The other sporting stories…

There are usually two kind of sports stories that we remember- the first one is a story of triumph- the glory of success. The team who become more than the sum of their parts and turn in the perfect fighting performance inspiring millions.

The second kind of sport story is one of the plucky underdog who becomes an icon of the human spirit, but just falls short. All those pre-Murray British tennis players, the first division football club that goes on an FA cup run that ends second best at Wembley to some fancy dan premier outfit. If anything we like these stories better than the first.

There is another kind of story that I am drawn to however- and that is the story of sporting failure, humiliation even. For every hero there has to be a villain. For every team who rise to glory others have to fall. I am interested in what happens to people who live out these stories. People who have lived for ‘the game’ (whatever this game may be) and no matter how hard they try, it all ends in failure.

How do you cope when your whole life passion and effort is trampled on by failure? Perhaps you just get up and try again, aware than even to have achieved a certain level of sport is a triumph. Then again, this may depend on the KIND of failure.

There was a story in The Guardian today about Scott Boswell, bowling for Leicester again Somerset in a cricket cup final. Here is how it went;

This is his description of what happened;

When he came back for his second, Trescothick was on strike. Boswell’s head started to swim. He had been struggling to bowl to left-handers. Suddenly Trescothick “looked as though he was 50 yards away. He was like a tiny dot. I just couldn’t see him. Then I bowled a wide and I heard the noise of the crowd. I bowled a second wide, and the noise got louder and louder and louder.” His muscles grew tight. His fingers grew tense. He began to sweat. “I just couldn’t let go of the ball. I wanted to get on with it, so I began to rush. The more I panicked, the more I rushed.” He lost his run-up. The pitch, already on a slope, seemed to tilt sharper beneath his feet. He makes it sound like vertigo.

No one spoke to him. He didn’t want to talk anyway. He just wanted to get it over with. The umpire, George Sharp, finally said, out of the side of his mouth, “keep bowling”. Boswell thought: “Jesus Christ. I am going to be bowling here all bloody day.” He was terrified that the over would never end. “‘I was thinking: ‘I just want to get this over, I just want to get this over’ but it kept going and going and going, wide after wide after wide.” Some flew to slip, others flew towards fine leg. The video is harrowing.

Boswell, up till then a promising talent, was dropped by Leicester a fortnight later, aged 28. He was destroyed by the experience;

Two weeks later, Leicestershire sacked him. Then they asked if he would play one last match, against Nottinghamshire in the Sunday league. They needed to win to secure the title. He wasn’t thinking straight. So he said yes. Just before the game began he was hiding, crying, in a shop near the ground. “I was absolutely terrified.” He came on first change and bowled a wide. “I heard a couple of people cheer and that was it.” The over cost 18 runs. So he feigned cramp and ran off the field. He spent five hours sitting in the changing room, stunned. There had barely been a day in the past 10 years when he hadn’t bowled a cricket ball, up and down, one end to the other, and now he just couldn’t do it. “And that was it. I disappeared.”

A week later Boswell started life in what he calls “the real world”, as a salesman for a cricket company. On his first day he spent five hours in a traffic jam on the M6 thinking: “Oh my God.” He wanted to carry on playing. A couple of clubs offered him deals, decent money. He went up to Preston and bowled fine in the nets. But in a match “I couldn’t let go of it. It was going from my hand to the keeper, to third slip, I had no idea. I felt sick. I would actually be sick. I was throwing up all over the place. I couldn’t do what I had been doing for so long.

What does the ‘real world’ feel like after such an experience? What sort of courage do you need to find who you are in it? Boswell says it took him 10 years to recover. He is now coaches children, and is always honest about that over, and how it destroyed him. He can now say this, and deserves our deep respect;

“Sometimes,” Boswell says, “I wonder if I hadn’t played that match, would I still be playing cricket professionally? But then I tell myself that this happened for a reason.” This year, for the first time in a long time, he didn’t play a game of cricket. “I had put it to bed. I could bowl. I could bat. I had never been happier.”

The best stories are nothing to do with success- they are about redemption. The sheep that was lost is now found.

A weekend of Cricket…

Skippers Robin and Mark exchange the Ashes

Apologies- I know that many of you have no interest in cricket, but this is my blog after all, so here we go again! 

I am rather stiff and sore after playing two games of cricket this weekend- a great rarity in our climate. Yesterdays game in particular was played in glorious sunshine and we are all a little sunburnt.

One of the great pleasures of my middle age is to play cricket in the same team as my son William, who (aged 12) is already better than me as a bowler– we both bowl wrist spin but his has far more fizz and venom, and he can turn the ball both ways with no appreciable change of action. I have the edge in the batting, but not for much longer I am sure- this is mostly about power, not technique.

Only a father who loves cricket will know how much pleasure this gives- I am sure this is true in any sport, but cricket has a kind of sepia timelessness that makes the embrace of the new generation all the more beautiful. Promising kids are cherished by everyone on all sides and old men playing into their twilight years seem to lose twenty years as they smile at a youthful shot well played through the covers – even against their own bowling.

This weekend contained two very different kind of games (both of which we lost!) The first one, played in Greenock on Saturday, was a 2nd XI league match against Prestwick. They rattled up a formidable total after a series of nearly-outs gave them a head start. William and I bowled late- he got a good wicket, but I at least kept things tidy and slowed down their scoring. I batted down at number 8, and when I came in victory was already a forlorn hope. However, I whacked a few and finished with 37 not out, a score well bettered  by young Harry Briggs (aged 14) who made a lovely 57 (there is a match report and scorecard here.) There was an intensity to this cricket- there were few jokes, lots of shouts and loud groans, and damage was done in the dressing room when wickets fell cheaply.

The other game was rather different. We traveled to Edinburgh to play a Royal Botanical Gardens CC, a long time fixture,with Innellan Cricket Club, played for our own cup. Botanics often contain some tasty players as they gather strong fit blokes from Australia as well as home grown talent. However, the emphasis on the game is far more relaxed – the aim is to play friendly cricket in the best kind of way. Winning is important, but not the most important thing- this is that thing called ‘the spirit of the game’; playing well, giving everyone a chance, being honest and fair, having a laugh with friend and foe alike. In fact, the cruelest humour is always reserved for members of our own teams.

Will bowled beautifully again and got a wicket with a perfect curling arc of a ball that defeated a decent batsman in flight and turn. He had every batsman groping and hopping about- much to the delight of their colleagues. I managed a wicket too- a nice one that pinned the batsman plumb in front for an LBW (which I appealed for rather too forcibly, against the gentle friendly tone of the game.) RBG made a healthy 169 at the close, aided by a blistering knock from their tame Aussie.

In a really nice touch our captain let Will and I open the batting- and we spent a few overs teasing each other for each bad shot and enjoying the good ones, until William got a bit too ambitious and hit a shot over the bowlers head to be caught in the deep.  All the clean hitting freedom I had found the day before seemed to have deserted me, but I scratched and edged my way to 25, the point at which we had agreed to retire so everyone had a chance to bat.  I also took one for the team right in the box which brought tears to my eyes from the pain of it and to my team mates eyes for its comedic effect.

Our wickets fell regularly so I came back at the end to accompany our skipper. By then I had a migraine, with all the usual vision problems   (perhaps related to the blow in the testes) so it was a miracle that I hit anything at all, managing only a few runs before timing a drive straight at a fielder and setting off on a suicidal run as I could not see where it had gone. This left the skipper high and dry, but in a typical piece of good sportsmanship the RGB captain invited him to bat on with a runner, as we had only 8 players and this seemed to him to be fair.

Then began one of those pieces of sport that always live in your mind- Robin, our captain, started to open his shoulders, hitting sixes and fours to every side of the ground. Because I was still padded up I acted as runner and almost contrived another run out, having to dive in to make my ground. It was one of the those elbow-skinning, should-know-better, middle-aged dives which has limited forward motion and is more like a rotten tree falling in a wet forest. I was in by about an inch.

We fell just short after 40 overs- 6 runs short in fact – after RGB realised their peril and upped their bowling game in the last over. The game was lost, and no worse for that.

Men in a field, a bat, a ball and lots of laughter. You may laugh at my foolishness, you might justifiably scoff at such a waste of our precious time on earth. What captives were liberated? How many souls saved? How was the cause of humanity served?

All I can say is that you were not there.


Football as litmus paper for prejudice?

So did any of you see this story earlier?

It seems that comments by Tennis player Andy Murray have been taken to a T Shirt. In 2006, whilst being interviewed by a Daily Mail journalist (and I know that many of you might agree with me that those words may contain an inherent contradiction) Murray got himself in trouble as follows-

So, for the hard of thinking, let me state here that: I did the interview with Andy Murray and Tim Henman a couple of years back where Murray talked about ‘supporting whoever England were playing against’.

It was a clearly a sarcastic remark. He was responding to teasing from your columnist about Scotland’s absence from the 2006 World Cup and derisive laughter from the mischievous Henman.

It was reported in that context in this newspaper at the time and the exchange was run as a transcript.

A couple of days later a red-top got excited about the comments, lifted a couple of them into a ‘story’ that took on a life of its own and from there the truth was lost.

But the story has carried on.

The latest incarnation of this can be seen in the sale of these T-shirts-

These shirts are being sold as Football World Cup shirts. ABE stands of course, for ‘Anyone But England.’

The perhaps overly zealous policeman who reacted to the shirts appeared to have some concern that the shirts might foster and encourage racism- which is of course an offence.

At very least it appears to tap into wider popular prejudice and division between our neighbouring countries. Football has this way of being a conduit for all sorts of prejudice and base emotions- it is like a kind of religion without a moral code sometimes.

I know my own reaction to this- which is that I find this narrow sectarian stuff very depressing. I do not often feel the heat of prejudice personally, despite living in Scotland and having an English accent (although someone did call me a ‘white settle’r today- albeit with a smile.) I just think that most of us should just know better. The fostering and celebration of narrow judgemental views is never really victimless- there are always vulnerable people who suffer, if only kids in the playground. There is also the fear in me that these fires, once lit, might become conflagrations- if not in our generation, then perhaps in the next…

So- what do you think?


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In the game, I see no point.
It feeds no babies
Liberates no captives
Brings no healing to the afflicted.
But it captures many miles of newsprint
And bounces from shiny sputniks
Modern bread and circus
True opium of masses.

So spare a thought for the cheerleaders
Who bring gravitas to gravy
Build stone walls from sand
With a flash of skirt they sell a plastic jewel
And use their sex for empty passion
The flash of capped teeth
And the firm flush of youth
Exultant futility.

Perhaps I am too harsh.
Man cannot live in mind alone
We can also value the spectacle-
Titanic clash of scientifically enhanced muscle
So wave those pom-poms
Bring it on.

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Reflections on the futility/centrality of sport

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Stuart Cutler, whose blog I enjoy, said something interesting about sport here

He said “when you deconstruct any sport, it is ridiculous…”

I reckon he’s right. It set me thinking about something else-

“Bread and circuses”

A phrase used by a Roman poet to deplore the declining heroism of the Romans after the end of the Roman Republic, and as the Roman Empire began. “Two things only people desire- bread and circuses”. In times of unrest, the Roman governors threw huge spectacles, and handed out free bread.

At present, the Olympics fill our screens, but it seems only a sneeze since the football world cup raised a million hopes and dreams for English football fans. Flags waved from suburban windows and on car aerials. There was probably another song in the charts about football coming home, badly sung by an embarrassed set of England footballers. And the sun shone on the hopes of the whole nation, at least for a while…

I suppose I am a sports snob. I love cricket, and so got all worked up over the Ashes win over Australia (we were soon humbled by the return matches in Australia, which we lost 5-0!) but I am genuinely bemused at the effect of watching some men kick a ball about on a football field.

It has been suggested quite seriously by economic and political analysts that the success or otherwise of the England football team (and perhaps that of other nations too, even Scotland!) has a measurable effect on the nation. People’s spending patterns change, they impregnate one another more or less frequently, they vote differently, and crime and public order offences fluctuate like the league table itself. Such is the power of public entertainment, filtered through mass media, to a population hungry for meaning- for significance rather than the mundane predictability of life.

The Romans knew this, and perhaps little has changed, apart from the forms of entertainment themselves. They used to idolize men who fought and killed for entertainment. We now just reserve our thirst for blood for whoever the current England manager is. Why would anyone want that job?

But I too also love those moments of magic when a man or woman transcends what all have the right to expect, pushing beyond every psychological and physical barrier, and against all the odds, winning the prize.

A sublime goal scored by the 18 year old Michael Owen

A 6 smacked high over the boundary and into the crowd by Andrew Flintoff, right into to the hands of his proudly watching father (who promptly drops it),

And the time when I heard about Eddie the Eagle strapping on his milk bottle bottom glasses and launching himself from his garden shed, in training for the Olympic ski jump.
I remember these moments. As much as they can be, in a disposable age, they become almost eternal- they are public property, the milestones of our lives. We store them away like songs and smells that always take us back to particular time and place, and in their own way, they are as beautiful as sonnets.

But it is not enough. How can we elevate football or cricket or rock music or package holidays or anything for that matter, to become the pre-eminent point of emotional and spiritual expression in our lives? It seems to me that so many of us have let these manufactured things become the mechanism for fulfillment and borrowed success in our lives. We fill the voids in our lives with off-the-shelf imitations of reality, sanctioned and given shared legitimacy by TV. As with all things, it is hard to go against the flow.

We could talk about the state of the earth, of inequality, of poverty and starvation of children, of global warming and the melting polar icecaps. Or about the death of conversation, the end of community, and the breakdown of family life. But it is all a bit earnest, a bit oppressive. The issues are too big for us to grasp, and anyway, we are all entitled to a bit of a rest at the end of a working day, right? A bit of down time, a good match?

Yes, but time goes by so quickly. We start out full of optimism, and all too soon our children have grown, and mortgages have become the millstones that tie us to jobs offering little beyond a wage check. I believe in an eternal perspective, which offers a life in so many more dimensions. And in a God who sends his Spirit amongst the crowd, stirring like a wind on the waters, reminding us of what it means to be made in the image of a creative, Creator God, softening us from the plastic wrapping of our lives, bringing in life and love and freedom. Calling us to be so much more than passive observers of the TV screens-

But to see Flintoff in his pomp, humbling the mighty Australians, making them look like children bowling at their older brother, punching a smooth extra cover drive, then rocking back and smashing a square cut of withering power past a startled baggy green cap…

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