September 25, 2013

Despicable Stu

Stuart Broad may revel in the Australian fans' hatred for him, but he should know that becoming a better person won't make him a lesser player

Forget Malinga the Slinger. Forget Junaid Khan. When it comes to terminating an innings with extreme prejudice, even Waqar Younis and Joel Garner must kiss the feet of Mariano "Mo" Rivera.

But for the inconvenient fact that he happens to be a baseball pitcher, we would probably be lionising the Panamanian with the canal-wide smile as the death bowler's death bowler instead of king of the closers. Instead of having 25 runs to play with, he often has one. No job in team sport carries quite so much quotidian pressure. The opening line of "Enter Sandman", the grindingly grim Metallica ditty that ritually accompanies his arrival from the bullpen, says all you need to know about that aptitude for silencing bats: "Say your prayers little one…"

Barring the small miracle the New York Yankees require to reach the playoffs, and hence prolong his matchless career, Senõr Rivera is savouring his final week in pinstripes. Sunday, which saw his final outing at Yankee Stadium, was Mariano Rivera Day. "This one's for you, Mariano" declared lead singer James Hetfield before launching Metallica themselves into a thundering "Enter Sandman". "Exit Sandman" proclaimed the cover of last week's Sports Illustrated. His shirt number, 42, will retire with him, a rare and richly deserved accolade - all the more resonant given that one of his inspirations was Jackie Robinson, sport's most famous No. 42.

Yet perhaps even more than the stats - with more than 650 saves (team victories preserved) he is incontestably the finest relief pitcher in major league history - Rivera will be remembered for his dignity. Tributes from rivals testify to that. Toronto's Blue Jays presented him with a carving of Kiviuq, a legendary Inuit. Even Dave O'Brien, the less than religiously impartial radio announcer for the Yankees' bitter rivals the Boston Red Sox, hailed this exemplar of competitive artistry as "a model of grace and class".

On Saturday, meanwhile, Lord's, that purported cathedral to gracious and dignified behaviour, was the stage for Glamorgan followers to vent their fervent and oft ferocious disgust for Stuart Broad, for whom the word "classless" might have been invented. Even if we disregard the natural tendency of supporters to taunt the opposition, not to mention the traditional inclination of Welshmen to despise English public schoolboys, it still says something horribly unflattering about a chap who has delivered not just one but two Ashes-winning spells that he should be held in such low regard.

As brave as Kapil Dev's stab was, the Test double of 5000 runs and 500 wickets remains unattained. Should Broad scale that peak of all-roundedness - a climb for which he is decently equipped in terms of both talent and age - posterity will face one of its greatest challenges. As things stand, even if Broad accomplishes such a remarkable feat, it is hard to imagine him arousing affection, let alone adoration. He doubtless knows this. It remains to be seen whether he gives a toss.

****

If not much unites the cold, cruel pitilessness of professional sport and its recreational brother-from-another-mother, the D-word flies highest among the exceptions. Without dignity, in victory or defeat, how can you even consider yourself a citizen of sportingkind? Being a good winner is just as important as being a good loser. Is there any bigger compliment one can pay a runner, fighter or bat-flinger than that they treated those twin imposters the same?

Granted, Rivera's impeccably dignified persona may be attributable in part to his shaky spoken English. He occupies that awkward and expansive terrain between needing a translator - witness sundry Japanese and Latino baseballers - and being fluent enough to discharge his clichés efficiently. Even so, while words are undoubtedly crucial to fostering perceptions of dignity and dignification, actions bellow - especially in this sound-bitten, quote-sodden age.

Return we therefore must to Trent Bridge in July, when Broad feigned innocence over a slip catch whose obviousness would have been plain to a Martian peering through the wrong end of a telescope. There is no need to reiterate the finer points of the omnipresent walking debate other than to remind ourselves that when he offed himself later in the series, scooting back to the pavilion as if in pressing need of a pee, there wasn't the remotest prospect of redemption.

Contrast Broad's customary outlook - the new DRS allocation might have been designed expressly at his behest - with that of Wayne Madsen, winner of the inaugural Spirit of Cricket Elite Award, named in honour of the late Christopher Martin-Jenkins and devised by those great British acronyms MCC and the BBC. The week after Broad's Emmy-worthy mime act, Derbyshire's South African captain feathered a delivery from Yorkshire's Steve Patterson and, despite being adjudged not out, decided to walk. The clincher, one assumes, was his subsequent matter-of-fact insistence that it had been a matter of purest principle.

Being Stuart Broad, playing "Stuart Broad", means acting the bully. Hence the bouncers, the big biffs and even bigger beefs - with the opposition, with umpires, with Hawk-Eye, with anyone who dares label him as anything but noble and habitually honest

Unfortunately - and we can surely forgive Madsen if he didn't weigh up the consequences - this may come back to bite him. Will national selectors see this as evidence of the right or wrong sort? Even in the DRS-free zone of the County Championship, every time he ponders whether or not he has nicked an outswinger, he'll remember that assertion of principle, and maybe shudder. How much worse would it look against Warwickshire this week if, with Derbyshire clinging to their First Division status by the edge of their fingernails, he was given out having held his ground a fraction of a second too long? Moreover, since many might well feel that he embarrassed one of their own (though a kinder view would be that he helped the vastly experienced Jeff Evans ensure justice was done), how many umpires will be a mite quicker to exercise their trigger finger?

Nothing, though, should dilute admiration for such fragrant honesty. In the context of a season dominated by some of the most lamentable umpiring and Machiavellian appealing in Ashes lore, CMJ wouldn't have quibbled with Madsen's award for a split-nanosecond. As someone who has already been entrusted with the leadership of a national XI, and presumably hankers to do so again, Broad would still do better to heed the example set by Senõr Rivera.

"Mariano Rivera may be the single most impressive performer and leader I have ever known," attested Dr Fran Pirozzolo, a psychologist who has worked for the Yankees as a mental-skills coach and performed a similar service for other athletes as well as assorted astronauts and Navy SEALS. "He is the exemplar that I point to when I discuss the mental attributes of champions." Would Broad like to be remembered like that? Or even half like that? The obstacles are visible and thorny.

Much as he resented that "enforcer" tag hung around his neck a couple of years back, being Stuart Broad, playing "Stuart Broad", means acting the bully. Hence the bouncers, the big biffs and even bigger beefs - with the opposition, with umpires, with Hawk-Eye, with anyone who dares label him as anything but noble and habitually honest. It is a role he appears eminently happy to play; it still strikes you as one he's been instructed to play.

But for how much longer? And if he does let up, if he does unveil a sliver of his inner nice guy, will that diminish his capacity to turn a match in half an hour? And if it does, does he possess - whether through a more diligent approach at the crease or a mode of bowling less likely to attract accusations of Big Time Charlieness - the wherewithal to adapt and compensate?

Promising as they do a stern examination of that apparently slavish devotion to unsmiling pantomime villainy and ruthless unscrupulousness, the coming months are likely to find Broad - and the England management - addressing those questions as never before. They will pursue him as the jeers rain down at the SCG and the MCG and he struggles to retain focus; they will dog him as he decides whether or not to turn the other cheek whenever his manhood is questioned on a Perth street, or a Melburnian threatens to empty a tinny of Coopers over his handsome head.

Not since John Snow felled Terry Jenner in 1971 has a Pom offered such an open goal to the patriotic and the sozzled. Not since Douglas Jardine has a Pom toured Australia knowing that every failing, no matter how minor or luckless, will stir nationwide celebrations. Nor is it wholly an insult to propose that Broad has a cell or two of Jardine in him: being loathed suits him just fine. It serves as fuel; it stokes the hunger to win; it heightens the possibility that opponents will lose their cool, nerve and/or marbles. And unless a match referee steps in, of course, he is entitled to sail as close to the wind as he wishes.

On the other hand, he could raise his sights, in which case he could do a lot worse than contemplate the salute to Senõr Rivera from his fellow Yankee pitcher, CC Sabathia. "Believe everything you hear about him, because it's all true. You always hear nobody can be that nice, nobody can be like him, nobody can shrug off wins and losses the way he does. It's unbelievable. I never met or played with a guy like that. If you want to be a better player or a better person, you watch him."

And as CC didn't quite say, being a better person doesn't have to mean being a lesser player.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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