The Way I See It: Why does England favour the honest toiler over the maverick? When will the spirit of Nastase infect the selectors of our national teams?

I have wasted years watching England ignore the dissenter in favour of the Stakhanovite

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The Independent Online

Hollywood parcels mavericks as anti-heroes, nonconformists who wander out of left field chewing a cheroot and trailing a sense of mystery and danger. Messages are blurred. The norms and values that govern ordinary lives struggle to classify this new presence. He just doesn’t fit the white-collar slot.

As the plot unfolds, something pure emerges in the way he cleans up the societal mess, a primal force, maybe, exposing abuses of power, deceits, untruths. And then he is gone, back to the margins. The beneficiaries are grateful but don’t feel wholly comfortable with methods that nibble away at their anxieties, threatening their world view.

Sport has its mavericks, too, characters who operate outside convention. And all too often the authorities don’t know what to do with them. So Jos Buttler is excluded from the England Test squad and Ross Barkley is given a gentle rebuke by an England manager who chooses to highlight what he didn’t do very well against Ecuador instead of championing those dancing feet.

Buttler’s violent plunder with the bat, his irreverence and audacity, have been among the few reasons to tune in post Ashes surrender. Chris Jordan and Ravi Bopara deserve mention, but it was Buttler who made dark artistes of Sri Lanka. It took a feral Mankad to deny him in the final one-day rubber. And then along came the straight bats at the ECB to saw him off with mutterings about gloves and technique.

Buttler was exiled to the counties to learn how to behave properly behind the stumps and Barkley was made to stay behind after class to write out 100 times: “I must not dribble on the halfway line.”

I have wasted too many years watching England ignore the dissenter in favour of the Stakhanovite. Attachment to a round, oval or seamed ball with a red-rose tattooed on the heart has been largely a joyless experience. Even when England won the rugby World Cup in 2003 it was done largely by pre-determined patterns hammered out by Jonny and Johnno. At least under Stuart Lancaster there are signs that he understands the needs of the soul as well as the scoreboard.

History has tossed us the odd exception to the obedient toiler, when the talents concerned have been just too great to ignore, Beefy Botham and Gazza would be two. But too many gifted individuals have met with exclusion from the group. There is, perhaps, in the English psyche a fear of elements that can’t be controlled. The iron discipline and sense of order and service that underpin nationhood and that built an empire are manifest in the management ethos of those picking national teams today.

Maybe I was born too distanced from the ruling class to buy into the Establishment ideal. I was always moved by the outsider in sport. George Best was an early and obvious love. Another was Ilie Nastase, who happened across my landscape as the pre-teen hormones were raging. 

I recall little of the detail from the 1972 Wimbledon final but I remember vividly how I felt. Nastase held me transfixed, his shock of shoulder-length, jet-black hair, his gossamer touch at the net, his devilment, his inscrutable dark eyes locked on his opponent from the baseline. Every shot was pregnant with possibility, every movement a drama.

The bloke opposite, Stan Smith, was all out in front of you. Tall, athletic, blond, American. He served. He volleyed. He ran, stretched, smashed, retrieved, and over five sets that day prevailed. But the next day his was not the face downloaded in my imagination, nor was his the name I took on to the tennis court at Copster Hill Park (yes, they had public courts in those days), where Wimbledon would be played out anew against Steven Anthony Armstrong, my best friend and main rival in the battle for hegemony across the school sports cannon. 

“Army” was Smith all over, magnificently, universally competent; top of the class, captain of the football and cricket teams. His fair hair was parted straight down the middle and his Tom Cruise teeth lined up in a perfect row. You would never see him out after the watershed.

In complexion and attitude I was Nastase II. My sister reckons we had a Romany gypsy in the family, great uncle Ruben. His ethnicity remains unproven but at the time I allowed it to draw me still closer to the Byronic Romanian. Winning was not worth the bother unless it came with an ace, a drop-volley or a backhand smash.

Army and I moved up to the grammar school together, a milieu to which he was perfectly suited. We drifted apart post-puberty, his unerring attachment to straight lines incompatible with my preference for caprice.

Here we are too many years later and I’m still waiting for the spirit of Nastase to wash over those holding bats and kicking balls for England. Maybe in the weeks ahead circumstance might force new dandies upon us.

There might even be a movie in it.