It has all been rather quiet on the sporting front: very small news. Oh, there’s been a rash of marvellous one-day cricket matches in India and Australia – watching Tendulkar and Sehwag rifling the ball around their own stadiums is about as good as it gets – and some spectacular golf and tennis down under and in South Africa (where the once touted great new hope of British golf, Justin Rose, won his first professional tournament just a few miles from where he was born). What else? Oh yes. Manchester United were dumped out of the FA Cup; a prominent manager walked away from his stressfully well-paid job just two weeks after saying, “Never. It’s a thing I would never do”; and a hatful of players were sent off in the Arsenal-Liverpool tie, the first game in which a player has been dismissed for throwing something other than himself at the crowd. The Leicester Tigers reached, against Leinster, what the pundits insisted on calling “new heights”; and ITV decided to launch a hilarious new quiz – Britain’s Brainiest Footballer. The African Nations Cup has been firing away; it’s Superbowl weekend in America; and there have been the first hailstones of publicity for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Come to think of it, there was even some fairly stunning stuff going on in the small-print section. In the under-19 cricket tournament in New Zealand, the West Indies (where cricket is dying, remember) whacked 400 for three in 50 overs. Admittedly it was only against Scotland, but still, eight an over is pretty good going. It led to a 301-run victory. England, meanwhile, were efficiently assembling 204 against the legendary giants of Himalayan cricket, Nepal.
It’s been the usual thing, in other words: wall-to-wall sport, much of it terrific. There must have been a time when a collection of highlights as bright as the above would have had to last an entire season. Now, it’s just an average week. Yet even with all this to shout about, a couple of oversized boxers (Lewis and Tyson) hijacked the headlines by trading blows at a press conference. Quite why the papers keep falling for this stuff I can’t say. As one of the Tyson-chastened reporters commented: “What can you do? You organise a fight, and a press conference breaks out.”
Why is anyone surprised? They are boxers, these so-called lords of the ring: punching is what they do, what they are for. There seems something odious in the feigned dismay that follows such theatrical “transgressions”. I’m not a boxing fan, so perhaps miss the point, but isn’t the whole thing predicated on our desire to see a pair of huge men thump one another to oblivion? And since the only purpose of the press conferences is to jack up interest in the forthcoming bout, a little pre-match snarling is straight out of the Ladybird Book of Public Relations. It certainly worked in my case, making me aware of a fight I did not even know was coming up. Now I might even, out of idle, voyeuristic, bloodthirsty curiosity, tune in and see what happens, assuming the fight goes ahead somewhere.
It must be a sign of how surfeited we have become on vivid round-the-world sport that such a shabby non-event can make all those other keen contests seem little more than a normal day at the office, or in the armchair. Once grand events are pushed into the background. It seemed all too appropriate that Bill McLaren, the long-established voice of rugby union, should have chosen this week to announce his retirement. The Six Nations tournament is upon us again, and once again the story is the same: can England, clearly the best team, beat everyone else? It is not enough, in this small league, simply to top the table: the objective is a clean sweep. McLaren is one of the last of the television commentators (along with Richie Benaud) whose vocabulary was formed in the pre-TV age; and he does seem to belong to a different time, when schoolboy wingers showed clean pairs of heels, and people threw hats in the air when a try was scored, and everyone called the referee “Sir”. These days, the tournament seems diminished, somewhat less epic than it used to. This is mainly due to the advancing global ambitions of the game as a whole, which prizes victories against southern hemisphere teams above the annual scrabble for local bragging rights. Increasingly, the home internationals, stirring contests in themselves, are a trial run for the larger challenges that lie ahead.
That’s progress for you: it’s a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of thing. Rugby’s attempt to push into more lucrative professional fields risks sacrificing one of its few golden eggs. And when England’s rugby authorities decided to hive off their own matches to the highest-bidding television station, they fractured the sense of the competition as a communal and defiantly British affair.
The ruling authorities of golf must also have been gulping this week, at the news that yet another revolutionary new driver might soon be on the market. This one has, of all things, a face made of diamonds. The brainchild of an American drilling engineer, it can apparently knock a golf ball 30 or more yards further than even the best contemporary weapons. At this rate, most of the world’s great golf layouts (and all of the less than great ones) will soon be obsolete. The new driver is also a rather embarrassing style statement. I mean, diamonds. Golf has tried hard to shed its image as an exclusive pastime for pampered clots. The diamond driver could set it back years. What next? Caviar toasties in the hut opposite the seventh green? On-course buggies powered by Rolls-Royce engines? Pearl-handled divot-repairers?
Hunter Davies returns next week