COMMENT
Nanjing Night Net

NEVER has V8 Supercars gone so far for so little. As the undercard to formula one at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend, Australia’s premier racing series got three short races and the cold shoulder.

Unlike the previous two treks to Abu Dhabi in 2010 and last year, when the V8s were the main show at the dazzling Yas Marina circuit, this time they have been pushed into the background, with limited track time, unfriendly scheduling and having had to accept being penned in the secondary pit lane with no access to the F1 area.

Being marginalised by the F1 organisers has been a shock to the V8 Supercars contingent, who are used to VIP treatment on their foreign forays. It’s a long way to fly 28 cars and hundreds of tonnes of spare parts in two jumbo jets, plus airlift hundreds of V8 Supercars and team personnel, for three 12-lap, 65-kilometre sprint races.

Aside from the novelty qualifying races at the Sandown 500 in September, these are by far the shortest the V8s contest all year. So short that pit stops for tyres and fuel, along with the strategic element they add, are redundant.

Of course, being on the supporting program of an F1 event means a guest racing category will play second fiddle to the main event, but treatment verging on disdain is another matter altogether.

As well as the derisively short races, on top of severely restricted practice and qualifying sessions on Friday, the teams, officials and most of the travelling media have been penned in the support paddock far from the F1 paddock and main grandstand.

It is a well-equipped secondary pit lane, topped by a decent grandstand, and the facilities for the teams are better than those of most Australian tracks. But their passes are good for only that part of the track – with a dire written warning that being found in an unauthorised area would result in expulsion. So the V8 drivers and team bosses are just like any other spectator watching the F1s from the sidelines.

In a minor concession, on Friday the V8 teams were given three tickets per car for seats in the grandstand above their pits to watch the F1 action from a trackside vantage point.

There is a growing feeling that F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management has deliberately made life difficult for V8 Supercars with its ambitions for international expansion.

And it’s not as if the V8s are jostling for space or track time with other secondary series; it’s the only support category on the program.

Visiting Australian media were told that to cover the V8s, they’d need an F1 credential – notification of which arrived close to the one-month deadline for applications. Those who had organised this then found that, technically, their F1 media pass wasn’t good for access to the support paddock. Only some fast-talking has avoided being barred.

At the last minute, V8 officials were informed that the series’ regular safety car driver, V8 Utes racer Amber Anderson, was not qualified for the task at Abu Dhabi and had to be replaced by an F1-appointed driver.

The weekend’s three sprint races – two on Saturday and one on Sunday – have scheduled for late morning/early afternoon, at least a couple of hours before the F1 day/night action begins, resulting in almost no spectators watching the V8 races.

The track’s grandstands were almost deserted during Saturday’s almost back-to-back races, which undermines V8 Supercars’ contention that the value of being here is performing in front of powerful corporate guests. V8 officials can take some comfort, perhaps, from the fact that MotoGP star Casey Stoner has stopped in to watch on his way to his final race before retirement in Valencia, Spain, next weekend. But then, Stoner is a guest of personal sponsor Red Bull and as well as watching the V8 races from the Triple Holden pit he is hanging out with Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel in the F1 pits. That’s star power for you.

■ Mark Webber’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend got off to a shaky start when he was forced to retire his Red Bull with technical trouble in Friday practice.

The Australian completed only 21 laps in the evening session, 13 fewer than his teammate and the quickest man on the Yas marina track, Sebastian Vettel.

Webber was called back to the pits after water was seen leaking from his car as he left the garage for a heavy fuel run.

He later confirmed it was a KERS issue, although different from that suffered in India the previous week.

”[It’s] a pain. Obviously it’s not great when your mileage is limited, it’s nice to have as much as you can in,” Webber said. ”We’re not to the bottom of the fault yet, that’s for sure.”

Despite the shortened run, Webber finished the night fourth fastest, behind McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.

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BRETT Lee has offered to help the teenage sensation Pat Cummins ”clean up” his action and help prevent the injuries that had frustrated his career.
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Cummins, who took seven wickets in his Test debut against South Africa last year, is set to miss his second consecutive summer.

Scans revealed on Friday that he had a back stress fracture, sustained during the Sydney Sixers recent Twenty20 Champion’s League triumph.

Lee, who endured similar injury battles when he was Cummins’ age, said he had the experience to help the 19-year-old fulfil his potential.

”I’m not saying in any way, shape or form that Pat needs to change his action,” Lee said.

”But there are some things I reckon I could help him with to make it a little bit easier on his back. The one thing you don’t want as a fast bowler is hyper-extension and counter-rotation like he has, and as I did when I was at the same age as Pat. I had that same set-up, where there was a lot of twisting and turning in my action, which is where you get your pace from. But, it does come at a cost.”

Cummins vowed that the latest injury would not dampen his desire to bowl fast when he is cleared to play again. He said he would not be scared to extend himself despite the litany of injuries. ”It wasn’t great news, unfortunately,” Cummins said. ”It was not what I was hoping for or expecting. The good thing is I have time on my side. I never second-guess myself.”

Lee, who retired from first-class cricket to focus on Twenty20 leagues, said he would love to share the insights that Dennis Lillee, whose own career was affected by stress fractures, offered him years ago.

”I would love to get down the nets and work on some stuff with him, just like Dennis Lillee did for me when I was younger,” Lee said. ”I’m sure he can clean his action up. This is a real blow.

”I’m shattered for Pat, because someone like him bowling 155-160 km/h at the Gabba would be exciting to see. It would be great to see him match what the South Africans have.”

While Lee said Peter Siddle and James Pattinson provided pace and aggression, he conceded that South Africa’s Dale Steyn gave the tourists an edge.

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AFTER scoring an unconquered 161 against South Africa at the SCG on Saturday, Australia A batsman Alex Doolan hoped his innings would warrant some discussion when the national selectors met before this week’s opening Test in Brisbane.
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With concerns surrounding Test players Shane Watson (calf muscle) and Ricky Ponting (hamstring) and a string of poor scores from Australia’s top batsmen, the 26-year-old Tasmanian picked the perfect moment to play the innings of his 35 first-class match career.

The century came on the back of a stellar start to the season that has now yielded him 490 runs at an average of 81. But his effort to post his highest score – and against a world-class South African attack – was the highlight of a tough day that resulted in only one legitimate wicket falling after almost seven hours of toil by both teams.

”I certainly hoped it’s talked about,” said Doolan when asked if the knock might’ve caught the attention of the Test selectors.

”But there’s plenty of quality players in that dressing room. I mean, Phil Hughes has 19 first-class centuries, three Test centuries and two against South Africa. I think he’d be in the firing line as far as next man in. Who knows? Hopefully, it puts my name up there and, hopefully, people are starting to talk.”

Doolan, whose father Bruce faced the first ball for Tasmania when the state joined the Sheffield Shield competition in 1977, said he wouldn’t disappoint his country should his greatest wish be fulfilled.

”I feel there’s a little bit of work to be done before that chance may arise,” he said. ”But certainly, [I] feel confident enough to hold my own out there.”

Doolan resumed his innings on 76 and immediately made an impact when he hit paceman Dale Steyn for 10 runs in the first over of the morning.

While on 88 he tried to pull out of a shot against Rory Kleinveldt’s bowling but the ball still raced to the boundary after it found the toe of his bat. He notched his fifth first-class century when he cut Kleinveldt sweetly for four.

”Probably coming to terms with the fact you were playing against the world’s best team was my biggest battle and overcoming some nerves to a certain extent,” he replied when asked about the greatest challenge of the knock.

Steyn was rested after only four overs when it became clear the pitch offered the pacemen nothing. Skipper Graeme Smith ultimately left the bulk of the work to his spin bowlers.

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WITH a fundamental ethos of doing whatever it takes to trump one’s opponent, it’s hardly surprising the AFL game’s folklore would thrive on stories of slick deals and corner-cutting.
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Thus it has long been and – despite the construction of a more respectable veneer during the past two decades – thus it remains.

The lurking danger is that practitioners of football management’s dark arts will one day outsmart themselves.

It’s not hard to see the two major events of the past week as outcomes of a lingering old culture coming to grief.

If there is sufficient revulsion over a club contriving to avoid winning games and at an administration for throwing obscene sums of football money at a rugby league star whose heart was never in the indigenous code, perhaps a rethink is due.

Perhaps it’s time for administrators to think twice before imagining themselves as Edward de Bono or P.T. Barnum. Those two notables are associated, respectively, with the concept of lateral thinking and the notion of a sucker being born every minute.

At the end of an embarrassing week, it’s worth pondering what the acquisition of a priority draft pick by Melbourne in 2009 and the recruitment of Israel Folau by GWS in 2010 actually achieved. Both were attempts at tinkering with the natural order and both have ended badly. If they share a common outcome, it is loss of respect.

More distressing for Melbourne is the likelihood of carnage. Evidence is mounting that during the second half of the 2009 season specific actions were taken by important figures at the club designed to ensure the team didn’t win so many games as to disqualify itself from a priority draft pick.

The degree of evil in this, it must be said, is debatable. Obviously it is a practice that can’t go unaddressed. Yet it’s nothing like the corruption of horse racing or cricket or sports in which the use of performance-enhancing drugs influences outcomes. Self-interest was not at play.

In this case, a club stands accused of exploiting a bad rule by under-performing in what were meaningless games. It was acting in what it reasonably regarded – according to the rules – as its long-term interests. Many of its supporters sensed what was happening and approved of it.

Nevertheless, the idea that a substantial coterie could be embraced within such a conspiracy, without high risk of eventual disclosure, was totally amateurish and utterly foolish.

And it was indisputably against the spirit of sport.

But so was the rule relating to priority draft picks as it then stood. It didn’t just invite but encouraged what has happened. The AFL’s failure to change its rule at the first hint of the possibility it offered is also condemnable.

The Folau ”coup” was not so much shady as mean-spirited. A high-profile defector from rugby league represented a significant first strike on the major rival in what was now disputed territory. Or, as a well-versed modern spin doctor might put it, an important marketing tool in the code’s attempt to sell itself to a new constituency.

So what did Folau (below) deliver?

Well, certainly nothing on the football field. He was the on-field game’s equivalent of US singer Meat Loaf: highly paid but incapable of producing the goods when required.

Under normal circumstances, the club recruiter and football manager who delivered such an unproductive outcome, at such a price, would be under siege.

Clearly, though, these weren’t normal circumstances. The AFL’s move into western Sydney was perhaps the biggest gamble the game had yet taken. Folau’s recruitment was about selling the game there. So can it be said to have worked in the short term or is it likely to impact over the longer haul?

In the here-and-now, a count of bums on seats for home games in Folau’s one and only season gives not a hint that he was a game-changer. For their nine debut-season games in Sydney, the Giants’ average crowd was barely 15,000. Take out the derbies against the locally popular Swans and that figure falls to just above 7000. There was absolutely no sign of a spike in attendances for games in which Folau took part.

As for the future, if there were young hearts and minds so impressionable as to be won by Folau’s brief time chasing the Sherrin, you’d wonder whether they are likely to be made of true-believer stuff.

Beyond this is the ethic of the undertaking in the first place.

An athlete has given up two years of his limited life in the sport in which he has a gift. Folau will be 24 years old at the start of the next rugby league season; the years 22 and 23 were lost. Yes, he made his own decision, but he was bought.

This coup was always too smart by half and, in the end, got what it deserved.

Of course, now the likelihood is that the Giants will snare Kurt Tippett and the departure of Folau will be considered timely.

Stand by for the back-room operators to once again be hailed as masterminds.

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