Pink balls, stress and Stokes

Updated 21 November 2017
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Pink balls, stress and Stokes

LONDON: One of the oldest battles in sport gets underway tomorrow in Brisbane. The Ashes rarely fails to serve up anything short of sporting drama and excitement at its very best. Here are the five things that will shape the series over the next month and a half.
ESCAPING THE ‘GABBATOIR’
The Woolloongabba “Fighting ground” is an Australian cricket citadel. It’s no coincidence that most high-profile series begin there. Australia’s game plan is fairly simple — ambush the opposition at the Gabba and then widen the scars opened up throughout the rest of the series. Lose at the Gabba, as England did by 381 runs in 2013, and you can almost kiss the storied urn goodbye. Only three teams have drawn a Test at the venue in the past 15 years. England (2010) and South Africa (2012) went on to win the series. India (2003) almost did, denied only by Steve Waugh’s last stand. If you discount the win in 1978, when Australia’s finest were playing in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, England have won just once at the Gabba since the days of Sir Donald Bradman. And that was in 1986.
ADELAIDE’S BRIGHT LIGHTS
Once, the picturesque Oval was where batsmen went with a spring in the step. With the harsh southern sun bleaching the pitch blonde, the surface was invariably full of runs over the first three days. Now, with the redesigned Oval being shared with Aussie rules football and a drop-in pitch being used under floodlights, it’s the bowlers that hold sway. Australia have beaten both New Zealand and South Africa in day-night Tests there, but with the pink ball very amenable to swing, their line-up will face a tough examination against Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. Anderson, in particular, can be unplayable when there’s appreciable movement in the air, or off the pitch. Josh Hazlewood has taken 15 wickets in those two pink-ball Tests though, and England’s batsmen are also unlikely to fancy a trial by swing-and-seam.
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
With the exception of the old firm of Anderson and Broad, only three of the English contingent have played in Australia before. Alastair Cook has failed twice, either side of a stellar series in 2010-11 — 766 runs, with three hundreds. Joe Root managed just 192 runs in four Tests in 2013, while Jonny Bairstow’s two outings fetched him only 49 runs. The Australians won’t just be mouthy on the field. The tabloids will have their barrels trained on England, and every slip will be magnified, while the rowdy crowds will not be shy of telling the tourists what they think of them. Many have wilted under the scrutiny. Others, like Virat Kohli and Graeme Smith, used the fear and loathing to motivate themselves. England will soon discover just how many in the squad have the appetite for a scrap.
FITNESS
From the time he made his Test debut, picking up seven wickets and hitting the winning runs at The Wanderers in November 2011, it was obvious that Pat Cummins was a once-in-a-generation talent. Sadly, injuries have kept him to just four Tests since then — two in India and two in Bangladesh earlier this year. He has never taken on a workload anything like as intense as an Ashes series. Mitchell Starc, who made his debut a fortnight after Cummins, has had his share of injury woes too, featuring in only 36 of the 68 matches Australia have played since then. On the other side, Anderson, after years of being the bionic man, has had his share of niggles and serious injury during the past 12 months. Neither side has back-up options of the same quality, so the onus will very much be on the physios and trainers to earn their corn.
BEN STOKES
This week ended his Twitter hiatus to query Matthew Hayden’s description of England’s squad as a “rabble,” but there’s still no clarity on whether he will play any part in the Ashes. When Mitchell Johnson’s searing pace destroyed England in 2013-14, Stokes was one of the few silver linings, scoring a belligerent century and taking 15 wickets. Tom Harrison, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) chief executive, has spoken of “rehabilitation,” but first the police must complete their investigation into the case of alleged assault. “We have to get that balance between censure and support absolutely right,” said Harrison. “I think cricket’s response to this will show the value of the game in the best light.” For now, Stokes is hitting the nets in Durham, waiting for his chance to influence one of sport’s oldest feuds.


Al-Hilal boss Jorge Jesus reveals Omar Abdulrahman will make debut in Super Cup clash in London

Updated 17 August 2018
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Al-Hilal boss Jorge Jesus reveals Omar Abdulrahman will make debut in Super Cup clash in London

  • New boss Jorge Jesus to give start to new star signing after $17 million move from Al-Ain last week.
  • Al-Hilal coach keen to put on a good show in London and start season with silverware against Al-Ittihad.

LONDON: Jorge Jesus confirmed Omar Abdulrahman will make his Al-Hilal debut in the Saudi Super Cup final against Al-Ittihad on Saturday.
The UAE playmaker joined the Saudi Pro League champions last week in a loan deal from Al-Ain that was worth $17 million, a fee that has only been surpassed once in football history. 
The 26-year-old has been training with his new teammates at English football’s HQ at St. George’s Park this week and traveled down to London on Friday with the rest of the team ahead of the showpiece game at Loftus Road.
Abdulrahman has not played since May, when Al-Ain were dumped out of the AFC Champions League by Lekhwiya, and he was not considered for the Arab Club Champions Club on Sunday, but Jesus said the 2016 Asian Player of the Year is line to make his first appearance for his boyhood club this weekend.
“Omar is training with the team for five or six days,” said Jesus. “Intelligent players like Omar learn fast, so that’s why he will be part of the game.”
There are various subplots to the game in west London, not least the fact that Al-Ittihad coach Ramon Diaz comes up against the club that fired him in February. He won the double in the first season in Riyadh and then choreographed Al-Hilal’s run to the final of the AFC Champions League in his second. Now he goes up against Jesus, the Portuguese tactician who replaced him this summer.
“It’s true Diaz could know the players more and this could influence the match, but they are working with my ideas today and I expect the match to be an excellent game,” said Jesus.
Al-Hilal lost the Super Cup the last time it was held in London, losing to Al-Ahli on penalties in a thriller at Fulham’s Craven Cottage ground. Jesus knows this year’s match could provide a launchpad for the season ahead and broaden the appeal of football in the Kingdom. 
“Everybody knows the importance of this match, because we play outside Saudi Arabia,” he said. “It represents the image of our football. We are happy to be present in London and play the Saudi Super Cup here. The eyes of Europe sees London as the center of football, so we need to create a good image of Saudi football.”

Jorge Jesus is looking to get his reign as Al-Hilal coach off to a winning start at QPR's Loftus Road ground on Saturday. 


Jesus will be without the injured Salman Al-Faraj, Abdullah Otayf and Nawaf Al-Abed while national team full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani will undergo a late fitness test. 
“We are missing some players but that should not reduce the importance of some players we have in the squad,” said Jesus. “We have to find our best combination of players to go to the match with.”
Mohammad Al-Shalhoub will captain the side from midfield following the departure of Osama Hawsawi and knows bragging rights are up for grabs on Saturday between Saudi Arabia’s two most successful clubs who have won the top prize in the Kingdom 23 times between them.
“It’s one match, there is no other chance,” he said. “We will do our best to win the cup. We can start the season well if we win this cup. We will fight hard to win, but Ittihad is doing their hardest to win it, too. We are super motivated to show a good level and start with a Saudi Super Cup victory.”
Al-Hilal labored to a 1-0 win over Al-Shabab on Sunday night and know they will need to be much nearer their best against last season’s King’s Cup winners.
“In the beginning of the season, you can have some difficulties,“ Al-Shalhoub said. “Our first home game in the Arab Cup we showed a good level, but we have to me more ready against Ittihad.”