All posts by Ed Krarup

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Ireland’s Slam success – Six Nations 2018 Review

The Guinness flowed in London on St Patrick’s Day as Ireland defeated England at Twickenham to win the Six Nations and complete a Grand Slam, only the third in their history.

Italy, meanwhile, pushed Scotland all the way in Rome, but a late Greig Laidlaw penalty edged a 29-27 victory for Gregor Townsend’s side.

And in Cardiff, Wales defied expectation to finish second in the Championship courtesy of a 14-13 victory over France.

Before the tournament there were plenty of questions yet to be answered ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan and many were addressed during this year’s tournament.

6th: Italy

Another Wooden Spoon for the Italians, but this was to be expected. The Azzurri gave Scotland quite a fright on the final day but otherwise provided little threat throughout the tournament.

Head coach Conor O’Shea and his staff could not spring any more surprises like they did against England in 2017, but one particularly positive note was the breakthrough of Matteo Minozzi.

The full-back only made his first start for Italy against England – having made his debut last November – but was a constant nuisance to opposition defences with his pace and handling proving difficult to stop.

Following the tournament opener against England, the 21-year-old scored tries in four consecutive matches – the first Italian to do so – and was deservedly nominated for the player of the tournament.

While Italy may have progressed as a team, so has everyone else. And with Scotland’s strong performances this year the Italians have been left behind as the only ‘easy’ game in the fixture list.

Next year will be their 20th appearance in the Six Nations, so they must disrupt those at the top of the table if they are to quash the on-going calls for promotion and relegation.

5th: England

On paper, it appears that England are in a crisis.

This was their lowest finish for 35 years in a tournament that included a first loss to Scotland in 10 years and a first Six Nations defeat at Twickenham since 2012.

Head coach Eddie Jones had only lost once with England before the tournament and confidence was high with a young, talented squad capable of beating anyone.

So what went wrong?

Damage was done in the first game against Italy. Ben Youngs limped off and the scrum-half was ruled out for the rest of the Championship with damaged knee ligaments.

His replacement, Danny Care, is a firecracker of a player but most effective when brought on for the final 20 minutes. When playing from the start the 31-year-old tends to fizzle out, such are the demands of international rugby.

England no longer had their metronomic No.9 to keep the forwards and backs ticking to the same rhythm but the problems go deeper.

Injuries did play a part. The absence of No.8 Billy Vunipola was noted, and while Exeter Chiefs pair Sam Simmonds and Dom Armand, along with Sam Underhill, performed admirably they did not have the same devastating effect as the Saracen with ball in hand.

Jones said following the Ireland defeat “some players may struggle to participate in future”. After a succession of losses, perhaps change is necessary, but worryingly there are few players demanding to be brought into the squad.

Back row James Haskell and Richard Wigglesworth seem to be nearing the end of their international journey, but they are not integral players.

This could well be another lesson in man-management from Jones, that no player, no matter how experienced, is assured of caps.

The captaincy debate will linger and this needs to be sorted quickly. Jamie George continues to pressure current skipper Dylan Hartley for the No.2 shirt, but whether Jones will pull the trigger and ask the Northampton man to step down, relinquishing both the captaincy and starting hooker position, is a question only the Australian can answer.

Owen Farrell seems a likely replacement for the captaincy, so a contingency plan is in place. Now it is up to Jones to make a decision. Soon.

4th: France

One positive that France can take away from this year’s Six Nations is that in the opening match they took eventual Grand Slam champions Ireland all the way.

Celebrations in Dublin would have been very different had Johnny Sexton failed in his last-play drop goal attempt.

A win in Le Crunch against England will always satisfy the demanding French supporters, but there were undertones of discontent.

Fans fondly remember the days of Didier Camberabero and Phillipe Saint-Andre, whose individual sparks would combine and explode into attacking moves that few teams could defend.

Even Freddie Michalak could get the Stade de France on its feet with his extraordinary vision and passing play.

But the Les Bleus seemed to neglect these qualities for which they were so revered. They seem unwilling to be daring or as brave as French teams have been in the past. The victory against Italy in Marseille highlighted this. Two opportunities to kick deep into the opposition 22 were overlooked with the three points being seen as the better option.

France won the game but could not muster a fourth try that would have given them an extra bonus point.

Head coach Jacques Brunel inherited a team lacking confidence and an identity of how they wanted to play. The use of electric runners such as Teddy Thomas clashed with midfield brutes like Mathieu Bastareaud, but the 64-year-old has at least found a way to win big games.

This ability to beat top teams will be very useful in 18 months time.

3rd: Scotland

Gregor Townsend’s side were seen as the wildcard going into the tournament.

Stunning victories, both home and away, came against Australia in 2017, and Murrayfield nearly collapsed last autumn when Stuart Hogg’s dash to the line in the last play against the All Blacks was cut short to deny them an astonishing win over the world champions.

But Scottish optimism was severely tested during their opening match against Wales. 14-0 after 13 minutes in Cardiff, and the away supporters forgot previous successes. The match ended 34-7 in the hosts’ favour, a flattering scoreline when you consider Scotland scored their try and conversion in the 79th minute.

However, as the tournament progressed, Scotland’s central players took responsibility. Captain John Barclay was magnificent as his side beat England to win the Calcutta Cup for the first time in 10 years.

His work at the breakdown was similar to that of Richie McCaw or Michael Hooper as England simply could not force penalties or achieve the quick ball needed to unleash the backs.

When 10-6 to Scotland, England were launching an attack into the opposition 22 but Barclay dug, forcing the turnover which ultimately lead to Huw Jones breaking the line once again and floating a pass out wide for Sean Maitland to score.

Jones was another who made a difference and is becoming the prolific try scorer his country has lacked. 10 touchdowns in 15 international appearances does not flatter him.

And when tries were not available Greig Laidlaw kicked perfectly whenever called upon. Against France his kicking was flawless, notching eight from eight including six penalties. The 32-26 scoreline in favour of Scotland was almost entirely thanks to their scrum-half.

The Scots certainly made their presence known having been slightly anonymous in previous years. If they continue to take down tournament front runners, soon enough they will become one themselves.

2nd: Wales

2018 was always going to be a year of experimentation for Warren Gatland’s side.

No longer could their previous style of narrow, forwards-based rugby be used as effectively as in the past. Change was necessary.

And this change required reinforcement. Hadleigh Parkes provided the oomph in midfield that has been missing since Jamie Roberts’ departure from the international scene.

Meanwhile Steff Evans gave a good account of himself as he continues to find his feat in Test rugby. Five tries in nine appearances so far – including a stunning one-handed finish against Scotland in the first round – put him on scoring parity with the great Shane Williams. Still a long way to go however…

The winger, and those inside him, were put to good use as Wales’ more expansive play got results, but fortune was integral to their success.

Wales were gifted all of their points in the 14-13 victory over France, and Francois Trinh-Duc’s missed penalty handed the Welsh a fortunate win in Cardiff.

However, no conversation regarding Welsh rugby can omit the forwards. Captain Alun Wyn Jones inspired his team once again, commanding the line-out with few problems, while back row Aaron Shingler caught the eye, combining ease with ball in hand whilst also doing the dirty work at the breakdown.

Gatland will be satisfied with his team’s work this year but the New Zealander will demand much more before he leaves his role after the World Cup.

Champions: Ireland

Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland are the real deal.

The Kiwi’s side have overtaken England and are now second in the world rankings, and can now expect to be present during the latter stages of next year’s World Cup.

They entered the tournament with a settled squad – only one uncapped player was included – but it was the relatively new Jacob Stockdale who lit up Championship.

The winger scored seven tries – a tournament record – in his first Six Nations campaign, and now has as many tries as he has caps 10 matches into his international career.

But the entire team welded together, all doing exactly what was required to win. While Stockdale was crossing the whitewash, Keith Earls provided invaluable experience on the other wing, and his try-saving tackle on Elliot Daly – tapping his heels – denied England a near-certain try.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton showed their usual class.

This was expected but they still had a job to do. Murray marshalled the Irish forwards for over 40 phases before Sexton lashed over a drop-goal from 40m in the final play to defeat France in the first round. Very few half back combinations in the world could replicate that.

And up front, Tadgh Furlong held the Irish scrum firm, allowing CJ Stander to carry from No.8. His 96 carries throughout the Championship was the second most in tournament history, only behind the 104 the Munsterman himself made last year.

Both led the pack along with captain and hooker Rory Best to make Ireland one of the most complete teams in the world right now.

Japan 2019 can’t come soon enough.

Ireland rugby image courtesy of Liam Moloney via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The path that leads to cricketing stardom is changing

There were a few surprises in this year’s Indian Premier League auction.

Ben Stokes was once again the big-ticket item, joining the Rajasthan Royals for £1.4m, but his Test captain Joe Root – considered one of the best batsmen in the world – was unable to secure a contract.

Knowing quite what those with the rupees are looking for is mightily difficult.

Previous records at IPL, Test, or even first-class level don’t count for as much with these selectors.

They need box office performances as often as possible and they need them now.

The path a young cricketer takes from the academy to global superstar is changing.

Composure under pressure

15 years ago, the approach taken for a player to become world-renowned was very different. Let’s take England’s Ian Bell as an example.

In 2003, a 21-year-old Bell had an indifferent season for Warwickshire. He scored 779 runs at an average of 28.85 with only one century in 16 matches.

But his temperament at the crease and ability to maintain his composed technique under pressure forced the England selectors to take notice.

The Australians had no answer to Bell’s batting during the 2013 Ashes series

A year later, he was in the Test side and despite taking a few years to fully adapt, he eventually became one of the most elegant batsmen to play for England, winning 118 caps and scoring 7,727 runs at an average of 42.69.

While a mainstay in the England team, it was only during the 2013 home Ashes series against Australia that Bell established himself as one of the world’s best – at the time – as he scored 562 runs at 62.44 with three centuries.

Previous criticisms that the Warwickshire batsman rarely scored runs when those around him couldn’t were dismissed. A 3-0 series victory flattered the hosts, as other than Bell, no English batsman averaged more than 39.

Bell was deservedly awarded the Man of the Series and with it a well-earned place amongst those at the top of the game.

It took a long time for Bell to earn global recognition for his talents. While he was a part of the England team in all formats from 2004 onwards, it was not until several years after his debut that he was firmly at the heart of a well-oiled winning machine, this being Andy Flower’s side who reached No.1 in the world rankings.

But in today’s game there are players who are embarking on rather different routes to stardom.

Leaving his mark down under

One big story to come out of the IPL auction was the Rajasthan Royals purchase of young all-rounder Jofra Archer for £800,000.

But the Bajan’s route to T20 cricket’s biggest tournament does not follow the path of those of taken by his older team-mates.

Archer with Sussex team-mate Chris Jordan

He first received attention when bowling at Chris Jordan in a net session in Barbados, who subsequently recommended that his coaches at Sussex take a look at Archer.

After signing on a pay-as-you-play contract because of injury concerns the all-rounder flourished on the south coast, proving his fitness, and ability to transform games in equal measure.

The 22-year-old was awarded a full professional contract in 2016 and a fabulous 2017 followed. He averaged 45.57 with the bat – scoring 638 runs including five 50s. But it was his performance with the ball that made headlines: 61 wickets at 25.29 apiece was no fluke.

This is where the careers of Archer and Bell diverge. While a 22-year-old Bell would have headed to the nets for the winter to consolidate his county form and continue to push for Test recognition, Archer has spent this last winter playing for the Hobart Hurricanes in the Big Bash – Australia’s franchise T20 competition.

And he has been sensational. Meaty blows at the end of the innings have been useful, but once again his bowling has been the headline act. Fifteen wickets at 21.53 launched his side to the final – where they were ultimately defeated by a stunning Jake Weatherald century. This combined with his electric fielding has got the cricket world chattering.

Then the Royals swooped in and Archer will now have the platform to perform on domestic cricket’s biggest stage.

Now the wait

The IPL has given the Sussex seamer the opportunity to gain worldwide recognition before he even sets foot on the international scene. Archer has expressed his desire to play for England but due to residency issues – having been born in Barbados – he will not be eligible until the winter of 2022.

But Archer could be a superstar long before then.

With no international commitments the all-rounder will be available to play in most of the global franchise tournaments, and while benefitting his bank account, he will also raise his profile significantly by playing with those at the top of the game.

Compliments from his esteemed peers have only enhanced his reputation with South Africa quick Dale Steyn saying: “This kid is going to be special!”

So when 2022 does arrive, if Archer builds on his explosive form, he will enter the international scene already a box office asset.

The way cricket was 15 years ago allowed Bell to develop whilst an international player, but today, with the volume of cricket played and increasing number of global tournaments and lengthy series, cricketers must be the real deal as soon as they get the call up.

And on current evidence Archer certainly is. From an England perspective, if only 2022 were sooner…

NatWest Six Nations logo

Six Nations 2018 preview

The 2018 Six Nations kicks off on February 3rd, with the 2019 World Cup only 18 months down the line.

Now is the time to trial and execute new combinations as head coaches ponder who will make their starting XV in Japan. Come next year’s Six Nations, the time for experimentation will surely be over.

In the meantime, of course, those coaches will also be trying to win the northern hemisphere’s premier rugby competition.

With 15 matches to look forward to between now and March 17th, let’s assess the state of each team heading into the tournament.

England

Head coach Eddie Jones’ side have been leading the pack since the Australian’s appointment following the 2015 World Cup.

A grand slam in 2016 was backed up with the title in 2017 – a final day loss away to Ireland was all that denied them another undefeated campaign and ended a record 18 match unbeaten run, level with New Zealand’s world record.

But there have been recent undertones of apprehension. While England did win all three of their autumn internationals – against Argentina, Australia and Samoa – performances were not convincing.

‘The back line is as exciting as ever, with try-scoring potential in every position, and a hat-trick of titles should still be the aim’

Jones described the Argentina victory as a “grindathon”, while the 30-6 win over Australia was dominated by the visitors’ misfortune at the hands of the TMO when at 13-11 down in the second half the Wallabies had a try contentiously disallowed.

Three late tries flattered the hosts that day, while a dominant 48-14 result over Samoa taught us very little considering the standard of the opposition.

England will rely once again on ever-efficient fly-half Owen Farrell, who has proven himself as a world-class talent. Similarly, Farrell’s Saracens team-mate Jamie George has raised his profile courtesy of some strong performances for the British and Irish Lions – whether the hooker will start over captain Dylan Hartley is a call only Jones can make.

Back row frailties are a concern. Billy Vunipola’s fractured arm has ruled him out of the tournament, while his deputy Nathan Hughes will also miss the start of the Championship.

Exeter’s Sam Simmonds has been impressive but questions still linger as to whether he is more effective as a flanker. This leaves “apprentice” Zach Mercer as England’s next best option at No.8.

Jones has been insistent that the 20-year-old Bath forward should remain on the sidelines while learning from his elders, but his impressive club performances, combined with a lack of other options, may bring his debut forward.

The back line is as exciting as ever, with try-scoring potential in every position, and a hat-trick of titles should still be the aim.

Injuries may be an issue in certain positions, namely in the back row, but England are still the second-ranked side in the world behind only the All Blacks. Home fixtures against Wales and Ireland are invaluable, and Jones’ side must take advantage.

Stuart Hogg is Scotland’s star man

Scotland

Head coach Gregor Townsend has breathed new life into what was a lacklustre Scotland attack, with full-back Stuart Hogg as its fulcrum.

It has been many years since the Scots have had a genuinely world-class player, but Hogg certainly is, and despite being injured since December, opponents will still regard him as a serious threat.

Scotland will also be buoyed by the return of Greig Laidlaw from a fractured ankle, while Finn Russell will continue to pull the strings at fly-half.

Scotland enjoyed a remarkable second half of 2017. They beat Australia in Sydney during the summer and continued their progress in the autumn.

Samoa were professionally dealt with before the Scots came agonisingly close to the greatest victory in their history as they gave the All Blacks an almighty fright, losing only by 22-17. 

Hogg’s ultimately unsuccessful dash to the line in the last play nearly took the roof off Murrayfield’s stands.

But it was their sensational win over Australia a week later that would have brought the most pleasure, as the home side piled over 50 points past the 2015 Rugby World Cup runners-up.

While perhaps not quite ready to put together a serious title challenge, it would be foolish for anyone to expect an easy match against them.

Ireland

England named eight uncapped players in their initial squad for the tournament, meanwhile Ireland have only one. A settled squad is an invaluable asset for head coach Joe Schmidt, who will be looking to build on an impressive autumn.

Back row CJ Stander was outstanding in the 38-3 win over South Africa – the largest margin of victory for Ireland over the Springboks – and his interference at the breakdown will be essential to nullifying the Championship’s expansive back lines.

Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton and Connor Murray remain one of the world’s most effective half-back combinations, if they continue to conduct those outside them as they have done in recent years, the Irish will be mightily difficult to stop.

A trip to Paris in the opening round will be no easy test, while they wrap up the tournament with the most difficult challenge of them all, against a vengeful England at Twickenham – having denied them the grand slam last year.

Ireland have been a perpetual disappointment at the World Cup, never getting beyond the quarter-finals, but Schmidt’s current side look like the real deal with players that could walk into any international side.

In the lead up to Japan 2019 they will be desperate to prove they can compete on the world stage, and that lead up starts now.

Wales

Wales have enjoyed success over the past decade playing ‘Warrenball’, a forwards-based game devised by coach Warren Gatland and designed to sap the energy out of the opposition through prolonged phases and repeatedly breaking the gain line.

It has been very effective but unfortunately for Wales, others have started playing it, too.

Now the New Zealander must devise a new strategy but without all the weapons in his arsenal. As of next season, Gatland must prepare for life without some of his biggest names.

‘Wales are underdogs, but if their new style of play can find its rhythm they will be a very difficult side to put away’

Players must play their club rugby in Wales or have over 60 caps if they play abroad. One of the casualties will be scrum-half Rhys Webb who is moving to Toulon next season, possessing has only 31 caps.

Full-back Liam Williams is another who is in danger of losing his eligibility. The Saracen has won 45 caps and will need to play most, if not all, of Wales’ fixtures in 2018 if he is to be selected next year.

Both will be enormous losses, and Wales need to find a way to replace them. This year’s Championship may be considered a trial run for Gatland, testing new combinations of those who will be eligible for selection under the new rule.

One particularly exciting prospect is Scarlets flanker James Davies, who has been in stunning form in the Pro14. Seen as a direct replacement for the injured Dan Lydiate, Davies is disciplined defender with lightning quick hands whose call up has been labelled as “criminally overdue” considering the flanker is 27 years old.

Compared to the rest of the tournament frontrunners, Wales are underdogs, but if their new style of play can find its rhythm they will be a very difficult side to put away.

France

Antione Dupont – the scrum-half is considered to be a big part of France’s next generation

Head coach Jaques Brunel faces a huge task, having only took charge in December following the sacking of Guy Noves after two years in the job.

Noves was dismissed after a disappointing autumn, not winning once in four games, including a 23-23 draw to Japan. He only won seven of his 21 games in charge, so France will be eager for a fresh start, and Brunel is certainly aiming for one.

The ex-Italy coach called up 19-year-old fly-half Matthieu Jalibert to potentially make his international debut, and chatter in France suggests he is quite the talent, a player with natural speed and game management whilst improving constantly.

Comparisons with New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett aren’t entirely unfounded.

France’s build-up to the tournament has been disrupted by off-field issues, specifically Mathieu Bastareaud’s suspension for making a homophobic remark whilst playing for Toulon.

Whether he returns after his three-week ban is speculative, but what is certain is that they will miss his brutality in the midfield, and with fellow centre Wesley Fofana also injured – and set to miss the entire tournament – France will have big shoes to fill.

The current starting half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Anthony Belleau have a combined age of 42, but despite their inexperience were ever-present during the poor autumn.

But bear in mind two of those four games were against the All Blacks, with another against South Africa, so this upcoming tournament with more even opposition should be a real indication of France’s future heading towards Japan 2019.

Italy

Italy’s results in the autumn tell us very little about their current state. A loss to South Africa and win against Fiji came either side of another loss to Argentina, where they conceded 17 unanswered points in the final 20 minutes to lose 31-15.

The Azzuri play like their countrymen drive, unpredictably, but in head coach Conor O’Shea they have a trump card.

The Irishman’s tactics against England last year – where his players refused to commit to rucks, thereby stopping them from legally forming and causing utter chaos at the breakdown – set off a chain of events resulting in the laws being changed, but it did temporarily halt an England side who were previously on top form.

England eventually came through 36-15 winners, but the visitors’ performance was not to be forgotten.

Trips to Dublin, Paris and Cardiff make life very difficult for the Italians, but under the leadership of the inspirational Sergio Parisse there will be no shortage of passion.

Prediction

1. England – Grand Slam winners

2. Ireland

3. Wales

4. Scotland

5. France

6. Italy

harry gurney

Harry Gurney on the art of bowling at the death

England fans have painful memories of Ben Stokes’ inability to nail that yorker and protect 19 runs in the final over of the World T20 in 2016.

Carlos Brathwaite’s four consecutive sixes for the West Indies in Kolkata will forever haunt both Stokes and his team-mates and those watching aghast on the sofa at home.

It sounds a lot, 19 runs, but bowling at the death is not easy.

Back on our shores, Nottinghamshire head coach Peter Moores told me that of the three competition successes his side enjoyed in 2017, the T20 Blast victory was the most pleasurable.

And for that a great deal of credit must go to left-arm seamer Harry Gurney, whose tight bowling late on secured both the semi-final and the final.

Elephant Sport met with the bowler to discuss the art of bowling at the death.

Having a blast at finals day

Gurney celebrates beating Birmingham Bears in the final

In the semi-final of the T20 Blast against Hampshire, the dangerous trio of Liam Dawson, Gareth Berg and Kyle Abbott all fell victim to one Gurney over, the 18th of the innings, leaving Hampshire with one wicket remaining and too many to get.

And in the final, the 31-year-old opened his box of cutters and back-of-the-hand slower balls to which the Birmingham Bears had no reply.

The removal of New Zealander Colin de Grandhomme in the 15th over and Sam Hain in the 19th – the former with a T20 strike rate well above 160 while the latter was well set on 72 – edged Notts ever closer to their second white ball trophy of the summer.

In that final, Gurney was the right man for the job.

“In T20 cricket, I’m the captain’s go-to man. If he feels like there is a situation arising where he needs a wicket or a tight over I’m the man he’ll come to.

“De Grandhomme was starting to motor [in a partnership with Hain] and we thought if he gets going here they could still win this.”

But the seamer outfoxed the danger man, with the Kiwi misreading a slower ball and chopping onto his own stumps.

Gurney returned to bowl the penultimate over of the match. The Bears needed 34 from 12 balls, a difficult task but Hain was playing beautifully while Aaron Thomason was more than capable of clearing the rope.

Destiny

Gurney said: “I have always bowled the last two overs from one end [in T20 cricket]. I enjoy bowling at that time, I like to be in control of my own destiny.”

And enjoy it he did, conceding only five runs and removing both occupiers of the crease, leaving the Bears requiring 29 from the final over with two new batsmen.

Birmingham simply could not decipher Gurney’s action, his variety of lengths and speed making him near impossible to dispatch to the boundary.

Jake Ball followed the script in the final over and the Outlaws won by 22 runs. Gurney finished the day with figures of 7-34, the best ever in the history of this tournament finale.

Hard work

But how does a bowler develop these skills? Any professional can land the ball where they require but scoreboard pressure can alter the trajectory of a delivery far more drastically than seam position.

“But I also might find a ball out of nowhere that takes a wicket”

“The main reason is hard work. At the end of practice, when everyone else is done, I take myself off to a pitch on the side, put a cone down and I won’t be happy until I’ve nailed that yorker a few times.

“I’ve always prided myself on my work ethic with regard to those variations and that is now combined with a few years executing those skills in the middle.

“People know I might leak the odd boundary but I also might find a ball out of nowhere that takes a wicket”

But it is the slower ball that makes the left-armer such a threat.

“I’ve got two slower balls, the one that comes out the back of my hand and the one where I roll my fingers down the side. Then I pair those with either a length ball, a bouncer or a yorker.

“But I didn’t bowl a bouncer on finals day, it just didn’t feel right.”

Have England missed a trick?

Representing England in 2014

On finals day Gurney was spot on. His economy for the day was a staggering 4.86 runs per over.

Those figures are enough to win any T20 game and this was no accident with the precision and skill of his bowling being the clear product of hours of hard work.

“It’s a funny phrase isn’t it, ‘hard work’. There’s only so hard being a professional sportsman could be.”

But it paid off and many took notice, including Rob Smyth writing in The Guardian, who said: “England must be a bloody good T20 side if they don’t need him”

They certainly could have done with Gurney on that night in Kolkata.

Peter Moores

Moores guides Notts back to English cricket’s elite

The summer of 2017 was one of unparalleled success for Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club.

They achieved something remarkable, powering their way to victory in both the Royal London One Day Cup and the T20 Blast as well as winning promotion back to Division One of the County Championship.

Elephant Sport sat down with head coach Peter Moores at Trent Bridge to get to the bottom of Notts’ near perfect season.

How to take a loss

“We had a great time as a squad last summer,” said Moores. “We had a real laugh with it.

“But we worked really hard, and with that we got rewards.”

The Midlands county started the season at a frightening pace, decimating all before them in the opening rounds of the Championship, winning their first three matches convincingly.

In those games no team scored more than 251 before being dismissed by the unstoppable bowling attack of Stuart Broad, Jake Ball, Harry Gurney and Luke Fletcher.

Overseas import Australian James Pattinson was devastating with the new ball but once he, Broad and Ball were called up for international duty the Outlaws struggled to replace them.

Successive defeats kicked off the Royal London campaign and a sense of trepidation began to linger around Trent Bridge.

Nottinghamshire had only won one white ball competition since 1991 before this season, and a club with facilities and stature such as theirs would be disappointed with such an empty trophy cabinet.

But attitudes changed under Moores after he was appointed at the end of the 2016 season.

Inspired

“I really enjoyed how we managed to take a loss. We started the season well but you’ve got to do it over a period of time, not just the first few weeks of the season when everybody’s up for it,” Moores said.

Hales celebrates reaching his century in the Royal London One Day Cup final

Following their initial two Royal London defeats, Notts lost only one of their next nine games in the competition, culminating in an Alex Hales inspired victory against Surrey in the final.

The opener scored a sensational 187 not out – the highest individual one-day score at Lord’s – as Notts chased down Surrey’s 297.

And Moores credits this victory to the preparation his team made earlier in the season.

“We pitched up at every game ready to play, we didn’t just go through the motions. And when we did get to the latter stages of competitions we were used to playing with that high intensity.

“This is what you need to do to win tournaments.”

T20 triumph

But Moores’ side did not settle for one success.

At the carnival that is T20 Finals Day, Samit Patel and Harry Gurney inspired Nottinghamshire as they defeated Hampshire in the semi-final before beating Warwickshire in the final.

Patel during his game-changing innings

Both Patel and Gurney were outstanding throughout the day.

Patel’s 64 not out in the final came in a 132 run partnership with Brendan Taylor (65), that dragged Notts to a very defendable 190-4 from their 20 overs despite being 30-3 when the pair met at the crease.

And Gurney gave the England selectors plenty to think about, bowling magnificently throughout the day, sealing their place in the final with three wickets in four balls late in the semi before snaring 4-17 in the final. His combined figures for the day of 7-34 are the best in the history of this tournament finale.

“The T20 Blast win was probably the most pleasurable in that we had already won a trophy. We could have easily taken our foot off the gas [after the Royal London win] and taken a backward step,” said the 55 year-old.

“The lads got tight again and worked really hard. We found a way to win.”

Back in Division One

In the late September sunshine, the men from Robin Hood’s county secured the draw they required against Sussex in Hove to seal second place and promotion from Division Two.

The ex-England coach reflected fondly on that autumn afternoon. “Often, in seasons like this, you remember particular defining moments. And there was a great one right at the end when [captain] Chris Read got his hundred and we got promoted.”

The wicket keeper was playing his final match as a professional and celebrated a fabulous career with his 26th first class century in his 349th match.

The 39 year-old’s 124 contributed to Notts’ 477 in the first innings, effectively negating the enormous 565 Sussex had scored batting first.

Sussex did not have enough time to force a result and the draw confirmed Nottinghamshire’s immediate return to Division One following relegation in 2016.

Platform to perform

Notts are determined not to re-enter English cricket’s elite as underdogs.

“We aim to win the Championship,” Moores asserted. “Backing up success is always a tough one so we’ve got a big challenge this coming season.”

‘We have fun but the players, and me as a coach, are continually trying to get better. That’s what gets you out of bed in the morning’

Some may say this confidence from Moores places unnecessary pressure on his players, but the head coach is keen for his squad to confront these fears of failure.

“To win anything you have got to take pressure, so you have got to be ready to as an individual and as a team. There are going to be certain situations when the pressure is going to be on you to deliver, but that’s the fun of professional sport.

“My coaching style is to try and help people build belief, belief is the fuel of the player. I try and help them go out and perform not because they believe they can, but because they do not believe they can’t”

And Nottinghamshire provides that platform for players to perform.

“The club has a village atmosphere within a Test match ground. The pavilion is very intimate and it helps players connect with what they are playing for.

“There have been brilliant players before and there will be brilliant players after so this current lot must look after the traditions and respects that make up our club”

Repeating the successes of 2017 will be challenging. But Moores and his staff have a measured approach.

“We break the season down into sections, and we work hard. But hopefully the players realise ‘this isn’t work, I’ve got the chance to achieve something great’”

“And we have fun but the players, and me as a coach, are continually trying to get better. That’s what gets you out of bed in the morning.”

‘It was the quickest thing I had ever faced’

A chapter of cricketing history will come to a close in December as England play an Ashes Test at the WACA ground in Perth for the final time.

But before cricketing activities relocate to the new stadium across the Swan River, Steve Harmison, who played in two Ashes Tests at the ground, shared his memories of the famous arena with Elephant Sport.

An England cricket team first entered the WACA during the 1970/71 series and five days of play later, they left the West Coast disappointed with a draw. Eight years down the line Bob Willis and John Lever decimated the Australian batting order, England won by an unflattering 166 runs.

But in the 39 years and 10 matches since, England have not won a single Test in this bear-pit of a stadium; in fact, they haven’t come close.

Harmison is a man who’s only too familiar with this graveyard for English success.

He is the proud owner of 63 Test caps, gained between 2002 and 2009, winning two Ashes series in 2005 and 2009, and was once the number one ranked bowler in the world.

But being the best is no hiding place in the cricketing equivalent of Hades.

Blood pouring

“I’ve not got many good memories of that place, to be honest I’ve got a fair few bad ones,” laughed the 39-year-old paceman.

‘He got booed, but that didn’t make me feel any better’

Harmison first visited the western city in Test match colours during the 2002/03 series, where he was met with a rather aggressive introduction.

As expected, the pitch was hard, cracked and nasty. Spectators winced as a Brett Lee delivery spat off the surface and barged through the gap between Alex Tudor’s helmet and grill at 90 mph.

The English tail-ender hit the ground with blood pouring from his face. Lee even rushed over, instantly offering his apologies, such was the severity of the injury.

Tudor retired hurt; next man in was Harmison. “I remember getting bounced by Lee the ball after he put Tudor in hospital,” he said.

“He got booed, but that didn’t make me feel any better. It was the quickest thing I had ever faced.”

Harmison scored five before being bowled by Lee, his wicket handing victory to the Australians by an innings and 48 runs.

Welcome to Perth, Steve.

Greatness

When on form, Harmison’s thundering run up and high action made him one of the most feared bowlers in Test cricket.

Australia’s Glenn McGrath was accurate, Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan moved the ball in ways batsmen could rarely predict, but Harmison was frightening.

He may not have had the raw pace of Lee or Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar but, even on green English wickets, the Durham bowler could send a cherry down quick enough to ruffle any batsman – just ask former Australia captain Ricky Ponting, who Harmison infamously bloodied with a vicious bouncer during the 2005 Ashes series.

But the pitch and outfields are lightning quick in Perth’s batsman-friendly arena. Aggressive bowling can be nullified by equally abrasive batting, a lesson that Harmison and his bowling attack learnt during the 3rd Test of the 2006/07 Ashes.

Battered in Brisbane, abject in Adelaide, England had to make changes out west.

‘He went berserk’

In came the raw duo of Monty Panesar and Sajid Mahmood, the latter intended to attack with the short ball while captain Andrew Flintoff hoped Panesar’s left arm twirlers would be too tempting for the opposition to resist.

But rather than get out, in the third innings when the hosts were setting England a target, Australian wicket keeper Adam Gilchrist tucked in – scoring 102 not out in only 59 balls.

“He went berserk. It was the second fastest Test hundred in the history of the game [at the time], it was just ludicrous”

“When greatness is great there is nothing you can do – and, boy, Gilchrist was great that day”

“Poor Monty, Gilchrist just kept hitting them further and further. I was standing on the boundary, and even at 6ft 6′ I was wasn’t close to getting anywhere near them.

“He was hitting balls out of Perth, not just the WACA.”

Gilchrist’s savagery set the visitors an unlikely 507 for victory. Predictably England fell 206 runs short and with that the urn was gone. Celebrating the epic 2005 series win at Downing Street 18 months earlier suddenly felt like ancient history.

“It was one of those occasions where you walk off devastated, you have just lost the Ashes.

“But after a while when the series is over and your career is finished you think back to special moments, and being on the field when Adam Gilchrist did what he did, I still think, wow.

“When greatness is great there is nothing you can do – and, boy, Gilchrist was great that day.”

Selection

The build up to this winter’s Ashes contest was not without its dramas.

For months, the possibility of Australia not fielding a side at all became increasingly likely following a pay dispute between the players and their board, but those issues seem to be ironed out.

In the England camp, enough have been said about Ben Stokes’ evening escapades.

But, perhaps more worryingly, captain Joe Root took an unsettled squad down under with many positions yet to be filled.

“We don’t want question marks over anybody we have picked, the captain and coaches want to have debates over who to leave out rather than who to pick,” said Harmison.

“England need both Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad to play all five Test matches. They have got nearly 900 Test wickets between them, it’s like leaving out one of [Glenn] McGrath or [Shane] Warne, you just don’t do it.

“There might be a lot of bravado and chatter saying Anderson isn’t what he used to be, but he is still as skilful as he has always been. And Broad will always stand up on the big occasion.”

Nightmares

With England already 1-0 down in the series following their loss by 10 wickets in the Brisbane opener, a win – or at least a draw – is imperative in Adelaide in the second Test.

The third contest of the five-match series begins in Perth on the December 14th, and the tourists can ill afford to be chasing victory at the WACA as they bid to retain the urn.

They must hope to exorcise any previous nightmares suffered out west.

And while the gates of the WACA may shut for good following the match, England must ensure that, when they depart the famous ground for the last time, the series is still wide open.

Steve Harmison photo by PaulSh via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Jack Sock

Jack Sock – ‘I shouldn’t have been here in the first place’

Few expected Jack Sock to perform as he did at the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2, where the top eight ranked players in the world contest the season finale.

Despite being the lowest-ranked player there, the American reached the semi-finals and lit up a tournament that was missing some of tennis’ biggest names.

The men’s game has enjoyed a golden era over the last decade, with four players – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – peaking together and distancing themselves from the rest of the field.

There has only been one Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open where none of this aforementioned quartet were involved. That was at the 2014 US Open, where Marin Cilic overcome Kei Nishikori.

But change is imminent. All four are 30 or over, Federer is nearer to 40 while the rest seem otherwise distracted by injury or personal issues.

High-class tennis players are emerging, such as the 20 year-old German Alexander Zverev, who is currently ranked No.3, but there will be four very big holes to fill once that elite group step off the circuit.

Those gaps appeared at the ATP Finals. Only Nadal and Federer participated, with the Swiss disappointed by his semi-final exit while the Spaniard’s knee could only last one match before forcing him to withdraw.

Late addition

But a personality did emerge. Sock only qualified at the last opportunity, his Paris Masters title coming days before the start of the tournament, and subsequently lifting him to No. 8 in the rankings.

 

“I shouldn’t have been here in the first place”, confessed the 25 year-old Nebraskan. Only a tournament victory in France would have been enough for Sock – who ended October ranked 24th – and defeating Serbian qualifier Filip Krajinovic in the final meant he took the final spot at The O2 at the expense of Spain’s Pablo Correno Busta.

And once in London, Sock captured the hearts of the crowd with his free-wheeling and sometimes thrilling tennis.

The final match of the Boris Becker group between Sock and Zverev was effectively a quarter-final, with the winner finishing second in the group and qualifying for the semis.

The German had the momentum heading into the deciding set, but Sock’s combination of power and delicate touches proved too much for the youngster.

Delightful drop shots were immediately followed by smash returns off Zverev’s serve. Sock’s 6-4 1-6 6-4 victory was well earned despite suggestions that Zverev choked.

Playing for fun

Tennis is a very calculated game, but Sock’s informal attitude seemed to be his trump card.

“I talked to my coach [Jay Berger] and we said, screw it, take the pressure off yourself, go have fun on court again.”

And fun was had. During his opening match – a 6-4 7-6 defeat to Federer, the American scooped up a ball for the world No.2 to easily volley for the point.

It was here that Sock turned round and ‘presented’ his behind as a target for the Swiss.

Decency

But while he may have a care-free attitude and is often seen sporting merchandise of his beloved Kansas City Chiefs or ploughing down the fairway on the golf course, Sock is far from the stereotypical jock we may imagine him to be.’

‘He can’t even legally drink a beer in the US’ – Sock on Zverev

Always respectful of opponents, Sock’s sensitivity was displayed during the press conference following his victory over Zverev. When asked whether he thought the German had choked, Sock was embarrassed, smiling awkwardly as Zverev was still fulfilling media commitments at the back of the room.

Not wanting to disrespect his opponent, the Nebraskan answered other questions before diplomatically responding once the young German had left the room and shut the door behind him.

“It’s tough. The guy is 20 years old. He’s played some absolutely outstanding tennis in his career. I mean, he can’t even legally drink a beer in the US and he’s three in the world”

Aside from his obvious ability as a tennis player, Sock showed his decency as a man.

The run ends

Inevitably, the American’s run had to end, losing 6-4 0-6 3-6 at the semi-final stage to the eventual champion, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov.

“When you play a guy [Dimtrov] of that calibre you can’t give him that many opportunities. He took advantage today… really stepped up his level and came up with some pretty crazy shots in the third set.”

“I nuked a return to his feet but he had an unreal pick-up. There’s a reason he has been playing consistently all year, that’s why he’s in the final.”

What next?

Next year could be the one when male American tennis finds its rhythm once again. Not since Andy Roddick, Sock’s fellow Nebraskan, has a player from the US made such an impact on the men’s game.

With the big four loosening their grip on their global dominance, breaking into the top 10 is only the start, with high ranking places and tour titles within reach.

But for Sock that is all the other side of a well-deserved break.

“I don’t want to talk about next year, I just want to go play golf.”

Ed Krarup worked in media liaison during the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2.

Feature image courtesy of Carine06 via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Marcus Smith: Too soon for England rugby’s new hope?

Senior players in the England rugby camp have warned Marcus Smith – recently promoted from the U20 squad – that he will be “relentlessly targeted” in training, whilst head coach Eddie Jones has told the young fly-half that he “will be holding a lot of tackle bags.”

Being an 18-year-old in the full England squad sounds laborious, doesn’t it?

‘England have thrown those fresh out of school into the deep end before but with varying success’

But, there are probably few places Smith would rather be.

Over the next month England play Argentina, Australia and Samoa, and Jones has selected an inexperienced squad.

Of the 34 players, 14 have fewer than 10 caps, while Smith – who plays his club rugby for Harlequins – is one of four who are yet to make their debut.

Jones has stated that 80% of his World Cup squad will come from the training squad named last August – which the Philippines-born back was a part of – so these new boys are not just here to polish boots.

It is unlikely that the youngster, who only made his Premiership debut in September, will play a starring role in the upcoming series, but he must be a part of the Jones manifesto leading towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

So when his time does come, will he be ready?

That night in Brisbane

Selecting a teenage fly-half is not entirely abnormal. England have thrown those fresh out of school into the deep end before but with varying success.

Failure is word seldom associated with Jonny Wilkinson, but on the 1998 summer tour of Australia, the 19-year-old was given his first England start in the Brisbane Test match.  The visitors lost 76-0, their heaviest ever defeat, with the fly-half missing multiple kicks.

Much was expected of Wilkinson as England coach Clive Woodward fielded an experimental and nearly unrecognisable team; of the seven debutants, only three played for England again.

While Wilkinson had begun his England career off the bench  – as Smith will likely do – against Ireland during the 1998 Six Nations in the homely surroundings of Twickenham, his first start was damaging.

Johnny Wilkinson

Opposite number, Stephen Larkham, ran riot in the No.10 channel, scoring a hat-trick of tries as England fell apart in the second half, conceding seven tries and 11 in total.

Although Wilkinson went on to have a sensational career, the highlight being England’s World Cup victory in 2003 where he kicked the winning drop goal in extra time to beat hosts Australia in the final – the Newcastle fly-half’s proper introduction to Test rugby was a disaster. 

“I was always trying to avoid stains on my career path, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to wash this one off,” said a distraught Wilkinson as he reflected on his emotions immediately after the match. 

This uncertainty remained until a frank conversation with his father ended with the question “So what are you going to do about it?”

But did that night in Brisbane really have an adverse effect on Wilkinson’s career?

A World Cup winners medal, a Six Nations Grand Slam and a World Player of the Year award all arrived in 2003.

Add this to domestic titles won in England and France with Newcastle Falcons and Toulon, where he also won two consecutive European Cups.

Wilkinson also went on to score more points for England than anybody else (1179). All those achievements suggest he thrived despite his nightmare debut.

Golden boy

Danny Cipriani (pictured right) had a rather different experience during his first start for England.

Like Wilkinson, Cipriani, aged 20, started life as an international on the bench, playing a small part in the matches against Wales and Italy in the 2008 Six Nations.

But when Ireland visited Twickenham later in the tournament, he made his first start at fly-half – and was simply wonderful.

Ireland opened up a 10-0 lead within the first seven minutes, but from that point on, Cipriani stole the show.

His kicking was faultless, both from hand and the tee and such was the confidence in the Wasps youngster that he continued to kick goals even after the great Wilkinson entered the field to play alongside him at centre.

England had found their new hero, a successor to King Jonny’s throne.

Nearly 10 years have passed since that day but Cipriani has only played 14 times for his country and there is one main reason for this; indiscipline.

The eccentric utility back had been selected to start against Scotland a couple of weeks before the Ireland match but was dropped by head coach Brian Ashton for breaking team curfew. Considering how the rest of his career has unfolded this seems rather prophetic.

During the years that followed, drink-driving arrests, celebrity girlfriends and tabloid headlines clouded Cipriani’s undoubted ability.

He was unfortunate regarding injuries and fled to Australia to play for the newly-formed Melbourne Rebels in the Super Rugby competition.

While playing in the southern hemisphere may be a beneficial experience, England’s home-based eligibility rule denied him the chance of any international rugby until he returned to England with Sale Sharks in 2013.

But by that time, the ever-professional Owen Farrell and George Ford had firmly established themselves as more reliable options. The door for Cipriani had shut.

Now 30, the man once predicted to inject electric attacking intent into England’s back line has somewhat resurrected his career, rejoining Wasps from Sale in the summer of 2016 who have since re-established themselves as one of the Premierships dominant clubs.

But this will always be a case of unfulfilled potential.

Development

Smith will likely have to wait for his international cue, and will probably emerge from the substitutes as Wilkinson and Cipriani did.

Is he ready though? That is a question that can only be truly answered retrospectively.

Cipriani’s performance against Ireland looked assured and composed but off the field he was self-destructive, swearing in live interviews and falling out with teammates – namely Josh Lewsey, who accused Cipriani of deliberately missing tackles in a full contact training session.

Wilkinson, against Australia in 1998, was nervous. But that poor performance drove him to be better. He developed a perfectionist issue so severe he sought therapy. That attitude is why Wilkinson became one of the best ever.

Whether young Smith has the talent remains to be seen, but ability can be improved. A good attitude is far more difficult to obtain and Smith will need to prove his temperament to Jones.

And that starts by holding the tackle bags.

Knight primed for England’s latest Ashes battle down under

England skipper Heather Knight has branded her side’s rise to the top of the world rankings as “an even bigger incentive” to do well in this winter’s Ashes series in Australia.

Knight’s side snatched the top spot from the Aussies following their World Cup triumph against India in July, wining a thrilling final in front of a capacity crowd at Lord’s by nine runs.

It meant Australia lost their place at the summit of the women’s game for the first time since October 2015.

But speaking at the launch of a new salad she has helped to create with London-based healthy eating outlet Squirrel, the 26 year-old (pictured above, centre) said that while success down under would consolidate England’s status, the team is chasing far more.

“To get to world No.1 is great but we want to keep pushing forward and keep pushing the women’s game in the right direction as well. It’s moving at such a pace, and to stay at the top we’re going to have to keep working really hard.

“The Ashes is the biggest rivalry in cricket and what you want to be involved in as a player.”

Turnaround

England have experienced a remarkable 18 months since Charlotte Edwards was acrimoniously removed as captain, with the leadership handed to Knight.

But coach Mark Robinson has guided the team through some troubled waters.

‘We’ve got a good core of girls in their mid-20s, which is quite nice looking to the future’
– Heather Knight

“When Robbo [Robinson] came in he told us a quote that sums him up perfectly: ‘My job as a coach is to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged’.

“He’s not afraid to give us a rocket if he thinks we need it, but he’s also there to try to get the best out of us.”

The former Sussex man has done something no England coach has ever achieved by winning a 50-over global tournament, with his style receiving high praise from Knight.

“He’s very much a people person, it’s quite scary how perceptive he is sometimes, but he challenges us when we need it. That balance works very well.

“We’re a very together group with a culture of honesty, we want to be honest with players when things aren’t going well.”

Next generation

England are fortunate to cross the globe with a settled squad, with 12 of the current line-up having tasted success in the previous thwarting of the Baggy Green in the 2013 series, a period which Knight fondly recalls as “one of my finest memories in an England shirt”.

Heather Knight
Skipper Knight has every confidence in her squad

“We’ve got a good core of girls in their mid-20s, which is quite nice looking to the future, but we’ve got a few senior heads. Katherine Brunt is the oldest [at 32], which she hates!”

But it was 18 year-old Sophie Ecclestone’s inclusion which came as something of a shock. The spinner only left school in the summer, but will challenge Danielle Hazell and Danni Wyatt to be the premier twirler in the squad.

“Sophie is a really great young girl, really enthusiastic but she often talks very fast and can be quite hard to understand! But she has spent a lot of time around the group and knows the girls very well, she is not shy, that’s for sure.”

“Sophie played in a lot of our warm-up games leading up to the World Cup and has deserved her selection thoroughly. I’m really excited to see what she can do.”

Heather Knight was speaking at the launch of the ‘Green Knight’ salad, part of the ‘Best In Field’ series of dishes from Squirrel. Images courtesy of KK Communications. You can follow Heather on Twitter