Written by Rod Crowley: With the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics just over six months away, the event that is still capturing the imagination of the general public is the mens 100m.

This of course is due to the promise of seeing the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, retain his crown and beat off the growing number of rivals that his performances over the last few years has inspired.

On his day, Bolt is clearly in a world of his own, but even he can fall foul of the uncompromising and ruthless rules of sprinting which disqualifies any athlete after one false start. The athletic authorities cruelly denied the world of witnessing a potential world record when they disqualified Bolt for a quick start in the final of the world championship 100m in Daegu, South Korea back in the summer.

That race in fact was won by his compatriot Yohan Blake, who won in a time of 9.92 a season’s best and a time that has earned him the right to be the second favourite behind Bolt to win the London Olympics 100m Gold.

Athletics in fact has never been a serious betting sport, but with the ever growing online betting facilities now available, the London Olympics will have a number of markets created. The main one of course will be the mens 100m and even now this particular market is taking money.

The Bookmakers quite understandably have Bolt as the hot favourite in the 100m odds, currently at 4/9! Blake is considered only an 11/2 option, while Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, both long standing rivals of Bolt’s are 13/2 and 7/1 respectively. However, outside of these four, it is a case of forget the rest as the bookmakers do not believe that anyone else can win the race.

Bolt is the current Olympic champion and is also the world record holder with a time of 9.58 which he achieved in the world championships in Berlin in 2009. This 100m time puts well clear of the best ever time recorded by Blake whose 9.82 would put him well behind in a 100m sprint.

Asafa Powell, also from Jamaica has a best time of 9.72 but at 29 years old he is probably past his best and is no longer a match for Bolt, although it should be pointed out that he has finished in front of Bolt on a number of occasions at the less important meetings, but has a reputation of being fazed when it comes to major finals.

Meanwhile Tyson Gay, who has bravely carried the ‘stars and stripes’ on his shoulders in the wake of the Jamaican sprint dominance, has a best recorded time of 9.65, making him the second fastest of all time in the 100m.

He won the world championship in 2007 but has yet to race in an Olympic games final due to injury. In fact Gay suffered with a hip injury during 2011 and missed the world championships.

He is now back in full time training and is set to make one last attempt to better Bolt but at 29, like Powell he is beyond his absolute best.

It looks set therefore that the ‘Blue Riband’ event of the London Olympics, which will be over in less than ten seconds will be won by the aptly named ‘Bolt’ unless of course the over-zealous nature of the sprint laws or an injury get to him again.

In essence, If Bolt runs, he wins and should be regarded as the nearest thing to a gold medal certainty than any other competitor in any of the other Olympic sports.

Written by Rod Crowley: Were the England cricket team, their fans and the media far too optimistic for their own good when believing that they could beat a Pakistan team on a pitch that is completely suited to sub-continent teams?

After all, England’s record in test match cricket in recent years on the sub-continent has been dismal, so why should we have expected anything other than the humbling the England team were given in the first test in Dubai?

Perhaps it is because England are now the number one test cricket nation in the world and have a team that can bat in depth with a bowling line-up that is arguably the best we have had since the Botham/Willis era.
This match proved if nothing else that rankings are futile in cricket, because outcomes of matches are decided on the surfaces of the pitches and whilst England would have possibly reversed the result at Lords they were simply outclassed by Pakistan on a sub-continent style Dubai pitch.

Perhaps the rankings should carry a caveat with something like “England are the best test cricket team in the world but not in the sub-continent”, that would certainly make more sense, particularly should they lose the second test which starts on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi.

There is no doubt that the 10 wicket massacre sent shockwaves through the England camp and although plenty of blame can be placed upon the poor decision making of the England batsmen, the match was really lost by the bowling feats of Saeed Ajmal and Umar Gul. Add to the mix that four of the Pakistani batsmen made fifty or more tells its own story.

There was also the small matter of national pride for England to contend with. Pakistan are remain extremely embarrassed by the spot fixing scandal that saw three of their top players jailed for the parts that they played and knew that victory over England would go a long way to burying that nightmare.

Perhaps in some respects England were lucky that the spot fixing scandal happened otherwise they would have been up against an even stronger team.

Only Matt Prior, Graeme Swann and possibly Jonathan Trott can come away from the first test with any batting credit, which is quite embarrassing as two of these three players bat in the lower order. Swann of course also weighed in with four wickets and Prior, proving to be an outstanding wicket-keeper these days took three catches.

For Pakistan and England cannot say they were not warned, Ajmal was always the man that could destroy them and he did just that. In fact he was a revelation coming away from the match with ten wickets, seven of them in the first innings which more than anything else was the reason why Pakistan won so convincingly.

Gul of course ripped out the top order of the England batting line up in the second innings with a devastating spell of bowling where only Trott managed to handle him. He was helped by three further wickets from Ajmal and three from the unorthodox spin of Abdur Rehman.

In the batting stakes Pakistan managed to ‘run considerable salt into England first innings wounds’ by managing an opening wicket stand of 114 between Mohammad Hafeez and Taudeeq Umar.

Both went beyond fifty with Hafeez top scoring for his team with an excellent 88. There were also fifties for the captain Misbaq ul Haq and Adman Akmal.

 

Written by Rod Crowley: A 32 man squad described as the most inexperienced squad for 50 years have been selected by England’s Head Coach, Stuart Lancaster for the forthcoming Six Nations.
There are an incredible 15 changes from the squad chosen by former Head Coach, Martin Johnson that went to the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Among those left out were usual first teamers, Mike Tindall, Mark Cueto and Nick Easter and in comes nine first time call ups including as expected Owen Farrell, Ben Morgan and scrum half Lee Dickson.
Lancaster spoke with great enthusiasm about his immediate plans using the buzz term of a ‘leadership group’ within the squad that he intends to nurture when training begins in earnest. He did stop short of naming his captain but hinted that the likes of Chris Robshaw, Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood and even Toby Flood were names that he was considering.
Lancaster was also at pains to point out that he wants the “England team to become the very best and to beat those who are currently rated as the very best”. Ambitious yes but strong words from a seemingly highly committed Head Coach.
He expressed no real concerns about the huge change his selection has already bought about, making it clear that any player selected was in on merit and most were already in the thoughts of the outgoing coaching team.
Forwards
M Botha – Saracens 
C Clark – Northampton
A Corbisiero – London Irish
D Cole – Leicester
T Croft – Leicester
T Wood – Northampton
L Deacon – Leicester
P Dowson – Northampton
D Hartley – Northampton
C Lawes – Northampton
J Marler – Harlequins
L Mears – Bath
B Morgan – Scarlets
T Palmer – Stade Francais
C Robshaw – Harlequins
M Stevens – Saracens
R Webber – Wasps
D Wilson – Bath
Backs
C Ashton – Northampton
B Barritt – Saracens
M Brown – Harlequins
L Dickson – Northampton
O Farrell – Saracens
T Flood – Leicester
B Foden – Northampton 
C Hodgson – Saracens
C Sharples – Gloucester
J Simpson – Wasps
D Strettle – Saracens
M Tuilagi – Leicester
J Turner-Hall – Harlequins
B Youngs – Leicester
Of the newcomers, it is Farrell who has captured the most imagination. Likened in his kicking ability to the great Johnny Wilkinson, Farrell is the son of former England player, Andy Farrell who will be assistant Head Coach to Lancaster in the training set up. Farrell the son has been playing inside centre for Aviva Premiership champions Saracens, but is equally adept at playing fly half. He is quick, has a great pass, a silky side step and is not scared to get stuck into the opposition. The 20 year old is set to be an England player for a very long time.
England kicks off their Six Nations campaign in a Calcutta Cup match against Scotland at Murrayfield on February 4th. How the new look side performs will be something fans and press will be anticipating with bated breath but it is good to see that changes have been made after the World Cup display and time must be given to both the management and players as the team looks to move forward. Their full programme of games is as follows:
4th February – Scotland v England
11th February – Italy v England
25th February – England v Wales
11th March – France v England
17th March – England v Ireland

Written by Rod Crowley: Having become the home to the PDC World Darts Championship, the Alexander Palace in London will now play host to the prestigious World Masters Snooker Championship, which gets underway on 15th January.
The top 16 players in the world will do battle over the week and although it is not a ranking event, a top prize of over £150,000 ensures that the game’s best players are all out to win.
As is the case ahead of any major snooker tournament, it is Ronnie O’Sullivan and world champion, John Higgins who are the favourites to win the title. The snooker betting makes O’Sullivan and Higgins the joint 11/2 favourites with twice winner and current world number one, Mark Selby, next best at 13/2 alongside 2011 world finalist and recent UK Championship winner, Judd Trump at 7/1.
Last year’s winner Ding Junhui will have the somewhat difficult task of taking on O’Sullivan in the opening match of the first round on Sunday, which effectively is a repeat of the 2007 final which the “Rocket” won with ease 10-3. 
Higgins meanwhile will be taking on resurgent Welshman and the winner in 2000, Matthew Stevens on Tuesday, while Trump takes on Stuart Bingham on Monday with Selby up against Stephen Lee on Wednesday.
With so much hype around concerning O’Sullivan, it is worth considering that he has not won a ranking event for over two years and although he showed signs of coming back to some sort of form in the recent UK Championship, he still found himself outgunned by Trump in the last 16. 
On the plus side, O’Sullivan has made the final of this event five times in the last seven years, winning three of the so cannot be ruled out of winning again.
Trump went on to win the final after beating O’Sullivan where he defeated the controversial Mark Allen 10-8 in the final. Allen from Northern Ireland, found himself in trouble with World Snooker’s Chairman, Barry Hearn, during that event, accusing Hearn of spoiling the tournament by shortening the length of the individual matches. However, the two men have made friends and Allen will come to the “Ally Pally” in determined mood and looking to go one better. 
He plays 2010 World Champion, Neil Robertson in the first round, another player who is beginning to find his best form.
Mark Williams, who has proven over the last two years that it is never too late for a snooker player to make a comeback, will open up his campaign on Sunday with a very difficult match against Scot, Stephen Maguire. Welshman Williams is now ranked at number two in the world and has won the Masters twice before. 
He would like nothing more than to win a third title but knows that he will have to pull out all the stops to beat Maguire who himself will be lookign to start the year with a good showing on the green baize.
A very difficult tournament to predict the winner, however, form and confidence are always major factors and there is no player on the circuit currently that has more of either than Judd Trump and he can start the new year where he left off in 2011.

Written by Rod Crowley: Predicting the likely outcomes of Ladies Tennis these days, certainly with any degree of certainty is becoming increasingly difficult. Retirement, injuries, attrition and even age have taken their toll on those players who had established themselves as among the best in the world in recent years.

Players such as Henin, Kuznetsova, Dementieva, Pierce and even Venus Williams are no longer around or are fading fast from the world stage. Their potential replacements, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Marion Bartoli and  Dinara Safina have all come and gone backwards since leaving a top list of thoroughly decent players but no real supreme champion among them.

Of course Serena Williams is still there but for how much longer? She missed much of 2011 through illness and although she reached the final of the US Open she was no match for the current number six in the WTA world rankings, Sam Stosur of Australia. Stosur of course was winning her first Grand Slam title emulating the first Grand Slam wins of Li Na who won the French Open in May and Petra Kvitova who triumphed at Wimbledon in July.

Belgian Kim Clijsters a player who has clearly benefitted by the loss of so many of her early career rivals did win the Australian Open in January giving her a fourth Grand Slam title. However, she got herself injured at the French Open where she lost in the second round and has hardly been seen since, missing out on both Wimbledon and the US Open. It is interesting to note that Clijsters now sits at number 13 in the world one place behind Serena.

Of course 2012 will start with the world number one Caroline Wozniacki still looking for her first Grand Slam crown. She will get her first opportunity in Melbourne at the Australian Open in January, and knows that to justify her position at the top she really does need to win. Clijsters is said to be fit again and will defend her crown while Serena will come to the tournament as the favourite to win her fifth Australian Open title.

We must not of course forget Maria Sharapova, who consolidated her comeback last year by finishing at number four in the world. She is also a past winner at the Australian Open, taking the crown in Melbourne in 2008 and was also runner up there to Serena in 2007.

Sharapova was always considered to have the potential to be one of the ‘greats’ of the game, especially after her stunning victory over Serena in the final at Wimbledon in 2004 when she was only 17 years old.

However, injuries, setbacks and contractual differences all led to her never quite realising this potential and she is still looking to add to the three Grand Slam titles she has already claimed. She did reach the final again at Wimbledon this year but was beaten in straight sets by Kvitova. She should be a major force on the circuit in 2012 but whether or not she will get back to her absolute best remains to be seen.

If there is one player who could take the woman’s game by storm it is indeed Kvitova, but she will need to learn consistency, something that her game has been lacking for some time. For instance, following her Wimbledon success she was promptly knocked out of the US Open in the first round. She certainly has the game to be a number one player and will start the New Year as the official number two.

World number three, Victoria Azarenka is another player thought to be a potential ‘Grand Slam’ winner, but so far she has failed to reach a final, although she was a semi finalist at Wimbledon. She wins regularly on the tour itself and has an outstanding game that should be good enough at the very top, all she needs to do now is prove it by claiming a first ‘Slam’ in 2012.

The 2012 year could well see a repeat of 2011 with four different “Grand Slam” winners and a new world number one, but who they will be is anyone’s guess

Written by Rod Crowley: Whether he wants the job on a permanent time basis or not, Stuart Lancaster will be the first man to be seriously considered by the RFU as the successor to recently resigned Head Coach, Martin Johnson. The 42 year old has been given the job of caretaker Head Coach for the 2012 Six Nations tournament which, if successful, will at the very least put him on the shortlist for the job on a permanent basis.
Lancaster, who coached an England XV back in June in their victorious game against the Barbarians, has also been in charge for the last ten games of the Saxons, England’s second team, impressively winning nine of them as well as lifting the 2010 Churchill Cup. Prior to that he had been Head of Elite Player Development at the RFU appointed following a successful two year stint between 2006-08 as Director of Rugby at Leeds.
Specialising on offence, Lancaster will be taking charge of the backs as well as England’s overall strategy during the Six Nations. He will be assisted by Saracens first team coach, Andy Farrell and will leave the job of scrummage coach in the hands of Graham Rowntree, who is the only member of Johnson’s coaching team to remain in post.
Certainly there is plenty to be excited about with this new set up, particularly as Lancaster is a hugely respected figure within Rugby Union while Farrell is working wonders at Saracens currently and Rowntree came out of England’s disastrous World Cup campaign with a huge amount of credit.
England fans will obviously want to know at the earliest what players from Johnson’s World Cup squad will be included in Lancaster’s Six Nations plans but he is known to be very keen on backs such Ugo Monye, Shontayne Hape, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, whilst in the forwards he will be keen to give prop Alex Corbisiero a chance and is said to be in favour of replacing Lewis Moody as both captain and open side flanker with Northampton’s outstanding Tom Wood.
Team discipline on and off the pitch will be huge issues for Lancaster, who is known for his fiery nature and his attention to detail. He is also a very good motivator who uses the well known ‘stick and carrot method to great effect. One to one meetings with all the players will become a feature of England training in which he leaves players under no doubt of the job that they have been selected to do. He is also a coach that likes nothing more than getting on the pitch to practice with the players and he is not frightened to mix it within reason.
His first match in charge will be the Calcutta Cup encounter with Scotland on February 4th, followed by a trip to Rome before taking on Wales at Twickenham. Their fourth game will come in Paris against Rugby World Cup runners up, France before playing the final game of the tournament against Ireland at Twickenham on, of all days, St Patrick’s Day, March 17th. 
After making the World Cup Final, it is France who are the favourites in the six nations betting to win the tournament at odds of 2/1. Wales, who reached the semi finals are second favourites to win at 11/4 with England rated a 10/3 chance ahead of Ireland (13/2) and Scotland (25/1) and whilst they may have their work cut out to prove doubters wrong, the England players aren’t a bad collective of players and if rejuvenated under the guidance of Lancaster, then a challenge Six Nations would not be a surprise.

Written by Rod Crowley: There are very few boxing fans anywhere who would disagree that the Amir Khan v Lamont Peterson fight for world light-welterweight championship was a cracking encounter. There are however, many who would disagree with the outcome which awarded the American Peterson the verdict by majority decision after 12 thunderous rounds and in somewhat controversial circumstances.

It was certainly a decision that will divide opinion with the first salvo being fired by Khan himself who stated at the end of the fight that he thought he was fighting both Peterson and the referee, Joseph Cooper. He may of course have a point but his constant pushing and holding infringements cost him two in rounds seven and 12 and although he had Peterson of the deck in Round One, it was not enough on at least two of the judges’ cards to redress the balance.

It is certainly true that Khan was the better boxer, his dazzlingly speed and accuracy at times had a mesmeric effect on Peterson but the American showed far more determination, spending plenty of time chasing the back-peddling Khan around the ring. It was probably this more than anything else, that swayed the judge’s decision but he also hurt Khan with a number of jaw trembling upper cuts, followed by overhand rights and a host of hefty blows into the solar plexus that forced Khan to continually retreat.

Peterson also had a very vociferous home crowd behind him in Washington DC, which brings into question the match making qualities of Khan’s handlers. The fact that Khan lost in what was a very commendable voluntary defence of his two world crowns was bad enough but to lose them in the home town of his opponent was either a show of extreme boxing arrogance or match-making madness but it was a decision that certainly had a significant influence on the outcome of the fight, whether it was the support, the bias of judges or a combination of both.

It makes one believe that the Khan team underestimated Lamont Peterson, it was obvious to most that Peterson is not only a decent fighter, beaten only once which came at the hands of Timothy Bradley for the WBO Light-Welterweight title exactly three years earlier, a title that Bradley still holds. They also failed to appreciate that Peterson had never been stopped and although not the biggest puncher in the world, he has great timing. However, an even more important fact that Khan’s people forgot to acknowledge is the fact the Peterson is a Washington DC folk hero and he was going to be no pushover on home soil.

Peterson’s success in the Boxing ring is seen as a genuine “rags to riches” story that the folks of DC love to hear about and it is why they have adopted him as one of their heroes. A fight in DC therefore, in hindsight, is one that Khan’s team must be questioned about.

That said, Khan in fact started the bout very well and possibly could have won it in the opening round. He had Peterson down twice, although the first of those was ruled a slip by the referee, there was however no doubt about the other. The dogged Peterson was up quickly and although bamboozled by the speed of Khan’s fists, held on grimly until the bell sounded.

After that, the fight effectively became a brawl, with both men connecting regularly with Peterson able to bring Khan down to his level. Each time he struck Khan on the chin, Khan began to anger the crowd by showboating and taunting. It was as if he was trying to make the point that his renowned “glass jaw” that was so brutally exposed in his first round knock-out defeat by Breidis Prescott three years ago, had somehow metamorphosed into granite. Nonetheless, Khan stayed on his feet throughout the 12 hectic rounds but to little avail come the final bell.

The three judges scored the fight 113-112, 113-112 for Peterson and 114-111 for Khan, a majority decision for the American, made good by the two deducted points. 

Peterson was quick to confirm that he would be delighted to give Khan a re-match next year sometime but whether or not that happens and particularly whether it takes place in Washington DC or not remains to be seen. Team Khan will not be underestimating Peterson again!