What a £26,400 cricket ball tells us about our mania for sport

The ball that cricketing legend Sir Garry Sobers smashed for six sixes in one over at St Helen's in 1968 was sold at Christie's in 2006 - only, it turned out to be the wrong ball.

Writing about sport throws up a unique challenge. The affection for the subject that most, if not all, sports writers have means that the usual journalistic scepticism wrestles constantly with the desire to believe that what we want to see is what we are seeing. Sport engages because of the glory that comes with achievement, because of its capacity to inspire, its ability to help us escape the everyday, if only for a moment. So when doubt emerges, when a tiny something suggests that all is not as it seems, it’s easy to look away.

It’s something the Sunday Times journalist David Walsh goes into in some depth in his book Seven Deadly Sins, in which he details his growing realisation of the enormity of cycling’s doping culture and his pursuit of the truth about Lance Armstrong. Everyone wanted to believe that cycling had cleaned up, and everyone wanted to believe that Armstrong had battled back from life-threatening cancer to achieve sporting glory. It was a magnificently inspiring narrative. For some years, Walsh was a pariah for questioning it but now, thanks to his efforts and the bravery of the cycling insiders who decided to speak out, we know it was untrue.

The need to believe fuels sporting passion, and it drives an increasingly lucrative market for sporting memorabilia. The chance to own a piece of sporting history is the chance to make a physical connection with the magic. That’s why, in 2006, a cricket ball was sold at London auction house Christie’s for a staggering £26,400. For this was not just any cricket ball. It was the ball that cricketing legend Sir Garry Sobers smashed for six sixes in one over at St Helen’s in Swansea during a match between Glamorgan and Nottinghamshire in 1968. Sobers was the first batsman in first class cricket history to achieve the feat, and it has only been matched three times since. The ball came with a signed certificate of provenance from Sobers himself, and fetched a world record price.

The trouble is, it is not the ball with which history was made. Journalist Grahame Lloyd discovered that fact, for fact it is, when writing a book on the 40th anniversary of the Six Sixes over. And he’s still trying to set the record straight.

The ball auctioned by Christie’s was made by Duke & Son. But the balls used by Glamorgan throughout the 1960s were supplied by the Stuart Surridge firm. The bowler who bowled the over to Sobers that day, Malcolm Nash, remembers the ball was a Surridge, not a Duke. In the lot notes, Christies said the ball was one of three used during the over. Nash is certain he did not change balls. What’s more, BBC TV footage of the over clearly shows the same ball being returned to Nash after the first five sixes, and then hit out of the ground for the sixth. (It was returned two days later by a schoolboy who found it in the street).

The discovery presented Lloyd with a dilemma. He had wanted his 40th anniversary book, Six of the Best, to be the definitive record of an iconic sporting moment. But what he had uncovered called the integrity of Sobers, not only a cricketing colossus but a boyhood hero of Lloyd’s, into question. Also called into question was the judgement of Christie’s, an institution firmly embedded in the British establishment and with an international reputation. When you are an individual journalist about to go up against such reputations, and such power, you think twice. Lloyd thought, and decided that not to pursue the case would not be cricket.

In his book on the anniversary, he raised the doubts. In his latest book Howzat? The Six Sixes Ball Mystery, he pursues the protagonists in an effort to discover how the wrong ball came to be sold, and to set the record straight. It’s a meticulously-researched investigation featuring a rich cast of characters, deployed with a deft storytelling touch by Lloyd.

High passions make it difficult to be impartial about sport. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Brexit, betrayal and English football

Plus: what Nietzsche knew, Douglas Carswell's curious tweets and why David Cameron is like an essay crisis.

A couple of years ago I met the then Tory MP Douglas Carswell at a dinner at the Swedish embassy in London. He had not yet defected to Ukip and, with his eyes blazing, he began talking at me about sovereignty and direct democracy as well as comparing the campaign to liberate the British from the EU to the struggles of the Levellers and Chartists. It was hard not to stifle a yawn. Still, I listened politely and in the spirit of pluralism invited him to submit a guest column. The column never arrived, and in the intervening years I turned off the television or radio whenever it was announced he would be on. He struck me as a pious, moralising, single-issue crank, without any of the breezy wit or charisma of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader whom Carswell loathes and longs to unseat.

Essay crisis PM

Whatever you think of Farage’s politics (and all NS readers will no doubt despise them), you cannot doubt his conviction, radicalism or political brilliance – no one did more to take Britain out of the EU than he. His triumph is total and contrasts markedly with David Cameron’s failure. For such a pragmatist, the Prime Minister gambled everything on the referendum. Perhaps a series of narrow victories, notably in the 2014 Scottish referendum and the 2015 general election, had beguiled him into believing in the myth of his own good luck. But he never prepared the electorate for the referendum or made the positive case for the EU, until it was much too late. He is one of the guilty men who has led Britain to its present impasse, perhaps the guiltiest of all, because of his insouciance and carelessness. John Wheeler-Bennett, the conservative historian, described Neville Chamberlain’s actions at Munich as “a case study in the disease of political myopia which afflicted the leaders and the peoples of Europe in the years between the wars”. Cameron, the essay crisis prime minister, has turned out to be similarly myopic. Now we all have to live with the consequences of his wretched defeat. 

Brexit and betrayal

Carswell sent an especially mendacious tweet during the campaign: “I am with @Vote_leave because we should stop sending £350 million per week to Brussels, and spend our money on our NHS instead.” As a monomaniacal Eurosceptic he would have known that he was lying about Britain’s EU contribution. He would have known, too, that the juxtaposition of this figure with NHS spending was wilfully misleading.

Yet when I called him out on his lies he suggested that I had not come to terms with my grief. I am not grieving (being no ardent lover of the EU) but I am angry – angry about the mendacity and cant of the Brexiteers, who are already retreating on promises and pledges made. The leaders of Leave are, in effect, free-market Randians who will be leading a coalition of social conservatives that cannot hold. Soon there will be plaintive cries of betrayal and, from the streets, shouts of, “This is not what we meant at all!”

Hodgson’s choice

In an interview in November 2015, the Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque said that there was no “‘English’ football any more  . . . no authentic English style”. How true. Roy Hodgson, who resigned after the abject defeat to Iceland (population: 330,000), was the highest-paid coach at the Euros, on £3.5m a year. He earned significantly more than Joachim Löw of Germany, a World Cup winner. For context, Chris Coleman, who led Wales to the quarter-finals, has an annual salary of £200,000. There were eight coaches who earned less than Coleman at the Euros.

Why is Hodgson paid so much? Because English football is bloated, greedy, arrogant and deluded about its standing in the world (does this sound familiar?). At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England were knocked out of the tournament within six days of the start, yet Hodgson stayed on to lead his hapless squad to another international humiliation. In manner, he is amiable but garrulous, speaking in looping circumlocutions: he sounds more like a prison officer in the 1970s sitcom Porridge than a contemporary continental football coach whose working methods are enlightened by data analysis, sports science and management theory.

After four years under his auspices, England had no method or signature style, as Del Bosque recognised. They had no structure or shape, which is why they fragmented at moments of stress. A well-coached side, with positional discipline and an unbreakable structure, can withstand pressure when it plays poorly – think of George Graham’s Arsenal of the late 1980s. Hodgson did not seem to know who his best players were or in which formation to use them. He had no leader on the pitch. Wayne Rooney was his captain but, for all his bull-necked pugnacity, he is introverted. Hodgson kept picking Raheem Sterling (for whom Manchester City paid a laughable £50m) and Adam Lallana. Together they have 52 caps for England but only two goals. Should Hodgson have been surprised that his forwards did not score when he needed them most? Evidently he was, otherwise why keep picking them? Yet coaches can be transformative, as Eddie Jones has been so rapidly for English rugby, or Trevor Bayliss for English cricket. But here’s the thing: both men are Australians.

Laughed off stage

“Fuck off, we’re voting out” chanted the drunken English yobs at the start of the tournament in Marseilles (they were less exuberant once the Russian Ultras marched into town). England will not be missed at the Euros. Worse than this, they exited to the sound of derisive laughter, as they retreated to their island stronghold. The laughter has not ceased. You could say that, after Brexit, the English are becoming something of a laughing stock, alas. “Laughter I have pronounced holy,” wrote Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. “You higher men, learn – to laugh!” Laughter captures the essence of a truth that cannot be communicated. The alternative is tears.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies