Captains fantastic or a fit of the Biggles

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The Independent Online
I blame Biggles and his many willing accomplices such as Horatio Hornblower RN, Gordon of Khartoum, Clive of India, Rockfist Rogan... These, I swear, are among the images that float through the minds of all those charged with nominating a player to take on the role of captain of a British sports team; particularly one that is bound for foreign shores like the great expeditions of old.

These creators of captains don't wish to surrender much in the way of power to their chosen one but they seek in return for their patronage a degree of heroic influence that conforms to the highest ideals of British derring-do. Our standing in the world of sport may be steadily slipping down the totem-pole but we still have that steadfast, touching faith in the qualities of our leadership.

There being pitifully few conquering opportunities these days and little left in the way of unchartered lands to explore, mountains to climb or savages to tame, sport remains one of the few areas of life capable of fanning a faint glow among the lingering embers of the adventurer nation and invoking memories of heroes past.

It was a basic scenario. A bunch of likely lads would be recruited for some madcap venture faraway and at their head would be placed an audacious, chivalrous fool who cared naught for the odds against and thought only of his country's glory. Biggles, Spitfire ace and bulldog-brave, was a fine example. Not that he ever existed but at this distance it is hard to distinguish between the real and imagined powers we perceived ourselves to possess.

The success of the Biggles stories by the author Capt W E Johns was bred on this self-belief and whenever I could be persuaded to put a Biggles book down my father would delight in reading extracts out loud; not for their literary merits, however, but so that he could mock the imagery of the indomitable and impeccable Brit.

"The unkempt Bolsheviks took one look at the clean, square cut of Biggles' jaw and scuttled away," he would read, chortling.

I quote from faded memory and "unkempt Bolsheviks" might easily have read "swarthy foreigners", but you get the idea. I was reminded of it on Wednesday when Fran Cotton, manager of the Lions, discussed the appointment of Leicester's second row forward Martin Johnson as captain of the party to tour South Africa this summer.

Said Cotton: "I do like the thought of a 6ft 8in, 18st captain knocking on the opposition dressing-room door as opposed to a sylph-like winger." Not a well-constructed sentence, I agree, but the sentiment is recognisably of the Biggles-syndrome and of dubious value to Johnson and the task he has been asked to undertake.

All you need to know about Johnson is admirably contained in the profile below but any comparison with the mythical hero would be wholly superficial. Besides, when it comes to rugby, Biggles wouldn't be fit to lace his boots let along lift him in the line-out and Johnson has the added disadvantage that this particular world couldn't be more real.

Such is the size of the Springbok forwards that if Johnson did knock on their door, one of them is likely to open it and say: "Hello skinny, what do you want?"

To most of us, it wouldn't matter if the Lions were captained by a cheeky little fly-half with a back-street accent and a runny nose if he could slice the South Africans apart on the field but you sense that many of our sporting officials are driven by a desire for a figurehead of acceptable appearance, dimension and background. It has ever been thus although the public school requirement, happily, is not as strong as it once was.

Sometimes, it works. Will Carling looked and acted the part, as did Booby Moore for the triumphant England football team back in the Sixties, although the captain's template in that game doesn't seem to have the same rigidity. In football, the skipper's duties are nowhere near as onerous as they are in rugby or in cricket and the position certainly carries far more commercial value.

Alan Shearer, the present England captain, also has the advantage of being their top striker. Last week, while Johnson was contemplating what is expected of him, it was revealed that Shearer is likely to earn up to pounds 10m in endorsements in the next year or so. Unfortunately, the latest company to sign him for advertisements is Braun, the electric shaver people. Despite the strength of our traditional desire for a clean-cut captain, we would not be happy for that state of jaw to have been achieved with a German razor.

I fear that Johnson, splendid though he is, will not command anything like that sort of peripheral compensation. Indeed, he will be doing well to avoid the lynching party that is the ever-helpful fate that awaits the leaders of most of the sporting squads we send abroad.

It would have helped Johnson's confidence had he been hailed earlier as the obvious paragon of all our virtues. His appointment, say, when the original squad of 62 was announced would have enabled him to make some small contribution to the final constitution of the squad and to be seen as a figure more central to the great scheme of things.

To announce a day or two before the squad is named that they were still dithering between three candidates for captaincy - Ieuan Evans and Jason Leonard were the others - was to undermine the credibility of their final choice before he started.

There are many parallels with the cricket world. Successive captains of England have found themselves shouldering the entire burden of the nation's shortcomings at the wicket. And, as Michael Atherton has discovered, help is not always forthcoming from senior officials.

If we needed evidence of the pressures on captains, plenty came last week from Australia's Mark Taylor who has stood down, temporarily at least. Richie Richardson has experienced similar discomfort.

Martin Johnson will take our best wishes to South Africa but he also deserves to carry with him our fullest sympathy for the weight of his task. If I know Biggles, he'd have suddenly found an urgent assignment up the Orinoco.

AMID the running amok of the racehorse Formidable Flame lat Southwell's all-weather track on Tuesday, the voice of the course commentator urged the alarmed crowd to keep calm.

Maddened when its saddle and girth strap slipped to its sensitive hind quarters, Formidable Flame ditched the jockey, burst out of the starting stalls and crashed through the rails into the spectators' enclosure. Racegoers were scattered and a child had a narrow escape when the rampaging animal trampled his pushchair.

The voice of Graham Goode, meanwhile, urged: "Stand still and don't panic." I admit my abysmal ignorance of crowd control in these circumstances but having seen the television pictures of Formidable Flame's solo stampede I am willing to venture the advice that in the highly unlikely event of a similar occurrence when you are enjoying a day at the races you should react to the instruction "Stand still" by "Running like hell".

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