Despite the very best efforts of the hype machine, this is not 2005. Retaining the Ashes, and don’t forget this is the first time in my cricket watching life that England have clung onto the prize in three successive series, was an oddly muted affair. Of course the Manchester rain ensured that the Australians were denied the opportunity to complete the deserved victory they needed to keep matters alive, but even that would have just delayed the inevitable. The problem is that the home side is simply better but is crumpling under the weight of its own negativity and siege mentality, while the visitors are winning the propaganda war, and the tactical manoeuvres, yet lack the resources on the frontline. Beating this lot is probably no big deal, but doing it in this manner is even less satisfying.
A scorching Hungaroring sent Formula One into its midsummer break gasping for air. Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes garage can now breathe easier as they look forward to the remainder of the season with renewed optimism after the British driver controlled the race to record a maiden victory for his new employer. Over at Ferrari however, the heat was raising tempers. Another disappointing result left Fernando Alonso voicing his concerns about where the team was headed, a relatively mild show of frustration but one which earned a stinging rebuke from President Luca de Montezemolo. The Italians are closing rank. This is one cooling off period which has arrived not a moment too soon.
Phil Mickelson birdied four of the last six holes of the Open Championship at Muirfield to claim the prize that even he had doubted was within his compass. In taking possession of the Claret Jug, another level of professional fulfilment had been attained, a fifth major and the third element of a career Grand Slam. He was a popular winner, the only man to break par over four rounds and three strokes better than anyone else. This famous course does not permit imposters to sully its roll of honour. The company he keeps is consummate with his standing in the game. Now that he has conquered the wild frontier, the exposed links which had prodded his weaknesses with their crooked finger, he deserves a recognition which many were not prepared to concede. When we speak of the greatest, no longer should he remain an embarrassed afterthought.
If the first Ashes Test teetered on a knife edge and the second turned out to be among the most one-sided in history, then there was at least a common thread which united them. Both were mired in umpiring controversies, the deconstruction of which filled column inches that ought to have been reserved for stylish straight drives or unplayable outswingers. The Decision Review System (DRS), an innovation designed to assist the match officials but one which has struggled for universal acceptance, absorbed much of the blame. The Luddites were called to arms once more. Such criticism is missing the point. Abandoning this aid will not stop television companies investing in new technologies to enhance their viewers’ enjoyment. Unless harnessed to the cause, these ultra-slow-motion replays, Hawkeye, Hot-Spot and whatever may supersede them, will only further undermine the integrity of those who have just their eyes to trust in. This easy target is a red herring obscuring a more significant problem.
Did this herald a new beginning for cycling? If Paris is the most romantic city on earth, its familiar landmarks, bathed in the gloaming, were now rekindling a tempestuous affair. The Arc de Triomphe, illuminated against the night sky, the sequins on the maillot jaune shimmering as a gentle breeze drifted down the boulevard of broken dreams, it was easy to be lost in the moment. And what a moment. Chris Froome, a second successive British winner after a century in which les rosbifs failed to get it. An African heritage too, an inspiration to all those Kenyan children pedalling battered old mountain bikes on roads to nowhere. A time to look forward to a multitude of possibilities. The Tour de France is a venerable institution, so many cherished memories but so much it is desperate to forget. The podium oration of its latest champion struck a poignant chord. Standing the test of time; it is an expression grappling with its own limitations.
I don’t know what’s wrong with Rory McIlroy but I do know that golf can be a cruel game when mental disintegration takes hold. As a two times former major winner there’s no hiding place from the legions of well-intentioned amateur psychologists who think they have all the answers. The Ulsterman cut a lonely and disconsolate figure, bungling his way from the rough to the sand during his truncated visit to Muirfield, a hellish passage which brought a twelve over par total for two rounds and a free weekend with his thoughts. I’d leave him alone. You can’t have your sports stars just how you want them to be, and in truth there’s not a lot wrong that won’t just slot back into place naturally.
I’m enjoying the Tour de France. There, I’ve admitted it. The euphoria of a first British success twelve months ago could only partially mask the fact that it really was a rather dull procession. Not this time; we have another home rider out in front but a little more precariously so, despite what might seem and should prove to be an unassailable advantage going into the crucial last few days. Of course you don’t want it to be easy, you want to see Chris Froome suffer all the way to Paris. But not predominantly for the spectacle itself. You want to see human frailty, weakness and fluctuating levels of performance as that’s how you feel it should be. On Mont Ventoux the ghosts were all around, and not just because Tommy Simpson breathed his last on its slopes. He killed something that Armstrong bloke, and what he killed was innocence.
Richard Hannon has confirmed that the connections of Sky Lantern are to launch an appeal to get the result of Friday’s controversial Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket overturned. Of course the racing forums are still fulminating after the stewards upheld the original outcome following a lengthy enquiry at the course. Where money is involved, and there will be plenty who took a hefty hit as the Guineas winner was carried violently left across the track in losing by a neck to the John Gosden trained Elusive Kate, objectivity is often the first casualty. I had no such financial involvement but still greeted the decision with dismay, if little surprise. Contesting the judgement may yet turn out to be a futile gesture, but if it casts some light on a system which has become excessively biased in favour of the offender, it will have served a useful purpose.
We’re only two days into the series and already it’s utterly riveting. Enough swings of fortune and shifts of momentum have been shoehorned into six sessions to silence even the most ardent detractor of Test cricket. Not that you’ll find too many of those around in an Ashes year. It’s a paltry sample of course but one particular misconception has been laid firmly to rest. It’s the one, never shared in these quarters, that purported Australia would be a pushover. Oh no, there is a glass jaw about England and the combative Antipodeans fancy themselves to land the knockout punch. Even more so now that the pugilistic and gloriously straightforward Darren Lehmann has assumed the reins. If the home side thought the turmoil of the opposition build-up would place them on the front foot, they’ll be more than just a little concerned to be pinned back on the crease fending off the short stuff.
I hope they’re all suitably contrite now. Did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and a whole troop of Welshmen? Oh and the Kiwi. What does he know about history and tradition? Did they bother to watch in Edinburgh, or were they too busy trying to remember the words of the Arbroath Declaration? Well it doesn’t matter now anyway. Because we won. The Lions pulled off a first series victory in sixteen years, scattering the Aussies across the Sydney turf and causing quite a few to gorge on humble pie. Warren Gatland ignored the romantics and went with his own hard instincts, delivering a team which, regardless of individual origins, was positively bursting with pride in the jersey. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?