about Saudi Arabia after the 2018 World Cup draw on Friday in Moscow came from the coach of opening game opponents Russia.
Stanislav Cherchesov said of his Group A opponents Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. “We’ve never played any of these teams and I’ve never seen them.” He went on to list players he knew from the North Africans and the South America but didn’t say anything about the Green Falcons.
When live-blogging the draw, the BBC was not enthusiastic about the prospect of a Russia vs Saudi Arabia curtain-raiser, saying that rival British terrestrial broadcaster ITV could have that game. Associated Press led with “Beleaguered World Cup gets dreary opener.”
It is hard to claim the opener between the two lowest-ranked teams (65 for the hosts and 62 for the opposition) is going to be the most glamorous game on offer next summer. The fact is the paucity of international knowledge when it comes to Saudi Arabian football is only matched by the lack of respect. Some more informed observers know that there have been three coaches of the Green Falcons in as many months. Fewer think that there is a chance of progressing to the knockout stage.
This may understandably annoy Green Falcons fans. The national team goes ignored for years by the international community and when it finally returns to the biggest stage of all, it is either ignored or dismissed.
So much the better. Being under-rated and unknown may just be one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest weapons. At the very least, being written off as no-hopers before the tournament starts should serve as motivation for the players, not that any should be needed before the World Cup. In sport, there are few incentives stronger than the desire to prove others wrong.
New coach Juan Antonio Pizzi may not know much about Saudi Arabia at the moment but has seven months to become familiar. One good thing for the Argentine is that nobody else knows anything about the team either and while that will change over the coming months as analysts start to earn their money, the fact that there is a new coach looking at new players and possible systems means that there will be an air of mystery and unpredictability about Saudi Arabia next summer. Having all players on the books of Saudi clubs — at the moment at least — also makes the mist surrounding the team a little thicker.
It means that the pressure will be on Russia, Egypt and Uruguay for those Group A games. All will be expecting to win and will be expected to win by their passionate fans and an impatient media.
That is especially the case with Russia. There is no pressure like that on the hosts of the World Cup in the opening game. The country remains a controversial host and all know how much stock, time and money has been invested in the tournament.
There will be 80,000 fans packed into the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Jun. 14 to provide an intimidating atmosphere for the the Green Falcons, but one that can quickly become a weight of expectation that stifles and suffocates rather than inspires.
The Russians are better going forward than they are defending and if the Saudis can frustrate for a while, not only will they get chances at some point, they may just turn the fans from being the hosts’ biggest advantage to the exact opposite.
Opening games have thrown up surprises before. In 1990, Cameroon kicked Argentina all over the San Siro Stadium and won 1-0 against the defending champions, and the mighty France side containing Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram and Patrick Veira lost in the curtain-raiser against Senegal in Seoul 12 years later. While Saudi Arabia may not be Cameroon or Senegal — who both reached the last eight and could have gone further — Russia are certainly no Argentina or France either.
The test will be tough for Saudi Arabia, this is the World Cup after all, but the draw is a good one and the opening game is a perfect one in which to make a huge statement.  That Saudi Arabia have already been written off only makes everything a little easier.


Australia captain Tim Paine worried about brittle batting after Pakistan win in Abu Dhabi

Updated 19 October 2018
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Australia captain Tim Paine worried about brittle batting after Pakistan win in Abu Dhabi

  • Aussie skipper admits side has to sort out batting ahead of Test series against India.
  • Abbas destroys Australia with a haul of 17 wickets in the series.

LONDON: Tim Paine admitted Australia need to sort out their batting and fast with a Test series against India to prepare for.
The Baggy Greens skipper was speaking after his side had been beaten by 373-runs by Pakistan in the second Test in Abu Dhabi on Friday. That victory gifted the hosts a 1-0 win in the two-Test series and left the Aussies scratching their heads as to what they need to do before they come up against the No. 1 ranked India side on home soil.
Pakistan’s medium pacer Mohammad Abbas did the damage once again as he took his maiden 10-wicket haul in a match to fire his side to victory. Abbas followed his five for 33 in the first innings with figures of five for 62 to bowl out the tourists for 164 after they were set a daunting 538-run target.
It was Australia’s heaviest defeat against Pakistan, beating the 356-run hammering at this same venue four years ago. And Paine admitted the defeat had given his food for thought, especially regarding the side’s brittle batting line-up.
“It is obviously really disappointing to have them five for 57 on day one and we let that opportunity slip,” the captain said.
“When you do that against really good teams in Test cricket you pay the price and I thought they batted really well after that in the first innings, put us under pressure and we weren’t up to the challenge with the bat.
“I thought our bowlers toiled pretty well on that wicket. To bowl them out twice was not a bad effort.
“It’s just our batting. Mohammad Abbas challenged our defense time and time again and as we’ve seen a number of times over the last couple of years we’ve come up short. There’s certainly no sugar coating that we’ve got some real issues with our batting and we need to address it really quickly.”
Paine’s opposite number Sarfraz Ahmed was left to praise Abbas, who in 10 Tests has already taken 59 wickets at an average of 15.64.
“The way Abbas has bowled all series is one of the biggest positives for us,” the Pakistan captain said.
“All the youngsters who have come through in recent times have done well. We have to groom them all. There was pressure, when the team loses there is pressure, the most important is that the team wins. Thankfully my batting performance in this Test contributed to the win.”
It was Abbas who destroyed Australia with a haul of 17 wickets in the series — becoming the first Pakistani fast bowler to take ten wickets in a Test since Mohammad Asif’s feat against Sri Lanka at Kandy in 2006.
Abbas had jolted Australia with four wickets off just 23 balls while Yasir Shah finished with three for 45 to give Pakistan their tenth series win on the neutral venues of UAE.
They have only lost one series — 2-0 to Sri Lanka last year — since being forced to play their home matches in UAE since 2009.