Different class as the stars bite back

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The Independent Online
WILLIE CARSON was referred to as 'the annoying little git from Stirling' in these pages last week. No doubt the bookmakers felt even less polite descriptions coming to mind after the spectacular way he purged their satchels by bringing home the Derby favourite, Erhaab, on Wednesday. Carson would not mind because jockeys, more than most top sportspeople, are accustomed to accumulating scorn along with the fame and fortune.

One of Willie's illustrious predecessors, Sir Gordon Richards, was called 'pig face' in our house during all the happy years my father was passing on his sporting wisdom to the rest of the family. I suspect this was due to the fact that my father, a belligerent supporter of outsiders, spent a lifetime opposing the horses which the great Gordon was riding, but the same point applies; all such opinions are subjective.

They are also unavoidable, which means that part of the burden a superstar must shoulder is the knowledge that only very occasionally does even the most successful sporting career create universal approval. But recent developments threaten to transform the entire ethos of sporting lese majeste - the superstars are starting to lay into each other.

Peter Alliss, the supreme golf commentator, breezed into a personal attack on Nick Faldo that is still causing the golfer to quiver as he negotiates the windswept links of Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium this weekend. We all have our Knokkers, but Faldo received more than a fair share of digs from Alliss who calls him ignorant, stupid, uncuddlesome, a classic only child and much else besides.

Imran Khan, the immaculate former captain of Pakistan, has not totted up as many insults in his attack on some of his fellow cricketers, but he has introduced a new element into this uncivil war. Imran, whose recent biography revealed why bowlers need so much bottle these days, told the magazine India Today that the furore over his admissions of ball-tampering was stoked up by players of lesser breeding and education.

Just as Mrs Alan Clark complained last week that the 'below stairs' class could not be trusted to keep a discreet silence about sexual indiscretions, Imran felt moved to point out that those players and ex-players who criticised him most had, in their younger days, caused very little wear and tear on the cloisters of higher education.

The commentators who had taken a 'rational' view of his infringements - he mentioned Tony Lewis, Christopher Martin- Jenkins and my colleague Derek Pringle - were inclined to be 'all educated, Oxbridge types'. He added: 'Look at the others; Lamb, Botham, Trueman. The difference in class and upbringing made a difference.'

On Friday we read that Imran had back-tracked enough to deny that his remarks referred to class. 'It is an education thing, not a class thing,' he said, offering the further opinion that it was sad that fewer public schoolboys and Oxbridge-educated players found their way into top-class cricket. 'Education brings balance and perspective to people.'

We can be sure it does, but does it also temper one's critical edge? Does it improve your brains at the expense of your balls? I ask only because, of the two redoubtable trios he mentions, the former may have more reason to bridle at his remarks because of the implication that wisdom is toothless. Certainly, Imran's learning has not impaired his ability to lash out. According to his book, he never spent an evening with an English Test cricketer. He found Ian Botham 'too much of a bully' and Graham Gooch 'worthy but dull'.

Botham, who told the Daily Mirror that he looked forward to discussing the class system with Imran face to face, had presented Radio Five's sporting phone-in last weekend and held forth on the shabby way we criticise our more successful sportsmen, referring particularly to Faldo, Chris Eubank and Nigel Mansell.

Alas, criticism is something even ordinary people have to live with as they go about their humdrum lives and to think that the de-pedestalisation of heroes is confined either to this country or to this era is not to have a grasp on the worldwide record of human nature. A touch of ego-culling is necessary now and then. As far as sport is concerned, the only people with a genuine right to criticise are those who pay for the privilege, either through the turnstiles or watching, or reading or buying the stuff the stars endorse.

The irony is that anyone who has devoted a career trying to satisfy and stimulate their curiosity will have been constantly assailed by major sportspeople demanding to know why their activities are not reported by those who have experienced sport at the top level. We have reached the stage at which there has never been so many former stars flooding the media with their knowhow, and there's never been as much bickering. We are seeing it in football and rugby, too, as ex-players queue to offer their fourpennyworth.

Alliss is a perfect example. A top international golfer 30 to 40 years ago, he has long been the most accomplished and entertaining commentator on television. You would think his pronouncements would carry weight with all. But Faldo dismissed him with the words: 'He climbs 14 steps to a commentary box and suddenly he's an expert.' That was two years ago, and Alliss obviously has not forgiven him. This is a conflict with a long life potential.

You do not have to be expert to appreciate brilliance. Indeed, it may well be true that the only people who can properly value greatness are those who do not possess a trace of it and can give their appreciation without any reluctance.

Perhaps Imran is right in that mutual honour, respect and discretion should forever be observed among top sportspeople. The insults should be left to those to whom history has awarded the right to hail, wail or jeer. I refer to the rabble and, of course, their representatives.

NO WONDER the followers of rugby league are so sensitive to slights on their game - they get so many. Wigan's victory over Brisbane Broncos on Wednesday must rank as one of the achievements of the year. The task they faced after a long, hard season against a renowned Broncos team performing in front of a 55,000 home crowd would not have encouraged much optimism, even in Wigan.

National newspapers, certainly in the southern editions, were far from effusive. As for Radio Five, their 5.30pm sports newscast the same day had the following running order: The Derby; confirmation of Arsenal signing Stefan Schwarz; French Open tennis; Danny Morrison out of the New Zealand team; Paul Hull's widely expected selection for England; the Wigan result, unadorned. Perhaps it's my sports news values that are out of order.

MENTION earlier of Alan Clark's amorous adventures prompts me to reflect on the many sportsmen who have enjoyed similar reputations. It may not be appropriate while we are celebrating the heroes of D- Day but it is difficult to resist remembering all those in sport who risked their necks on so many landings.