Sunday, 25 February 2018

Yarnold shines brightest in record British haul



117-FebLizzy YARNOLDSkeletonWomen's event


116-FebDominic PARSONSSkeletonMen's event
217-FebIsabel ATKINFreestyle skiingWomen's slopestyle
317-FebLaura DEASSkeletonWomen's event
424-FebBilly MORGANSnowboardingMen's big air

SKELETON racer Lizzy Yarnold became the first ever British athlete to retain a Winter Olympics title in a truly historic Games for Team GB overall.

Yarnold clocked a track record of 51.46 in the fourth and final run to jump from third place into a commanding lead ahead of Janine Flock of Austria and Jacqueline Loelling of Germany.

Flock, under pressure, then floundered on her final run, and she found herself knocked off the podium by consistent Welsh Olympic debutant Laura Deas.

And so, what had begun as a promising morning for Team GB had turned into a seriously momentous occasion for British winter sport.

It was, in fact, easily its best day ever - a Winter Olympics version of Super Saturday.

For, not only did Team GB have its first ever two-time Winter Olympic champion, it could also celebrate a double appearance on the same podium for the first time ever at a Winter Games.

Moreover, Izzy Atkin had won an earlier bronze in the women's freestyle skiing slopestyle, and so 17 February was the first time that Britain had won three Winter Games medals on the same day.

Aged just 19, Atkin was the youngest member of the 59-strong British squad which set off for South Korea.

But, as we also saw from the freestyle skiers and snowboarders of several other countries, her teenage years were no barrier to success.

Instead, it probably assisted her, and she certainly displayed an awesome youthful fearlessness in her last run on which she made her medal-winning score of 84.60.

By then, of course, Britain was already on the board through yet another skeleton medal.

For the first time, though, the winner was male as Dominic Parsons picked up a deserved bronze with his own brilliant demonstration of consistency. In three of his four runs, including the vital last run, 30-year-old Londoner Parsons placed in third.

Sadly, in the curling, the same consistency was lacking, however - as both men and women's teams came away empty-handed.

The inexperienced men's team - under young skip Kyle Smith - was especially skittish, winning five and losing four of their round robin games to be forced into a playoff against Switzerland.

In the playoff, Smith and his men were ultimately outclassed, as the Swiss took a five in the ninth end for a 9-5 victory.

The women - under bronze medal-winning skip Eve Muirhead - fared somewhat better, winning six of their nine group games to qualify for a semi final against Sweden.

However, what had been a tight match against the Swedes turned decisively against Muirhead's rink in the seventh end when she gave up a three despite having the hammer.

Eventually, Team GB lost 10-5 and, for the second Olympics in a row, had been consigned to the bronze final.

That match - against Japan - was an even closer tussle, and in fact went down to the last stone of the final end.

Trailing by one but with the hammer, Muirhead had the chance to make a two to win the match and a medal.

But a single Japanese stone jammed and stuck steadfastly to the button in the centre of the house.

The risky shot was exactly the sort of moment which encapsulates an Olympic campaign - and perhaps, this time, it was just never meant to be.

Clearly, it was not meant to be for short track speed skater Elise Christie either.

For, rather than providing redemption as suggested in my preview blog, Pyeongchang ultimately added to the pain and disappointment she suffered in Sochi four years ago.

Christie herself was not entirely blameless - it does not take a speed skating expert to see that she left herself with far too much to do heading into the last corner in the 1500m semi finals.

But, having already crashed to the ice during the final of the 500m, her tangle of skates with China's Li Jinyu led to an even more painful exit on a stretcher.

Considering that, it was heartening to see Christie still make an attempt at her best event - the 1000m - despite not being fully fit.

Again, though, it all ended in tears after she was penalised in her heat, although the judges' decision on that occasion looked extremely harsh.

Christie subsequently had to contend with some mean-spirited criticism of her performances, much of which was hardly constructive.

But, for a sport in Pyeongchang far more deserving of censure, look no further than the British bobsleigh teams.

Despite suggesting they had two sleds capable of reaching the podium, both British four-man teams completely failed to deliver, finishing way down the field in 17th and 18th.

Earlier, the two-man sled finished 12th - and so the crowdfunded two-woman bob of Mica McNeill and Mica Moore placed highest of all the Team GB entrants, despite them having had their funding cut entirely.

The collective failure in bobsleigh left it uncertain whether Britain could win a record fifth medal at these Games after all.

But, on cue, snowboarder Billy Morgan stepped up and took bronze on his final run with a score of 85.50.

Morgan once again encapsulated the risk-taking required at the Olympics by going for glory with his final jump.

Thankfully, he judged it just right and landed a front-side 1440 triple with mute and tail-grab, something which he had never successfully done in competition before.

Britain - at last - could celebrate a historic fifth medal, and its total of nine in the last two Games is as many as in the nine Winter Olympics before that.

"These athletes can rightly return home very proud of what they accomplished here in South Korea," said Britain's chef de mission Mike Hay.

"To leave Pyeongchang with five medals - our best ever Games in that respect - and a host of fourth-place finishes and top 10s across the sports shows that winter sport in the United Kingdom is going in the right direction," he added.

Away from Team GB, this was an even more glorious Games for Norway who topped the medal table for the first time since 2002 with a record haul of 39 medals, including 14 gold.

Cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen contributed five of those 39 medals, including two gold, as she finished on the podium in each of her five events to become the most decorated Winter Olympian ever.

Nevertheless, the Norwegians have attributed their overall success to their genuine team camaraderie which is reinforced by tacos on a Friday night and a strict “no idiots” rule.

Germany also won 14 gold medals to take second place - and, along with third-placed Canada, won medals across nine different disciplines.

The breadth of their success allowed the Canadians, in particular, to cover for their shock failure to win curling medals of any sort in both the men's and women's events.

Canada also surprisingly struggled in the ice hockey - failing to take gold in either the men's or women's tournaments for the first time since the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

Instead, the Olympic Athletes from Russia won the men's final, 4-3 in overtime against surprise package Germany. In the women's final, United States beat Canada on penalty shots.

That victory will provide some consolation to the Americans who finished down in fourth in the medal table for the second successive Winter Games.

Indeed, their overall total of 23 medals this time means Pyeongchang 2018 is their weakest performance at the Winter Olympics for 20 years. There were, however, first ever golds in cross-country skiing and in the men's curling.

Elsewhere, snowboarder Shaun White recovered from his disappointment of four years ago in Sochi to deliver gold - while Lindsey Vonn closed off her Olympic career with a bronze in the downhill.

It is perhaps appropriate that Vonn has chosen these Games to be her last. Pyeongchang 2018 has been particularly notable for the way the torch has passed onto a completely new generation of winners.

Snowboarder Chloe Kim took gold in the women’s halfpipe at the age of just 17 - and then there is compatriot and fellow snowboarder Red Gerard who is two months younger than Kim.

Right at the start of the Games, Gerard became the first Winter Olympics medallist to have been born in the 2000s with gold in the men's slopestyle competition.

But it is not just the Americans who are discovering new talent.

New Zealand had only won one Winter Olympics medal before these Games but has now tripled its overall tally to three, thanks to two teenagers.

The Kiwis' two bronze medals were won by Zoi Sadowski-Synnott in the women's snowboarding big air and by Nico Porteous in the men's ski halfpipe.

Porteous, at 16 years 91 days, and Sadowski-Synnott, at 16 years 353 days, thus became the New Zealanders' two youngest ever Olympic medallists in one fell swoop.

Finally, in figure skating, there was a major shock as 15-year-old Alina Zagitova capped her meteoric ascent with an Olympic title in the women's singles.

Zagitova beat compatriot Evgenia Medvedeva to win one of only two gold medals for the Olympic Athletes from Russia team which, regretfully, otherwise remained mired in doping controversy.

Personally, my moment of the 2018 Winter Olympics came courtesy of Ester Ledecká who will now be forever remembered as the skiing snowboarder.

Ledecká, as expected, was victorious at the weekend on her snowboard in the parallel giant slalom.

A week earlier, however, the 22-year-old Czech also won gold in an alpine skiing event, the Super-G, to the total astonishment of everyone including visibly herself.

Incredibly, Ledecká finished 0.01 seconds ahead of the defending Olympic champion Anna Veith, who had already been proclaimed the winner by many media outlets.

And, following her victory in the snowboarding, she became the first ever woman to win gold in two different disciplines at the same Winter Olympics.

Ledecká, more than any other athlete in Pyeongchang, therefore summed up the true glory of all Olympic Games.

Yes, as a magical event in which anything can happen, the Olympics are - and will always be - something which no other sporting competition can match.

MEDAL TABLE Final standings
1Norway (NOR)14141139
2Germany (GER)1410731
3Canada (CAN)1181029
4United States (USA)98623
5Netherlands (NED)86620
6Sweden (SWE)76114
7South Korea (KOR)58417
8Switzerland (SUI)56415
9France (FRA)54615
10Austria (AUT)53614
11Japan (JPN)45413
12Italy (ITA)32510
13Athletes from Russia (OAR)26917
14Czech Republic (CZE)2237
15Belarus (BLR)2103
16China (CHN)1629
17Slovakia (SVK)1203
18Finland (FIN)1146
19Great Britain & NI (GBR)1045
20Poland (POL)1012
21Hungary (HUN)1001
21Ukraine (UKR)1001
23Australia (AUS)0213
24Slovenia (SLO)0112
25Belgium (BEL)0101
26New Zealand (NZL)0022
26Spain (ESP)0022
28Kazakhstan (KAZ)0011
28Latvia (LAT)0011
28Liechtenstein (LIE)0011

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Korea opportunities

GREAT BRITAIN has sent its biggest ever Winter Olympics squad to South Korea - and it also stands a good chance of being its best ever too.

Four years ago in Sochi, Team GB equalled its best Winter Games performance with one gold, one silver and two bronze.

And, despite being a non-Alpine nation with little winter sports pedigree, there are realistic hopes of the team going at least one better at Pyeongchang 2018.

The official target, set by governing body UK Sport, is indeed for five medals to be won - and skeleton and curling would be two of the more obvious places to find British success.

In fact, since the tea-tray sport skeleton was re-introduced into the Olympics in 2002, Team GB has always won a medal in the women's competition.

Alex Coomber won bronze in Salt Lake City in 2002, four years before Shelley Rudman took silver in Turin, and eight years before Amy Williams became the first British individual gold medallist at a Winter Olympics for 30 years.

Lizzy Yarnold ensured we would not have to wait as long for the next individual Winter Olympic title with a dominant victory in the same event in Sochi.

Flagbearer Yarnold will defend her title in Pyeongchang alongside Laura Deas, while Dominic Parsons and Jerry Rice will partake in the men's competition.

Curling - with its instantly recognisable combination of brushes and polished granite stones - has also supplied its fair share of success in recent Games.

In Sochi, both the men's team and the women's team finished on the podium with the men taking silver and the women winning bronze.

Further back - in 2002 - housewife Rhona Martin famously caused a national sensation in the wee hours by leading Team GB to its first Winter Olympics gold since Torvill and Dean in 1984.

Of course, this time, it might just be that Britain cannot claim a medal in either skeleton or curling.

Winter sports, by their very nature, are highly unpredictable - and that certainly is something which short-track speed skater Elise Christie does not need to be told twice.

Christie, frankly, suffered a nightmare Games four years ago in Sochi. First, she was penalised in the 500m final, in which she had finished second, as she was deemed to have caused an early crash.

Then, two days later, she was eliminated in the qualifiers of the 1500m when she was adjudged to have failed to cross the official line marked in the ice. She was wide by 1cm.

An understandably emotional television interview followed in which a devastated Christie mentioned that she had also been the target of abuse from internet trolls.

Many of her abusers were Korean followers of Park Seung-hi who had been one of the skaters caught up in the early chaos in the 500m final.

But, with all of that now consigned to the past, Christie is back for a third Olympics at the age of just 27.

The Nottingham-based Scot is part of a five-strong short-track speed-skating squad - and happily, in the intervening period in South Korea, she has gone from receiving death threats to giving out autographs.

Hopefully, in the days to come, her remarkable redemption story will be completed in style - and in Korea itself.

In all, Team GB sent a total of 59 athletes to the Games in Pyeongchang so there is the exciting possibility that Britain may even break new ground.

Notably, Britain has never won a ski medal but freestyle skiers James Woods and Izzy Atkin could make history in slopestyle.

Slalom specialist Dave Ryding finished second in the Kitzbuhel World Cup last year and has recorded top 10 results this season - while, in cross-country skiing, Andrew Musgrave just missed out on a medal at the World Championships.

Snowboarding makes its debut as an Olympic sport at these Games - but already Britain's best hope has been dashed with Katie Ormerod unable to compete after fracturing her heel in practice.

It is a heart-breaking injury for the 20-year-old especially with it coming merely hours before the official opening of the 23rd edition of the Winter Olympiad.

Yes, it really is that close now - a fact which will no doubt gladden the hearts of the the organisers of the Games for whom the build-up has been unsurprisingly difficult.

Even the weather gods have not been particularly kind. Pyeongchang is set to be the coldest Olympics on record with wind chill temperatures in the mountains making it feel as chilly as -25C.

Indeed, there are genuine fears that it might even be too cold to snow - although organisers are prepared with snow guns which can produce the white stuff artificially albeit at a total cost of £4.4m.

Perhaps inevitably, sports and politics have also mixed - and the prelude to the Games has been dominated by the decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban the Russia team.

The ban followed an investigation into state-sponsored doping at their home Games in Sochi in 2014. However, the IOC subsequently invited 169 "clean" Russians to compete as independent athletes.

A further 47 athletes and coaches are also still hoping to compete if they win the appeals which they have made to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas).

But the decision is not expected until 2am British-time - only nine hours before the opening ceremony tomorrow - and the whole thing has become a bit of a farce which surely should have been sorted by now.

Separately, there is the rather awkward fact that, technically at least, South Korea is still at war with its neighbours North Korea.

Only a truce stopped the fighting in the Korean War in 1953, rather than a peace agreement, and the tension between them became further heightened during the course of 2017.

In early September, North Korea really ramped up its aggression by conducting its sixth nuclear weapons test to the dismay of the international community at large.

United States president Donald Trump responded by threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea in his first address to the United Nations.

But, thankfully, the rhetoric since the New Year seems to have cooled somewhat.

In a surprise move, North Korea has agreed to send a team to compete, something which it pointedly refused to do for the 1988 Summer Olympics which were held in the South Korean capital Seoul.

Indeed, the two nations will march together at the opening ceremony under a unified flag and will even field a unified women's ice hockey team at the Games.

President of the IOC Thomas Bach described the agreement as "a milestone in a long journey".

He added: "The Olympic spirit is about respect, dialogue and understanding. The Winter Games [in] Pyeongchang are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula, and inviting the world to join in a celebration of hope."

Raise a glass to diplomacy then - it appears, in this regard, as if it has achieved the necessary.

Now, though, it really is time for the talking to stop - and for the Games to begin!

Coverage can be found across the BBC (and Eurosport) with a nightly hour-long highlights show showing the best bits on BBC Two every evening at 7pm

Team Smith Kyle Smith, Thomas Muirhead, Kyle Waddell, Cameron Smith, Glen Muirhead

17-Feb05:05SOUTH KOREAL5-11
18-Feb11:05ITALYW7-6 OT
21-Feb05:05UNITED STATESL4-10

Team Muirhead Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams, Lauren Gray, Kelly Schafer

15-Feb00:05UNITED STATESL4-7
15-Feb11:05CHINAW8-7 OT
17-Feb11:05SOUTH KOREAL4-7
18-Feb05:05SWEDENL6-8 OT
23-Feb11:05SEMI FINAL: SWEDENL5-10

Dave RydingMen's slalom1:40.16 (9th)
Laurie TaylorMen's slalom1:43.41 (26th)
Charlie GuestWomen's slalom1:48.26 (33rd)
Alex TilleyWomen's slalom
Women's giant slalom
Dave Ryding
Laurie Taylor
Charlie Guest
Alex Tilley
Mixed team eventbeat United States in R16
lost to Norway in QF

Amanda LightfootWomen's sprint
Women's individual
24:15.3 (67th)
49:14.7 (73rd)

Brad Hall
Joel Fearon
Two-man3:18.34 (12th)
Brad Hall
Greg Cackett
Joel Fearon
Nick Gleeson
Four-man3:18.26 (17th)
Lamin Deen
Andrew Matthews
Toby Olubi
Ben Simons
Four-man3:18.29 (18th)
Mica McNeill
Mica Moore
Two-woman3:24.07 (8th)

Andrew MusgraveMen's 15km freestyle
Men's 30km skiathlon
Men's 50km mass start
35:51.0 (28th)
1:16:45.7 (7th)
2:20:57.9 (37th)
Callum SmithMen's 15km freestyle
Men's 30km skiathlon
38:20.9 (75th)
1:23:49.9 (57th)
Andrew YoungMen's 15km freestyle
Men's sprint
37:13.1 (57th)
3:21.50 (45th)
Andrew Musgrave
Andrew Young
Men's team sprint16:30.62 (15th)
Annika TaylorWomen's 10km freestyle
Women's 15km skiathlon
30:52.9 (75th)
48:09.1 (60th)

Nick Buckland
Penny Coomes
Ice dancing170.32 (11th)

Lloyd WallaceMen's aerials100.03 (14th)
Murray BuchanMen's halfpipe66.00 (14th)
Alexander Glavatsky-YeadonMen's halfpipe15.00 (26th)
Peter SpeightMen's halfpipe64.60 (15th)
Rowan CheshireWomen's halfpipe75.40 (7th)
Molly SummerhayesWomen's halfpipe66.00 (17th)
Emily SarsfieldWomen's ski crosslost in QF
Tyler HardingMen's slopestyle21.00 (29th)
James WoodsMen's slopestyle91.00 (4th)
Isabel AtkinWomen's slopestyle84.60 (3rd)
Katie SummerhayesWomen's slopestyle71.40 (7th)
Adam Rosen
Rupert Staudinger
Men's singles
Men's singles
2:25.167 (22nd)
2:27.842 (33rd)

Joshua CheethamMen's 1000m1:26.223 (Heats)
Farrell TreacyMen's 1000m
Men's 1500m
1:25.080 (QF)
DNF (Heats)
Elise ChristieWomen's 500m
Women's 1000m
Women's 1500m
1:23.063 (4th)
PEN (Heats)
Charlotte GilmartinWomen's 500m
Women's 1000m
Women's 1500m
PEN (Heats)
1:32.899 (Heats)
3:00.691 (SF)
Kathryn ThomsonWomen's 500m
Women's 1000m
Women's 1500m
1:08.896 (Heats)
1:32.150 (Heats)
2:32.891 (Heats)

Dominic ParsonsMen's event3:22.20 (3rd)
Jerry RiceMen's event3:24.24 (10th)
Laura DeasWomen's event3:27.90 (3rd)
Lizzy YarnoldWomen's event3:27.28 (1st)

Rowan CoultasMen's big air
Men's slopestyle
84.50 (8th)
23.58 (18th)
Billy MorganMen's big air
Men's slopestyle
168.00 (3rd)
56.40 (10th)
Jamie NichollsMen's big air
Men's slopestyle
81.25 (11th)
71.56 (8th)
Aimee FullerWomen's big air
Women's slopestyle
25.00 (25th)
41.43 (17th)
Zoe Gillings-BrierWomen's snowboard-xlost in QF

Saturday, 27 January 2018

One day in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The restored 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Sets You Free) sign at Auschwitz-I
THE NAZI death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on this day in 1945.

Consequently, since 2001, Britain - and the wider international community - has marked 27 January as Holocaust Memorial Day.

Each year, the commemoration has a common theme - and, this year, that theme is the Power of Words.

So here then are a few words from me about Auschwitz-Birkenau following my visit there earlier this month:

THE WEIGHT of history hung heavily in the chilly winter fog which enveloped Auschwitz-Birkenau. Meanwhile, the dense, grey cloud and a biting wind contributed to an eerie atmosphere which was aptly oppressive and inescapable. It felt as if this was a place on earth which never sees the sun rise or the birds sing.

On arrival at Auschwitz, I boarded a bus for a short 10-minute ride from the main camp to Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz-II. There, I was confronted straightaway by its iconic Gatehouse which towered over the surroundings. It was not the Gatehouse, though, which was the most chilling element of Birkenau - but, instead, the sheer expanse of the camp beyond it.

The size of the preserved site, which measures 171 hectares, meant I did not have the time to walk to the end of the rail tracks. Nor did I have time to walk the whole length of the road along which victims, who were deemed unfit for manual labour, were immediately herded to the gas chambers and their deaths.

Birkenau, indeed, was where the vast majority of the victims of Auschwitz concentration camps died having been transported there on cattle trucks. But, when the Nazis heard the Soviets were closing in, they blew up nearly all of the buildings and left a vast, desolate landscape interrupted only by chimney stacks.

At Auschwitz, by contrast, the original exterior of the blocks remain standing and many of them now host museum exhibits dedicated to the victims. But, not all of them host exhibits.

Block 11 - the so-called 'death' block - has been fully reconstructed to show the various punishments which were applied to prisoners. Some of the prisoners were locked in a dark chamber for several days or were forced to stand in one of the four standing cells. Punishment in these special compartments consisted of confining four prisoners, who were forced by the lack of space to remain standing all night for up to 20 nights while still being forced to work during the day. Many died of exhaustion.

It was also in the basement of Block 11 - in cell 27 - that the first attempts to kill people with Zyklon B gas were carried out on 3-5 September 1941. In the test, 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 Polish patients selected from the camp hospital were murdered.

Thousands more prisoners - mainly Polish political prisoners - were lined up and shot at the now-reconstructed Death Wall in the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11 between 1941 and 1943. There is now a candle-lit memorial at the site.

Not far from the Death Wall is a gas chamber which itself was reconstructed in 1947 by the Red Army as the Nazis had converted it into an air-raid shelter in 1944. The entrance door is completely original and the internal layout still shows there was a room for disrobing, another room in which the victims were gassed, and - adjacent to that - an oven room in which their bodies were burned.

Leaving the gas chamber was a deeply uncomfortable experience. Unlike myself, the Jews and other prisoners had not been granted the privilege of leaving that building alive, and my heart and my soul grieved for the thousands who had been consigned to their death there.

Indeed, it is impossible to leave Auschwitz completely unaffected by what you see. In an unfortunate way, the visit - at least briefly - left me disproportionately cynical about the human race as a whole. It never seems to learn. 

Even today, there are plentiful unjust deaths happening all over the world in all sorts of horrendous conditions. And, while humankind has made great strides in many aspects of its existence, people still hate - and kill - other people simply because of their beliefs.

At an extreme level, that - of course - can result in genocide - and, since the Holocaust, there have been recognised genocides in Cambodia (1975-1979), Rwanda (1994), Bosnia (1995), and Darfur (2003-present).

All of the above are commemorated by Holocaust Memorial Day - but, frankly, even a single unjust death is one too many. Will we ever learn just to get along?

Exterior of the reconstructed gas chamber at Auschwitz
Ovens inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz
Reconstructed Death Wall in the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11
Barbed wire surrounds the roads at Auschwitz
A sign warned of the double electric fence which surrounded the enclosure

The Gatehouse at Birkenau
Cattle car that brought prisoners to their deaths in Birkenau
A single red rose now adorns the latch on the door
The cattle car (left) and a watchtower (right) surrounded by the desolate landscape
The death road along which victims were herded to the gas chambers
The site at Birkenau measures 171 hectares

Auschwitz was really a factory for killing, and human beings were used as fuel. I survived and promised myself, I will tell the world what happened
Lily Ebert Holocaust survivor

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

England suffer another stomach-turning defeat Down Under

23-27 Nov 17
FIRST Australia beat England by 10 wickets Brisbane
02-06 Dec 17
SECOND Australia beat England by 120 runs Adelaide (D/N)
14-18 Dec 17
THIRD Australia beat England by an innings and 41 runs Perth
25-29 Dec 17
FOURTH Match drawn  Melbourne
03-07 Jan 18
FIFTH Australia beat England by an innings and 123 runsSydney

Australia won the series 4-0
Player of the series: Steve Smith (687 runs at 137.40)

AUSTRALIA confirmed their superiority in this Ashes series, winning the fifth and final Test in Sydney by the crushing margin of an innings and 123 runs.

The Aussie victory at the SCG made it 4-0 overall with England only having avoided another whitewash by securing a draw in the fourth Test on a lifeless pitch in Melbourne.

Nevertheless, England have now failed to win any of their last 10 Tests Down Under.

Indeed, it seemed inevitable that the tourists were heading for their third whitewash in 11 years when the urn was lost in Perth before Christmas.

Senior players - namely Stuart Broad and former captain Alastair Cook - had been rightly criticised for their lack of contribution.

But, in fairness, both bit back in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. Broad took 4-51, his best figures all year, to help reduce the Aussies from 260-3 to 327 all out.

Cook then carried his bat to score an unbeaten 244, the highest of any opener remaining unbeaten in Test history. It was his best performances for years.

Notably, he also became the first England opener to carry his bat since Michael Atherton in Christchurch against New Zealand in 1997, and the first English opener to achieve the feat against Australia since Geoffrey Boycott in Perth in 1979.

Sadly, England - despite posting a competitive 491 - came no closer to a consolation victory, as a third Steve Smith century guided Australia to the safety of 263-4.

England actually also started the fifth Test pretty well and were at one stage 228-3 - but the late wickets of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow took the shine off their opening day.

From that point onwards, though, it was all depressingly one-way traffic. First, England were bundled out for 346 despite some rare resistance from the tail.

Then, the Aussies truly put their visitors under the pump, declaring on 649-7 following centuries from Usman Khawaja (171), and both of the Marsh brothers Shaun (156) and Mitch (101).

Inevitably, England failed to make Australia bat again, not helped by Root being unable to continue his second innings beyond lunch on the final day.

Skipper Root was suffering from severe dehydration caused by gastroenteritis - and surely the extreme Sydney heat could only have made his condition worse.

It has indeed been stomach-turning stuff from England over much of the past two months - and, while this was not another whitewash, it was still a complete hammering.

Indeed, the cumulative aggregates for the batting and bowling of both sides neatly demonstrate the gulf between them.

Australia scored 2,982 runs in total and took 89 wickets. England, by contrast, scored 2,595 runs and took only 58 wickets, their lowest amount in an Ashes series since 1958-59.

Undoubtedly, the English bowlers have struggled, especially in comparison to their Aussie counterparts.

All of the top four wicket takers in the series were Australian - and they did not need anyone other than their main quartet of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon.

Of the England bowlers, only James Anderson - with 17 wickets at 27.82 apiece - could be said to have justified his place.

Overall, England were regularly too short and lacking in the requisite pace. Lyon, meanwhile, totally outclassed Moeen Ali in the spin department.

For sure, it came as no surprise that a player in the class of Aussie skipper Smith therefore flourished.

But it was pretty galling to see the mediocre Marsh brothers were swatting away the England attack just as easily by the end.

Of course, from an England perspective, this series will be just as well remembered for events off the field.

The tourists were without the services of their best all-round player, Ben Stokes, following his arrest on suspicion of assault after an incident near a night club in Bristol in the early hours of 25 September.

Bizarrely, more than three months later, Stokes has still not yet been charged with any offence, a somewhat damning indictment of the efficiency of the British justice system.

However, there were also other incidents once England had reached Australia. Bairstow was said to have headbutted new Aussie opener Cameron Bancroft in a Perth bar before the first Test.

Then, following the second Test, Ben Duckett was ejected from a tour match and left facing disciplinary action for pouring a drink over team-mate Anderson in the same bar.

Undoubtedly, the perception painted by large parts of the English media was that of a squad totally out of control. With a reactionary curfew imposed on the players, the Aussie press gleefully lapped it up.

The reality, however, was more prosaic. It quickly became evident that the Bairstow-Bancroft incident could be described, to the obvious amusement of the latter, as playful - or, at very worst, an odd example of social awkwardness.

And so, Duckett's behaviour was therefore pretty much an isolated act - and, in itself, hardly a hanging offence.

Certainly, Anderson has no problem with alcohol being poured over him when England actually manage to win a Test.

But, if it feels a long time since that was happening consistently, that's because it is. In 38 Tests since Trevor Bayliss took charge of the team in 2015, England have won 15 and lost 18.

Progress made in limited overs cricket appears to have come at the expense of performances with the red ball, and England are now correctly perceived as home-track bullies.

That should be no surprise, really. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has clearly marginalised development of the Test team in favour of their new money-spinning city-based T20 competition.

And that is a position with which the board appears pretty comfortable.

Speaking in the wake of the third Test defeat which lost the Ashes, ECB chief executive James Harrison said: "The health of the game is more than just Ashes series overseas.

"We've had record-breaking attendances in domestic and international cricket, changed our governance structure, hosted two global events, won the women's World Cup, and launched a participation initiative for kids.

"We've had a successful entry into the broadcast rights market out of which we have secured the financial future of the game until 2024."

All of which will surely come to the great comfort of the Barmy Army fans and their own individual bank balances after this winter.

Incredibly, the stench of denial became greater again at the conclusion of the campaign when Anderson - in a post-series interview - claimed England had "not been blown away".

But Anderson himself cannot be blamed for this debacle.

The biggest culprits occupy far more senior positions - they are the decision-makers who put money over all other considerations and who have turned England's senior four-day competition into a non-event.

Without games scheduled at the height of the summer, the English system will never produce a conveyor belt of top-class, genuinely quick bowlers - or, for that matter, a world-class spinner.

Where exactly is the motivation for the counties to field these players when they can get on by just fine with a trundling medium-pacer on an April green-top?

Thankfully, though, there appears to be a realisation that some fundamental change will be required in order to improve the fortunes of the England Test team on overseas tours.

Bayliss himself has stated that England may have to risk losing at home in order to improve away.

Meanwhile, former captain Michael Vaughan has made the eminently sensible suggestion of staging a selection of County Championship matches abroad.

The ECB, no doubt, will act far more slowly in addressing any issues. After all, under its watch, the game in England already has excellent corporate governance.

Of course, Australia - with the still significant advantage of being at home - may well have been triumphant regardless.

Frankly, though, this Ashes series was again far, far too easy for the Aussies. Far too easy.

Australia 9-3 England 
244* Alastair Cook (England), fourth Test
239 Steve Smith (Australia), third Test
181 Mitchell Marsh (Australia), third Test
171 Usman Khawaja (Australia), fifth Test
156 Shaun Marsh (Australia), fifth Test
141* Steve Smith (Australia), first Test
140 Dawid Malan (England), third Test
126* Shaun Marsh (Australia), second Test
119 Jonny Bairstow (England), third Test
103 David Warner (Australia), fourth Test
102* Steve Smith (Australia), fourth Test
101 Mitchell Marsh (Australia), fifth Test

687 Steve Smith (Australia)
445 Shaun Marsh (Australia)
441 David Warner (Australia)
383 Dawid Malan (England)
378 Joe Root (England)
376 Alastair Cook (England)
333 Usman Khawaja (Australia)
320 Mitchell Marsh (Australia)
306 Jonny Bairstow (England)
242 James Vince (England)

137.40 Steve Smith (Australia)
106.66 Mitchell Marsh (Australia)
74.16 Shaun Marsh (Australia)
63.00 David Warner (Australia)
48.00 Tim Paine (Australia)
47.57 Usman Khawaja (Australia)
47.25 Joe Root (England)
47.00 Alastair Cook (England)
42.55 Dawid Malan (England)
41.50 Pat Cummins (Australia)

Australia 2-1 England
5-43 James Anderson (England), second Test
5-48 Josh Hazlewood (Australia), third Test 
5-88 Mitchell Starc (Australia), second Test

LEADING WICKET TAKERS - min 10 wickets
23 Pat Cummins (Australia)
22 Mitchell Starc (Australia)
21 Josh Hazlewood (Australia)
21 Nathan Lyon (Australia)
17 James Anderson (England)
11 Stuart Broad (England)
10 Chris Woakes (England)

BOWLING AVERAGES - min five wickets
23.54 Mitchell Starc (Australia)
24.65 Pat Cummins (Australia)
25.90 Josh Hazlewood (Australia)
27.82 James Anderson (England)
29.23 Nathan Lyon (Australia)
37.66 Craig Overton (England)
47.72 Stuart Broad (England)
49.50 Chris Woakes (England)
115.00 Moeen Ali (England)

662-9d Australia in the third Test, Perth
649-7d Australia in the fifth Test, Sydney
491 England in the fourth Test, Melbourne
442-8d Australia in the second Test, Adelaide (D/N)
403 England in the third Test, Perth
346 England in the fifth Test, Sydney
328 Australia in the first Test, Brisbane
327 Australia in the fourth Test, Melbourne
302 England in the first Test, Brisbane
263-4d Australia in the fourth Test, Melbourne
233 England in the second Test, Adelaide (D/N)
227 England in the second Test, Adelaide (D/N)
218 England in the third Test, Perth
195 England in the first Test, Brisbane
180 England in the fifth Test, Sydney
173-0 Australia in the first Test, Brisbane
138 Australia in the second Test, Adelaide (D/N)

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Index 2017

08.05 In the hands of the youth?
10.05 Young hearts run free as May clings on

13.05 NUFC: Mission accomplished
07.06 For the record: Winners and losers
11.08 Premier League preview: Can Chelsea defend their title?
World Cup 2018
11.10 Undewhelming England reach World Cup in Russia
16.11 Playoffs: Arrivederci Azzurri, Ireland and Northern Ireland
01.12 Draw: England can breathe in Group of Life
05.07 Taking Root
Ashes 2017/18
22.11 Adversity test for England in Ashes defence
18.12 Dust to dust 

30.06 Glastonbury: A worthy return
09.07 Lions roar to series draw
02.11 High-rolling Hamilton completes his quadruple

11.11 Lest we forget

Monday, 18 December 2017

Dust to dust

23-27 Nov 2017
FIRST Australia beat England by 10 wickets Brisbane
02-06 Dec 2017
SECOND Australia beat England by 120 runs Adelaide (D/N)
14-18 Dec 2017
THIRD Australia beat England by an innings and 41 runs Perth
25-29 Dec 2017
03-07 Jan 2018

ENGLAND surrendered the Ashes urn this morning as Australia took an unassailable lead with a crushing innings victory in the third Test in Perth.

The tourists lost their last four wickets for 22 runs to go 3-0 down in the series - and they now face the devastating prospect of a third whitewash Down Under in just 11 years.

As it stands, a whitewash result is now the odds-on favourite with most bookmakers. Yes, that is how little regard there now remains for this England side.

That should come as no surprise really. After all, the tourists have been outplayed in every facet of the game, and Australia have had almost a monopoly on the truly magic moments in the series.

From Nathan Lyon's superman dive, with which he executed his caught-and-bowled dismissal of Moeen Ali, to Mitchell Starc's incredible jaffa that splattered James Vince's stumps.

And then, of course, there has been the not-so-insignificant matter of Steve Smith's imperious form with the bat.

In four innings so far, the Aussie skipper has scored a ton and a double ton in an aggregate of 426 runs at an average of 142. His figures, quite frankly, are Bradman-esque.

By contrast, Alastair Cook and Joe Root have scored a combined total of 259 runs at a hideous average of 21.59. Cook's top score is just 37.

Yet, despite all this, England have had fleeting moments of hope.

In the first Test in Brisbane, the tourists appeared to be heading for a first innings lead having reduced the Aussies to 209-7 in reply to their own 302.

But it was in fact Australia who took a 26-run lead into the second innings before openers David Warner and Cameron Bancroft then easily knocked off the required runs following an England collapse.

In the second Test in Adelaide, England blew another opportunity having taken the second new ball with Australia on 209-5.

Of course, the day-night match in Adelaide was always meant to represent the best chance of England securing a victory in the series with the conditions under lights bringing swing and seam into the equation.

Joe Root inserted the Aussies at the toss hoping to dismiss them cheaply but he then watched on forlornly as his attack bowled too short and the hosts declared on 442-8.

Belatedly, two of the English bowlers - James Anderson and Chris Woakes - adjusted their lengths and duly tore through the Australians in the second innings.

By then, though, England - who had been bowled out for 227 - needed to complete a record run-chase of 353 to avoid going 2-0 down.

At the end of the penultimate day, England had reached 176-4 and were talking up their hopes of completing an incredible comeback victory.

It was a record chase for a reason, however - and, once Root departed without having added to his overnight score, England proceeded to lose their remaining wickets before lunch.

And so to Perth - and what is expected to be the last ever Ashes Test at the WACA.

The WACA is a venue at which England have historically struggled. They have won just once there ever - back in 1978 - against an Australian side severely weakened by defections to Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket.

In fact, the last seven Ashes Tests in Perth had all gone the way of Australia with even the gloriously victorious 2010-11 tour party going down to a heavy defeat there.

Back to this series - and England, having won the toss for a third successive time, decided to bat - but, to the great surprise of nobody, found themselves in some trouble on 131-4.

Nevertheless, another of those fleeting moments of hope then happened to come along. Ashes rookie Dawid Malan completed a maiden international ton as part of a 237-run stand for the fifth wicket alongside fellow centurion Jonny Bairstow.

Typically, though, the tourists then lost 6-35 for a final first innings total of 403. It was never going to be enough on a true WACA deck.

This was especially the case considering the obvious weaknesses of the England bowling attack with their lack of pace and variation exacerbated by the lack of a top-quality spinner.

No fewer than five bowlers - Anderson, Woakes, Craig Overton, Ali, and Stuart Broad - conceded a century of runs in the Australian innings of 662-9 declared. Broad, indeed, recorded his worst ever Test figures of 0-142. 

England ultimately failed to make Australia bat again making it the third time in just over 12 months that they have lost by innings despite scoring 400 runs first up.

Remarkably, that was something which had only previously happened on three occasions in the entirety of Test history prior to December 2016.

With statistics like that, it is difficult to see any way forward for England in terms of avoiding the whitewash - something that could not be said even amid the struggles of the 1990s.

For, while England failed to hold the Ashes for a single day in the whole of that decade, and nearly half of the next, they were also never whitewashed during that period. 

Even Down Under, on tours in 1990-91, 1994-95, and 1998-99, the tourists managed to avoid defeat in one of the first three Tests of the series.

But, already, that has proven to be beyond this England side - just as it was in 2002-03, 2006-07 and 2013-14. 

Indeed, England have now lost their last eight Test matches in a row in Australia, their worst run since the 1920s.

The stats are damning while the performance level of some of the senior players in particular has been pathetic.

England have once again lost the Ashes before Christmas. Now, we simply wait to find out if they can salvage anything at all from the ruins of this tour.

239 Steve Smith (Australia), third Test
181 Mitchell Marsh (Australia), third Test
141* Steve Smith (Australia), first Test
140 Dawid Malan (England), third Test
126* Shaun Marsh (Australia), second Test
119 Jonny Bairstow (England), third Test

426 Steve Smith (Australia)
302 Dawid Malan (England)
241 Jonny Bairstow (England)
224 Shaun Marsh (Australia)
196 David Warner (Australia)
5-43 James Anderson (England), second Test
5-48 Josh Hazlewood (Australia), third Test
5-88 Mitchell Starc (Australia), second Test

19 Mitchell Starc (Australia)
15 Josh Hazlewood (Australia) 
14 Nathan Lyon (Australia)
12 James Anderson (England)
11 Pat Cummins (Australia)

Friday, 1 December 2017

World Cup 2018 finals draw: England can breathe in Group of Life


ENGLAND have been drawn against Tunisia, Panama and Belgium in Group G at next year's World Cup finals in Russia.

The Three Lions will begin their tournament against the Tunisians on Monday 18th June at 7pm in a repeat of their opening fixture at the 1998 World Cup which they won 2-0.

Head coach Gareth Southgate was on the pitch in Marseille that day - and he will be looking for a similar result when he takes his place on the touchline in Volgograd.

Thereafter, England face tournament debutants Panama in Nizhny Novgorod on 24th June at 1pm, before finishing the group stage against top seeds Belgium on 28th June in Kaliningrad.

Currently ranked fifth, the Red Devils undoubtedly have a hugely talented side with the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne all among the best players in the Premier League.

Their head coach - former Wigan Athletic and Everton boss Roberto Martinez - is a familiar face too.

However, having been second seeds, England were always going to face at least one high quality opponent - and thankfully the rest of the draw has been pretty kind.

Even Group H - which features Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan as possible Last 16 opponents - could have been far more frightening.

But Southgate urged caution at the draw which was hosted by Three Lions legend Gary Lineker at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

"My experience of tournaments is you need to get a result in all three matches," Southgate said. "In the past we've assumed we'll be in certain rounds but we need to make sure we get out of our group." 

Hosts Russia were perhaps given the weakest group, in terms of the rankings, which they could mathematically have drawn.

Stanislav Cherchesov's men open the whole tournament against Saudi Arabia on Thursday 14th June before going on to face Egypt - who are appearing in their first World Cup since 1990 - and then an ageing Uruguay side.

France, similarly, can have no complaints at having been placed in Group C alongside Denmark, Australia, and Peru - who will be making their first appearance since 1982.

Group B, however, appears to be a different matter altogether. European Champions Portugal, ranked third, will begin their campaign in an Iberian derby against 2010 champions Spain in Sochi on Friday 15th June.

Meanwhile, Iran and Morocco are the other teams in the section, both having qualified convincingly from the Asian and African sections respectively.

Elsewhere, defending champions Germany will surely be given a stern workout by their opponents Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea.

The Swedes, in particular, will be ones to watch considering they have already accounted for the Netherlands and Italy in the qualifying stages.

Of course, if the Nationalmannschaft happen to slip into second, they could be reacquainted with Brazil who they beat 7-1 in Belo Horizonte in the semi finals of the last World Cup.

Brazil, after all, have somewhat recovered from that mauling, and so would expect to leave their group opponents - Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Serbia - fighting it out for just the one other spot in the Last 16.

Not that long-time German head coach Joachim Loew seemed particularly worried.

"At such a draw everything is possible. Whatever the group, we have to advance. I was generally relaxed. There is no reason for us to be nervous," he said.

There is, however, understandable concern in Argentina. A mess of a qualifying campaign was only saved on the final day by a Lionel Messi hat-trick - and their first opponents, debutants Iceland, know a little bit about bloodying a nose or two.

Croatia could also prove tricky - and then there is Nigeria, a familiar World Cup foe.

Remarkably, the fixture on 26th June means the Super Eagles will have met La Albiceleste on five of their six finals appearances.

For now, the Argentines have a perfect record in World Cup matches between the pair - but they were beaten 4-2 in a recent international following a second half capitulation.

Vulnerability undoubtedly hangs in the air in Buenos Aires currently - and, in fairness, it never feels far away from the Three Lions either.

After all, we have been here before - and relatively recently at that.

In 2010, The Sun newspaper reacted to the news that England would face Algeria, Slovenia and United States by printing EASY in big letters on its front page.

England did make it through the group - but only in second place behind the Americans, and they were then thumped 4-1 by Germany in the Last 16.

Thankfully, though, there was equally no repeat of the cut-throat gesture given by former Football Association chairman Greg Dyke at the 2014 draw when England were grouped with Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.

For, if England are to get anywhere, they simply must have more self-belief than that.

And, while they certainly cannot be considered among the favourites for the World Cup itself, the draw has presented Southgate's men with a genuine chance of a decent showing in Russia next summer.

Now, where did I put that bunting?

4pmThu 14 JuneRUSSIA v SAUDI ARABIAMoscow
1pmFri 15 JuneEGYPT v URUGUAYYekaterinburg
7pmTue 19 JuneRUSSIA v EGYPTSaint Petersburg
4pmWed 20 JuneURUGUAY v SAUDI ARABIARostov-on-Don
3pmMon 25 JuneURUGUAY v RUSSIASamara
3pmMon 25 JuneSAUDI ARABIA v EGYPTVolgograd

4pmFri 15 JuneMOROCCO v IRANSaint Petersburg
7pmFri 15 JunePORTUGAL v SPAINSochi
1pmWed 20 JunePORTUGAL v MOROCCOMoscow
7pmWed 20 JuneIRAN v SPAINKazan
7pmMon 25 JuneIRAN v PORTUGALSaransk
7pmMon 25 JuneSPAIN v MOROCCOKaliningrad

11amSat 16 JuneFRANCE v AUSTRALIAKazan
5pmSat 16 JunePERU v DENMARKSaransk
1pmThu 21 JuneFRANCE v PERUYekaterinburg
4pmThu 21 JuneDENMARK v AUSTRALIASamara
3pmTue 26 JuneDENMARK v FRANCEMoscow
3pmTue 26 JuneAUSTRALIA v PERUSochi

2pmSat 16 JuneARGENTINA v ICELANDMoscow
8pmSat 16 JuneCROATIA v NIGERIAKaliningrad
7pmThu 21 JuneARGENTINA v CROATIANizhny Novgorod
4pmFri 22 JuneNIGERIA v ICELANDVolgograd
7pmTue 26 JuneNIGERIA v ARGENTINASaint Petersburg
7pmTue 26 JuneICELAND v CROATIARostov-on-Don

1pmSun 17 JuneCOSTA RICA v SERBIASamara
7pmSun 17 JuneBRAZIL v SWITZERLANDRostov-on-Don
1pmFri 22 JuneBRAZIL v COSTA RICASaint Petersburg
7pmFri 22 JuneSERBIA v SWITZERLANDKaliningrad
7pmWed 27 JuneSERBIA v BRAZILMoscow
7pmWed 27 JuneSWITZERLAND v COSTA RICANizhny Novgorod

4pmSun 17 JuneGERMANY v MEXICOMoscow
1pmMon 18 JuneSWEDEN v SOUTH KOREANizhny Novgorod
4pmSat 23 JuneGERMANY v SWEDENSochi
7pmSat 23 JuneSOUTH KOREA v MEXICORostov-on-Don
3pmWed 27 JuneSOUTH KOREA v GERMANYKazan
3pmWed 27 JuneMEXICO v SWEDENYekaterinburg

4pmMon 18 JuneBELGIUM v PANAMASochi
7pmMon 18 JuneTUNISIA v ENGLANDVolgograd
1pmSat 23 JuneBELGIUM v TUNISIAMoscow
1pmSun 24 JuneENGLAND v PANAMANizhny Novgorod
7pmThu 28 JuneENGLAND v BELGIUMKaliningrad
7pmThu 28 JunePANAMA v TUNISIASaransk

1pmTue 19 JunePOLAND v SENEGALMoscow
4pmTue 19 JuneCOLOMBIA v JAPANSaransk
4pmSun 24 JuneJAPAN v SENEGALYekaterinburg
7pmSun 24 JunePOLAND v COLOMBIAKazan
3pmThu 28 JuneJAPAN v POLANDVolgograd
3pmThu 28 JuneSENEGAL v COLOMBIASamara

3pmSat 30 June(1) WINNER C v RUNNER-UP DKazan
7pmSat 30 June(2) WINNER A v RUNNER-UP BSochi
3pmSun 01 July(3) WINNER B v RUNNER-UP AMoscow
7pmSun 01 July(4) WINNER D v RUNNER-UP CNizhny Novgorod
3pmMon 02 July(5) WINNER E v RUNNER-UP FSamara
7pmMon 02 July(6) WINNER G v RUNNER-UP HRostov-on-Don
3pmTue 03 July(7) WINNER F v RUNNER-UP ESaint Petersburg
7pmTue 03 July(8) WINNER H v RUNNER-UP GMoscow

3pmFri 06 JulyWINNER (1) v WINNER (2)Nizhny Novgorod
7pmFri 06 JulyWINNER (5) v WINNER (6)Kazan
3pmSat 07 JulyWINNER (7) v WINNER (8)Samara
7pmSat 07 JulyWINNER (3) v WINNER (4)Sochi

7pmTue 10 JulyWINNER QF1 v WINNER QF2Saint Petersburg
7pmWed 11 JulyWINNER QF3 v WINNER QF4Moscow

3pmSat 14 JulyLOSER SF1 v LOSER SF2Saint Petersburg

4pmSun 15 JulyWINNER SF1 v WINNER SF2Moscow