Brian Viner: Ali, Beckett, Conteh, JPR and me: how a Long Room heckler burst my balloon

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The Independent Online

The Thursday before last I attended one of my favourite events of the Christmas season, the annual dinner and balloon debate in aid of the Lord's Taverners, held in the hallowed Long Room at Lord's. This year, however, my anticipation of the evening was slightly sullied by my own presence on the list of debaters. It was not, therefore, with the usual merry tread that I made my way up St John's Wood Road towards the Grace Gates, but with an ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach that was only partly attributable to the cauliflower and lentil soup I'd had for lunch.

A balloon debate, for those unfamiliar with the concept, arises out of the fantasy that a hot-air balloon containing four famous people is punctured, and three balloonists must be ejected if it is to stay aloft. Each of the four debaters chooses a famous person, and is given a limited number of minutes to explain why he or she deserves to stay in the stricken balloon. After all four have spoken, the audience votes for one to be ejected. The remaining three speak again, another is ejected, and so on.

At Lord's, the idea is that each of the famous people should be a sporting hero. I chose J P R Williams, a genuine hero of mine, not least because his were the definitive sideburns of the 1970s, like small isosceles triangles of shagpile Axminster carpet glued to each cheek. To gather some more solid evidence in his favour, I supplemented my own memories of Saturday afternoons as a lumpen teenager watching Grandstand, by making some phone calls. I spoke to Clive Rowlands, a great Welsh scrum-half, and to John Taylor, JPR's team-mate both with Wales and the Lions, and his best man in 1973 when, both as a player and as an iconic pair of sideburns, JPR was at his substantial peak.

Taylor kindly gave me chapter and verse on JPR's heroics as a rampaging full-back, and also as a trainee doctor later to become a distinguished orthopaedic surgeon. In the third Test on the victorious Lions tour of New Zealand in 1971, the New Zealand fly-half, Bob Burgess, was double-tackled and fell to the ground unconscious. While an ambulance crew stood around not quite knowing what to do, JPR realised Burgess was turning blue. He had swallowed his tongue, which JPR calmly fished out with his finger, saving his opponent if not from death then almost certainly from permanent brain damage. What a guy!

However, what neither Taylor nor Rowlands could really provide me with, try as they did, were side-splitting JPR anecdotes. His recent autobiography, although excellent, confirms that he is a rather serious-minded fellow. And I'd been to enough balloon debates to know that you don't get anywhere, except turfed out of the balloon, if you don't make them laugh.

So I deployed a favourite Welsh joke of mine, and one or two decent stories from my own recent book (which, if the editor will indulge me, is called Ali, Pele, Lillee & Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies, and might be just the Christmas present you're still looking for). I also related the tale of another man slightly anxious about a public-speaking engagement, the Old Etonian racehorse trainer Jeremy Tree, who was invited to address his old school and happened to bump into Lester Piggott a few days beforehand. "Lester, dear chap," he said. "I've been invited to share my racing wisdom with the boys at Eton. What do you think I should tell them?" Lester arched an eyebrow. "Tell 'em you've got the flu!" came the nasal, mumbled reply.

Anyway, I felt I gave a reasonable account of myself from the podium, which came as some consolation when I was expelled from the balloon at the first juncture. Maybe the Long Fellow's advice would have been more appropriate to the Long Room and I should have cried off with flu. But I was later told that I wasn't much helped by some strong anti-Welsh sentiment in the audience, somewhat endorsed by an outrageous heckle that rang out as I detailed JPR's staggering sporting record of three Grand Slams and six Triple Crowns, of 11 undefeated matches against England, and even of victory in the 1966 Junior Wimbledon final against David Lloyd, for heaven's sake; namely; that "he's still a Welsh poof!"

More than anything, though, I owed my early bath to the excellence of my opponents, in particular Bob Marshall-Andrews QC MP, who talked beguilingly about the only Nobel Laureate to have played first-class cricket, Samuel Beckett, and the former light-heavyweight boxing champion of the world John Conteh, who championed Muhammad Ali and won the debate pretty unanimously with some knock-out gags, including his reason why women's boxing will never really work as a sport: "Heh, these scales aren't right!"

Incidentally, I was going to share with you the excellent quiz that was set before us at the Lord's Taverners dinner, but I've run out of space, so it will have to wait until next week. Get your thinking caps on. It's a cracker.

Who I like this week...

It's tempting to say Monty Panesar, whose five first-innings wickets in Perth represented a nail in the reputation of the England coach, Duncan Fletcher. But that would be too obvious, so instead I'm picking Phil "the Power" Taylor, about to embark on his quest for a 14th world darts title. I have it on impeccable authority Taylor, a man who likes his kip, stayed up until four in the morning following last Sunday's BBC Sports Personality of the Year bash, partying with Zara Phillips, Mike Tindall and others. He's not much of a drinker, either, but tried a glass of red wine and enjoyed it so much he had another. He was the life and soul of the party, apparently, and invited Zara to the Circus Tavern to watch him next week. She'll find it very much like Badminton, except different.

And who I don't

Ian Botham, the only weak link in the Sky Sports commentary team. He is far less perceptive as an analyst than his colleagues, which may be why he is so rarely wheeled out at the end of an innings to talk to David Gower, a job Nasser Hussain and David Lloyd do brilliantly. But I can forgive his simplistic commentary because he is still Botham, after all, and still a legend. What I find harder to forgive is his relentless and tiresome teasing of Hussain, which is beginning to look pretty much like bullying. Nasser's a big boy and can doubtless look after himself, but I don't ever see Botham taking the stick that he so cheerfully dishes out.