Britain's great need for heroes

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The Independent Online
HAS there been a worse year for British sport? With 1993 barely past mid-summer, we have seen the retirements of Brian Clough, our most colourful football manager, Peter Scudamore, our best jump jockey, and now Ian Botham, our greatest cricketer.

The year will also be remembered for the early deaths of Bobby Moore, the only England football captain to lift the World Cup, and of James Hunt, who until Nigel Mansell's triumph a year ago had been Britain's last motor racing world champion.

Paul Gascoigne and David Platt, England's best footballers, are playing abroad. Derek Randall, one of cricket's great characters, is in his last season and the odds must be against David Gower, England's most elegant batsman of modern times, playing next year. Mansell, the only British driver to have stirred the emotions of the public in recent years, is driving on the IndyCar circuit in America.

There is, of course, nothing unusual in any of this. Our best practitioners have regularly gone abroad and sporting heroes and heroines have always come and gone; sport at the highest level will always be dominated by the young. Botham's retirement is a sad day for English cricket, but not because we had expected him to take on Australia this summer in the manner of Headingley 1981. He is 37, after all.

What is more worrying is that there appears to be no English cricketer waiting in the wings to take Botham's place, no English footballer showing the promise that Gascoigne had five years ago.

Of course there are exceptions. In Nick Faldo we have the world's best golfer, in Stephen Hendry the best snooker player, in Lennox Lewis a world heavyweight champion, in Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell and Liz McColgan the best athletes in their chosen events.

Perhaps that is more than our fair share of the world's best. Indeed, as my colleague Ken Jones wrote recently, maybe we have come to expect too much, particularly when we spread our talent around so many different sports.

Yet what is lacking is not so much excellence as entertainers. The problem is not that we can no longer win - firstly that is far from true and secondly sporting success always goes in cycles - but that most of our best sportsmen and women do not have the charisma of their predecessors.

That is not to denigrate in any way the Faldos and the McColgans, whose perfectionism is a rare commodity that we should cherish. But if sport is to flourish as a spectacle - which must after all be its primary purpose at the highest level - then we must do everything to encourage the next generation of sporting entertainers. It is people with the flair, genius and passion of Ian Botham that the sporting public want to see above all else.

Talent like that needs to be nurtured. Alex Ferguson's protective rearing of Ryan Giggs has helped the Manchester United player to blossom into a great footballer. The cricket selectors were rewarded with a stirring performance in the last Test match when they finally acknowledged that English cricket's best chance lies with its youth. Even our young tennis players performed well at Wimbledon. When that can happen, maybe there is hope after all.