January 13, 2016

In praise of imperfection

Cricketers carry the baggage of having to be noble. But just how do you define nobility?

The Oval, 1964: Fred Titmus hits a six as Wally Grout, who let him off in the first Test, looks on © Getty Images

"You don't look like me in this world without being firm with what you want to do." That Hashim Amla is a sportsman worthy of global respect - and perhaps a dash of awe - was confirmed once and for all when he uttered those words in Cape Town last week. Few statements can ever have supplied such a succinct and telling insight into the psyche of an accomplished odds-beater.

Amla, though, is not merely fired by a rare determination. Analysing the resignation of South Africa's captain in a thoroughly compassionate piece for the Times, Mike Atherton deployed two variations of the d-word, referring to Amla's "immense dignity" then describing him as "dignified, honest and humble". Has any greater compliment ever been paid by one cricketer to another? Defining goodness is plainly beyond us, granted, but if you had to pick three must-haves, you'd be hard pushed to better "dignified", "honest" and "humble".

On the other hand, if you're seeking a single compulsory attribute, you'd have to go a mighty long way to find anything apter than the most excusable of all n-words: noble. Whether twinned with "aspirations", "deeds" or "thoughts", it's a word that oozes goodness. Ah, but how do we define it? Let's start by determining what it isn't.

"Noble" certainly isn't underachieving intentionally or claiming catches off the bounce or threatening an opponent with a broken arm or questioning his wife's fidelity. Smirkingly propositioning a TV interviewer while millions are watching appears to be the most contemporary definition of cricketing ignobility. (Mind you, having just grinned guiltily through a documentary about Marlon Brando wherein the methodical actor flirts merrily and mercilessly with a bevy of blonde interrogators, it is difficult to resist commending Chris Gayle to heed the master's panache.)

The lone dictionary this column possesses (stolen shamelessly from its kind and forgiving ex-wife) is the 1978 reprint of the Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, which submits the following definitions of nobility: "the quality of being noble; high rank; dignity; excellence; greatness of mind or character; noble descent; nobles as a body". Eliminate the references to privilege and social class and we're left, in essence, with dignity and character. Or, put another way, outward bearing and inner fibre. Kipling may have used that line about treating triumph and disaster with equal indifference in reference to manhood, but it applies no less to nobility.

More rot, of course, has been spouted about the alleged nobility of cricket than any other sport, much of it breathtakingly hypocritical. Start with that nonsensical notion of a "gentleman's game", then go directly to the interminable debate over "walking", so many of whose purported apostles have been nothing if not mindful of their own score when deciding whether to leave the verdict to the umpire or off themselves, thereby ramming home their ethical and social superiority.

Step forward, too, George Robert Canning Harris, the fourth Lord Harris, the former Governor of Bombay, who ran Kent and English cricket for the first quarter of the 20th century. On his 80th birthday in 1931, the Times quoted one of his "cricket is even better than sliced bread" speeches: "You do well to love it, for it is more free from anything sordid, anything dishonourable, than any game in the world. To play it keenly, honourably, generously, self-sacrificingly is a moral lesson in itself..."

Ah, but was this not the selfsame Lord Harris whom David Foot, Walter Hammond's estimable biographer, charged with "dogmatic pedantry" for delaying the brilliant Kent-born youngster's registration for Gloucestershire? A less restrained perspective came from Charlie Parker, spinner of near-genius but a rebel with far too many communistic causes to be capped more than once.

Whether your name is Hashim, Frank or Wally - or, for that matter, Mahatma, Nelson or Martin - to be noble is not to be beyond criticism as much as less imperfect than the rest of us

"Bloody Harris," he told Hammond, "what does he know about young lads like you - just out of school and with only a few bob to spend? Went to Eton, he did. Then he were Governor of Bombay. And he runs Kent cricket - no one else gets in a word. Has spent his bloody life getting after poor sods who he reckons transgress because they got a funny bowling action or because they was born and spent a few days in another county. Wanted you for Kent, the crafty old bugger."

But why on earth should nobility be so intertwined with cricket? And how, given golf's palpable if slightly odious superiority, did Neville Cardus and John Arlott have the brass balls to call their 1963 book of "fine cricket prints" The Noblest Game? It must be that innate English obsession with class. One certainly doubts it was because no game offers so many subtle ways of gaining an edge that cannot easily be detected - unlike, say, the blatant trip or Oscar-worthy dive. Time-wasting; ball-tampering; the "accidental" beamer or overstep; the non-striker who surreptitiously drags his bat beyond the crease before the ball is delivered; the fielder who sneakily relocates from cover to mid-off as the bowler approaches. Saints have succumbed to lesser temptations.

Besides, let's be reasonable: such are the quotidian demands on their capacity to put ethics before team, and team before self, consistently noble professional sportsfolk in the Twitter era are fearfully hard to find. The aim of today's game is uncovering flaws, not highlighting virtues (if there's one journalistic tic that makes this column nauseous, it's the phrase "not flawless"). For all the compelling claims of Frank Worrell - whose otherwise justly pristine reputation has implicitly been sullied by every allegation about Charlie Griffith's action - this column salutes one exemplar above all: Wally Grout. That his chief legacy is Australian slang for buying a round - "It's your Wally Grout, mate" - remains nothing short of scandalous.

All you need to know about Wally is that nothing could prevent him from plonking on that baggy green cap, not even a dodgy ticker - the same perversely weak organ that cost this wholehearted competitor his life at 41. The depth of his character, nonetheless, was encapsulated even better by his honesty and generosity of spirit.

Hashim Amla: "dignified, honest and humble", according to Mike Atherton © Getty Images

Take the opening chapter of the 1964 Ashes. Summoned for a single by a nervy newcomer named Geoff Boycott, Fred Titmus collided with the bowler, the far bulkier Neil Hawke, and went sprawling; Grahame Corling retrieved and lobbed stump-wards but Grout declined to finish the job, tossing the ball back to Hawke, allowing Titmus to scramble back. Hawke's own recollections affirm that, even then, such magnanimity was decidedly unusual at the highest level: "From the covers came a startled cry, 'I thought this was a bloody Test match!' - which suggested not everyone was in accord with Wally's gesture."

Exhibit B followed in Melbourne 18 months later; eerily, the beneficiary of Grout's largesse was Titmus again. Angling Graham McKenzie towards third man, the Middlesex offie was again short of his ground when Doug Walters' return hit the stumps, but by then Grout had inadvertently nudged off the bails. Col Egar's forefinger was in motion before Wally indicated it should change course.

Now rewind to February 1961, to the final act of what some of us are still unfashionably adamant was the greatest Test series of all. Needing 258 to pip West Indies on the last day at the MCG, Australia were 254 for 7 when Grout edged a cut off Alf Valentine. As the ball zagged through the legs of wicketkeeper Gerry Alexander, Grout and Ken Mackay set off for a couple of runs, whereupon Alexander began waving frantically: the off-bail was off.

"The Aussies tried to make out that Alexander had accidentally swept the bail off with his glove," remembered Rohan Kanhai. "They must have thought we'd just got off the boat. Obviously Grout had played on. One of the newspapers devoted a whole page to a series of photographs, taken within a split-second of each other, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Alexander's gloves were never anywhere near the wicket."

The umpires, though, were unsighted, so Grout survived. Next ball, lo and behold, he was caught swinging ambitiously - and arguably a mite rashly. Australia ultimately edged home, but was Wally's wa-hoo a case of suicide propelled by guilt? Quite a few denizens of the press box thought so - or at least wrote so. Such was the story this column read when it was an impressionable teen.

Being in the winning business as opposed to the myth-making trade, team-mates saw it less romantically. "Wal seemed upset," Mackay would recollect, but "I do not hold that he threw it away." Nor did Norm O'Neill, nor Ian Meckiff. "Would any player throw his innings away at a time like this?" wondered the latter. "Wally took a calculated risk. He told me later that the ball seemed ideal for him to loft over the close-set field, and he only had to succeed for an Australian victory. Wally has always been game enough to take a chance."

Then again, how could a co-worker have allowed himself to come to any other conclusion about a colleague, much less one of Grout's stature, let alone under those circumstances? After all, to have fallen on his sword in such fashion, at such a crucial stage, would hardly have been in keeping with the collective interest - and what graver sin can be committed in a team game than putting your own interests first, however admirable, however noble?

So, should Meckiff's version diminish Grout's nobility? Or, put another way, should one questionable act negate all the good? The correct answer can only come from acceptance of human limitations. Whether your name is Hashim, Frank or Wally - or, for that matter, Mahatma, Nelson or Martin - to be noble is not to be beyond criticism as much as less imperfect than the rest of us.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

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