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.


Maurizio Sarri wants to meet Eden Hazard to discuss Chelsea future

Updated 18 July 2018
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Maurizio Sarri wants to meet Eden Hazard to discuss Chelsea future

  • Maurizio Sarri says Eden Hazard is one of the top two or three players in Europe and he wants to meet the Belgium forward
  • Hazard is taking time off after the World Cup along with Belgium teammate Thibaut Courtois

LONDON: Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri says Eden Hazard is one of the top two or three players in Europe and he wants to meet the Belgium forward face-to-face to discuss his future.
Hazard said at the World Cup in Russia that “it might be time to discover something different“ after spending the last six years with Chelsea. He has been linked with a move to European champion Real Madrid, which recently sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus.
Hazard is taking time off after the World Cup along with Belgium teammate Thibaut Courtois, whose future is also the matter of some debate.
Sarri says he doesn’t just want to phone the players who have yet to return to preseason training because a “telephone call without looking in their eyes will not give any certainty. I want to meet them face-to-face and understand what’s the best thing to do for everyone.”
Sarri says Hazard is “one of the top two or three European players,” adding that he hopes “to improve Hazard but that will be difficult.”
In his first news conference as Chelsea coach since joining from Napoli, Sarri said he will play in a “slightly different way” to predecessor Antonio Conte, who won the Premier League in his first season and FA Cup in his second after changing to a three-man defense.
Chelsea has already signed holding midfielder Jorginho from Napoli this offseason. Sarri says he would like more quality in the midfield area to fit his preferred approach, while adding that he could also adapt to the players he currently has in the squad.
Chelsea didn’t qualify for this season’s Champions League.