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My sporting month: April 2012

There’s plenty of sporting action to look forward to in April, with the race for league titles and both domestic and European cup competitions in football, the first of golf’s majors, the conclusion to what has been a pretty dismal pair of winter tours for England’s cricket team, and action of both the four and two-wheeled variety, including cycling’s Track World Championships from Melbourne.

It promises to be a busy, varied and exciting month. Here are five of the best which will be occupying my attention this month.

1. AFL – West Coast Eagles vs Western Bulldogs (1st)

The protracted opening round of the Aussie Rules season concludes with its final two games today, including a 2012 bow for my team, the West Coast Eagles, who travel to the Western Bulldogs hoping to consolidate their remarkable turnaround of last year. Having missed the playoff finals series for the third straight season in 2010, winning just four of 22 games to finish 16th and bottom of the ladder, they improved to 17-5 last year to finish fourth overall. Sadly, they fell to eventual champions Geelong in a one-sided preliminary final (effectively the semi-final round), but still had a lot to be proud of.

It’s easy to mock Aussie Rules as a poor man’s cross between rugby and Friday night pub-brawling, but followers of the sport will appreciate the skill, strength and stamina of its participants (who can regularly land 50-metre kicks on a sixpence) and its no-nonsense approach. You won’t see any of the histrionics or cheating which have become part and parcel of football in recent years, that’s for sure.

2. The Masters (5th-8th)

The Augusta National course, golf’s equivalent of a gladiatorial arena, rarely disappoints – and it surpassed itself last year. South African Charl Schwartzel claimed his maiden PGA Tour victory and his first major with a stunning final round 66. But he would never have had a sniff at the title had Rory McIlroy not self-destructed in spectacular fashion at the same time. Having led after each of the first three rounds and started the final 18 holes with a four-shot lead, the young Northern Irishman unravelled on the back nine, taking a triple-bogey on the 10th hole and then four-putting his way to a double-bogey on the 12th as he finished ten shots behind the winner.

The collapse would have destroyed a lesser man than McIlroy. Instead he went on to capture the US Open two months later and briefly claim the world number one ranking earlier this year. Schwartzel also proved he was no flash in the pan, with top-12 finishes at both the US Open and US PGA. If we have a finish half as dramatic this year, we will be in for a treat.

3. Paris-Roubaix (8th)

April is Spring Classics month in the cycling world, taking in several of the biggest one-day races on the cycling calendar. It is a month of cobbles and hills and sometimes cobbled hills, which is tailor-made for the all-round hard men of the sport – pure sprinters and climbers need not apply – riders such as Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen. From the Tour of Flanders (1st) to Liege-Bastogne-Liege (22nd), this three-week period invariably throws up some of the best racing of the year, cementing reputations and creating new legends.

Paris-Roubaix is many fans’ favourite – it is not affectionately called the ‘Hell of the North’ without good reason. A 258km route through northern France contains 27 sections of bone-jarring cobbled roads which provide the perfect platform for bold attacks, race-killing punctures and high drama. It is a gruelling, punishing race – others are longer, but none is tougher. Boonen is a three-time winner here, while Cancellara has won twice. Last year Cancellara was marked out of contention by his main rivals – he still finished second – as Garmin-Cervelo’s Johan Vansummeren escaped alone up the road to score a breakthrough win. Expect similar drama this year.

4. F1 Chinese GP (15th)

The third race of the 2012 Formula 1 season takes the grid to Shanghai for the ninth running of the Chinese Grand Prix. After Jenson Button’s season-opening win in Australia, Fernando Alonso took his Ferrari – which this year is more of a dog than a prancing horse – to victory in a rain-affected Malaysian GP. The Spaniard leads the standings with 35 points, five ahead of Lewis Hamilton and ten ahaed of Button, with reigning double world champion Sebastian Vettel languishing in sixth as he struggles to get the maximum out of his new Red Bull.

Hamilton won last year’s race to become the first two-time winner in China, but previous race winners include Button, Vettel, Alonso, Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen, all of whom will line up on the grid again this year.

5. Champions League semi-finals (17th-25th)

Chelsea are the Premier League’s sole representative in the quarter-finals, whose second legs take place on the 3rd and 4th, and look well placed to progress after their 1-0 away win at Benfica last week. However, most people ‘s attention will be on Barcelona ahead of the semi-finals, which will be played on consecutive mid-weeks later in the month.

With Real Madrid already 3-0 up from the away leg of their tie with Apoel Nicosia and Bayern Munich taking a 2-0 away victory into their second leg against Marseille, it is the defending champions whose status remains in the most doubt. A 0-0 draw away at AC Milan was not a bad result, but nonetheless they have minimal margin for error if they want to keep hopes of an all-La Liga final alive. As an aside, all four seeded teams kept clean sheets in the away legs of their quarter-finals, a remarkable achievement.

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My sporting month: March 2012

The football season will be gearing up for its home stretch in March, as the Premier League season enters its final third and we have the quarter-finals of both the FA Cup and the Champions League to look forward to. Similarly the Six Nations reaches its climax this month with a potential Grand Slam showdown to look forward to. And the England cricket team embark on the final leg of their winter tours.

But for many other sports their year is only just beginning, or at least getting into their stride. As winter turns to spring, here are five of the key sporting events I’ll be watching this month.

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The week in numbers: w/e 7/8/11

Rudisha appears unbeatable over 800 metres (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

30 – World record holder David Rudisha ran a new UK all-comers record of 1:42,91 for the 800 metres in the Diamond League meeting at Crystal Palace. It was his 30th straight win at the distance.

24 – Number of seconds Britain’s Helen Clitheroe knocked off her previous best time in the 5,000 metres as she finished second to the USA’s Lauren Fleshman. Clitheroe clocked 15:06.75.

319England‘s margin of victory in the second Test against India as they took a 2-0 lead in the series. If they can avoid defeat in the remaining two matches, they will overtake India at the top of the Test rankings.

4 – The last four winners of football’s Community Shield have gone on to win the Premier League title (Manchester United, United, Chelsea, United). Manchester United defeated Manchester City 3-2 after Nani scored his second goal of the game in injury time to complete United’s comeback from a 2-0 halftime deficit.

21 – Points scored by Port Adelaide in their 138-point defeat against Collingwood in their AFL match-up, the second-lowest total by any team in the last 20 seasons.

25Alistair Brownlee‘s margin of victory (in seconds) in yesterday’s Hyde Park triathlon, on the course which will be used for next year’s Olympic event. Brother Jonathan was third.

4 – Australian Adam Scott won the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio by four shots after a final round of 65. World number one Luke Donald tied for second, while Rory McIlroy was tied-sixth, seven shots back. Seven-time winner Tiger Woods finished 18 shots behind Scott, who was caddied by Woods’ former right-hand man Steve Williams.

Carberry scored an unbeaten triple century

523 – Stand shared between Michael Carberry (300 not out) and Neil McKenzie (237) during Hampshire’s County Championship draw with Yorkshire at the Rose Bowl. It was the ninth-largest partnership ever, 32 short of the record set in 1932.

10 – Somerset’s Alfonso Thomas took match figures of 10/88 as they beat Sussex by nine wickets at Taunton.

4Nottinghamshire lost four wickets for no runs in the space of just six balls as they collapsed from 21/0 to 21/4 against Durham. Nonetheless the match was drawn.

6 – Winning margin for Peter Sagan at cycling’s Tour of Poland – equal to the time bonus he received for finishing second in the closing sprint at Saturday’s final stage.

4 – Stage victories for German sprinter Marcel Kittel in Poland. He won all four flat sprint stages.

484 – Wins for HTC-Highroad‘s male and female cyclists – including British sprinter Mark Cavendish – since the start of 2008, more than any other team. Team owner Bob Stapleton announced the team would fold at the end of this year after failing to secure a sponsor.

98In Brighton & Hove Albion‘s first game since promotion to the Championship in their new home at Amex Stadium, debutant Will Buckley scored two late goals to give them a 2-1 victory over Doncaster Rovers. Buckley’s winner came in the 98th minute.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times and Infostrada.)

The week in numbers: w/e 31/7/11

3 Eoin Morgan was dismissed for a third-ball duck in England’s first innings of the second Test against India at Trent Bridge. In the first innings of the first Test, he also fell for no runs to the third ball he faced.

Broad's hat-trick was the first ever by any bowler in a Test against India

1Stuart Broad became the first bowler ever to take a Test match hat-trick against India. He took five wickets for no runs in 16 balls and ended with his best Test figures of 6/46.

2Ian Bell was given out twice during England’s second innings. He was controversially given run out to the last ball before tea when on 137, only for India to withdraw their appeal allowing him to be reinstated. He was eventually caught at slip for 159.

200Jenson Button celebrated his 200th Formula 1 race with victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix.

2 – This was only the second Hungarian GP ever to be affected by rain. On the first occasion in 2006 the race was also won by Button, giving him his maiden F1 win.

85 – Despite finishing second, defending champion Sebastian Vettel extended his points lead in the drivers’ championship to 85.

Another one-day classic, another Gilbert win

4 – Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert won the Clásica San Sebastián with a solo attack less than 4km from the finish to record his 14th UCI win of 2011, more than any other rider this year.

90 – Places Serena Williams has risen in this week’s WTA rankings as a result of her 7-5 6-1 victory over Marion Bartoli in the final of the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California. In claiming her first title since Wimbledon last year, she jumps from 169 to 79 as she continues her return from an absence of nearly a year through injury.

1,204 – In New Zealand’s 40-7 Tri-Nations defeat of South Africa, Dan Carter reclaimed the all-time Test points record from Jonny Wilkinson as he scored ten points to move him to 1,204, nine clear of the England fly-half.

3 – Gold medals won by the Great Britain swimming team at the World Championships in Shanghai. Double Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Adlington claimed her first career world title in the 800m freestyle, while Liam Tancock won the 50m backstroke. Keri-Anne Payne had already won the women’s 10km open water race the previous weekend.

Yani Tseng confirmed her dominance of women's golf with he British Open win (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

5 – Taiwanese world number one Yani Tseng won the Women’s British Open to claim her fifth major title at the age of just 22. She has won four of women’s golf’s last eight majors.

186 – Geelong defeated Melbourne 233-47 in their AFL Aussie rules match at the weekend. The 186-point winning margin was the second largest in AFL history – the largest ever defeat was also suffered by Melbourne, who lost to Fitzroy by 190 points in 1979.

34Leicestershire were bowled for just 34 runs in their second innings – the lowest score in the County Championship this season – as Essex beat them by 280 runs at Southend.

8 – In that same innings Essex’s David Masters took eight wickets for a cost of just ten runs.

203Marcus Trescothick scored 203 as Somerset beat Worcestershire by an innings and eight runs. It marked the sixth time he has passed 100 this season.

222 – Northamptonshire’s Stephen Peters scored 222, his maiden double century, as his side drew with Glamorgan at Swansea.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times and Infostrada.)

The week in numbers: w/e 1/5/11

A double century for Trescothick

227Marcus Trescothick scored 227 as Somerset defeated Hampshire by eight wickets at Southampton.

5 – In the same match, Jimmy Adams and Liam Dawson became only the fifth Hampshire opening pair to share two century stands (136 and 181) in the same match.

4 – Number of quarterbacks selected in the first 12 picks of the NFL draft. Cam Newton was made the first overall pick by the Carolina Panthers.

31 – Years between New Zealander Mark Todd‘s first Badminton Horse Trials win and his fourth last week. At 55, he is the oldest ever winner of the event.

52Lionel Messi scored his 51st and 52nd goals of the season as Barcelona won 2-0 at Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final.

60 – In Schalke 04‘s 2-0 defeat to Manchester United, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had more touches of the ball (60) than strikers Raúl (28) & Edu (30) combined (58).

0 – Goals conceded by Manchester United in their six Champions League away fixtures this season – the first time any team has ever achieved this.

31Barcelona‘s unbeaten run of 31 league games ended with a 2-1 defeat at Real Sociedad. The all-time La Liga record remains at 32, set by Real Sociedad themselves in 1979-80.

4 – All four Champions League semi-finalists – Manchester United, Schalke, Real Madrid and Barcelona – lost their respective league matches last weekend.

Westwood won for the second week in succession (image courtesy of rydercup.com)

2 – Lee Westwood consolidated his position at the top of golf‘s world rankings by winning the Ballantine’s Championship in South Korea by one shot from Miguel Angel Jiménez, his second consecutive tournament victory.

93 – Number of points by which the Essendon Bombers led the Gold Coast Eagles (94-1) after the first quarter of their AFL match last weekend. This surpassed both the highest ever score (previously 81) and largest margin (71) after one quarter in AFL history. Essendon eventually cruised to a 197-58 victory, a week after Gold Coast had won their first ever game.

76 – Age of former British and Commonwealth heavyweight boxing champion Henry Cooper, who died yesterday.

90 – Age of Ted Lowe, the voice of snooker to many fans, who also died yesterday after a short illness.

The Premier League in numbers

Dzeko finally opened his Premier League account

10 – £27m Edin Dzeko scored his first Premier League goal in his tenth appearance for Manchester City as they beat Blackburn 1-0.

2 – Both Chelsea‘s goals in their 2-1 comeback win over Tottenham would have been disallowed if video technology had been available. Frank Lampard‘s shot did not cross the goalline after being fumbled by Heurelho Gomes, and Salomon Kalou was offside in scoring the winner.

17Blackpool‘s 0-0 draw with Stoke ended a sequence in which they had both scored and conceded in each of their 17 home league games this season.

4Mikel Arteta missed a penalty in Everton‘s 1-1 draw at Wigan. It was the fourth time an Everton player has failed to convert a penalty in the league this season.

10 – Blackburn’s 1-0 win over Bolton snapped a run of ten league games without a win.

117Sebastian Larsson‘s goal in the 1-1 draw against Wolves came from Birmingham‘s first shot on target against this opponent this season, after 117 minutes of play.

1Nigel De Jong scored his first Manchester City goal in the 2-1 win over West Ham.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times@InfostradaLive and @StatManJon.)

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