Sunday, 26 July 2015

Tour de France: Froome defeats them all

CHRIS FROOME became a double Tour de France champion on a sodden Champs-Élysées in Paris tonight, overcoming obstacles both on and off the road in a gruelling three-week campaign.

On the road, Froome ultimately finished in a total official time of 81 hours, 56 minutes and 33 seconds - 1'12" ahead of his closest rival, Colombian Nairo Quintana.

Moreover, Froome became the first man since the legendary Belgian Eddy Merckx in 1970 to win the general classification and the King of the Mountains prize in the same year.

Notably, this was also Team Sky's third overall victory in the last four years after Sir Bradley Wiggins' win in 2012 and Froome's first in 2013. However, success for Team Sky and Froome, in particular, has come at a cost.

For, in the past three weeks, the Kenya-born Briton has been subject to some of the most vile abuse in the Tour's 112-year history.

Some members of the crowd have spat at him and, in one particularly nasty incident, a cup of urine was chucked at him by a man accusing him of being a doper.

The assaults became so bad that Tour race director Christian Prudhomme demanded that the French public show respect to all of the competitors and especially the yellow jersey. Meanwhile, Froome began a stage in Mende surrounded by gendarmes.

Unsurprisingly, just as he did two years ago, the 30-year-old also went to some lengths to deny the accusations of his detractors.

But, as Team Sky general manager Sir Dave Brailsford has said, it is difficult to "prove" a negative.

That has not stopped Sky trying their best to end the rumours - and, in an unprecedented move, the team published some of Froome's performance data before calling on others to do the same.

Nevertheless, even the equivalent of a Formula One team allowing its rivals to look at its technical data has clearly not been enough to satisfy some critics - and Froome is aware that they are unlikely ever to be convinced.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation for the French hatred of Froome is petty jealousy - for, while he has won their race twice since 2013, it is now 30 years since France last toasted a home-grown success.

Of course, public opinion rarely suddenly springs from absolutely nowhere, and Team Sky has angrily made its position quite clear on some of the disreputable reporting by host broadcaster France 2.

It has not helped either that the likes of serial doper Lance Armstrong and accused cheat Laurent Jalabert have cast their own doubts.

Banned Armstrong even had the audacity to turn up and ride part of this year's Tour route, albeit in a private capacity for charity purposes.

Overall, though, Armstrong's presence anywhere near the race casts a shadow which it is still struggling to shrug off - and which, in turn, gives false credence to Froome's accusers.

After all, it only took one phenomenal performance from him - on Bastille Day - for them all to crawl out of the woodwork.

The Tour, which this year had began in the Netherlands for the sixth time in its history, had made its way across the north of France via several crashes caused by difficult crosswinds.

Froome had briefly worn yellow after the third day before German sprinter Tony Martin enjoyed the flat stages out in front prior to crashing out.

Then, on 14 July, Froome made his move. Up the Col de Soudet on the way into La Pierre Saint-Martin, high in the Pyrenees, he destroyed the field and finished the day with a lead of nigh on three minutes.

It was a brilliant performance by Froome, one which matched his attack on Mont Ventoux which all but won him the race in 2013, and none of his rivals for the yellow jersey - Quintana, reigning champ Vincent Nibali or Alberto Contador - got anywhere near his pace.

Suddenly, it was all about countering rumours and protecting the lead for Team Sky, although Froome did actually extend his advantage further on stage 14 on the Côte de la Croix Neuve.

That stage also saw Merseysider Steve Cummings win in the Tour de France for the first time ever, while Manx Missile Mark Cavendish had earlier won his 26th individual stage in a sprint to Fougères.

For Froome, however, success or failure would ultimately be decided in the Alps - and, on stage 19, Nibali and Quintana had nibbled into his lead a little.

Inevitably then, it would all come down to the climb up the Alpe d'Huez on the penultimate day yesterday, in what is very much the blue ribbon event of the Tour de France in general.

This time, Froome was in defensive mode, ready to shut down any attacks by his closest rival Quintana but not willing to expend potentially needed energy by attacking from the front.

For a while, Froome had the situation under control - but, aware he was running out of opportunities, Quintana was relentless in his approach and eventually opened up a gap of around 30 seconds.

The Colombian then stretched his lead and Froome - with his Sky team-mates Richie Porte and Wouter Poels - had to work hard to limit any losses.

They knew, however, if they could do this that victory would be theirs. This was, after all, Quintana's very last chance.

Amid a lot of tension, Froome - emotionally and physically exhausted - did indeed succeed in his task on the Alpe, and Quintana eventually was only able to take 86 seconds out of the Briton's lead of 2'38".

All that was left for Froome to do this evening was to make the short ride into the damp streets of Paris while sipping the sweet taste of champagne and the even sweeter taste of success.

For, let there be no doubt about it - this victory, for Froome and for Team Sky, was particularly sweet.


RouteDistWinnerYellow jerseyLead
0104-JulUtrecht (time-trial)13.8kmRohan DennisRohan Dennis+5"
0205-JulUtrecht to Zeeland166kmAndré Griepel Fabian Cancellara+3"
0306-JulAntwerp to Huy159.5kmJoaquim RodríguezChris Froome+1"
0407-JulSeraing to Cambrai223.5kmTony MartinTony Martin+12"
0508-JulArras to Amiens189.5kmAndré GriepelTony Martin+12"
0609-JulAbbeville to Le Harve191.5kmZdeněk Štybar Tony Martin+12"
0710-JulLivarot to Fougères 190.5kmMark CavendishChris Froome+11"
0811-JulRennes to Mûr-de-Bretagne181.5kmAlexis VuillermozChris Froome+11"
0912-JulVannes to Plumelec (team time-trial) 28kmBMC RacingChris Froome+12"

1014-JulTarbes to La Pierre Saint-Martin167kmChris FroomeChris Froome+2'52"
1115-JulPau to Cauterets188kmRafał MajkaChris Froome+2'52"
1216-JulLannemezan to Plateau de Beille195kmJoaquim RodríguezChris Froome+2'52"
1317-JulMuret to Rodez198.5kmGreg Van AvermaetChris Froome+2'52"
1418-JulRodez to Mende178.5kmSteve CummingsChris Froome+3'10"
1519-JulMende to Valence183kmAndré GriepelChris Froome+3'10"
1620-JulBourg-de-Péage to Gap201kmRubén PlazaChris Froome+3'10"

1722-JulDigne-les-Bains to Pra Loup161kmSimon GeschkeChris Froome+3'10"
1823-JulGap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne186.5kmRomain BardetChris Froome+3'10"
1924-JulSaint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Les Sybelles138kmVincenzo NibaliChris Froome+2'38"
2025-JulModane to Alpe d'Huez110.5kmThibaut PinotChris Froome+1'12"
2126-JulSèvres to Paris109.5kmAndré GriepelChris Froome+1'12"

General classification Yellow jersey
(1)Chris FROOME (GBR)Team Sky81h 56'33"
(2)Nairo QUINTANA (COL)Movistar+1'12"
(3)Alejandro VALVERDE (ESP)Movistar+5'25"
(4)Vincenzo NIBALI (ITA)Astana+8'36"
(5)Alberto CONTANDOR (ESP)Tinkoff-Saxo+9'48"

Points classification Green jersey
(1)Peter SAGAN (SVK)Tinkoff-Saxo432
(2)André GRIEPEL (GER)Lotto-Soudal366
(3)John DEGENKOLB (GER)Giant-Alpecin298
(4)Mark CAVENDISH (GBR)Etixx-Quick Step206
(5)Bryan COQUARD (FRA)Team Europcar152

Mountains classification Red polka-dot jersey
(1)Chris FROOME (GBR)Team Sky119
(2)Nairo QUINTANA (COL)Movistar108
(3)Romain BARDET (FRA)AG2R La Mondiale90
(4)Thibaut PINOT (FRA)FDJ82
(5)Joaquim RODRIGUEZ (ESP)Katusha78

Young riders classification White jersey
(1)Nairo QUINTANA (COL)Movistar81h 57'45"
(2)Romain BARDET (FRA)AG2R La Mondiale+14'48"
(3)Warren BARGUIL (FRA)Giant-Alpecin+30'03"
(4)Thibaut PINOT (FRA)FDJ+37'40"
(5)Bob JUNGELS (NED)Trek Factory+1h 32'09"

Saturday, 25 July 2015

FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying draws Battle of Britain

Hosts Russia + 13 other qualifiers from nine groups - seven groups of six teams and two groups of five. Nine group winners qualify and eight runner-up enter playoffs for the remaining four places. Worst runner-up does not advance from the group stage.
Group A Netherlands - France - Sweden - Bulgaria - Belarus - Luxembourg
Group B Portugal - Switzerland - Hungary - Faroe Islands - Latvia - Andorra
Group C Germany - Czech Republic - Northern Ireland - Norway - Azerbaijan - San Marino
Group D Wales - Austria - Serbia - Ireland - Moldova - Georgia
Group E Romania - Denmark - Poland - Montenegro - Armenia - Kazakhstan
Group F England - Slovakia - Scotland - Slovenia - Lithuania - Malta
Group G Spain - Italy - Albania - Israel - FYR Macedonia - Liechtenstein
Group H Belgium - Bosnia-Herzegovina - Greece - Estonia - Cyprus
Group I Croatia - Iceland - Ukraine - Turkey - Finland

4.5 qualifiers. Top four qualify from an all-in-one group of 10 teams. Fifth-placed team enters inter-continental playoff against a team from Oceania.
Round-robin Argentina - Bolivia - Brazil - Chile - Colombia - Ecuador - Paraguay - Peru - Uruguay - Venezuela

3.5 qualifiers. Six playoff winners join six teams with byes, and are drawn into three groups of four. 
Group A Mexico - Honduras - Canada or Belize - Curacao or El Salvador
Group B Costa Rica - Panama - Jamaica or Nicaragua - Grenada or Haiti
Group C United States - Trinidad & Tobago - Antigua and Barbuda or Guatemala - St Vincent and Grenadines or Aruba
The three group winners and runners-up in the above groups advance to the final round, an all-in-one group of six known as the Hex. The top three teams qualify while the fourth-placed team advances to an inter-continental playoff against a team from Asia.

5 qualifiers. The 26 lowest-ranked teams will play two-legged playoffs with the 13 winners advancing to join 27 teams with byes. These 40 teams will then play two-legged playoffs to reduce the total number of teams to 20. 
01 Somalia or Niger v Cameroon
02 South Sudan or Mauritania v Tunisia
03 Gambia or Namibia v Guinea
04 Sao Tome e Principe or Ethiopia v Congo 
05 Chad or Sierra Leone v Egypt
06 Comoros or Lesotho v Ghana
07 Djibouti or Swaziland v Nigeria
08 Eritrea or Botswana v Mali
09 Seychelles or Burundi v Congo DR
10 Liberia or Guinea-Bissau v Ivory Coast
11 Central African Republic or Madagascar v Senegal
12 Mauritius or Kenya v Cape Verde Islands
13 Tanzania or Malawi v Algeria 
14 Sudan v Zambia
15 Libya v Rwanda
16 Morocco v Equatorial Guinea
17 Mozambique v Gabon
18 Benin v Burkina Faso
19 Togo v Uganda
20 Angola v South Africa
The 20 winners are divided into five groups of four teams with each group winner qualifying.

4.5 qualifiers. A total of 40 teams have been divided into eight groups of five. The eight group winners and the four best group runners-up will advance to the final group stage.
Group A United Arab Emirates - Saudi Arabia - Palestine - Malaysia - Timor-Leste
Group B Australia - Jordan - Kyrgyzstan - Bangladesh - Tajikistan
Group C China - Qatar - Hong Kong - Maldives - Bhutan
Group D Iran - Oman - Turkmenistan - India - Guam
Group E Japan - Singapore - Syria - Afghanistan - Cambodia
Group F Iraq - Thailand - Indonesia - Vietnam - Chinese Taipei
Group G South Korea - Kuwait - Lebanon - Laos - Myanmar
Group H Uzbekistan - North Korea - Bahrain - Philippines - Yemen 
The 12 teams advancing will be divided into two groups of six. The group winners and runners-up will qualify while the two third-placed teams enter a two-legged playoff for the right to play an inter-continental playoff against a team from CONCACAF.

0.5 qualifiers. Four teams - American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa, and Tonga - compete in pre-qualifying for one place in the OFC Nations Cup alongside seven teams with byes. These eight teams are divided into two groups of four, with the top three teams in each group advancing.
Group A Tahiti - New Caledonia - pre-qualifying winner - Papua New Guinea
Group B New Zealand - Soloman Islands - Fiji - Vanuatu
The six teams which advance from the above groups are then divided into two groups of three teams, with the winner of both groups taking part in a two-legged playoff. The winner of the playoff will advance to an inter-continental playoff against a team from South America.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Ashes 2015: Australia demolish abject England

SECOND TEST: Australia 566-8d & 254-2d beat England 312 & 103 by 405 runs Scorecard
Man of the match: Steve Smith

DOMINANT Australia completely overwhelmed England at Lord's to win by 405 runs and level the Ashes series at 1-1.

This was England's fourth worst Test defeat ever in terms of runs - and, while the overall scoreline is level, it feels as if the Aussies may have struck a decisive blow to the English psyche.

From the moment skipper Michael Clarke won the toss and elected to bat, Australia were in control - and, over the next four days, they never released their grip on the match.

Chris Rogers and David Warner put on 78 for the first wicket - and, even when the Aussies lost the latter to a misguided attack against Moeen Ali before lunch, Steve Smith quickly settled in for a long spell at the crease.

Smith eventually scored a magnificent 215 and became the first Australian to hit a double hundred at Lord's since Bill Brown in 1938. Also, notably, he and Rogers enjoyed a record stand for any Aussie wicket at Lord's of 284.

It gave Australia the ideal start - and by the fall of Smith's wicket, they had progressed to 533-6 and were already thinking about a first innings declaration.

That came when Mitchell Johnson was out, caught by James Anderson off Stuart Broad, at 566-8. Unsurprisingly, Johnson's contribution with the ball would be far more decisive.

Not that the dangerous left-armer was left unsupported by the others in the attack - in both innings, five Aussie bowlers took wickets.

Of course, they were also aided by the English top order who continue to collapse on a frighteningly regular basis.

Indeed, England - which now statistically has a worse top order than any Test side except for Zimbabwe - have been three wickets down for 52 runs or less on eight occasions this year.

Here, in the first innings, they were 30-4 with Adam Lyth (0), Gary Ballance (23), and Ian Bell (1) all falling cheaply before Joe Root (1) also failed to mount his usual salvage mission.

At least skipper Alastair Cook was showing some resistance - and he, along with Ben Stokes, took England to the close on day two without any further damage.

The pair then almost made it to lunch on the third day, only for Stokes (87) to get an inside edge onto the stumps off Mitchell Marsh.

And, in the afternoon, Cook suffered the same fate to depart an agonising four runs short of a century. It was the seventh time in Tests he had fallen in the 90s - and England were still exactly 300 behind on 266-7.

The tail wagged a little bit either side of tea to put on 46 for the final three wickets - but Australia continued to plug away relentlessly on what was still a pretty flat surface.

Indeed, by the end of the day, the tourists were batting again, having declined the opportunity to enforce the follow-on despite taking a first innings lead of 254.

This time Rogers and Warner put on 114 before the former retired 49 not out early on the fourth day after a spell of dizziness.

Smith resumed his assault on the England bowling with a quick-fire 58 - and, although both he and Warner (83) would succumb to Moeen, successive sixes from Mitch Marsh took the lead above 500.

At 254-2, Australia declared for a second time. England had taken just 10 wickets in the match for the concession of 820 runs - and they now needed to bat for five full sessions to save it.

Ultimately, the Aussies only needed 37 overs to knock England over with Lyth (7) again falling early after edging Mitchell Starc behind to Peter Nevill for the second time in the match.

Keeper Nevill, on debut, would have a fine game behind the stumps - and Cook (11) and Ballance (14) were also caught behind off Johnson and Mitch Marsh respectively.

42-3 became 48-4 when Bell (11) popped an easy catch to substitute fielder Shaun Marsh off the spin of Nathan Lyon.

And then came the most ridiculous wicket of all. Stokes - who is regularly cast alongside Root as a shining example of the supposed new aggressive England era under Trevor Bayliss - was run out for a duck to a direct hit from Johnson after failing amateurishly to ground his bat.

At tea, England were 64-5 and the cause was already effectively lost. Not that this should necessarily excuse Jos Buttler for falling to the first ball after tea even if, by this stage, Johnson was clearly in his element.

The Queensland quick then made it two in the over when Moeen departed for a duck having only managed to fence a short ball to sub Marsh at short leg - and the score had still not moved on since tea. 

With Root (17) attempting to remain calm while about him lost their heads, the Yorkshire lad and eventual top scorer Broad (25) launched a very brief counter attack lasting about 20 minutes. 

Broad, nevertheless, was out to a horrible waft off Lyon straight to Adam Voges at cover - and Root fell in the next over, bowled by the unfailingly accurate Hazlewood.

Indeed, it was Hazlewood himself who finished the job, rattling Anderson's stumps on 0 - and England, on a pretty flat pitch, had been turned over for a pathetic 103.

The size of the defeat - by an eye-watering 405 runs - and also the nature of it undoubtedly threatens to open the scars from 18 months ago when Johnson starred in a 5-0 whitewash, taking 37 wickets at 13.97.

And, with Australia having definitively responded to the questions asked of them after the first Test in Cardiff, it is now England who must provide answers to some pretty fundamental queries.

Most urgently of all, how long will the hosts persist with the failure of the top order? Should Root be moved from his relative comfort zone at five to assist?

But, also importantly, what can be done to reinvigorate a bowling attack which took 20 Aussie wickets in Cardiff but struggled terribly in taking just 10 at Lord's?

Certainly, in response to the third question, the groundsman at Edgbaston will hopefully produce a livelier pitch.

After all, if - as suspected - the track at Lord's was made to order with the aim of deliberately slowing down Johnson, Friday and today proved undoubtedly that this tactic does not and will not work.

Surely it would be better to have a pitch which offered Anderson some seam movement so he and Johnson can go toe to toe.

For, it cannot be escaped that Anderson - England highest Test wicket-taker in history - returned match figures of 0-137 and looked disgruntled throughout.

Bizarrely, after a such a thumping and with issues to resolve, England cannot be discounted from winning this series and regaining the Ashes. It is, after all, 1-1 with three matches to play.

Moreover, recent Ashes history shows England recovering from sound beatings - at Lord's in 2005, Headingley in 2009, and Perth in 2010 - to go on and actually win the urn.

But, admittedly, perhaps more relevant recent Ashes history suggests the scars of those five horrible defeats in 2013-14 have been reopened by Johnson and the others.

Yes, it would be no surprise if Australia went onto win the series quite comfortably from now and that Cardiff is merely seen as an aberration - especially in the light of today's second innings batting collapse.

To call it a performance would be to do a disservice to the word.

Fragile England desperately need a second wind in this series, starting 10 days from now in Birmingham.

8-11 July1ST England 430 & 289 beat Australia 308 & 242 by 169 runsCardiff
16-19 July2ND Australia 566-8d & 254-2d beat England 312 & 103 by 405 runsLord's
29-2 AugustTHIRD TESTEdgbaston
6-10 AugustFOURTH TESTTrent Bridge
20-24 AugustFIFTH TESTThe Oval

215 Steve Smith (Australia) in the second Test, Lord's
173 Chris Rogers (Australia) in the second Test, Lord's
134 Joe Root (England) in the first Test, Cardiff

5-114 Mitchell Starc (Australia) in the first Test, Cardiff

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Ashes 2015: Root key to resurgent England

FIRST TEST: England 430 & 289 beat Australia 308 & 242 by 169 runs Scorecard
Man of the match: Joe Root

RESURGENT England secured a surprise Ashes lead with a wonderful 169-run win in the first Test in Cardiff.

Man of the match Joe Root scored 134 and 60 with the bat and took two second innings wickets as the hosts unexpectedly dominated the start of the series.

Yorkshire lad Root even had the final word, safely catching Josh Hazlewood's swipe off Moeen Ali at long-off to finish the job.

Ashes holders Australia had approached the series confidently, having whitewashed England in 2013-14 - and, despite losing the toss, Michael Clarke's men made early inroads at Sophia Gardens.

Adam Lyth was caught off Josh Hazlewood in the slips by David Warner before Alastair Cook, on the cut, nicked one behind to Brad Haddin off the spin Nathan Lyon.

In the next over, Ian Bell was plumb lbw to Mitchell Starc - and England were rocking at 43-3 before lunch on the first day.

Then Root arrived at the crease and, after being dropped on nought by Haddin, he batted through the whole of the afternoon session with county team-mate Gary Ballance.

Ballance made 61 before being trapped lbw by Hazlewood just after tea - but a partnership with Ben Stokes was enough to help Root bring up his seventh Test century, and second against Australia.

The Aussies were far from finished, however - and both Root and Stokes fell to Starc before Jos Buttler exposed the tail with minutes left to go on the opening day.

Still, England had made 343-7, taking the game to the tourists by scoring at almost four runs per over. All they needed now was for the tail to wag.

Wag it did, thanks mainly to Moeen who made 77 as England added 87 more runs for the loss of their final three wickets on the second morning.

Australia's reply began well and England had to be patient after the relatively early wicket of Warner.

Chris Rogers - the overall top scorer in the back-to-back series of 2013 and 2013-14 - had settled in for another average-boosting score alongside world number one ranked batsman Steve Smith.

But, of Rogers' joint-record seven successive Test scores over 50, none had been translated into a ton - and he fell in Cardiff on 95, caught behind by Buttler off the impressive Mark Wood.

Indeed, the Aussies would pay the price for getting themselves in and out - Smith made 33, Clarke 38, and Adam Voges 31. Australia were 258-5 at the close and England had battled back well.

It got even better on the third morning as Australia lost their last five wickets for 43 runs - and their last three wickets for four runs.

Shane Watson was predictably lbw to Stuart Broad before Lyon was trapped in front by Wood with the score still on 265.

A regular feature of the 2013-14 series was Haddin's ability to guide the lower order through troubled times - but, having made 22, he was caught behind off James Anderson - and England were into the tail and bowling with their tails up.

Yes, the long-time strike duo of Broad and Anderson was at it again and, after Haddin's dismissal, Johnson and Starc fell in successive overs to give England a cracking first innings lead of 122.

England then were already batting for a second time before lunch on the third day, leaving Australia with only one way back into the match - getting quick wickets.

At least the tourists delivered on this front with Cook out before the interval, caught by Lyon at backward point off Starc, and Ballance out for a duck straight after the break, caught behind off Hazlewood.

Before tea, the Aussies had also managed to snare Lyth, caught brilliantly by Clarke off Lyon for 37 - but that only served to bring Root to the crease once more.

Batting with Bell, who - by contrast - was in dire need of runs, the pair decisively took the match away from Australia, with both going onto make 60.

Bell was out first, bowled by Johnson for the left-armer's first wicket of the series - coming, as it did, after an agonising 216 balls.

Root was bowled by Hazlewood and, a little later, Stokes by Starc - as the Aussies improved their accuracy at the stumps.

Meanwhile, with Buttler caught behind off an attempted reverse sweep off Lyon, England were again left just with the tail. This time, though, Durham quick Wood took up the mantle.

An entertaining cameo featuring four fours and a six into the gantry meant he finished on 32 not out, and - when Lyon accounted for Anderson with the last ball of day three - England had made it to 289 for a mammoth lead of 411.

Cook's men had impressed with their run rate and, scoring at more than four an over in both innings, they had shown no fear of Australia after what had happened 18 months ago.

Importantly, this also gave the hosts plenty of time to take another 10 wickets - and Anderson and Broad produced an opening spell of real intent at the start of the fourth day.

Rogers, having been dropped by Root off Anderson, did not make the most of his second life, edging Broad to Bell at second slip for 10. The early blow left Australia on 19-1.

But, despite several close calls, it looked as if that was going to be the only wicket all morning - that was until Cook opted to give Moeen a twirl just before lunch.

Magnificently, it worked - with Warner trapped in front to leave Australia 97-2. The mood of both dressing rooms had been dramatically altered.

The proof of this came straight after lunch as England tore through the Aussie middle order.

Smith was out for 33 for a second time in the match, paying the price for a tentative prod at Broad which only served to find the edge and then Bell at second slip.

Skipper Clarke barely made a mark, hitting a single four before Broad accounted for him too, inducing a catch by Stokes at backward point.

Then Wood found the edge of Voges' bat, with Buttler taking an easy catch behind - and Australia were in tatters on 106-5.

Everything seemed to be falling just right for England - but they had worked hard for the type of fortune which allowed Cook to catch Haddin at the second attempt at short midwicket.

When Watson was out lbw yet again - this time to Wood - England took tea having enjoyed another near-perfect session.

England, then, needed just three more wickets for a 1-0 lead - but they were not immediately forthcoming as Johnson and Starc, having failed to derail England with the ball, threatened to do it with the bat.

The pair had gradually accumulated a partnership worth 72 as Cook turned to his spinners ahead of the new ball.

But, ultimately, the new ball was not required thanks to more Root magic.

First, Starc was dismissed caught with great alertness by Lyth at slip after the ball had been parried by Cook at gully. Then, the Yorkshire Lyth-Root combo struck again to remove Johnson.

At 242-9, the match was left simply waiting for its final blow. Moeen delivered it as Hazlewood, with no winning cards left in his hand, took a huge swipe only to find Root inside the boundary rope.

England had done it - a deserved 1-0 lead was theirs with six different bowlers taking wickets across the two innings.

With the bat too, England had performed - as, having failed to post a single 400+ score during the last two Ashes series, they did it at the first attempt this time around.

Of course, there is a long way to go yet - and, remember, Australia need only draw the series to retain the Ashes urn. But there are early signs of trouble for the tourists.

For the likes of Rogers, Haddin, Clarke, Voges and Watson - who are all, like me, on the wrong side of 30 - this might be a last Ashes series.

And, like England found to their cost Down Under in 2006-07, it might be a case of one tour too many.

Certainly, Australia's so-called 'Dad's Army' compared badly with the youthful exuberance of Wood, Stokes, and the choirboy appearance of Root.

Skipper Cook, himself, was actually a chorister in his youth - and even he looks young for his age, and perhaps younger now than he has for a while.

The pressures of captaincy have been relieved a little recently by the introduction of a new coach, Trevor Bayliss, and a new, more positive mindset.

Cook undoubtedly had his finest game as captain in this first Test in Cardiff, balancing his bowling attack and keeping on the pressure with his field placings.

But Bayliss, himself an Aussie, knows the Baggy Greens will not lie down in the way that England did in their two recent whitewashes, and he has already warned the hosts to be wary of any complacency.

The two teams reconvene on Thursday at Lord's, where the wounded Aussies will be hoping to win the toss and bat better than they did in Wales.

8-11 JulyFIRST: England 430 & 289 beat Australia 308 & 242 by 169 runsCardiff
16-20 JulySECOND TESTLord's
29-2 AugustTHIRD TESTEdgbaston
6-10 AugustFOURTH TESTTrent Bridge
20-24 AugustFIFTH TESTThe Oval

134 Joe Root (England) in the first Test, Cardiff

5-114 Mitchell Starc (Australia) in the first Test, Cardiff

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Ashes 2015 preview: Play without fear

8-12 JulyFIRST TESTSophia Gardens, Cardiff
16-20 JulySECOND TESTLord's, London
29-2 AugustTHIRD TESTEdgbaston, Birmingham
6-10 AugustFOURTH TESTTrent Bridge, Nottingham
20-24 AugustFIFTH TESTThe Oval, London

ENGLAND must play without fear to stand any chance of recovering the Ashes from Australia this summer, according to former skipper Michael Vaughan.

Vaughan, who led England to a first series win over the Aussies in 18 years back in 2005, said: "They have to take Australia on with the mentality of 'we don't care about losing' because that will make the Aussies fear them more.

"If they have any kind of worries or concerns, then they will get walloped."

Now - exactly a decade on from the famous victory - England must indeed replicate the sort of nerve which saw Vaughan's men put on over 400 runs on the first day of the second Test at Edgbaston, having been put in by Ricky Ponting.

Still today, Vaughan has said he wonders what would have become of his talented side if Australia had batted first at Birmingham, and racked up a big score of their own.

England, having lost the first Test at Lord's, would have most likely faced a 2-0 deficit - and it would have been another missed opportunity.

Instead, Vaughan's team would eventually prevail by just two runs in the narrowest margin of victory by runs in Ashes history. And they then went on to take the series.

Ever since, England have been unbeaten in home series against the Baggy Greens, a record which culminated in a 3-0 win two years ago.

Moreover, in the winter of 2010-11, England also won 3-1 Down Under - with three innings victories ending a 24-year wait for success on Australian soil in comprehensive fashion.

But, of course, not all of the series since 2005 have been like that. As a matter of fact, the other two tours to Australia - in 2006-07 and 2013-14 - both resulted in shambolic whitewashes.

Remarkably, those two 5-0 thrashings mean Australia have actually won more individual Ashes Tests than England in the past 10 years, despite the latter winning four of the last six series.

So, rather than 2005 then, England would perhaps be better served by igniting the spirit of a far less heralded home series win - 2009 - which came, like now, just 18 months after a battering.

Then again, maybe not - that 2009 victory came against one of Australia's poorest ever sides.

Therefore, another even better alternative perspective would be to emulate the way in which the Baggy Greens in 2013 went from losing 3-0 in England to beating the same opponents 5-0 less than six months later.

After all, England appear to be in a similar position right now to one in which the Aussies found themselves a couple of years ago.

Back then, Cricket Australia replaced unpopular coach Mickey Arthur with the attack-minded former batsman Darren Lehmann.

And, although Lehmann was unable to prevent a third successive Ashes series defeat in England, the 5-0 whitewash at home vindicated his philosophy and more than made amends.

Since then, Australia have barely looked back. Further Test series successes have followed in South Africa, West Indies and at home to India, all capped by a record fifth World Cup, won on home soil in March.

At the same tournament, England stank the place out in heavy defeats to New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka before eventual elimination in the group stages after one final loss to Bangladesh.

So began the end of Peter Moores' second brief stint as England head coach. Dumped on the first occasion in 2009 after just 22 months in charge, this time Moores had an even shorter tenure, lasting less than 14 months.

The decision of former skipper Andrew Strauss, now the Director of Cricket at the ECB, to make the change came following a drawn series against the West Indies only a few weeks after the World Cup debacle.

England had taken the lead in the Caribbean with a confident nine-wicket win in Grenada but then meekly surrendered their advantage in the third Test in Barbados.

At the start of the series, in the drawn first Test in Antigua, James Anderson had become England's highest Test wicket-taker in history with the scalp of Denesh Ramdin.

Meanwhile, in the second Test, Gary Ballance became the third-fastest England batsman to reach 1,000 Test runs

But, by the end of the tour, the feel-good factor had completely dissipated - and Moores was rather unceremoniously fired while England were being washed out in a one-off One-Day International in Ireland.

Paul Farbrace took temporary charge for the New Zealand home series - and, freed from the shackles of the data-obsessed Moores, there was an immediate, if not entirely successful, change.

First, England won a spectacular first Test of the summer at Lord's despite conceding a 134-run deficit on first innings.

And, although the Black Caps fought back at Headingley in Leeds for a deserved share of the spoils in the Test series, England went on to win 3-2 against the World Cup finalists in the One-Dayers.

Better still, they achieved their victories in style - hitting more than 400 in an ODI for the first time in the first match and completing their highest-ever successful run-chase in the fourth before holding their nerve in a decider at Durham.

New permanent England coach, Australian Trevor Bayliss, nevertheless finds himself in a similar situation to Lehmann two years ago in taking up his role on the eve of an Ashes series.

But, unlike Lehmann, Bayliss begins with the pressure and expectation of a home series - and neither does he benefit from being able to work out his opponent's weaknesses in back-to-back campaigns.

At the same time, there is still an easy comparison to be made - and it should be noted that Australia only fully recovered from their nadir by playing positive, no-fear cricket.

Now, England - under Bayliss - must pick up where they left off against New Zealand and do the same, regardless of the Australians' favourites status.

For, undoubtedly, Australia are favourites. The Baggy Greens have an embarrassment of riches in a fast bowlers department spearheaded by a dual Mitchell menace.

Relative youngster Mitchell Starc joins a man who needs no introduction after his exploits in the 2013-14 whitewash, left-armer Johnson - while they can also call upon Josh Hazlewood, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris' replacement Pat Cummins.

Nathan Lyon has really come on over the past few years as the spinner while number three batsman Steve Smith is currently statistically the best in the world.

By contrast, England are still scratching around a bit and may be a side whose confidence remains a bit fragile.

True, the likes of Joe Root and Ben Stokes have provided much in recent times to be optimistic about - and skipper Alastair Cook rediscovered his best form with the bat against New Zealand.

But doubts continue to plague Cook's captaincy - can he really be as aggressive as his counterpart Michael Clarke if push came to shove?

There are also questions to be answered by England's bowlers.

Behind Anderson and the sometimes erratic Stuart Broad, there is no definitive third seamer - though Durham's Mark Wood has showed encouraging signs. Meanwhile, Moeen Ali looks uncomfortable in the role of a front-line Test spinner.

Yes, Australia are definitely favourites then, especially as a first series draw since 1972 would allow them to retain the urn.

This will sound rather defeatist - and, in isolation, a rare drawn Ashes series would admittedly be a frustrating outcome.

However, an attacking - though obviously fallible - 2-2 result against the Aussies would most likely still be enough to keep English cricket spirits on its recently rediscovered relative high.

Find out if Bayliss and Cook can achieve at least this, starting tomorrow at 10am on SkySports 2, currently re-branded SkySports Ashes.

Alternatively, as ever, radio coverage throughout the summer will be provided by the excellent Test Match Special team on BBC Radio 4 LW and BBC Radio 5Live Sports Xtra.




Since 2000
2001(H)AUSTRALIA won 4-1
2002-03(A)AUSTRALIA won 4-1
2005(H)ENGLAND won 2-1
2006-07(A)AUSTRALIA won 5-0
2009(H)ENGLAND won 2-1
2010-11(A)ENGLAND won 3-1
2013(H)ENGLAND won 3-0
2013-14(A)AUSTRALIA won 5-0

ENGLAND Alastair Cook (c), Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Gary Ballance, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad, Jos Buttler, Steven Finn, Adam Lyth, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Mark Wood

AUSTRALIA Michael Clarke (c), Steve Smith (vc), Brad Haddin (wk), Fawad Ahmed, Josh Hazlewood, Ryan Harris*, Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Peter Nevill (wk), Chris Rogers, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Adam Voges, David Warner, Shane Watson

*retired due to knee injury and has been replaced by Pat Cummins

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Copa America: Champions Chile bury past ghosts

Chile 0
Argentina 0
After extra time. Chile won 4-1 on penalties.

Chile Bravo (c) - Beausejour, Medel, Diaz, Silva, Isla - Vidal, Valdivia (Fernandez 75), Aranguiz - Sanchez, Vargas (Henriquez 95). Booked Silva, Diaz, Medel, Aranguiz
Argentina Romero - Zabaleta, Demichelis, Otamendi, Rojo - Biglia, Mascherano, Pastore (Banega 81) - Messi (c), Aguero (Higuain 74), Di Maria (Lavezzi 29). Booked Rojo, Mascherano, Banega
Attendance 45,693 at the Estadio Nacional, Santiago Referee Wilmar Roldan (Colombia)
Kick-off 9pm BST. Live on Premier Sports.

Penalties 1-0 Fernandez scored 1-1 Messi scored 2-1 Vidal scored 2-1 Higuain missed 3-1 Aranguiz scored 3-1 Banega missed 4-1 Sanchez scored

HOSTS Chile secured their first ever Copa America title after beating neighbours Argentina on penalties at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago.

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez chipped the decisive kick as La Roja made up for years of heartbreak with a 4-1 shootout victory on home soil.

Prior to the excitement of the penalties, the match had been a disappointment as Argentina - and Gonzalo Higuain in particular - endured an uneasy sense of deja vu.

It is one week short to an exact year since Argentina were beaten in extra time by Germany in the World Cup Final - and then, as in this match, Higuain missed one of very few clear-cut opportunities for either side.

The Napoli forward even compounded his error this time by blazing his penalty over the bar as Chile took control of the shoot-out.

Matias Fernandez and Arturo Vidal had already scored, with Messi replying for Argentina, when Charles Aranguiz stepped up to take Chile's third.

Aranguiz made no mistake - and so, at 3-1 down, Argentine Ever Banega clearly felt the pressure and gave Chile skipper Claudio Bravo a comfortable save.

All that was left to do for Sanchez then was score - and he did, in some style, with a glorious Panenka-style finish.

Sanchez thus added a little sparkle to Chile's success which came with the hosts almost falling over the line having enjoyed a goal-laden group phase.

True, the draw had been kind to the Chileans as they lined up against Ecuador, Bolivia, and perennial guests Mexico who sent a development squad.

And, following a 2-0 win in the tournament opener against Ecuador, Chile twice had to come from behind in a 3-3 draw with the Mexicans as Vidal scored a brace.

But, in their third group match, the hosts turned on the style to thump Bolivia 5-0 and finish the group stage as the top scorers with 10 goals.

In the other two groups, the games were generally cagey affairs - although the powerhouses, Argentina and Brazil, both eventually topped their respective sections.

Holders Uruguay - without Luis Suarez - were a disappointing and generally cynical mess, while Colombia scored just once in four games - though made it count as Jeison Murillo's goal gave them a 1-0 win over Brazil.

Ah, Brazil - formerly the spiritual home of football but, perhaps, now no more

Their most talented player Neymar showed his frustration at the end of that bad-tempered match and was sent off after the final whistle along with Colombia's Carlos Bacca amid a huge scuffle. 

Brazil were able to beat Venezuela without Neymar in their final group match but stodgy, defensive tactics were of no help once Dunga's men had lost the lead against an ageing Paraguay team.

Paraguay thus prevailed in their quarter final on penalties - and so Brazil were made to reflect on another poor defeat, almost one year after their humiliation against Germany.

At least the Brazilians avoided another semi final hammering as Lionel Messi and Argentina delivered the most complete performance of any side at the tournament to beat the Paraguayans 6-1. 

Remarkably, Barcelona forward Messi failed to score any of the half-dozen goals - but he played a hand in every single one.

And, though the competition would ultimately finish in more heartbreak for La Albiceleste, Argentina will retain hope of ending their 22-year drought while Messi remains in the team. 

For Chile, party time is now - though their knockout stage wins against Uruguay and Peru were not without their controversies.

Against Uruguay, Gonzalo Jara acted the villain by inserting a digit up the rectum of Edinson Cavani to prompt a reaction from the Paris Saint-Germain forward which led to his sending off. 

Shorn of Suarez and then Cavani, it was no surprise to see the defending champions bow out to the hosts thanks the Mauricio Isla's late goal.

Then, against Peru, the Chileans rode their luck somewhat, benefiting from a controversial red card for Peru’s Carlos Zambrano, the non-award of a card of any colour for Vidal when he shoved Zambrano in the face early on, and an opening goal that was marginally offside.

The impressive Peruvians, for whom Paolo Guerrero scored a hat-trick in the quarter final against Bolivia, at least recovered to take third place against a shell-shocked Paraguay.

Meanwhile, the Chileans' unsteady progress only added to the feeling that the crown was destined to be won by a host nation for the first time since Colombia's victory in 2001.

Of course, it would be churlish not to give Chile huge credit following their first international trophy after a 99-year wait.

La Roja still generally play the game in the right manner with two strikers - and, in Vidal and Sanchez, they have two outstandingly talented players.

Naturally, both they and their team-mates cannot change the grim history of the Estadio Nacional in Santiago. Notoriously, the arena was used as a prison camp and torture facility by military dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973.

Nevertheless, this team of Chileans has done all that could be asked of it. For the first time ever, Chile are Copa America champions.

12-Jun 00:30 CHILE2-0ECUADORSantiago
13-Jun 00:30 MEXICO0-0BOLIVIAVina del Mar
15-Jun 22:00ECUADOR2-3BOLIVIAValparaiso
16-Jun 00:30CHILE3-3MEXICOSantiago
19-Jun 22:00MEXICO1-2ECUADORRancagua
20-Jun 00:30CHILE5-0BOLIVIASantiago

(Q) CHILE210103+77
(Q) BOLIVIA11137-44

13-Jun 20:00URUGUAY1-0JAMAICAAntofagasta
13-Jun 22:30ARGENTINA2-2PARAGUAYLa Serena
16-Jun 20:00PARAGUAY1-0JAMAICAAntofagasta
17-Jun 00:30ARGENTINA1-0URUGUAYLa Serena
20-Jun 20:00URUGUAY1-1PARAGUAYLa Serena
20-Jun 22:30ARGENTINA1-0JAMAICAVina del Mar

(Q) ARGENTINA21042+27
(Q) PARAGUAY12043+15
(Q) URUGUAY1112204

14-Jun 20:00COLOMBIA0-1VENEZUELARancagua
14-Jun 22:30BRAZIL2-1PERUTemuco
18-Jun 01:00BRAZIL0-1COLOMBIASantiago
19-Jun 00:30PERU1-0VENEZUELAValparaiso
21-Jun 20:00COLOMBIA0-0PERUTemuco
21-Jun 22:30BRAZIL2-1VENEZUELASantiago

(Q) BRAZIL20143+16
(Q) PERU1112204
(Q) COLOMBIA1111104

25-Jun 00:30CHILE1-0URUGUAYSantiago
26-Jun 00:30BOLIVIA1-3PERUTemuco
27-Jun 00:30ARGENTINA*0-0COLOMBIAVina del Mar
27-Jun 22:30BRAZIL1-1PARAGUAY^Concepcion
*ARGENTINA won 5-4 on penalties    ^PARAGUAY won 4-3 on penalties

30-Jun 00:30CHILE2-1PERUSantiago
01-Jul 00:30ARGENTINA6-1PARAGUAYConcepcion

04-Jul 00:30 PERU2-0PARAGUAYConcepcion