Personally, I was grateful it ended a day and a half early. It spared us another morning of dismal failure filling the radio waves from Australia. Much as I love the analysis of Geoffrey Boycott, I can live without another dose of dreary Yorkshire realism while I’m waiting for the first kettle of the day to boil. With a new year almost upon us time is better spent contemplating what we are good at as a sporting nation.
Our first reminder of that might come, oddly enough, Down Under just across the road from yesterday’s humiliation, for it is in the shadow of the MCG at Melbourne Park that, in a fortnight, Andy Murray steps out at the first tennis Grand Slam of the season. After his victory at Wimbledon in that epic straight-sets dousing of Novak Djokovic last summer, fate is calling Murray to substantiate his claims as a historic tennis figure, as opposed to the bloke who cleaned up a couple of times when Djoko and Rafael Nadal were a fraction out of sorts.
With Roger Federer duelling the advance of time, and Nadal vulnerable to a recurrence of the inflamed knee that cost him seven months the last time it struck, Murray has a genuine opportunity to add to the two Grand Slam titles in his locker. In terms of finals contested, Melbourne offers his best shot at a third. Three of his seven Slam finals have come here, the last a year ago when he went down in four to Djokovic.
The problem for Murray is Djokovic’s own liking for Australia in January, claiming four of his six Grand Slams in the Rod Laver Arena. Two Grand Slam victories would be considered enough of a career for most players, but one as blessed as Murray has the potential to leave a deeper mark on the game. Interestingly, the new head coach of Team Djokovic, Boris Becker, identified Murray as the player of this generation he would least like to face, a two-fisted hammer at the back of the court whose athleticism and power on return of serve are weapons with the potential to wreak real havoc in his peak years. Murray’s time is now.
Another seeking to build on a solid base is Rory McIlroy, a player whose gifts are beyond the reach of any golfer when the stars are aligned. His worst year as a professional followed his best, a warning that even those whose talents are preternaturally sourced must be mindful of the mortal ambush. McIlroy tees up for the first time in 2014 at the HSBC Champions in Abu Dhabi, the same week as Murray kicks off in Melbourne. A fortnight later McIlroy is joined in the desert by Tiger Woods, for whom the coming year is significant in a different way.
At this point in the golfing calendar all roads lead to Augusta in the second week in April. For this correspondent the Masters represents the first knockings of spring, the end of a long winter of football intoxication and clean air. For McIlroy it is the tournament that captured his brilliance and his frailty. He had Augusta by the throat for three days in 2011 and on the fourth left it broken. He went on eight weeks later to claim the first of his two majors at the US Open, but until he dons that Green Jacket the Masters will always be an open sore. Augusta is where it all started for Woods as a 21-year-old rookie 17 years ago. What it means to him now in pursuit of that 15th major is an item for another day. Believe me, you will have read enough about that come Sunday 13 April.
The Winter Olympics offers more hope of gold than it might, given the curious British attachment to niche snow sports. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised since, like most other organised pastimes, it was from Blighty that the idea of careering downhill on planks of wood originated. Keep your eyes peeled for Katie Summerhayes in the freestyle skiing, slopestyle snowboarders Jenny Jones and Billy Morgan, short-track speed skater Elise Christie, skeleton world champ Shelley Rudman and Scotland’s queen of curlers Eve Muirhead, all of whom hope to plunder in Sochi.
If we must return to the cricket, let me offer two words of advice for the beleaguered England hierarchy: Jos Buttler. Life begins anew in 2014 with Buttler moving from Somerset to Lancashire. It ought to coincide with his elevation to the full England side. As he demonstrated in taking it to the Australians in the drawn T20 series, he is capable of marrying attitude and charisma to devastating effect. He keeps wicket at least as well as Matt Prior, hits as cleanly as Jonny Bairstow, and comes without the winter baggage of either. Pair him in the middle order with Ben Stokes and watch the sun come out all over England.
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- Andy Murray
- Grand Slams
- Novak Djokovic
- Rafael Nadal
- Rory McIlroy