July 9, 2014

When the big boys cry

Nothing could have prepared us for James Anderson's sudden outpouring of grief at Leeds, a reaction both spontaneous and moving

James Anderson's stoicism melted during the post-match interview at Headingley © AFP

Big boys don't cry. You don't have to be au fait with the spooky mantra from 10CC's wry 1975 chart-topper "I'm Not In Love", or even its highly improbable role on the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, to have come across that vile old chestnut.

When those witty Mancunians subverted the love song, after all, they were satirising received unwisdom, an oppressive lie peddled ever since Fred Flintstone first felt the sharp end of Wilma's tongue. Happily, spectator sport's capacity for fuelling extremes of emotion has long engendered greater honesty, one only latterly polluted by camera-pleasing artifice.

Possession of a stiff upper lip has always struck me as a hugely overrated asset. Then again, I was fortunate in having my illusions shattered early: even if we discount my father's customary reaction upon hearing any of Beethoven's big hits, I was just eight when I first saw a purportedly grown man reduced to tears. That man was Bobby Charlton, blubbering at Wembley in 1966 as the enormity of it all sank in: England, his England, were the champions of the f***ball world.

My response fluctuated rapidly: first I was stunned, then touched, then bewildered. Only later did I discover the context: the Munich air disaster that the Manchester United playmaker had survived eight years earlier, the still-reverberating tragedy that had killed most of his fellow "Busby Babes", most prominently Duncan Edwards; had a smooth take-off been feasible, Edwards would almost certainly have captained England that historic June afternoon. Cue undying respect.

Of late, this column has felt duty-bound to monitor the crying game more intently than usual. After reclaiming the men's singles title at Wimbledon on Sunday, Novak Djokovic wept while addressing the crowd: partly out of joy, partly out of sheer relief after so many lost finals, partly in anticipation of his impending wedding and child, partly in sadness at the recent death of Jelena Gencic, who had taught him the rudiments of his trade.

Deeper into the evening, during the first British airing of a documentary about the mendacious drug-pumped cyclist, BBC viewers were ambushed by the sight of L**** A******** being interrogated by Oprah Winfrey and theatrically wiping those dead, icy eyes. This time, the only plausible explanations were faux shame and ironclad self-pity.

The longer a sportsman remains at the top of his field, the more we convince ourselves we know him, even one as enigmatic as Jimmy. But here was another, unglimpsed, unsuspected side of the Jimmy riddle

Sometimes, nevertheless, the stiff upper lip still warrants our admiration. "Big boys don't cry", of course, has been usurped in popular parlance by that hippest of contemporary decrees, "Man up" - and that's exactly what Lou Vincent appeared to do last week while confessing his crimes against sportingkind. It stemmed from the same sensibility, one suspects, as Neymar's stirring but tearless video greeting to his mourning fellow Brazilians following the horrendous injury that truncated his World Cup. Tears, in this day and age, come cheap.

Still, how easy it would have been for Vincent to turn on the faucet in search of undeserved sympathy á la H***** C*****; how much harder to stare resolutely ahead, choke back the self-pity and accept global condemnation. Yes, he probably did accentuate the positive with a little too much gusto, but that is only to be expected of a man to whom depression has been an all-too frequent companion.

All the same, however accustomed, perhaps even inured, we have become to seeing big boys cry, it can still be disconcerting, and sometimes extremely moving. Witness the aftermath of Sri Lanka's series-winning victory at Headingley last month, when Jimmy Anderson's unfettered emotions defeated him by an innings and plenty.

Nobody has taken more wickets for England than the Burnley maverick, a remarkably durable force now poised to pass Dennis Lillee in the all-time Test rankings at Trent Bridge over the coming days. Off the field, those sturdy eyebrows and striking eyes are ubiquitous, a walking billboard not just for health, fashion and grooming products but for progress and enlightenment. Four years and one Steven Davies confession on, it remains tremendously hard to imagine any other married cricketer having the balls to pose for the cover of a gay magazine (let alone strip off for an inside spread). That doing so failed, to my knowledge, to incite serious aspersions or publishable quips about Anderson's sexuality underscored both the certainty of his self-image and the one projected by this far from Twitterphobic but essentially private man.

All the same, it would be generous to assert that he enjoys undiluted public affection. In the dressing room, if even a fraction of Kevin Pietersen's allegations have any substance, he can be a spiky, even treacherous colleague. In the middle he can be moody, surly and downright objectionable. As a sledger, few match him for relentlessness or freedom from wit. In the wake of Michael Clarke's unenticing offer to have one of Anderson's arms broken in Brisbane last November, once the initial fury and righteous indignation had subsided, even this soppy pacifist felt he had it coming.

Nothing, therefore, could have prepared us for that sudden outpouring of grief at Leeds. Having resisted manfully for all but the penultimate delivery of the 20.2 overs he was unreasonably tasked with surviving, the way his stoicism melted when interviewed by Mike Atherton was understandable, but no less profoundly shocking. Not because many of the spectators present still cling to the notion that nobody beats us Poms for stiff upper lips, but because the one that had quivered and collapsed was Anderson's.

Had it belonged to Ian Bell, the next longest-serving member of the team, the sense of surprise would have been appreciably less acute. For one thing, 100 Tests and 20 tons notwithstanding, Bell is still regarded as a sweet boy, a softer, kinder, more innocent soul. It was Bell, moreover, who had performed such sterling service after being deputed to "man up" for Sky viewers at the end of the previous day's play, when the foundations of defeat had been dug with such depressingly relentless efficiency.

This time last year the spokesman would have been Graeme Swann, who would have held both hands up - and maybe even accentuated the negative - in the fairly certain knowledge that the side had the wherewithal to bounce back. Now, however, it was Belly, Swanny's spiritual opposite, which rendered his frankness, while characteristically measured and unemotive, somewhat disarming. Twenty-four hours later, though, an encore was not in the offing: as a near-hero, not to mention England's Player of the Series, Anderson was obliged to air his reflections. While the cheque will doubtless come in handy for Lola and Ruby's school fees, part of him must have wished it had gone elsewhere.

As it was, what we witnessed was a man drained, deflated and depleted, and hence in no shape to contain his pain, let alone disguise it. No sign here of Jimmy the jester, sardonic master of clipped one-liners and sly bon mots. Perhaps it fleetingly crossed his mind that conforming to expectations was the way to go. Had he not just emerged from a tension-addled stint in the sentry box, he might even have considered firing a few salvos at his less committed team-mates. In reality, exhaustion seldom begets prolonged contemplation.

And so, as tears drowned words, perceptions abruptly shifted. The longer a sportsman remains at the top of his field, the more we convince ourselves we know him, even one as enigmatic as Jimmy (once he trades pitch for commentary box, naturally, all bets are off). But here was another, unglimpsed, unsuspected side of the Jimmy riddle. A side that nevertheless made complete sense because it was so vulnerable, so natural, so human.


Watching England lose a Test does not loom large on my list of guilty pleasures, but Headingley supplied an exception on a number of counts. Persistently let down by their own board, buffeted in quick succession by Paul Farbrace's defection, Sachithra Senanayake's banishment, and the preposterous accusations of not-cricketness that followed the Mankading of Jos Buttler, surely only the frigid of heart could stifle a smile as Sri Lanka savoured their maiden Test series success on British soil. As a farewell gift to Kumar and Mahela, furthermore, nothing could have been more fitting. It also rammed home a neglected fact of modern sporting life: even for the battle-hardened millionaire, defeat hurts.

Best of all, judging by the admiring tweets flying around the twittersphere, it does not seem altogether fanciful to predict that Anderson's impromptu soul-baring will come to be remembered as heralding a brave new world.

When the chairman of the board harangues the sales force for losing connection with its customers, the only exhibit necessary is the end-of-year accounts. When the business is sport, where profits matter less than credibility and public affection, things get complicated. That's why, when Giles Clarke decided it was time for a bit of a harangue, the absence of substantive evidence was irrelevant: here the bottom line is not so much profits as perception, and never more so than in the age of social media.

It was time, Clarke presumably thought, to send a message. Sod the commentariat; it had to come from the very top. Even at the start of a reconstruction phase, the national team must find a way to connect with their most important sponsors. Especially now, mired as we are in an era of scripted reality from which professional sport - Vincent and bad company notwithstanding - still supplies the most reliable relief. The saltiness of Anderson's tears, that bracing blast of naked honesty, could yet achieve more than any victory.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book, Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport, will be published in the summer of 2014