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The week in numbers: w/e 8/4/12

Jayawardene scored his 31st century and the 2,000,000th Test run

2,000,000 – Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene scored the two millionth run in Test history en route to his 31st Test century on day one of the second Test against England in Colombo.

1 – Having lost all four previous Tests on their winter tours of Pakistan and Sri Lanka, England finally won in Colombo, as Kevin Pietersen hit 151 and 42 not out to lead England to an eight-wicket victory.

6 – In a race which had to be restarted halfway because of the intervention of a swimmer in the river, Cambridge won the 158th Boat Race to maintain their perfect record of having won on all six occasions when the event has been held on April 7th – although victory came courtesy of Oxford suffering a broken oar in a clash shortly after the restart.

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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.

The week in numbers: w/e 10/4/11

36 – Shots by Real Madrid as they beat Tottenham 4-0 in their Champions League quarter-final first leg. Cristiano Ronaldo alone had 14 shots. As an entire team, Spurs mustered just four.

Vettel has won the opening two races of the F1 season (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

17 Sebastian Vettel won the Malaysian Grand Prix, marking the 17th time a driver has won the opening two races of the Formula 1 season. On every previous occasion, that driver has also gone on to win the drivers’ championship.

5Jason Maguire, the jockey of Grand National winner Ballabriggs, was given a five-day ban after the race for excessive use of the whip.

2 – Number of horses which had to be killed after serious falls in the Grand National. Ornais fell at the fourth fence, while Dooney’s Gate fell at Becher’s Brook.

47 Lionel Messi scored his 46th and 47th goals of the season as Barcelona beat Almeria 3-1. He also scored 47 last season, tying for the Barcelona club record with Ronaldo (in 1996/97).

4Beth Tweddle was unsuccessful in her attempt to win a third consecutive gold in the floor exercise at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships, finishing fourth. However, she did win gold on the uneven bars.

3 – Cyclist Johan Van Summeren won the one-day classic Paris-Roubaix race. It was only his third career win, and his first in nearly four years.

The Masters in numbers

4 – Consecutive birdies by South African Charl Schwartzel to conclude his final round at the Masters, as he finished 14-under to win by two strokes.

50 – Schwartzel’s victory came on the 50th anniversary of Gary Player becoming the first non-American to win at Augusta.

McIlroy had a disastrous sequence between the 10th and 12th holes (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

6 – Shots dropped by Rory McIlroy between the 10th and 12th holes as his challenge disintegrated. He carded a triple bogey on ten, followed by a bogey and a double bogey, and finished with an eight-over-par round of 80.

5 Geoff Ogilvy, who finished tied for fourth on 10-under, had five consecutive birdies between the 12th and 16th holes.

7 Tiger Woods also finished tied-fourth, marking his seventh straight Masters appearance in which he has finished in the top six.

8 – Number of players who held or shared the lead during the final round.

0 – Number of golf’s four majors now held by an American golfer, the first time this has happened since 1994.

The Premier League in numbers

0 – Number of red cards awarded in the weekend’s nine Premier League games.

0 – Number of penalties awarded in the weekend’s nine Premier League games.

Van Persie has 12 goals in 10 PL starts in 2011 (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

12Robin van Persie scored his 12th Premier League goal of the season – the first time he has reached this milestone – as Arsenal won 3-1 at Blackpool. All of his goals have come since New Year, in just ten starts.

449Sunderland broke a streak of 449 minutes without scoring when West Bromwich Albion‘s Nicky Shorey put through his own goal at the Stadium of Light. However, West Brom rallied to win 3-2.

7 Stoke‘s 3-2 defeat at Tottenham was their seventh consecutive league defeat away from home.

12Manchester United‘s 2-0 win over Fulham was their 12th straight home league win.

11Aston Villa‘s 1-0 win over Newcastle was their first clean sheet in 11 games.

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

Van Summeren earns his big day in the sun at Paris-Roubaix

Johan Van Summeren of the Garmin-Cervélo team was the surprising – but deserving – winner of a brutal but spectacular 2011 edition of the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic, the third of cycling’s Five Monuments. The 30-year old Belgian rider attacked from the lead group with 16km remaining and soloed to victory in the Roubaix velodrome, 19 seconds ahead of Fabian Cancellara. The 2010 winner and pre-race favourite was left isolated and unable to overcome the massed tactics of his rivals, but a remarkable flourish in the final four kilometres nonetheless earned him second spot. Three-time winner Tom Boonen withdrew after a bike change and a crash as Quick Step suffered a miserable day.

Paris-Roubaix has not earned the nickname ‘Hell of the North’  without good reason. At 258km and featuring 27 separate sections of cobbled roads, it is arguably the toughest one-day race in professional cycling. On a wet day the cobbles are treacherously greasy; on a hot, dry one like this year it kicks up clouds of dust to blind and choke the riders. In any conditions it is hellishly difficult and features multiple crashes as riders are caught out by the juddering, shuddering cobbles, or as a result of the extreme fatigue caused by the physical pounding they have to endure.

Any winner of Paris-Roubaix certainly requires a degree good fortune to avoid both crashes and major mechanical incidents. But there is no such thing as an undeserving winner. Van Summeren had not won a race since the Tour of Poland in 2007, but is nonetheless a talented rider who has spent much of his career in the service of others. And he also had a previous track record at Paris-Roubaix, having finished eighth in 2008 and fifth in 2009. This year’s win was no fluke – he did it the hard way.

Boonen an early casualty

Boonen's race came to an early end (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

A ten-man breakaway led the race through the infamous Arenberg trench with 86km left. Boonen lost his chain in the middle of this 2.4km cobbled section, and waited for what must have felt like an eternity before receiving a new bike. He rejoined the chase, but then crashed about a dozen kilometres later when his water bottle came loose and got jammed in his wheel, ending his challenge.

The break swelled after Arenberg, as Rabobank‘s Lars Boom led a group containing Van Summeren, Grégor Rast (RadioShack) and Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad) up to the original escapees.

As fatigue and pressure started to take their toll, there were at least five sizeable crashes in the 40km following Arenberg which accounted for, among others, Boonen’s Quick Step teammate Sylvain Chavanel and Katusha‘s Filippo Pozzato.

Cancellara shackled as Van Summeren flies free

With around 48km to go, Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) put in a big acceleration on the Mons-en-Pévèle cobbles which splintered the peloton. This brought Cancellara to the front, and only Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) were able to live with his sustained burst of pace. Another acceleration by the Swiss a few kilometres later left just himself, Hushovd and Ballan in pursuit of the lead group. However, with both having teammates ahead in the lead group, the other two were content to sit on his wheel. After a brief argument, a visibly annoyed Cancellara sat up and refused to do all the work leading the chase, allowing Flecha and a group of other favourites to regain touch.

Van Summeren soloed to a famous victory

Up ahead, Van Summeren made his move just before the final five-star section of cobbles, the Carrefour de l’Arbre, a 2.1km segment which started at the 17km mark. He broke clear of the lead group with Rast, Bak and Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), then accelerated again on the cobbles to move clear on his own.

Behind them, Cancellara repeatedly tried to break free of the chase group to no avail, but his repeated attacks did gradually swallow up the remnants of the original breakaway as he and Hushovd led the way, carving through them like they were standing still. One final effort four kilometres from the finish finally dislodged both the big Norwegian and the remaining favourites, and Cancellara went into time trial mode. A magnificent sustained drive jumped him across the gap to the Tjallingii/Bak/Rast group.

Meanwhile Van Summeren ploughed on alone, his lead just substantial enough to keep him clear of the charging Cancellara in spite of a deflated rear tyre which slowed him in the last 5km. He even had time to savour the adulation of the crowd as he completed the lap-and-a-half of the velodrome to take victory by 19 seconds as Cancellara won the sprint ahead of Tjallingii and Rast to at least secure the consolation prize of second place. But even the mighty Swiss rider had to concede defeat to Van Summeren on a day when he could not overcome the combination of Garmin-Cervélo’s spot-on tactics and a complete absence of support from his Leopard-Trek teammates in the crucial final 50km.

An emotional Van Summeren celebrated his victory in both the traditional manner on the podium, and by getting engaged to his girifriend at the finish. Later he described his win:

I came here to get the best result possible and I was very motivated. Once I was in the front group I knew that I could win. This is the happiest day of my life – a dream day. It’s wonderful.

The greatest riders such as Van Petegem and Fabian Cancellara congratulated me, it meant a lot. I had really good legs, that’s all I can say.

The defeated Cancellara admitted that Garmin-Cervélo had been the best team on the day:

I don’t know if I was the strongest today, but I know I had good legs. Garmin rode a good race. They were the strongest team today. Sometimes you cannot win every time. I know I gave my maximum today.

He was, however, pleased for Van Summeren:

I think to have a winner like Johan is great for cycling, great for this day; it had a lot of drama, a lot of spectacle. He maybe woke up this morning and thought “I’m going to ride for the team, I’m going to help” but in the end he won this race and that’s just amazing, and I’m really happy for him.

So far this year the three ‘Monuments’ to have been completed have thrown up three surprise winners at the end of thrilling races: Matt Goss at Milan-San Remo, Nick Nuyens at the Tour of Flanders last weekend, and now Van Summeren. The fourth, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, takes place in two weeks’ time, but next Sunday we have the Amstel Gold race, where Philippe Gilbert will be looking to defend his 2010 title.

Result:

1. Johan Van Summeren (Garmin-Cervélo) 6:07:28

2. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) +0:19

3. Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank) same time

4. Grégory Rast (RadioShack) s/t

5. Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad) +0:21

6. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) +0:36

7. Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Highroad) +0:47

8. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) s/t

9. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) s/t

10. Matt Hayman (Sky) s/t

2011 ‘Five Monuments’ recaps:

Milan-San Remo

Tour of Flanders

My sporting month: April 2011

April is an extremely hectic month in the sporting calendar, with most of the major European football leagues and cup competitions nearing their climax, the end of the cricket World Cup (yes, at last!) and an endurance event of a different kind – the London Marathon.

The month also hosts a number of iconic sporting events. For fans of the green baize there is the start of the World Snooker Championship, and I’ll preview two of the great events in horse racing and golf below. But first, cricket …

1. Cricket World Cup final (2nd)

It has taken a long while for this World Cup to gather momentum, with the group phase taking a month to put the top eight teams in the world into the last eight, and then seeing two of the four quarter-finals won by ten wickets. However, both semi-finals were tense, uncertain affairs which showcased the ability of the 50-over format to ebb and flow from over to over in a way that the bish-bash-bosh adrenalin rush of Twenty20 cannot ever hope to match.

Finally we have the final the tournament has deserved. India and Sri Lanka – two of the three co-hosts – have been the two best and most consistent teams, and the potential confrontation between the slingy action of Lasith Malinga and Sachin Tendulkar, who is just one ton away from completing a century of international centuries, could yet provide the most compelling and enduring story of this cricketing year.

2. Champions League quarter-final: Chelsea vs Manchester United (6th & 12th)

With Arsenal now departed, two of the Premier League‘s three surviving teams go head to head in this Champions League quarter-final. Roman Abramovich‘s side will be looking to avenge their penalty shoot-out defeat in the 2008 final. The reward for the winner will be a semi-final against either Inter Milan or Schalke 04 at the end of the month.

As if this match-up isn’t spicy enough, victory in this tie will give the winner a psychological advantage ahead of what could yet prove to be a title-deciding confrontation in the league on May 8th.

3. The Masters (7th-10th)

Phil Mickelson beat current world number two Lee Westwood by three strokes to win his third Masters title at the Augusta National last year, and will be back to defend the championship this year.

Expect Tiger Woods – who has slipped down to number five – to be the main focus of media scrutiny, which will ease the pressure on both Westwood and Germany’s Martin Kaymer, the current top-ranked player, to spearhead the challenge to produce the first European winner since José María Olazábal in 1999.

4. The Grand National (9th)

Aintree will be hard-pressed to repeat the romance of last year’s race when Tony McCoy, the national hunt champion jockey in each of the past 15 years, finally won his first Grand National on board Don’t Push It. The same combination will be back this year looking to complete a double, and will undoubtedly start among the favourites in this most gruelling of races: two laps of Aintree’s National Course, jumping 30 fences and covering a fraction under 4½ miles.

5. Paris-Roubaix (10th)

April sees us delve into the heart of European cycling’s one-day Classics, with names such as the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), Amstel Gold, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège accorded legendary status among fans of the sport. But perhaps the most revered and difficult of them all takes place on Sunday 10th: Paris-Roubaix, the aptly named ‘Hell of the North’.

Run over a punishing 258km course which features 27 cobbled sections, Paris-Roubaix is one of cycling’s oldest races, dating back to 1896. It has often been the domain of hard-man Belgian riders, having been won by them on 53 out of 105 previous occasions, including three for Tom Boonen, who won in 2005, 2008 and 2009. Boonen and Fabian Cancellara have won five of the last six editions between them, with the Swiss rider coming out on top last year. Having won last weekend’s E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Cancellara will undoubtedly start as favourite to win his third Paris-Roubaix.

It will be brutal. It will be spectacular. And, no matter what, it will have a deserving winner. Nobody flukes their way to a win in this punishing race. If you’re going to watch one race other than the three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain, watch this one.

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