James Lawton: For wizardry and grace in defeat Warne has no peers as the sportsman of 2005
Wednesday 28 December 2005
Having already publicly expressed my love for Shane Warne, or at least so much of what he stood for in a year of sport that at times touched improbable levels of glory, there can be no question here of faint-heartedness at the unveiling of the annual Lawton Awards. Unquestionably he is my sportsman of the year.
He showed not only how a true champion loses - it is with grace to the winner after producing every last shred of his own talent and will - but how to come back from the pain of it. Nothing, surely, was more uplifting than the sight of the 36-year-old, fully paid-up legend of cricket being surrounded by his team-mates after first equalling, then beating the all-time record for wickets taken in a single calendar year. Not only is Warne defying the dying of the light, he continues to give the impression of a one- man galaxy. Back in Australia, as he negotiated the problems of his private life, he made Ashes defeat seemed like a passing impertinence as he continued to reproduce some of the best of his past against the West Indies.
At the time of the great outpouring of sadness at the death of George Best, and an entirely admirable desire to express gratitude for what he had given to sport in the brief prime of his genius, Warne was entitled to an entirely different kind of tribute.
Though, heaven knows, he had shared some of the self-destructive impulses of the fallen Irishman, Warne this last summer did assert a hugely impressive fidelity to his own sporting gifts.
When his family life was disintegrating, and it was, by his own admission, because of his own mistakes, Warne publicly recognised that as long as he drew a living from sport, as long as he was paid to go out to perform, he had an obligation, to himself, his country and all those who paid at the turnstiles, to deliver the best of that talent which was still available to him.
The result was a demonstration of both natural wizardry and astonishing staying power. As long as Warne was on the field, with the ball, and sometimes even the bat, no cause was lost, no English cricketer could afford the least presumption of victory.
Naturally, given its dedication to both jingoism and schmaltz, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show, conveniently ignored the fact that while the beaten Aussies went home, fiercely applying themselves to restoring their status as the world's most successful cricket team, a heavy dose of triumphalism laid the English Ashes winners low in Pakistan. No, of course, events on the subcontinent did not invalidate the summer glory; it was unforgettable and if Andrew Flintoff inhaled the mood of celebration a little too deeply he was hardly short of assistance from the Prime Minister down. The lasting image of him, beyond even his superb achievements with bat and ball, will surely be the supremely graceful moment when he acknowledged the pain and the disappointment of Australia's thwarted hero Brett Lee.
That moment wins him the Grace and Humanity in Victory award, but the big one has to go to Warne.
He detached himself from celebrity and fame earned in past battles. He played as though every moment on the field might be his last.
Elsewhere there was the usual package of the good and the bad, the trite and the timeless.
Here is my list:
Most astonishing moment
Surely it was when Liverpool, at the end of their first season under Rafael Benitez, won the Champions' League after being picked almost clean by the revived brilliance of Milan on a surreal night in Istanbul. It would be silly to suggest that Liverpool had not benefited from some good fortune, or that Benitez had produced a sublime master plan. His gamble on Harry Kewell was an embarrassing failure, but he had produced a strain of belief that had brought dramatic wins over Olympiakos, Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea and now the great reward was his. Quite as uplifting was the fact that an estimated 35,000 Liverpool fans left the banks of the Bosphorus without drawing a single arrest. Might that just have represented the closing of one of the darkest chapters in English sport? The German World Cup will tell us in a few months' time.
Moment of genius
The chip of Tiger Woods which slowly snaked across some of the most treacherous terrain in golf and in one last revolution dropped into the 16th hole at Augusta. Almost as memorable was the reaction of Woods, who had been supposedly pulled back into the pack of golf's leading players, to reaching precisely the half-way mark in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's 18 major wins. When he was asked if he was "finally there," which presumably meant the ultimate winning zone, the Tiger said, "You never arrive, but if you do you might as well quit because you are already there; you can't get any better. So the answer is no, I'll never be there."
England's footballer of the year
Wayne Rooney. He asserted, by talent, by appetite, by consistent performance, by his willingness to accept, after his eruption against some of the more bizarre tactical arrangements of his England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, that without discipline all his ability would simply blow in the wind, that he was indeed the hope of the English game. At the age of 20, he was widely seen as the future of both Manchester and England. It was an astonishing achievement that mocked all those who dwelt on the flaws of youth rather than the scale of his talent.
World footballer of the year
Ronaldinho, Ronaldinho, Ronaldinho. He brought back the poetry of football, and said that once more it was possible to win beautifully.
Mike Tyson's shambling departure from the ring against Ireland's Kevin McBride in Washington DC, a disaster for boxing only marginally redeemed by his admission, "I can't go on embarrassing my sport like this." Unfortunately, Audley Harrison felt that he could, with truly appalling consequences when he fought the almost equally futile Danny Williams. Muhammad Ali, locked ever deeper in his world of shadows, it seemed, was at ringside for the Tyson fight in Washington. Soon after a great fight reporter, Pat Putnam, of Sports Illustrated, died. A dry and pungent humourist, Putnam might have said that he always liked to display exemplary timing.
Colin Montgomerie, like Shane Warne, had some private desolation to overcome. He did it magnificently, rebuilding his life both on and off the course. Monty's repossession of the European Order of Merit was, in all the circumstances, an epic performance. He proved once again that Ernest Hemingway was right. Men can indeed grow strong at the broken places.
Resurrection man silver medal
Steve Davis. He did not win the UK Championship, but he helped rekindle a feeling for the game that had seemed, in terms of major appeal, moribund for so long. More than at any time since the years of Alex Higgins, one found oneself flicking to the snooker channel. Maybe it was just age - or reality TV.
Performance of the year
Daniel Carter's in Wellington, in the second Test of the Lions tour. Carter fuelled a theory which had been growing amid the wheat fields of his native Canterbury for the best part of a decade: he might just be the best player New Zealand has ever produced. He kicked flawlessly, he ran exquisitely, and when he grubber-kicked forward and beat the Lions' cover to the ball he was defining the most perfect balance and timing that you might ever see on a rugby field.
Misadventure of the year
The Lions tour and the bizarre belief of the manager, Sir Clive Woodward, that his great reputation, so shredded in New Zealand, could be restored in the alien world of football.
Most inappropriate hype
The headline that said Andrew Murray's tennis game was reminiscent of a young Roger Federer. Why do we do this? Why do we not take Murray's relatively modest progress, when you think of the achievements of such as Boris Becker and John McEnroe, as no more than an encouraging hint that there might just be a glint of serious promise in the previously catastrophic world of British tennis? That is not the British way of sport, unfortunately. We rush our fences, we celebrate prematurely. That was true even of the greatest glory of our sporting year. The Ashes win was a beautiful triumph, but who wouldn't say that we read into it too much, too quickly? Certainly not the Pakistanis.
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