So long, then, to another thrilling year of sport in which the full range of human possibility — from the dismal frailties of the recidivists who run world football to the brazen brilliance of Japan’s rugby players — made for an intoxicating mix. It began and ended with two epic highs. Back in January, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall in Yosemite, the most difficult route in rock climbing, taking 19 days in all. A truly awesome achievement. Most of us could barely get off the ground; Yosemite is 3,000 ft high. Then, almost at year’s end, another high: the only people who recall Great Britain’s last Davis Cup victory are at least 90 years old. Now all of us have something to tell the grandchildren. The scale of Britain’s — and the Murray family’s — achievement cannot be overstated.
But England were dismal in rugby and cricket. And what a strange year for cricket: pink balls, grinding results in the Gulf, and now a potentially dazzling T20 side. Have a punt on them next year: they’re around 9-1 and have a very good shout. Brendon McCullum was one of the sportsmen of the year, charming and thoughtful off the field; savage and inspirational on it. Two brilliant England-Kiwi Tests were followed by a weird, uninvolving Ashes victory. The highlight was the Australians being bowled out before lunch. One of cricket’s best moments came at Dodgers Stadium where Warne’s Warriors beat Sachin’s Blasters in a rum old T20 series for retired players. Elderly, sometimes portly, but still amazingly good cricketers trundling around a baseball field were a lovely sight. And no mention of a third batting bonus point.
Comeback of the year belonged to Frankie Dettori, winning the Derby and the Arc on the magnificent Golden Horn. He’s not everybody’s plate of pasta but he’s doing wonders with John Gosden. Great to see him back after all that unfortunate hoo-hah.
And look at Britain’s athletes: Jess Ennis, a good shout as Sports Personality of the Year, or Greg Rutherford, jumping imperiously on (thrillingly, with a long-jump pit in his back garden), or little Mo Farah, unstoppable and unbeatable despite a pretty spurious set of smears over drug claims.
Britain’s brilliant gymnasts, Max Whitlock and Louis Smith, starred in the world championships. They are in the great tradition of British eccentrics; pioneers even.
Golf has seen the miraculous emergence of a youthful triumvirate who could rule for years: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. Throw in the likes of Stenson, Rose and Scott and it should be a golden time. Meanwhile Tiger Woods is world No. 394.
We’ve waved off Mitchell Johnson and Richie McCaw, perhaps the greatest sportsman since the war. And Jonah Lomu, as much a gentleman off the field as a giant on it, was taken too, too early. The great A.P. McCoy bade a tearstained farewell, before bouncing back, inevitably as skilled as ever, on the Channel 4 racing sofa.
The Rugby World Cup was superb entertainment once England were out. Australia’s 13-man defence against Wales was breathtaking, and Dan Carter’s crucial dropped goal in the final was one of the most elegant plays in elite sport. International sportsman of the year, surely. And finally, most moving of all, the hulking forwards of Toulouse in tears as the Marseillaise was played (at their request) before their match against Saracens on a rainswept field in north London. It was less than 24 hours after the bloodshed in Paris and the first, and truest, expression of sadness, long before the Premier League’s self-regarding competitive grief.
But Christmas is a time to bring glad tidings, so here a few of the much-coveted Spectator sports awards.
Party of the Year
In the small hours of a November morning, the elderly residents of Monaco were wakened by the sounds of cars being smashed up in the street. It was the world motor racing champ, Lewis Hamilton himself, who admitted getting rather bladdered on tequila at his party and writing off his £1.5 million Pagani Zonda supercar. The exact guest list remains a mystery, though Rosco and Coco, Lewis’s much-pampered bulldogs, would have been there. Rihanna maybe; but not Nicole Scherzinger, perish the thought. And you can bet there’d have been room for the pilot of Lewis’s £20 million bright-red Bombardier jet. He chose red, he said, so he could pick it out in the serried ranks of silver private planes at Monte Carlo airport. I know the feeling: I have a red car myself, and at least you can pick it out at the NCP.
Wedding of the Year
A new award this, but hopefully not the last. Dr Eva Carneiro — the exotic medical minx from Gibraltar whose perfectly reasonable desire to give aid to a stricken player precipitated Jose Mourinho’s decline — put aside her blue Chelsea tracksuit to get hitched in something dazzling and white. Her husband is a good-looking bloke with an exciting name, Jason de Carteret, and an absolutely off-the-scale job title: polar explorer. Why can’t people like the lovely Dr Eva ever marry an engineer, or a surveyor? A journalist, even?
Team Award for Bad Behaviour
Always won by the Australians (remember the underarm bowling incident?). And this year is no exception. When New Zealand’s Ross Taylor was finally out for 290 in the second Test in Perth he had single-handedly saved his side with the highest score by an overseas player in Australia. But did anyone from the fielding side go to shake his hand? You’ve got to be kidding. Of course they didn’t. Come on Steve Smith, I thought you were a nice guy. Taylor, of course, was completely unfazed and charm itself.
Voice (and Name) of the Year
An easy winner: the magnificent Ebony Rainford-Brent, or to give her her full moniker, Ebony-Jewel Cora-Lee Camellia Rosamond Rainford-Brent. She is the first black woman to play for England and she also captained Surrey (like Rory Hamilton-Brown). What is it with double-barrels down at the Oval? Do their scorecards need filling out? Ebony is now on the Test Match Special commentary team and talks fantastic good sense. She is also blessed with one of the dirtiest laughs on radio. I met her once at a Chance to Shine charity event, and she is spectacularly fabulous.
Watch these names: you’ll be hearing a lot more of them!