Commonwealth Games: Pittman adds twist to drama script

A famous cricket ground will be the perfect stage for Australia v England revisited

It was the final evening of track-and-field competition at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in the City of Manchester Stadium. As the gold medals rained down on the England team, six of them in one session, "Land of Hope and Glory" became the theme tune for the presentation ceremonies. Someone said it was just like The Last Night of the Proms. "The last night of the Poms, more like," an Australian ventured.

Four years on, the Poms are getting ready for opening night once again. The final flourish in Manchester, with Daniel Caines snatching gold in the 4 x 400m relay, brought England's haul of athletics medals to 29. Australia, fourth in that last event, had 28. The "Dashes", the bragging rights as track-and-field kings of the Commonwealth, were in England's possession. "Just wait until Melbourne in 2006," Keith Connor, the Englishman in charge of the Australian team at the time, cautioned.

Fittingly enough, it will be on a track constructed at the Melbourne Cricket Ground that England's runners, jumpers and throwers will attempt to hold on to their prize - in the arena where Freddie Flintoff and Co will be defending the Ashes on Boxing Day, and where Don Bradman stood up to Harold Larwood's bodyline bowling with a match-winning 103 not out in the Second Test of the infamous 1932-33 series.

This time, the England team will be without a paceman of intimidatory repute and without its two celebrated pacewomen too. Paula Radcliffe, the only British winner at the World Championships in Helsinki last summer, is injured. Kelly Holmes, Britain's only reigning individual Olympic champion, is in retirement. England's big hitters are their all-rounders: Kelly Sotherton in the hepta-thlon and Dean Macey in the decathlon.

Still, there would be some reflected English glory if Jana Pittman, the successor to Cathy Freeman as the golden girl of Australian athletics, were to bring her Midas touch to bear in the women's 400m hurdles. The Commonwealth champion in Manchester four years ago and the world champion in Paris in 2003, Pittman is coached by her fiancé, Chris Rawlinson. Yes, the same Chris Rawlinson who will be going for gold for England in the men's 400m hurdles. So, as well as defending the title he won in Manchester, the Rotherham Rocket will be plotting how his wife-to-be can resist the challenge of an England colleague: Nicola Sanders, the revelation of the British indoor season.

In the cold and rain in Brisbane nine days ago, the future Mrs Rawlinson stole a psychological edge, beating her rival by 1.44sec. Sanders, though, seriously messed up her stride pattern in her first hurdles race of the year, faltering badly at the fifth flight. Having clocked a stunning 50.72 for the flat 400m indoors in Sheffield last month, a full second quicker than Sally Gunnell's lifetime best, the 24-year-old Windsor athlete (who saw off a promising 400m hurdler by the name of Shelley Rudman in her days as an English Schools champion) remains a potentially serious threat to Pittman. "Everyone expected the hurdles to be a walk in the park for me, but the emergence of Sanders is exactly what I need," the Australian said. "I will certainly have to be on top of my game."

For her part, Sanders is playing it low-key. "Pittman will be in front of her home crowd, so she's still a big favourite," she maintained. "But it will be nice to push her."

Pittman might still be favourite but she may not be an overwhelmingly popular one with the Australian public, having announced yesterday that she would be moving to England due to the negative publicity of a long-running dispute with her four-times 400m relay team-mate Tamsyn Lewis. "I don't want to be around Australia any more," she said. "I don't run for anyone but myself and Chris now, because I don't have the support I used to have from Australia. I love England. To win in Beijing at the next Olympics I have to be somewhere permanent, somewhere without the drama. I want to be somewhere I feel grounded."

The final straw for Pittman was criticism that followed her late withdrawal from Thursday's warm-up meeting at Melbourne's Olympic Park. Rawlinson ran in the men's 400m hurdles but finished with a sore groin and a bruised ego in seventh place.

The star of the meet, shattering John Walker's 30-year-old Oceania record in the rarely run 2,000m, was Craig Mottram, the male trailblazer for Australian track and field who broke the African distance domination with a 5,000m bronze medal at the World Championships last summer. Mottram has even stronger English connections than Pittman; though born and raised in Geelong, just across Port Phillip Bay from Melbourne, he holds a British passport and owns a house by the Thames at Hampton Wick. His father, Brian, is a Londoner who played as a centre-half for Wimbledon in their Southern League days.

Craig spends the European track season based in London, but his "home" is a flat overlooking the MCG. "It's going to be a unique experience running there in the Games," he said. "I've watched footy there, and cricket - and soccer."

Mottram's clash in the 5,000m with Benjamin Limo, the world champion from Kenya, is being billed as one of the head-to-heads of the Games. He also goes for gold in the 1500m, against the emerging Northumbrian McCor-mick and the in-form New Zealander Nick Willis. Mottram has an interest in the basketball, too. His brother, Neil, is a member of the Australian squad, the gold-medal favourites.

On the track in the MCG, if the Anglo-Australian battle comes down to the final event once again, the drama could surpass that of Manchester four years ago. This time it will be the women's 4 x 400m relay, not the men's, and the Aussies scheduled to run on the last two legs, Pittman and Lewis, have been involved in their catfight for two years now. Insults such as "drama queen", "bitch", and "bikini babe" have been traded in public.

All of which makes for a rather fitting soap opera as the Commonwealth Games shifts from the home town of Coronation Street to the home town of Neighbours. The question is: will Pittman and Lewis pass on the baton or bash one another with it in a final twist to the 2006 Dashes Series?

Don't Miss: Armchair guide to the action

WEDNESDAY: The main players in the opening ceremony, which takes place in the Melbourne Cricket Ground between 9am and noon UK time, are a closely guarded secret. "Sources close to Kylie Minogue" have "quashed" rumours that she might make an emotional appearance in her home town. Now recovering from breast cancer, she does, however, feature on the VIP guest list for the Games. So does Cathy Freeman, a hot tip to light the flame. Brad Pitt will definitely be in attendance. The Australian is a real-life fight-clubber. He boxes for the host nation in the 91kg weight division. At 11pm UK time (10am Thursday in Melbourne) competition gets under way in the swimming pool. The first event, the heats of the women's 200m freestyle, feature the 13-year-old Isle of Man schoolgirl Olivia Rawlinson. Just before midnight the first rugby sevens match involving a British nation kicks off, Scotland facing Niue.

THURSDAY: In the early hours the sevens gathers momentum, with Wales tackling New Zealand. England open against the Cook Islands, with a mouth-watering clash against Australia scheduled for mid-morning British time. The first finals session in swimming starts at 8am and Aberdonian David Carry should be among the favourites in the 400m freestyle. It could be Scotland's first gold, but only just. At 9am UK time Chris Hoy rides in his Olympic gold-medal event. Fellow Scot Craig MacLean and Englishman Jason Queally will be looking to put a metaphorical spoke in his wheels.

FRIDAY: A big day in the pool, with England's Liam Tancock against home-town favourite Matt Welsh in the 50m backstroke and England's Simon Burnett in the 200m freestyle final. The medals in the sevens are decided in the morning and at 10pm UK time the women's triathlon starts, featuring Andrea Whitcombe, a 5,000m silver medallist for England on the track in Kuala Lumpur in 1998.

SATURDAY: The men's triathlon starts at 2am British time and the day's finals session in the pool (8am to 10.30am) includes Scotland's Gregor Tait going in the 200 backstroke and England's Katy Sexton in the 100 backstroke. Track and field starts at 11pm back home with the first-round heats of the men's 100m, starring Asafa Powell of Jamaica, officially the fastest man of all time.

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