Brian Viner: Festive season provides top sporting fun

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Before anyone pulls a cracker, let me stake my claim to the corniest pun of the festive period by celebrating the toasts of Christmas past, those sporting deeds which in one way or another have enlivened our Yuletides down the decades.

For sport there is surely no more resonant date in the calendar than 26 December – for its invariably lip-smacking football programme, for racing at Kempton Park and – in the very best years – for the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, especially when it forms part of an Ashes series. The most thrilling of these came in 1982, when, for the first time in any Test match in which all 40 wickets fell, no more than 10 runs separated all four innings totals. Better still, England prevailed by just three runs to maintain their grip on the urn at least until the next Test at Sydney.

Not least of the heroes of that remarkable match at the MCG was England's current chairman of selectors, Geoff Miller, not for anything he did with bat or ball, but for the slip catch he took, after a spot of pinball involving Chris Tavare, to end a famously obdurate last-wicket stand by Allan Border and Jeff Thomson. In almost turning near-certain defeat into victory, they doughtily put on 70, declining 29 comfortable singles to keep Border on strike. "I could not talk about it for years; it was one of the all-time low moments of my life," recalled Thomson much later of a defeat that, in the end, didn't even stop the Aussies from regaining the Ashes. Yet Thommo anointing it one of his all-time low moments alone defines it as one of English sport's all-time highs.

I suppose it's cheating a little to call it a Yuletide high, however, since the match didn't finish until 30 December. There was a time, of course, when sport unfolded on Christmas Day itself, and here's a seasonal question for tomorrow's dinner table: what is the enduring significance of a 2-2 draw between Clydebank and St Mirren, and Alloa's 2-1 defeat of Cowdenbeath in December 1976? The answer is that they were the last league fixtures in Britain to take place on Christmas Day, the rest of the Scottish programme having fallen prey to the weather. The last Christmas Day game at the top level in England was Blackburn Rovers 1-0 Blackpool back in 1959.

As for Boxing Day football, it is 1963 that leaps from the history books. No fewer than 66 goals were scored that day in the old First Division: of 10 fixtures, three were graced by six goals, two contained seven, there was one with eight, one with 10, while Fulham hammered Ipswich 10-1. If that were to happen now there would be mass spontaneous combustion in the Sky Sports studios, with just a little pile of smouldering cinders left on Jeff Stelling's seat.

For that kind of excitement this Boxing Day, however, Kempton Park is surely the focal point, and what promises to be a King George VI Chase for the ages. There is nobody better to cast an eye over those ages than 93-year-old Sir Peter O'Sullevan, so I phoned him earlier this week, and he assured me that in his heyday as the Voice of Racing he looked forward to the King George as much as he looked forward to any commentary. "It slightly excused me from Christmas, you see," he said. "I was doing my homework when I should have been wearing a paper hat; I was never very keen on all that."

O'Sullevan talked beguilingly about some of the great King George winners, including Cottage Rake, who also won three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups between 1948 and 1950, and about the 1960s prime of Arkle and Mill House, whose epic rivalry is evoked this year by Kauto Star and Long Run. Naturally, I asked him where his money would be going on Monday. "Oh, I don't honestly think it needs any spicing, Brian," he said. "I shall be very happy not to be fiscally involved, and to be able to enjoy it dispassionately." Now that seems like the best tip of all. Merry Christmas.

Taking my cue from Arlott, it is over and out

Never mind EastEnders versus Downton Abbey, the biggest treat in the December TV schedules has already been transmitted. It was Mike Brearley's 1985 interview with John Arlott, dusted down last week by BBC 4 but shown originally on the young Channel 4 and a stirring example of that channel's founding remit to be boldly innovative, for some of the pauses were disconcertingly long, and Arlott at times grew uncomfortably maudlin, yet it was all the more riveting for it. And at the end of the credits came his last growl as a commentator, which I took to heart, for this is the last of my 500-odd sports columns for The Independent, but if Arlott could bow out understatedly, without sentiment, then so can I. "After Trevor Bailey, it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins," he said. Well, after me, it will be somebody else.

Thinking caps, not paper hats

There is still a week for you to enter my Christmas Quiz, readily available online and, as an added incentive, let me say that, as of yesterday, there was only a single leader in the clubhouse with 30 correct answers out of 30. The prize is a year's supply of Spitfire Ale, donated by master brewers Shepherd Neame, so take off your paper hats and pull on your thinking caps.

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