2015 Ashes preview

The 2015 Ashes starts tomorrow in Cardiff as underdogs England look to claim their fourth successive home Ashes triumph and snatch the famous urn from holders Australia.

Given both teams’ recent form, the Aussies will win 5-0 and that will be all she wrote. Or will it?

With Australia packing plenty of pace into their attack, England can expect some short stuff but they will find the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc easier to play on England’s slower pitches.

Add the likely omission of star Ashes performer Peter Siddle from the visitors’ starting XI and England will be breathing a little easier.

Elsewhere, bookies odds of 2/5 for an Australia series victory look especially stingy given the historical Ashes records.

Of the 68 Ashes series, 32 have been won by Australia, while England have snared 31 winning four of the last six. It’s not a clear cut Australian win after all.

England

England’s situation has improved markedly since their 5-0 humiliation in the 2013-14 series.

There is continuity and renewed confidence amongst their batting line-up, with the long-vilified Alastair Cook returning to something near his best form in recent series against the West Indies and New Zealand.

Adam Lyth is his likeliest opening partner, while Joe Root has rapidly improved – he looks England’s most fluid runscorer at present.

England’s middle order is more fragile, Root aside, as Ian Bell and Gary Ballance have struggled for runs recently while Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler provide plenty of threat but little dependability.

The hosts have also reinforced their bowling unit, with ever-presents James Anderson and Stuart Broad leading a line which is bolstered by the express pace and steepling bounce of Mark Wood.

Wood is a tricky customer as not only do opposing batsmen have to contend with his 90mph snorters he also likes to vary the angle and length of his run-ups – tactics more commonly seen in shorter formats of the game.

Perhaps the main weakness of their attack is Moeen Ali, who has struggled to fill the spinning boots of Graeme Swann, often proving expensive. Ben Stokes will also concede many boundary balls but showed signs of greater control against New Zealand.

Australia

Arguably, the form of Steve Smith is Australia’s most potent weapon.

Since October, the right-hander has scored 1,226 runs at an average of 102.17, notching five centuries and five fifties.

His first-innings average of 89.64 places him second on the all-time list behind Don Bradman. England be wary.

Smith will almost certainly bat at three behind the aggression of opener David Warner, while Michael Clarke will provide formidable company at five provided he remains injury-free.

Australia coach Darren Lehmann also faces a tough decision over which wicketkeeper to pick.

The decline of Brad Haddin is well documented, but he consistently peaks for Ashes series and could fight off a strong claim to the gloves from Peter Nevill, who has been in good knick with the bat in Australia’s brief warm-up games.

Following on from a trend they set a decade ago, Australia bat deep into the line-up with the ability to transform scores of 150-7 into a 300+ score. Just ask the West Indies what that felt like a few months ago.

And, after the tail wags, the bowlers can rip through any batting line-up as Johnson, Starc and new recruit Josh Hazlewood get stuck in with the new cherry.

Like England, spin is their weakness with Nathan Lyon looking every bit as vulnerable as Moeen Ali amongst both sides’ star contingent of seamers.

So, the moral of this preview is not to believe the early predictions. Both sides look a match for each other but perhaps Australia carry the greater confidence into the series.

That could well translate into an early series lead, but can we write off England after their recent improvement? Definitely not.

This could be one doozy of an Ashes series.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

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2015 Tour de France preview: Big four set to do battle

The 2015 Tour de France begins on Saturday in Holland as cycling’s ‘big four’ start their hugely-anticipated fight for the most coveted Grand Tour of the season.

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali will be up against 2013 winner Chris Froome, 2013 runner-up Nairo Quintana and two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador.

This elite quartet only face one another on very rare occasions, so to have each of them prepared for a tilt at the General Classification victory is a mouthwatering prospect.

The contenders

As the reigning champion, Nibali arguably has the most to lose. The cycling community is under no illusions that his eight-minute win in the Tour last year was significantly enhanced by mid-Tour injuries to Froome and Contador.

Nibali has also been labelled as the weakest of the quartet, but having won all three Grand Tours this is a grossly unfair tag to pin on him.

Early indicators on a likely victor are swayed slightly by June’s week-long Criterium du Dauphine.

Froome came away as the stronger rider after being given a big scare by Tejay van Garderen, who is showing signs of delivering the big Tour performance his talent demands.

Nibali played a very tactical race, pushing no further than he wanted and attacking on a wet stage to briefly take the yellow jersey before losing it on another mountainous stage.

Contador and Quintana elected to race the Route du Sud and Contador, fresh from his Giro d’Italia win, narrowly beat the Colombian to boost his hopes of a Giro-Tour double.

If Contador did manage to win in Paris on the 26th July he would become the first rider since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve the Giro-Tour brace.

For the mysterious Quintana, this is an opportunity to scare his closest rivals.

The diminutive Colombian has been training at home in the Andes and has picked his races very precisely. His massive accelerations are perhaps the strongest on the roster and he will be backed by his sneaky and astute Movistar team.

In many people’s opinion, Quintana is the favourite for the Tour with Froome a very close second.

Froome’s playground of the time-trial has been reduced, with the opening 13.8km TT and the team TT on stage nine the only chances to gain GC time against the clock.

His Dauphine win suggests he is in the ideal place to step up his Tour preparations and he won’t fear Quintana having left him for dead on the legendary Mont Ventoux ascent in 2013.

The Stages

The first stage in Utrecht is too long to be called a prologue, but the tiny distance will still favour the specialist time-triallers with Tom Dumoulin hoping to become the first Dutchman for over 20 years to wear the maillot jaune.

A tricky stage two takes place along the coast of the Netherlands, with crosswinds set to tear the race apart.

Stage three will traverse the Mur-de-Huy with gradients of 19%, before a brutal day over the cobblestones on stage four will undoubtedly separate the GC contenders.

From there, the sprinters will contest three flat stages before the race ramps upwards on stage eight and the opening week finishes with the intriguing team time-trial.

The second week looks horrendous, with the first summit finish on the ‘Hors categorie’ Col de Soudet on stage ten starting a run of imperious Pyrenean stages that will provide the perfect battleground for the big four.

Stage 11 features six categorised climbs and will pass over the highest point of the race – the Col du Tourmalet – which tops out at 2,115m.

If those two Pyrenean beauties weren’t enough, the last of them features two category one climbs and a final slog up the Hors categorie climb to Plateau de Beille.

The race then takes a breather before rolling over a stage featured in the Dauphine, a testing trip to Pra Loup, with a technical descent deep into the stage that could spell carnage.

The riders will definitely know they’re in the Alps when they hit the next stage, with seven categorised climbs.

Stage 19 is the penultimate mountain stage, but features over 70km of climbing before the queen stage, which finishes atop the classic Alpe d’Huez.

ASO, the Tour organisers, are hoping the winning move will be made on the slopes of that famous mountain, and it would certainly be spectacular if those hopes came true.

The Brits

A big British contingent will grace the Tour this year, with ten riders taking the start. Five of them ride for Team Sky – Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Peter Kennaugh and Luke Rowe – while Mark Cavendish, Alex Dowsett, Adam Yates, Simon Yates and Steve Cummings complete the line-up.

Realistically, Froome will be the Brit with the most to gain. His British team-mates will be riding in full support for him and, unless anything happens to their leader, they won’t chase stage wins.

Cavendish will naturally be a threat on the sprint stages and he needs three more victories to equal the great Bernard Hinault on 28 stage wins and move joint-second on the all-time list behind Eddy Merckx.

Look out for the Yates brothers too, who have been given the licence by their team Orica GreenEdge to hunt for stage wins. Simon also finished an impressive fifth in the Dauphine and could sneak into the top three young riders overall.

The jerseys

The yellow jersey is almost certainly an exclusive battle between the big four, but van Garderen has enough about him to keep pace with them – just how much of a challenge he puts up is unknown, but his Dauphine exploits mean he cannot be ruled out.

Nor can French duo Thibault Pinot and Romain Bardet, who are leading home hopes again and who will keep improving as France searches for a first home-grown Tour winner in 30 years.

The white jersey, given to the best young rider, will almost certainly go to Nairo Quintana, as will the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey if he cannot claim yellow.

The green jersey, given to the best sprinter, is going to be a fight between Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff, but with more points on offer for flat stage wins, don’t discount Cavendish.

A la Cartè

Some interesting little additions have been made to the Tour this year, with time bonuses of ten, six and four seconds available to the first three finishers on stages two to eight.

The 2015 Tour will also see the first African-based team compete. MTN Qhubeka have long been competing in and around the World Tour, but this is their first full season on the books and they will look to make a big impact with Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot going in search of a stage win and possibly the polka dot jersey.

But the sub-plots, for once, are just that as the big-four showdown finally happens.

Cycling fans have waited for years for a GC line-up as massive as this, and it has now come to pass.

Let’s hope the racing lives up to the hype.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

My Day at Wimbledon 2015

You can’t help but feel particularly British when you go to Wimbledon.

Is it the tradition? Maybe the strawberries and cream? It definitely wasn’t the weather, which was well above 30C on day two of the 2015 championships.

Perhaps the most quintessentially British thing we did on the day was to queue, and there was a lot to do.

Arriving in good time for a grounds admission ticket at 07:30 we were flabbergasted to see the grounds already at capacity with our queue card informing us we were 8,702nd and 8,703rd in what Wimbledon terms ‘The Queue’.

We faced an eight hour wait. We were not amused. All of this while the sun was frazzling our necks, arms and faces and getting hotter all the time.

Our spirits were lifted while in The Queue by people offering free coffee, water and squash – very welcome in the heat where shade was at a premium.

There were even paper boys and girls trying to shift copies of the Guardian and Telegraph, complete with free gift. It’s fair to say they were flogging a dead horse. It would have been more popular if that gift was a ticket to end the misery of waiting.

Still, with honorary stewards telling us we wouldn’t get in until five or six o’clock, we were delighted to make it in by half-past three, with eight hours of queuing behind us and a generous six hours of play still to go.

Once inside it’s amazing to see how compact the outer courts are.

We first set eyes on Ajla Tomljanovic against Klara Koukalova, but just yards away Jelena Jankovic was capturing a large crowd on court 17.

On our way to watching Andy Murray on Murray Mount (or should that be Henman Hill?) we even had time to glimpse Ernests Gulbis playing Lukas Rosol.

Trying to get a seat on said Mount (or Hill) was tough, with security quickly preventing anyone from lurking on a walkway. Eventually, we found a rare piece of SW19 real estate to park ourselves on and we settled down to enjoy Murray’s game on the big screen along with thousands of others.

After that we watched an entertaining men’s doubles match on court four before investing the last part of our day on court three with Madison Keys taking on Stefanie Voegele.

This was the pick of the matches we saw as Voegele took the first set before Keys staged a fightback to level at one set apiece.

With Keys hitting some beautiful winners in the setting sun it was surprising when she complained about the light at ten-past nine when she had just levelled at 2-2 in the third.

Voegele wasn’t best pleased, understandably, but the tactic paid off for Keys as she won through earlier today.

So, after a combination of sun, lots of queuing and finally some wonderful tennis everything turned out fine.

Maybe we’ll camp next year, though.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089