The Queen at sport & the Queen, a good sport too

The Crown, a vastly popular drama series on Netflix, didn’t capture the sporting side of Queen Elizabeth II apart from her love for breeding horses and horse racing. But the departed monarch, who died on Thursday evening, was a keen follower of sport – cricket, football, Wimbledon and of course, Royal Ascot.

The Queen meeting cricket teams at Lord’s was a common sight. Everything was as per protocol. Dennis Lillee’s autograph request at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, however, was a departure from it. As the Queen was meeting the players ahead of the Centenary Test in 1977, the legendary Australian fast bowler held out a pen and an item and requested for an autograph. The Queen couldn’t accede on the spot but more than made up for it later, by sending a signed photograph.

“It happened during the Melbourne Centenary Test and her reply was to the effect that she couldn’t do it in front of all the people at the ground and watching on television because she would be stopped and asked wherever she went,” Lillee wrote in his autobiography, adding: “I asked because she was the ultimate hero to me, she was ‘our’ Queen.”

The British monarch is the Australian head of state as well.

Lillee wasn’t ready for the surprise gift that came about a week later. “I had thought about it and took something out for her to sign. I understood her explanation and forgot all about it until a week or so later when an aide-de-camp from the Palace got in touch and asked me for my address as the Queen wanted to send me a signed photograph.

“You could have picked me up off the floor and the picture takes pride of place in my house, the only memorabilia displayed apart from a few things in my office. It’s a picture of me being introduced to the Queen at the very moment I was asking for her autograph, and it’s signed ‘Elizabeth R, 1977,” wrote the former fast bowler.

“You can imagine how chuffed I was. I had probably embarrassed her and all the cricket officials but, at the time, I could not see the reason not to ask. People asked me for my autograph and I signed; at least, that was my logic. Maybe, I was getting to know why the hierarchy didn’t like me so much,” he went on.

The Queen was present at the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley and handed over the Jules Rimet Trophy to England captain Bobby Moore after a 4-2 victory over West Germany.

She was there at the Royal Box at Wimbledon, when Virginia Wade won the women’s singles title in 1977, the Championship’s centenary year.

Pakistan’s great squash player Jahangir Khan might have asked questions of his game that Chris Walker, former squash player and India’s coach, couldn’t answer but the question that totally stumped him came from the Queen. That day when he made her wait when she came to inaugurate a squash tournament. When he eventually sauntered out after a toilet break, a panicking sentry yelled, “I have found him!” And asked him to rush along, escorting him.

“The Queen waits while Walker sat on the throne,” ran a headline in the Evening Standard the next day. Walker laughs at the memory.“Well, not entirely true. She was late and it was then that I rushed to the toilet! Once I greet her – and I was advised not to shake her hand but just bow, she has a look at the glass court behind me, and goes, ‘Have you played in one of these before?!’ I say, ‘actually yeah, we use these portable glass courts all over the world.’ And she goes, “Oh good! So you have had some practice. Good luck!”

The 2012 London Olympics saw the most irreverent Games opening ceremony gag, when at the end of Mr Bean’s blathering about in a show that left TV audience in chuckles, a body-double of Her Majesty was tossed out a chopper and needed Daniel Craig’s 007 to bring the Head of State safely back home and dry.

Just four years after Beijing used the Olympics and sport as a soft sell for their opulent opening-up-to-the-world party, and while the Games had always been used by governments as cringe-worthy messaging of nationalistic pride, here was Britain, wearing the most-famous Crown rather lightly. And the Queen playing along.

The Queen was also the patron of the Commonwealth Games. And perhaps the greatest adoration for her was reserved at Glasgow Games in 2014 where Scotland and England compete separately. As the head of the ‘realm’ with the very idea of Commonwealth and empire dying away quickly in the new world, nowhere was the decolonising sentiment more avid than in Scotland in 2014. The Glasgow Games came soon after the Diamond Jubilee celebrations when her public ratings were upward of 90 percent, and Scotland was heading into an independence referendum.

Yet, in Glasgow, a city that is fiercely independent in spirit, and famously abhors all symbols of “English rule” (they even have a statue of Wellington Duke who regularly has a traffic cone upturned on his head in mockery of authority), the opening ceremony had a welcoming roar for one royal for the ages. When Elizabeth II stepped out of her black royal vehicle, she received one of the most resounding standing ovations from the stadium. Genuinely adored by Glaswegians and Scots, it highlighted her stature in the idea of the Commonwealth – universally respected, despite the troubled histories of kingdoms.

Even as nations in the Caribbean leave the realm and explore their republic identities, casting away the royal yoke and embracing absolute sovereignty, the Queen remained a much-loved figure across the Commonwealth.

But far away from big Games and their ceremony, she struck a meditative chord – woman and horse. Horse racing was her biggest sporting passion. The Queen leading the royal family procession in a horse-drawn carriage at Royal Ascot was an annual event in the British sporting calendar.

“I enjoy breeding a horse that is faster than other people’s. And to me, that is a gamble from a long way back. I enjoy going racing but I suppose, basically, I love horses, and the thoroughbred epitomises a really good horse to me,” she had said in a BBC documentary.

With nearly 2,000 winners as a racehorse owner, she tasted grand success. As Michael Stoute, who trained the Queen’s horses, said: “Winning races gave her a special thrill.”

Kolkata has its own story to tell, via former Mohun Bagan and India captain Sailen Manna. Wowed by Manna’s long clearances from the back and his free-kicks, playing barefoot at the 1948 London Olympics, the Queen, a princess then, had asked Manna about the secret behind his powergame, when she met the Indian football team. Until his last day, the Maidan’s beloved Manna da wore the praise as a badge of honour.

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