Don't trouble the Almighty, just leave it all to Jonny

Ian Wooldridge

Last updated at 00:00 22 November 2003

BLOODY MARYS, bull shots and buck's fizz at dawn. Maybe a couple of precautionary aspirins for those with a tricky ticker.

My God, not since 1966 has a sporting engagement so cried out for pre-match intestinal fortitude of one kind or the other.

The phoney war is over and not before time. It was getting boring.

The Pommie-baiting Sydney Daily Telegraph was fast running out of genuinely funny xenophobic insults and England's retaliation - our multitude of fans chanting Swing Low, Sweet Chariot round the clock - was beginning to grate on Australian nerves.

Now it is down to the professionals: two great coaches, two outstanding rugby teams, playing before a passionately divided audience in one of the world's most spectacular stadiums.

This much we know: there will be no crowd trouble before, during or after the final. It is a definitive moment for the once sidelined game of rugby union.

Down in Wiltshire, a vicar, Rev Peter Knight, who formerly played for England alongside Fran Cotton and Andy Ripley in the Seventies, has composed a prayer which actually invites the Almighty 'to grant the Pommies a favour'.

Dear me, what will the Sydney Daily Telegraph make of that?

It is a pretty cheap, publicity-attracting shot. Like this man of the cloth, I would like to see England triumph this morning but if we have to invoke the Almighty's assistance, we might as well pension off Clive Woodward, Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson before the kickoff.

God will get us there regardless.

Nonsense. Old-fashioned though this concept may be, this column asks for only one thing. Never mind by what method they achieve it Australia playing like ballet dancers or England grinding it out until Wilkinson kicks or drops goals with his near-infallible genius - may the better team win.

I found a sound ally in this belief yesterday. He is about my own age, which may explain something, but he is arguably the finest captain Australia has ever had at any sport. Don Bradman may have been more obviously ruthless but when it came to playing mind-games and inspiring teams to play way above themselves, none compared with Richie Benaud, who never lost a Test cricket series.

Benaud is Australian through and through. He orchestrated probably the most thrilling Test series ever played, Australia v West Indies in 1960-61, which began with the first tied Test in history and ended with 80,000 people lining the streets of Melbourne to send a narrowlydefeated West Indian team on their way home.

A trained journalist while reaching the top at cricket, Benaud needed no Press relations backup team. He handled the media himself, never allowing the historic Pom-Aussie rivalry to run into anything approaching the crude, rude anti-English rhetoric we have seen in recent days.

Ironically, Benaud ran into a wonderful problem when he met and fell in love with an English woman, Daphne Surfleet, who, as personal assistant to E.

W. Swanton, the doyen of cricket correspondents, was the first woman to be accepted into the Press gallery at Lord's.

Theirs has been one of the strongest marriages I have ever known in sport but blood ties run deep.

Benaud is dying for an Australian victory, Mrs Benaud, still English through and through despite her cosmopolitan life, will be barracking for England. It is perhaps as well, then, that they will be 800 miles apart this morning.

Daphne will be at their home overlooking Coogee Beach in Sydney, while Benaud will be in Adelaide preparing for a cricket commentary.

'Not by choice,' said Benaud, 'but that's the way it works.' So how would Benaud, Australia's captain emeritus, handle today's great confrontation?

'Let's transpose it into a cricket situation,' he said. 'If Australia hadn't won the Ashes for 15 years and we had to make 260 on the final day on a wearing pitch to win, I would say go for it between lunch and tea. Let's go for it but above all, let's entertain.' By the time you read this, it will almost certainly be over. This is no match to watch alone. You have to be with kindred spirits and here in London, Richard Shepherd, restaurateur, has invited a few of us ragamuffins and our molls to his traditional formidable hospitality.

Richard knows how to run a party.

By mid-afternoon, will we be ringing Alcoholics Anonymous for urgent advice or those lovely Samaritans for counselling? Neither, I hope, after a glorious Rugby World Cup Final.

You only get a few of these in a privileged lifetime.

IT IS reassuring to learn this week that The Queen takes The Daily Mail.

Apparently, in the carefullypiled stack of newspapers alongside her breakfast table, the Mail comes second only beneath her favourite reading, The Racing Post. This is an enormous tribute to our sports racing staff, initially whipped in by Brian Giles - alias Robin Goodfellow - and now under the stewardship of Marcus Townend, who spend their days poring over our minutely-printed racecards to find you a winner.

Academe slips up again

INSTEAD of teaching our kids how to spell, learn where an apostrophe goes, know who the War Poets were or do simple long division without a computer, it bemuses me that senior academics waste their time on subjects so abstruse and ridiculous that they are of no value to man or beast.

Dr Peter McLeod of Oxford University has just emerged with the theory that great slip catchers in cricket are obviously brilliant mathematicians because they understand the trigonometrical angles at which the ball sped off the bat towards the slips.

The best two slip catchers I have ever seen are Bobby Simpson of Australia and Phil Sharpe of Yorkshire and England. I doubt whether either could have added up a Tesco checkout bill, let alone get involved in senior wrangler maths. If Dr McLeod had wanted to see how this thing really works, he should have stood 35 yards behind the stumps when Michael 'Whispering Death' Holding was bowling for the West Indies.

He might then have understood that his investigation was a fatuous waste of time and money.

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