Turning the Cup race on its head
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.
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.