The Writings of Ingrid Pitt

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The Game's the Thing!

Why can't the media acknowledge that English sportsmen and women win because they are better than the opposition and not because the opposition are crap?
Mike Atherton

Remember the blond Atherton.

Rounders was my game at school. Rounders was the forebear of baseball - as everyone but the macho US exponents acknowledge. The thing about rounders is that there is not a load of complicated rules to be misinterpreted by the Umpire or form a basis for dissent from the teams. I remember it well. Those sunny days of summer when I was a leading exponent of the sport. You toe the line, skirt tucked tightly into your knicker leg, bat held, one handed, in the strike position, eye roaming the outfield to pin point the placing of Ermenigilda, the opposition’s ace catcher. Then the refocus on the pitcher as she prepares to deliver a devastating underarm ball. You take a full-blooded swipe, ditch the bat and run like hell. As soon as bat makes contact with ball you know your dollied shot is quartering in on the ham sized fists of ponderous Ermenigilda. You force your lips into a rictus smile and through barred teeth manage a ‘Bravo’. You try not to notice the chagrined look on the faces of your team mates as they, stiff faced, turn their back on you and congratulate the opposition on a fine win. The moment fires the blushes even now. Then there was no talk of losing because you were having a bad hair day or Ermenigilda’s hormonal balance was suspect. You lost because the other team was better. No post mortem, no reasoned explanation of why you lost and even the captain’s job was safe. But next time.......

Football and cricket used to be like that, I’m told. So when and where did the process of vilifying the winning team start. When, indeed, did it become the faults inherent in the game plan of the losing team or individual that were the reason for the victor’s success. After the magnificent victory of the England team against the West Indies at the Oval the papers the following day were full of praise but already the signs of excusing the win were there. As if the act of beating the unbeatable West Indies was something shameful that should merit a clip around the ear rather than a trophy full of Champagne jelly babies.

It’s not just in cricket that the habit of taking the victory from an English side by saying what a load of rubbish their opponents are, occurs. Take motor racing. The Hill’s, pere and fils, Graham and Damon, both suffered at the hands of the detractors. When Graham was contesting motor races throughout the world and being ultra competitive the wiseacres of the motoring press could never get fully behind the idea that he was winning because he was good at what he was doing. He was the quintessential Brit, the Reilly-Ffoule of the dolly-bird pulling, fast living, sixties jet-set. If he won there was usually a sneaky reference to the fact that he wasn’t a natural driver - not in the same class as Jimmy Clark or Jackie Stewart. When he lost there was much lamenting that it was his lack of natural ability which kept him off the winner’s rostrum. This in spite of the fact that he was the most complete all-round driver you could share a custard pie with in any part of the world where motor racing could grab a headline. He not only took the Formula One world championship twice but also managed to notch up an Indianapolis 500 win, take the laurels in the Le Mans 24 Hours and win the Monaco Grand Prix, a race that has tested to destruction many of the top drivers, an amazing five times. And let’s not even mention the Syon House Motor Mower Grand Prix of 1972.

Nasser Hussain

Nasser Hussain, a great captain.

The ability questioning was later transferred to Damon when he found himself the only real opponent of the Super-kraut, Michael Schumacher. If Schumacher won the race it was because his brilliance outshone the sun. If Damon won - well it was the car wasn’t it? Even when Schumacher cold bloodedly drove Damon off the road the pundits were inclined to blame Damon for trying to get past Schumacher’s crippled car. Yet Damon put together over twenty wins during his brief time in Formula One. He did win the Championship once and should have won it a second time if Schumacher
hadn’t deliberately run into him. Why Schumacher is reckoned to be so special is something I’ve never been able to work out. Several times there have been suspicions voiced that he has played fast and exceedingly loose with the rules but he just seems to be fire-proof. His former arrogance even makes his heart-wrenching breakdown on TV after the Italian GP a little suspect - if I were a cynic that is.

Rugby players are subjected to the same level of denigration if they win. At the beginning of the year the press laud the new line up. The journalist’s massive experience tells him that the manager has put together an unbeatable team. The honeymoon doesn’t last long. A narrow win sharpens the knives. They should have beaten the team of sporting rejects by a country kilometre. The reason is never acknowledged to be that the opposing players also have an interest in winning and have played out of their socks. It has to be something that the under achieving members of the England side are doing wrong. Did they ogle the barmaid too lustily or have they been inclined not to spend one hundred percent of their time practising? A loss sends the press into somersaults. The team are a load of rubbish, the best players have been left in England or on the subs-bench. The manager couldn’t manage a Baked Alaska in any climate. Which should mean that when the team pull off a win the press would spin tales of derring-do and run lead lyrical on the magnificence of the national team. But it doesn’t work like that. A win means that the other side were a load of crap. That they hadn’t got the best team on the field or the best players had all contracted a mysterious bug so weren ‘t on top form.

In football the coverage is so all-pervading that you can get any opinion you want from a single Sunday newspaper. Although it is a team game it is usually a player who is singled out for the odium or, failing that, the manager. But that is what a football manager is for. It is hard to have a go collectively at a team. OK - so Beckham is an easy target because he has a wife, Posh Spice, who can be tempted into saying outrageous things about him. And he obviously adores her and baby, Brooklyn. But he is only an indirect shot. It is the team manager who ruins the team’s chances.

Andy Caddick

Andy Caddick, a fearsome bowler.

British heavyweight boxers also only win when the American variety are in the powder puff drawer, it seems. Lennox Lewis can win every day of the week against top-line exponents of the pugilistic art but he will always be suspect. There will always be the suggestion that he is fighting beneath his class. To compare him with another fighter - not necessarily a sportsman - Mike Tyson, is useless. Mike has been fighting prop-ups that Ermenigilda would have downed with a whiff of her liberty bodice but he is still lauded as THE MAN.

Until recently Golf had been considered the game of Gentlemen. Still is I suppose. Although the Ryder Cup is no longer a straight contest between the US and GB the odium from the years when it was continues to haunt whatever European team tees off.. When did you last read about a European team in the Ryder Cup that was given any merit for its ability. Even when they had top notch players in the side and they pulled off a flurry of wins it was always pointed out that the Americans were not at their best. Where were the new Hogans and the Nicklaus’s? A dream for next years’ Cup would be a European win with the likes of Tiger Woods and David Duval leading the American team. How would that be explained away?

And then there is poor Tim Henman. One week the idol of the strawberry and cream devouring masses - next week the whipping boy that flattens more Champagne in the home counties than a suspect cork. He is the best tennis player that Britain has managed to breed since the English/American hybrid sport shirt impressario, Fred Perry, of the thirties. But a bit of injudicious praise is rapidly followed by an explanation of why he won. And the explanation is never that he was too good for his opponent. Even when he beat the mighty Pete Sampras, fresh from his triumph at Wimbledon, it was not because Tim was great but because Sampras wasn’t at his best and, anyway, had nothing to prove.

Could it be that the gut churning spectacle of footballers celebrating a goal in a squirm of thrashing bodies that would make a nest of sexed-up adders look tame is to blame? The spectacle of sportsman hugging and kissing or uttering threats to eat their opponents babies isn’t destined to bring a measured glow of accomplishment to the simple task of being the best on the day. If being the best is the only goal why has the pure sport of athletics now become the haven of muscle bound drug addicts - more wagons of drugs than chariots of fire? And why does the sport’s governing body, the IOC, rely on others to test for drugs and then complain that they haven’t the facilities to test every athlete. Surely the drugs curse would be illiminated if if was a fact that every athlete winning an event would be automatically drug tested? What would be the point of an athlete spending four years of drug enhanced build-up when he or she was aware that they could never win a medal? I guess it won’t be long before the analysists come up with a reason why the Olympic Team put up the best performance of any team from these shores for 80 years. And it won’t favour of the Brits.

Craig White

Craig White stuck it to the legendary Brian Lara - first ball.

But none of this excuses the fact that the English find it hard to acknowledge a win, tested on the anvil of contemporary excellence, as their right. What is worse is that the denigration of ability seems to have now spread to the school environment. The breeding ground of the future in academia, commerce and sport. A few years ago British education was being pilloried for not being worthy of a first class nation. Now it is being claimed that educationalists have ‘dumbed-down’ examinations so that everyone can get a good result. Why can’t it just be that the kids are getting brighter and yesterday’s standards are no longer viable as a bench-mark?

So let’s forget the tedium of swamp-coverage of the Olympic Games in the media and revel in the gold medals we won rather than the mettle of the losers. Accept that when an English sportsman wins it is because he is better and not that the opposition is sub-standard. Most of all don’t let the cognoscenti spoil the glorious moment at the Oval when, after 31 years of humiliation, England beat the all-conquering West Indies.

It’s better to remember the blond Atherton, on balance and sharp eyed, meeting the mesmeric deliveries of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose and calmly distributing the ball around the ground. Blue eyed boy Dominic Cork’s enthusiasm for the game remains undiminished in spite of not always being number one with the selectors. And who will ever forget the stunned look on the face of Craig White when he bowled out the legendary Brian Lara first ball? Nasser Hussain has blamed the job of Captain on his poor showing with a bat but he has done whatever a Captain must do to produce a winning side . Now that is under his belt what glories will be his Down Under. The same excuse could be offered to Jimmy Adams but he probably wouldn’t take it. So far his prowess with a bat has kept the commentators speaking in hushed tones whenever he strode to the crease - until he found the bowling of the revitalised England team too hot for him to handle. What is wonderful about Andrew Caddick is the way he approaches his job. Calm, almost dour, until he gets a break and then his entire body seems to spasm in victory. The relief at the Oval when Curtly Ambrose got Michael Vaughan out for ten was palpable on the faces of the Windies team. And Darren Gough’s infectious smile would take even Ermenigilda’s eyes off the ball. The greatest joy watching the Tests this year was the positive attitude of the England side. They seemed to be having fun and that counts for a lot.


In December 1993 I wrote about Michael Atherton in Cricketer: So now - on with the Boy Wonder for the Windies series, A series which could send out a Boy and bring home a Hero. Or is it just another blood sacrifice?

Perhaps now the England teams of whatever sport will start to get a fair deal from the press-led public and instead of lamenting the skill of the opposition be loud in the praise of the English Victors. But I doubt it. And if that sounds a little xenophobic - I’m allowed. I’m a foreigner too.

Cricketer

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt