Stop the world, we want to get off

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The Independent Online
IN ADDITION to anyone who went to bed sober last night, we should direct our envy today to those whose sporting preferences have a nautical bent. They can stare into the new year now gaping black and forbidding before us without the shudder of pa trioticapprehension that will engulf most British sport fans when they contemplate the horrors that 1995 might contain.

Not that our yachties are immune to disappointment in the many championships that await their vast armada of boats large and small; but they haven't got a big one to worry about. They can look forward to the America's Cup, greatest of the world's sailingraces which takes place in the waters off San Diego this spring, without the slighest fear of shattering the national morale. This is because our doughty mariners have taken the precaution of not entering it.

Such an absence would have been unthinkable for most of the century and a half of the race's existence. That the nation who claim the finest seafaring traditions should turn a cowardly back on this epic sailing contest is enough to make Nelson's Column wobble.

The trouble is that the urge for vengeance has been gradually beaten out of them in the 144 years since the 90ft schooner America sailed over from New York to trounce the pride of the British fleet around the Isle of Wight and make off with the One Hundred Guinea Cup put up by the Royal Yacht Squadron to celebrate the 1851 Great Exhibition.

A succession of British millionaires and noblemen spent fortunes trying to win back the trophy. Among them were grocery magnate Sir Thomas Lipton, who spent the first 30 years of the century on the forlorn quest, and Sir Thomas Sopwith, the aircraft pioneer. More recently, Tony Boyden and Peter de Savary have had their tycoonery blunted in unsuccessful pursuit of the holy sail. To make their failure worse, it was the brash Australian Alan Bond who in 1983 finally wrenched the America's Cup away from them.

Since then, the Cup has been returned to America and the task of bringing it back to Britain now represents so formidable an adventure that our nautical nobs all seem to have come to the same conclusion: "Sod that for a game of sailors".

Yet we have to admit that they may be giving us a valuable lesson to heed on this day of new dawning. Would not the prospects of a more relaxed and enjoyable sporting year be enhanced if we all had less to fret about in terms of national pride? Contrast,for instance, the contentment of the crusty old denizens of our yacht clubs with the bristling shame coursing through our cricket pavilions. It will be hours before cricket followers dare stick their heads out from under the duvet for fear that someone will tell them the score from Sydney.

What does 1995 offer these poor souls? So much more punishment is threatened that you wonder if there is one brain cell left at our cricketing headquarters. Starting today, England will play a total of 14 Test matches in the next 12 months and six days. And they are not likely to win any of them.

Lined up for a team who would benefit far more from six months in a darkened sanatorium are another three Tests against the dreaded Warne, six Tests at home getting Laraped by the West Indies in the summer and five Tests in South Africa between 16 November and 6 January. This schedule may be how cricket makes its money but the long-term prosperity of the English game is not going to be helped by the constant parading of a demoralised team for public ridicule.

What these shell-shocked wretches need is removal from the front line for recuperation in the comparitive calm of a purely domestic summer. A Test match moratorium for the England team would bring many benefits. It so happens that the County Championshipcould itself do with the reflective pause that a summer of undivided attention would bring. If the best players were not purloined for Test duty every couple of weeks, the counties would be in better shape to provide more interesting day-to-day cricket and create a rehabilitatory atmosphere for players and supporters alike.

You only have to look at the England football team. I hear you ask: What England football team? That proves my point precisely. A year ago, the English were apoplectic with indignation at the failure of their footballers. But it didn't stop us enjoying the World Cup and since England, as hosts, don't have to qualify for Euro '96, they have found the way to avoid degrading defeat in vital internationals. They don't play any and their fans sleep soundly in their beds.

Our rugby union teams are bound for the World Cup in South Africa in June and it is difficult to see much glory for them. Everything seems weighted in South Africa's favour and we should at least be proud of that. Our boycotts did more than anyone's to help defeat apartheid and now they have returned to the sporting arena united, black and white, against a common foe - us.

The most persistent sporting debilitation suffered by the British, of course, is Wimbledon. Yet we all know how to ensure British winners - don't invite anyone else to play. Martina's gone, anyway, and the rest are a pretty dour bunch apart from Agassi, and even he's had a haircut.

We're always berating our tennis players, but when do we ever see them play? Allow them to compete for the oldest tennis trophies in the world and we could find that giving them a big occasion to rise to starts the renaissance. Who knows what gems we might uncover if we fling them on the greatest stage of all. The LTA could afford it and, in any case, you could fill Wimbledon for such an event - perhaps not with the social crowd or the bobby-soxers but with real fans and those who would welcome a rare chance to watch the Wimbledon championships.

What's the point of being an island if you don't get insular? We stopped conquering the world a long time ago. Perhaps we should stop them conquering us for a while.

A THIRST for riches encouraged by the National Lottery has led me to invest in my traditional six New Year predictions at the bookmakers. Ladbrokes are so terrified by my record over the years that they are only offering me 335,411-1 against all six coming up.

My bets for 1995, with individual odds in brackets, are: Liverpool for the Premiership (10-1); Manchester United for the FA Cup (9-2); Wales for the Triple Crown (9-2); Warrington for the Rugby League Challenge Cup (7-1); Party Politics for the Grand National (20-1); and Celtic Swing for the Derby (5-1).

I have invested £1.50 on this wager and in case you think this represents a lack of confidence, let me point out that my winnings would be more than the £500,000 limit for a single bet. Please don't let the suspense spoil what I hope will be a very happyNew Year for you.