Military spirit fires our heroes

'Someone used to battle zones would feel perfectly at home at a Newcastle v Sunderland derby'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

My train journey from London to Manchester the other day took more than five hours, and whereas I quite understand the need for speed restrictions, and was fully expecting things to be slow, a pall of frustration does inevitably descend when you're overtaken first by a barge and then by a woman walking a lame golden retriever.

My train journey from London to Manchester the other day took more than five hours, and whereas I quite understand the need for speed restrictions, and was fully expecting things to be slow, a pall of frustration does inevitably descend when you're overtaken first by a barge and then by a woman walking a lame golden retriever.

Still, the journey did at least afford plenty of time for thought, for gazing through the dirt-flecked window and sometimes, with a bit of effort, for both at the same time. Indeed, as we creaked through the Buckinghamshire town of Bletchley, I peered hopefully into the murk wondering whether I might catch a glimpse of the rambling mansion where the Nazi Enigma codes were cracked during the Second World War.

Instead, all I saw were gloomy railway yards, bleak housing estates, and - the only thing to evoke a whit of sophistication, glamour and intrigue - a Ferrero Rocher lorry. Incidentally, if you are beginning to worry that you might need an Enigma machine yourself to find a sporting context for all this, please bear with me a little longer. Like Virgin Trains, I'm getting there slowly.

Now, Bletchley, from what I could see, appears to be a drab little town. Yet still its name resounds. That's what war does. A military decision here, a civil servant's decision there, and the most unremarkable of places - Arnhem, Dunkirk, Bletchley - becomes remarkable, its mere mention destined to beguile historians forever. In a way, it's the same with people. At Bletchley Park, weedy-looking mathematicians, with flat feet and dandruff, became war heroes. Conversely, strapping young athletes, natural and charismatic leaders of men, encountered one flash of enemy fire and their contribution to the war effort was over one second, forgotten the next. I have sometimes wondered what I might have done in the war had I been born 40 years earlier (my wife, rather dishearteningly, reckons I would have wangled a safe desk job somewhere in Whitehall). And on the train to Manchester, after reading of the cricketing exploits of our boys in Pakistan, I idly applied this hypothetical nonsense to modern sporting heroes. It's amazing how your imagination bowls along when you're stuck on a barely moving train. Still, the connection between sport and war is not completely arbitrary. After all, sport loves to glorify itself by invoking military images - counter-attacks, resolute defence, rearguard actions, explosive volleys and all that. Just last Friday the Sky Sports presenter Charles Colvile suggested that New Zealand's Test cricketers were so overwhelmed by South Africa that they were "popguns against battleships". And the Match of the Day cameras made a great deal of Kate Adie's presence at St James' Park on Saturday. She wasn't wearing her flak jacket but the jokey inference was clear, that someone used to battle zones would feel perfectly at home at a Newcastle v Sunderland derby.

It's not so nonsensical, therefore, to give these military images some flesh. And it is cricket, more than any other sport, which rewards such flights of fancy. Like the army, cricket has a long history of toffs mixing with yeomen, indeed the remnants of the gentleman-and-player culture still linger. It was always said, for instance, that David Gower was a born officer, and Graham Gooch a born regimental sergeant major.

So what of the current lot, if you will indulge me by relocating them to the 1940s? I picture Michael Atherton as a captain (ex-Lancashire Fusiliers), at his redoubtable best under enemy fire. Not all his superiors approve of his phlegmatic demeanour, mistaking it for insubordination. Hence calls for a court martial when a random kit inspection reveals inexplicable quantities of dirt in his pocket. But he is clearly a huge asset in the heat of battle, his experience enormously helpful to his commanding officer, Major Hussain. His never-say-die spirit is an inspiration, moreover, to Lance-Corporal Thorpe and Private Trescothick. Young Trescothick, of course, is Atherton's favourite batman.

The reality, however, would probably have been quite different. Atherton might even have been excused military service on account of a dodgy back. Because a trawl through the wartime records of some of the great sportsmen of that era shows that surprisingly few of them distinguished themselves in battle.

True, Radio Rome once reported that the free-scoring Arsenal forward Cliff Bastin had been dramatically captured by the Italian army and was being held as a prisoner-of-war. But, in fact, this was nonsense even by the standards of wartime propaganda. Bastin actually spent the war as an air-raid warden, manning a lookout at - where else? - Highbury stadium. He had been deemed unfit for active service because he was slightly deaf. Unfortunately, history does not record whether the recruitment officer who made this decision was an Arsenal fan. I bet he was, though.

Comments