Brisbane beginning sets tone

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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The two captains, Steve Smith (L) and Joe Root (R), will be all too aware of the attention and pressure they’ll be under throughout the entire five-Test Ashes series, which gets underway in Brisbane on Thursday. (Reuters)
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Michael Slater got Australia off to a great start in 1994. (AP)
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Steve Harmison
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Nasser Hussain
Updated 20 November 2017
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Brisbane beginning sets tone

LONDON: Alberto Salazar, the controversial Cuban-American track coach, is a man of few words. But something he said about the doubts that bedevil even the best would strike a chord with most sports stars: “Standing on the starting line, we’re all cowards.”
In a contest like the Ashes, which stretches over five Tests and a month and a half, the importance of the start can sometimes be overstated. But in recent times, the opening exchanges in Brisbane have had a big bearing on the series outcome. For Australia, who last lost there to the great West Indies side in November 1988, the ‘Gabbatoir’ has become a fortress. They’ve won 21 and drawn seven of their past 28 Tests there, and that sequence includes a couple of matches that were absolutely pivotal in ensuring the Ashes stayed Down Under.
Back in 1994-95, it was Michael Slater who was tasked with facing the first ball of the series, from Phil DeFreitas. It wasn’t a great ball, but it wasn’t terrible either. A bit short, a little wide, the sort of ball nervous opening batsmen would shoulder arms to. Slater, whatever Salazar’s views, was no coward though. He slapped it behind point for four. Australia finished the day on 329 for four, an astronomical score by the standards of the time, as Slater smashed 176 from only 244 balls. They would go on to win the series 3-1.
Eight years later, England’s fate was sealed even before they stepped on to the field, with Nasser Hussain deciding to bowl first on a flat pitch. Matthew Hayden, who once admitted to finding the sound of bat striking ball “addictive,” bludgeoned his way to an unbeaten 186 as Australia closed on 364 for two. This time, Steve Waugh’s side retained the Ashes with a 4-1 margin.
But no one ball has encapsulated England’s Brisbane woes quite like the one Steve Harmison bowled to start the 2006-07 series. It was so wide that Andrew Flintoff, standing at second slip, had to field it. An entire stadium, and millions watching around the world, gasped, before awkward silence gave way to peals of laughter or grimaces, depending on which side you supported.
 “I let the enormity of the occasion get to me ... My whole body was nervous,” Harmison would say later. “I could not get my hands to stop sweating. The first ball slipped out of my hands.”
You have to go back to November 1986, when Ian Botham scored a belligerent 138, for the last time England won at the Gabba. They would take the series too, their third such success on Australian soil in 17 years. Over the next five full series, they would win just three Tests and lose 18.
When that conveyer belt of defeats came to a halt in 2010-11, it was largely because of the resilience shown in Brisbane. Peter Siddle’s opening-day hat-trick, and big hundreds from Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin gave Australia a 221-run lead before stumps on day three. Thousands of Barmy Army supporters must have thought: “Here we go again.”
Instead, Andrew Strauss (110), the captain, set the tone for a remarkable riposte. After his dismissal, Alastair Cook (235*) and Jonathan Trott (135*) added an unbroken 329. England left the Gabba with a draw, and won the series with crushing victories at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
How will they fare this time? Ben Stokes, probably the best all-rounder in the world, remains in the UK as Bristol police complete their investigation into a case of alleged assault. In his absence, Craig Overton, a tall, strapping fast bowler with a first-class batting average of 22, should get the nod to augment the pace trio of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes.
What that quartet don’t have though is the searing pace Australia can serve up. Both Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins can nudge the speedometer past 150 km/hr. Both are also injury-prone, and Australia’s chances of regaining the Ashes depend greatly on nursing them through the series. As crucial will be the form of Josh Hazlewood, whose steadiness and skill summon up memories of the great Glenn McGrath.
That threesome will certainly fancy its chances against a fragile English top order. Cook and Joe Root are the only established names. Mark Stoneman, Gary Balance, James Vince and Dawid Malan have endured difficult starts to their careers. That has left the middle and lower order to shoulder a heavy load. With no Stokes to call on, the pressure on Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali to replicate recent run-scoring feats will be immense.
The last Ashes series in Australia, a 5-0 whitewash, was effectively settled by Mitchell Johnson’s shock-and-awe spells at the Gabba, which saw him finish with match figures of nine for 103. England will need to avoid a similar roughing up at the hands of the other Mitchell, Starc, if they are to have any chance of avoiding the same ignominious result this time around.


‘Man, I was so surprised’: Saudi Olympian Al-Muawi clinches bronze in Argentina games

Updated 26 min 22 sec ago
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‘Man, I was so surprised’: Saudi Olympian Al-Muawi clinches bronze in Argentina games

  • Al-Muawi has been racing hurdles for five years after picking it out as a sport he could excel in at the age of 12

BUENOS AIRES: With his bag packed and preparing to leave the Youth Olympic Park one last time on Tuesday night, Mohammed Al-Muawi was called back to the scene of the 400-metres Hurdles event, in which he had just finished fourth overall. With doping officials thronged at the entrance, he assumed he must have been randomly selected for testing. Instead, he got the news he will now never forget.

The 17-year-old Saudi is an Olympic bronze medallist.

“Man, I was so surprised to find out,” he told Arab News after being promoted onto the podium after South Africa’s Lindukhule Gora was disqualified. “It was my first competition and my first medal, so it’s amazing. This here means everything to me. When I finished the race, I was like ‘OK, fourth is OK’. I put my clothes back on and got ready to leave, but then they told me: ‘Come back, come back! You have a bronze medal!’ I was like, ‘What? How is that even possible?’”

Under a blistering sun and having led for much of the first 300m, Al-Muawi tired as the home straight loomed, crossing the finish-line fifth with a time of 53.05s. With Gora being disqualified for stepping out of his lane, however, Al-Muawi was immediately pushed up a place. Then, having bettered France’s Martin Fraysse’s time in the first-stage heat, it came down to the calculator.

Al-Muawi was 0.37s faster than Fraysse in the first heat, while Fraysse finished the second just 0.33s ahead. The result: the Asian Youth Championships silver-medallist posted a combined time of 1.45.81, making him the third quickest across a field of continental winners, beating Fraysse by just 0.04s.

“It's confusing for sure, but across the two heats, I was second and fourth, so I feel third is deserved," he said, looking down and caressing the bronze medal hanging from his neck. "It was a very strong field in the final. I started well, but the last 100m or so was very tiring and I was unable to really open my legs. It’s been an amazing experience though. Wow. I love the competition, the village, eating the different foods…it’s been unforgettable. And this just tops it all off.”

Al-Muawi splits his time between schooling in Bisha in the south of the Kingdom and training in Los Angeles, California, with World Championships silver-medallist Ryan Wilson. Saudi athletics delegation head, Saad Al-Asmari — himself a former 3000m Asian champion — expects this to be the start of more success not only for Al-Muawi but for Saudi athletics.

“Mohammed did very well,” said Al-Asmari. “He ran very well and it was only in the final 100 metres he had some problems. This result is very good for him and I’m very happy because he is only 17. Also, we have many other talents like this in Saudi Arabia. We have many athletes, but we need good coaching.

“Mohammed has been training since May in LA, which is where we send all our best athletes. When they come back, we always notice little differences: their body shape changes, their technique, endurance, everything.”

Al-Muawi has been racing hurdles for five years after picking it out as a sport he could excel in at the age of 12. He will head home to Bisha now to spend time with his family and continue his studies for two months before returning to LA to prepare for next year’s Asian Championships. The most important lesson he has learnt from Wilson in the United States is not physical, but rather psychological, he said.

“It’s has been a great experience for me over there so far,” he added, his English having improved considerably since his switch. “My coach there has shown support throughout, always telling me that I can do it. Always urging me to never give up. He tells me that before every competition I must tell myself: ‘I am hungry’. He tells me always that I’m a different breed too, so I guess I then begin to believe it — yes, I am a different breed."