James Lawton: The miracle of sport shows its humanity

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The Independent Online

According to some of the more breathless accounts it was possible to look down on a famous sports arena yesterday and see a miracle.

According to some of the more breathless accounts it was possible to look down on a famous sports arena yesterday and see a miracle.

The miracle of Melbourne. There on the great green expanse of the MCG was the aristocracy of world cricket. Brian Lara, the greatest of West Indian batsmen, stood near to Matthew Hayden, one of the bastions of the champions, Australia, as Sourav Ganguly, the captain of India, drilled a ball fiendishly wide of the pride of Yorkshire, Darren Gough.

As the crowd of 70,000 cheered and the total raised for tsunami relief clicked past the £6m mark, even the most refined technology failed to pick up a whisper of the "sledging" that down the decades had crackled so venomously. Sledging is what rival cricketers say to each other when they are locked into almost any level of combat. They question each other's parentage, the fidelity of their wives and their girlfriends, and no one ever engaged in this bitter pursuit more relentlessly on this ground than Australia's Merv Hughes and Pakistan's Javed Miandad.

Most memorably, it occurred when Javed, whose coruscating batsmanship was always more easily appreciated than his generosity to opponents, was thrashing a perspiring Hughes to all corners of the field.

At one point, Javed, after cutting his victim to the boundary with ostentatious precision, announced: "Hughes, this just isn't good enough -- you are not a Test class bowler, you should be working as a bus conductor."

The torture went on for some time before Hughes, ransacking his body for a supreme effort, delivered the ball that claimed his tormentor's wicket. Hughes' team-mates were stunned when he didn't rush up to Miandad in a rage of gloating. Instead, the bowler raced to the boundary gates, where he was able to say, with a perfectly straight face, to the departing Javed: "Tickets, please."

No, there was no sledging in Melbourne yesterday - and nor was there a miracle. It was simply sport, abused so often by the forces which seek to gain from it only monstrous profits, taking the chance to show the best of itself.

That it did so quite brilliantly shouldn't have been so much of a surprise. If we mock so many modern sportsmen, if we find ourselves railing against epidemics of greed and cheating and self-importance, we should perhaps take a look at our own lives and our own expectations of ourselves.

Most of all we should recognise that sport is like most other things in life in that it is shaped by the wider world in which it exists.

We should sometimes remember that David Beckham wasn't always a narcissistic celebrity butterfly. There was a time, before he was engulfed by showbiz values, when he was a hard-working young footballer of notable talent and ambition that was extravagantly fulfilled on the football field in the red shirt of Manchester United.

Sport, let's face it, is a magnet for both the best and the worst of the human spirit and if we douse it in hero worship and grotesque wealth, if profiteers are allowed to plunder its riches and pervert its spirit and if one of its greatest institutions, the Olympic Games, is made to look powerless before the machinations of coaches and chemists without conscience, we should sometimes be more careful where we lay the blame.

The men and women who play sport, we were reminded in the MCG yesterday, have a capacity for hurting and caring and loving like any other section of humanity and sometimes, when the cause is striking enough, when they are put on their best behaviour by the force of circumstances, so many of them indeed rise superbly to the occasion.

We were also reminded of what they can do for our often otherwise humdrum existence in the course of one day's work.

Anyone who has seen Lara, who shook off the effects of jetlag to produce a brisk 50 yesterday, anywhere near the top of his game has something to keep for ever. Yet so much of the prime of Lara's career has been conducted under a fierce and often critical spotlight. Wilful, self-indulgent, negligent of his supreme gifts... these are some of the criticisms. But then you think of the force of his talent and his commitment which carried him so far from his modest, wood-built little house on the road up from Port of Spain. You hear his mother, sitting beside what used to be the family's most treasured possession, a Singer sewing machine, talking about how one of his brothers fashioned a bat for the talented toddler and how he could hit unripe oranges over the neighbourhood rooftops.

In one sweep of the eye yesterday we could see our debt to one sport and one group of young men.

We could see the pride of the controversy-racked Muttiah Muralitharan as he walked back on to the cricket field where nine years ago all his prospects in life, his chances of doing something to lift his family above the merest existence, was put in doubt when he was no-balled seven times. In the past the Aussie crowd had given Muralitharan the hardest of times but yesterday they applauded him warmly. He came from the heart of the tsunami tragedy, doing that which he does best and with more practical success than he could ever hope for back at home in Sri Lanka at his relief work.

The beaten Asian captain, Ganguly, was for once able to bury the strongest of his competitive instincts. On any day, even this one, loaded with so much significance beyond the column of win and loss, we knew that Ganguly would have ached to match the regal run-getting of the Australian captain of the winning Rest of the World team, Ricky Ponting, who effortlessly swept past the 150 mark.

But Ganguly agreed: "Though we would have liked to win the game it really doesn't matter. We all know what we are here for... it is a cause, and that is the most important thing. I hope we can raise as much money in our next game next month."

Kumar Sangakkara, the Sri Lankan wicketkeeper, said: "All through the day you couldn't take your mind off the people back home. I'd like to think this will do a lot for the whole region."

Steve Waugh, the great captain of Australia, was in charge of the Rest of the World team, and when he said it was an uplifting experience he didn't speak as a man new to the rawness of life beyond the cricket boundary. No one travelled more intensely in the tunnel of competition than Waugh, but when the battle was over he did more than go back to his hotel room and plug in the video machine. In India, the land of beauty and magic and pain, he came under the spell of the heirs of Mother Teresa, and when he put down his cricket bat he knew that a bigger game was just beginning.

Waugh said that he would be flying to India later this week. He has business there, and some of it is the kind of selfless work that we do not associate with mega sports stars in the 21st century.

It was something to think about as Ponting and Chris Cairns, the boisterous Kiwi, flailed sixes and Shane Warne, the former sun-bleached beach boy, turned his sorcerer's arm; something to feed into the stereotype of a world of sport shut off from the realities of a wider world.

What we had, more than anything, was a small but priceless insight into the value of sport, its power to lift and, so vitally at times, to distract. In Melbourne, though, it has not been about the business of distraction. It has been saying that sport in the end does not have a life of its own. It cannot - or it least shouldn't, as it did recently in Zimbabwe so shockingly - operate as though the real world doesn't exist.

Sport is part of that world and to a hugely important degree. As well as controversy and dismay, it has the power to provoke joy and excitement and sometimes even more than a touch of wonderment.

"Whatever you achieve in sport," says Steve Waugh, "when something like the tsunami happens, you know where you are - and what you owe." Yesterday, no one could doubt it, sport's account was in splendid order.