Athletics: Lewis-Francis leaves Batman in wake

Briton quick to impress Down Under but Gardener is too slow out of the blocks
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The Independent Online

By the time Jason Gardener got to his marks in the National Indoor Arena yesterday, Mark Lewis-Francis had already crossed the finish line in the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Like Gardener, the so-called "Bath Bullet", Lewis-Francis, the one-time Billy Whizz kid from the West Midlands, is aiming to be on the medal rostrum when the 100m men of the Commonwealth go for gold, silver and bronze in the MCG next month.

And yesterday he got a head start on his England team-mate and rival, speeding to the 100m title in the Victorian State Championships in the converted cricket shrine that was used for the 1956 Olympics.

Indeed, Lewis-Francis was so quick he left Batman trailing in his wake. The 23-year-old Briton crossed the line first in 10.22sec, with Daniel Batman of Canberra, not to be confused with his namesake from Gotham City, second in 10.25. It was a highly encouraging performance by Lewis-Francis, a time he bettered just twice last year in a summer season in which he failed to get beyond the second round of the 100m at the World Championships in Helsinki.

The Birchfield Harrier also tested positive for cannabis in 2005 and, with fears growing that his career might be in danger of going to pot, he has uprooted from the West Midlands and started getting himself into shape in Eton, as a member of the sprint group guided by Tony Lester, a renowned tough taskmaster of a coach who was schooled as an Army officer. The benefits were evident in the slimmed-down, victorious Victorian champion yesterday.

"All the things that have been said about me are in the past - fat man and all of that," a pumped-up Lewis-Francis proclaimed. "I'm shocked and excited at the same time. It's my first run and I've hardly done any speed work."

Here in Birmingham, some 12,000 miles away, Gardener was left a little shocked after getting caught in his blocks in the 60m final at the Norwich Union Indoor Grand Prix. Cuba's Freddy Mayola stole a march that the 30-year-old Briton was unable to close when he got into his high-speed stride. Only just, though. Mayola held on to win in 6.55sec, equalling Gardener's world-leading mark for 2006, with the pride of Wessex and Bath Athletics Club 0.02sec down in the runner-up position.

"Watching the replay, I didn't realise how far behind I was," Gardener reflected. "That's the 60m. If someone gets a good start like that it's very difficult to pull it back. I'm disappointed to lose but I still ran well." Informed of his Commonwealth team-mate's performance in Melbourne, Gardener said: "That's a good run."

Lewis-Francis was not the only British success story in the MCG. Mo Farrah, another of England's Commonwealth Games contingent, won the 5,000m in 13min 40.79sec. There were victories for James McIlroy of Northern Ireland in the 800m in 1:47.44 and Scotland's Chris Baillie in the 110m hurdles in 13.77sec, a personal best. Allan Scott, another member of the Scottish team, finished third in the high hurdles, in 13.88, while Marlon Devonish, of Coventry and England, clocked 20.99 in third place in the 200m, an event won in 20.55sec by the flying Batman.

The Birmingham meeting featured a clutch of fine British performances, too - not least that of Robert Tobin, who timed his winning run to perfection in the 400m, prevailing in 46.18sec. A home victory in the women's 800m was guaranteed but Karen Harewood produced a fine front-running performance to clinch it, finishing a clear winner in 2min 1.98sec.

Nathan Morgan finished a tantalising 1cm short of victory in the men's long jump, the Birchfield Harrier uncorking a last- round effort of 8.02m to come second to Ignisious Gaisah of Ghana, while Tim Abeyie continued his rapid progress, taking second place to Wallace Spearmon of the United States in the 200m, in 20.86sec, and then claiming fourth spot in the 60m final, in 6.70sec behind another emerging domestic speed merchant, Mark Findlay, who was third in 6.62.

By all accounts Kelly Sotherton and Jade Johnson had what might be called a bit of a domestic at the AAA Indoor Championships last week, but there was no repeat of their spat after the long jump yesterday. Sotherton finished second with 6.50m and a somewhat jaded Johnson seventh with 6.26m.