December 26, 2009

Who needs heroes?

Cricketers as objects of worship

The name is Ton. Ath.Er.Ton © Cricinfo Ltd
Heroes. Everyone has heroes, don’t they? Along with the fictional XI, naming your cricket hero is a staple of cricket chat. For some it is Ian Botham, for others Dennis Lillee, Sachin Tendulkar, or possibly even Gareth Batty (though this might qualify as a fetish rather than hero worship). Small boys crowd the boundary boards in the hope that one of the Morkels will scribble an illegible something on their mini-bat, and grown men go into bookshops and emerge with Alastair Cook’s autobiography (presumably in a plain brown envelope).

But not me. I am ethically opposed to the idea of hero worship in cricket. For a start, the art of manipulating a small leathery object, whilst capable of great heights of refinement, weighs in pretty low on the bravery scale. Keith Miller’s famous quote involving Messerschmitts and arses is always worth an airing. If Miller was to be considered a hero, it should be for the things he did whilst perched in a cockpit, not his feats with a bat in the middle of a green field on a pleasant summer’s evening.

And it isn’t just that professional cricket involves no extremes of danger. This question of heroes goes right to the heart of why we watch cricket and why I have never bought an autobiography. A hero is someone you admire, indeed revere, as a person. When watching cricket, it is not Alastair Cook the man I am interested in. I care not where he went to school, what his first pet was called or whether he prefers low-fat margarine to butter. Without wishing to be rude, I don’t care what he thinks.

I am only interested in him in so far (and for as long) as he bats. On the field, he is playing the role of Alastair Cook, performing in a long tradition of public theatre. How he uses his bat, how he stands at the crease, how he runs, all these things taken together form the Alastair Cook of the mind’s eye. VVS Laxman may have some interesting things to say on global warming, but to be honest, I’m only really interested in his wrists and their neurological wiring. To say VVS Laxman is my hero would be a little like saying Hamlet is my hero.

And if you hit Ricky Ponting with a bouncer, does he not bleed? To idolise a man because you like the way he plays the pull shot is rather creepy. Ricky gets nervous, goes to the toilet, doesn’t remember where he left his car keys, snores, picks his nose from time to time and may even watch The X Factor. He is as human as the rest of us, so to revere him as a hero is unfair, particularly since it usually involves some disappointment or effigy burning later on, when he shows some human frailty. Personally I would never be so unkind to someone as to call them my hero.

Of course, I am a hypocrite of the first order and I can therefore break my own rules. Please take off your irony spectacles and unplug your sarcasm detector. This is not a joke. For someone who watched his first Test match in 1986 and spent much of the next 20 years hiding behind the sofa whenever England took the field, there are three little syllables that produce instant equilibrium. Ath.Er.Ton. It is a sound as comforting as a hot, sugary cup of tea or a steaming slice of fruit cake. Whenever I heard that sound crackling from the radio, I knew everything would be all right.

Sir Michael (it’s only a matter of time) shrugged off his colossal misfortune in becoming England captain at precisely the worst point in the country’s cricket history. Without mentioning his crippling back pain, he dug his inept colleagues out of a hole again and again and again. He didn’t chuck it all in, he didn’t whinge and he didn’t stop doing what he did. He was the only constant in a decade of chaos. And he just happens to be one of the few ex-cricketers whose words are worth reading. So if I had a hero, which of course I don’t, it would be Athers.

And I would be remiss not to mention the real heroes. Who are they? The people who read this blog. I’m talking about all those brave, misguided souls who, having scoured everything else there is to read on Cricinfo, including the adverts, finally click, more in hope than expectation, to reach this page. I’m talking about you, dear reader. Those of you have clicked once, give yourself a hug. Those who have clicked twice, your medal is in the post. More regular readers should probably increase their medication.

But whoever you are, whatever you’re doing, I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England