Great Easter sporting weekends

Paul Howarth
boat race 2 300x225 Great Easter sporting weekends

Oxford celebrate victory in the boat race at the weekend

Like roast lamb and bread and butter pudding, Easter sport is a feast to be savoured.  This year, we had a poignant Boat Race victory for Oxford, which delivered redemption after the Dark Blues suffered an unfortunate reverse twelve months ago.  That day, they came off second best having led when that idiot swam across the course and forced a restart.  Poignant, too, as one of their great stalwarts of recent years, Acer Nethercott, died in January of a brain tumour.  The winning boat carried his name on Sunday.  Even as a man with Light Blue blood in his veins, I reckon the right crew prevailed.

Then there was that pulsating game at Stamford Bridge on Monday.  The two most garlanded English teams of the last decade played out a thoroughly entertaining FA Cup quarter-final replay, settled by two moments of brilliance: Demba Ba’s Inspector Gadget-style volley and Petr Cech’s remarkable point-blank save to deny Javier Hernández.

What other great Easter moments spring to mind?

Angel Cabrera – US Masters 2009

The Masters has always been my favourite golf tournament.  The other-worldly majesty of the Augusta National with its famous azaleas and glassy greens; the spectacular iron play and putting in the face of the keenest tension; the fact that the final-day drama unfolds on a Sunday night UK time.  Sporting romance of the very highest order.  I have fond teenage memories of Jack Nicklaus defying middle age to land his eighteenth Major, Sandy Lyle’s all-time-great bunker shot and over-active armpit sweat glands, and Nick Faldo winning his first green jacket by sinking a monster putt while simultaneously sporting the worst jumper in the history of golf (against some pretty stiff opposition).

The tournament occasionally coincides with Easter, the last time being in 2009.  It went to a play-off, fellow Bible-Belters Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell facing off with the avuncular Argentinian, Angel Cabrera.  I was rooting for Cabrera, whose effortless swing I’d fallen in love with.  But after one shot of the play-off, it looked most unlikely my man would come through.  Cabrera had driven his ball right behind a Georgia pine, while his opponents had both found the fairway.  Despite hitting another tree with his second, though, he scraped a par.  Meanwhile, Campbell found a greenside bunker, splashed out to six feet and missed his par putt, thereby eliminating himself.  At the second play-off hole Perry, who had earlier dropped shots on the seventeenth and eighteenth of the final round, recorded a bogey after his ball unfortunately picked up mud on the fairway.  Cabrera made par to take the green jacket.

I don’t know about you but I love it when sporting champions look nothing like the stereotype of chiselled athletic perfection.  Cabrera could easily have passed for one of the less mobile members at my old man’s golf club.  All power to the Easter Angel.  And I’d had a few quid on him.

Brian Lara 400 not out – Antigua 2004

Ashley Giles got this one right.  The ‘King Of Spain’ took one look at the pitch on the morning of the first day, came down with a mystery illness and cried off.  Then he watched his fellow bowlers disappear to all parts of St John’s for about three days.

Tormentor-in-chief for the West Indies, inevitably, was Brian Charles Lara.  From the moment he strode to the crease, he looked immovable.  With trademark high backlift, the Caribbean sun glinting off his blade, he unleashed his full repertoire of cuts, pulls and drives.  On Easter Sunday itself, he advanced from 86 to 313 not out.

Gareth Batty, who’d replaced the wily Giles in the England line-up, had the dubious honour of bowling the ball that Lara paddled to the boundary to pass Matthew Hayden’s previous record of 380.  I have a vivid memory of Graham Thorpe, ‘fielding’ at backward square leg, ushering the ball to the rope.  Can’t blame him really.

In truth, the game was pretty dull as a spectacle.  England had been utterly dominant throughout the series and were 3-0 up coming into the fourth and final Test.  Dead rubbers rarely produce scintillating cricket.  Add to that an absolute featherbed of a pitch and we were never in for a thrilling contest.  Lara’s innings was astonishing, of course it was, and one should always feel privileged to witness a world record.  But, to me, it was the sporting equivalent of watching a man break the record for eating Flying Saucers: impressive in a perverse kind of way, but flimsy and, you suspect, easily equalled by other talented Flying Saucer eaters if they put their mind to it.

It was the second time Lara had registered the highest individual Test score, the first being his 375 on the same ground in 1994, against England once again.  It might have been this game that generated the following piece of lovely journalism.  One observer – I can’t remember who it was and would be grateful if someone else can – described either Gus Fraser or Andy Caddick as follows: ‘runs in to bowl as if he’s caught his braces in the pavilion door.’

The ultimate futility of West Indies’ undoubtedly monumental batting performance in the context of the 2004 series was not lost on the locals.  I still have a T-shirt, bought from an enterprising chap in the crowd the day after West Indies had declared, which reads: ‘751-5.  We Have Dem Now!’

Irish Grand National 2005 – Numbersixvalverde

The Irish Grand National is traditionally run on Easter Monday at Fairyhouse.  Numbersixvalverde’s 2005 victory was significant for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the race itself.  The eventual winner, with the outstanding Ruby Walsh in the saddle, had made stealthy progress through the field but hit the fourth last, an error that might have knocked the stuffing out of him.  It didn’t.  Galvanised by Walsh, he put it up to Jack High approaching the final fence, before staying on strongly to hold that rival by three-quarters of a length in a rousing finish.  Secondly, Jack High was trained by Ruby’s father, Ted.  Good thing they’d already enjoyed the family roast the day before.  Thirdly, in winning the race, Ruby became the only jockey to take the Irish National, Aintree Grand National and Welsh National in the same season.

And finally, Numbersixvalverde was giving notice that he was a live contender for the following year’s Aintree contest.  He won at Liverpool in 2006, on that occasion piloted by Aintree debutant Niall ‘Slippers’ Madden (his dad was known as ‘Boots’, a younger family member is ‘Socks’).  The horse he beat into second that day was Hedgehunter, ridden by – you guessed it – Ruby Walsh.

If you’re thinking of using this system to pick the winner of this Saturday’s Grand National, forget it.  Lion Na Bearnai, last year’s Irish National hero, has just been ruled out of the race with an infection.  That’s racing.

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  • Barry Jessup

    It probably says something of the genius which Brian Lara possessed that he could score 400 against a very decent England attack and yet somehow leave the viewer disappointed by the inevitability of it. There is also the legitimate argument that Australia, England or South Africa would almost certainly have declared halfway through his innings and tried to win the Test match

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