Turn­ing the Cup race on its head

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS -

It’s true! Sports junkies never for­get the big mo­ments – when matches and medals are lost or won, when records are bro­ken, ca­reers are made, when the un­likely be­comes cruel fact.

Well, an­other of those un­for­geta­bles is on my list.

You’ll guess, straight away, of course, that it was the oh-so-near cap­size of the New Zealand Amer­ica’s Cup chal­lenger – that bril­liant sym­bol of a na­tion’s dream in Sun­day morn­ing rac­ing on San Fran­cisco Bay.

Disas­ter and dan­ger were both only a lit­eral frac­tion away as the craft tilted – then hung for sec­onds be­fore the crew some­how righted it.

The crew would have sud­denly been deeply con­scious of the death of the sailor like them who died when a Swedish ver­sion of their craft dis­in­te­grated in high speed race prepa­ra­tions be­fore even the qual­i­fy­ing races be­gan.

And as the chal­leng­ing Ki­wis caught their breath and any avail­able hand-hold, the cup-holder swept away to a win.

The mem­ory I had then and which wor­ried me into the sec­ond week’s rac­ing was a seem­ingly fu­tile pre­dic­tion that the Aussie-turned Yank skip­per made only a few hours be­fore.

An­other wor­ry­ing threat from what had seemed like whistling in the wind was the throw-away line from the Aus­tralian Or­a­cle skip­per Jimmy Sp­ithill at the stage he trailed the Dean Barker boat by seven.

He’d been asked one of those stan­dard me­dia ques­tions ‘‘ how do you feel?’’ and ‘‘ what are you go­ing to do now?’’ ques­tions and his quick re­ply told us plenty about Aussie sports greats:

‘‘Well, we’ll go back to con­sol­i­date and work on the boat. We can beat them. We’ve done that once al­ready … the ques­tion is, imag­ine if th­ese guys lost from here. What an up­set it would be. They al­most have it in the bag. That’s my mo­ti­va­tion.’’

I re­mem­ber mut­ter­ing in dis­be­lief. Some­thing about be­ing a self­con­fi­dent Aussie and of course it’s US in con­trol, not him.

A few hours later, it was Sp­ithill who was up­beat. Com­pletely in char­ac­ter.

I re­mem­bered an­other time I’d heard that sort of un­likely con­fi­dence. One spe­cial day – March 19, 1956. I was re­port­ing for Reuters on the last day of a test against the West Indies at Eden Park.

As New Zealand cap­tain John Reid headed out to field hav­ing de­clared at nine wick­ets down set­ting the Windies 268 to win in 240 min­utes, I asked him the stock me­dia ques­tion: ‘‘What’s your plan?’’

He grinned: ‘‘ Bowl them out and win.’’

I re­mem­ber po­litely think­ing ‘‘ not likely!’’. But they did, the Windies los­ing their first four wick­ets for 22, three of them at 16. All out for 77 – in­clud­ing two of cricket’s all-time best, Weekes and Sobers. In those days, the low­est test score by West In­di­ans.

John Reid was right. His sim­ple – I had thought over-sim­ple – re­sponse to my ques­tion had said it all. He had made his­tory – we had won our first test ever by 190 runs.

This week on San Fran­cisco Bay, with our boat seem­ingly poised to make his­tory, that man Sp­ithill – with a knighted English­man be­side him – sud­denly be­gan rewrit­ing Amer­ica’s Cup his­tory.

I be­gan wish­ing I had been a fly on the wall when an an­gry Larry El­li­son first asked the big ques­tion at an emer­gency team talk.

‘‘Why the hell did it take you guys all those months of plan­ning, build- ing and prac­tice then six hid­ings from the Ki­wis to dis­cover the boat wasn’t fast enough?’’ Fair ques­tion? At that stage, I be­gan re­mem­ber­ing those ear­lier guarded re­sponses from Dean Barker about the big event not be­ing over and that there were tough times ahead de­spite that open­ing pro­ces­sion of black wins.

And there was a mem­ory too of the show not be­ing over un­til a cer­tain obese per­son sang.

Or per­haps when a mul­ti­medalled English­man came on board.

And then came that clas­sic Barker sev­enth race win.

It was for all the world like John Reid at Eden Park those many years ago.

Photo: GETTY IM­AGES

Rac­ing: Emi­rates Team New Zealand and Or­a­cle race in front of the San Fran­cisco Sky­line dur­ing race 9 of the Amer­ica’s Cup fi­nals on Septem­ber 15 in San Fran­cisco, Cal­i­for­nia.

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