James Lawton: Sporting questions and silly answers

Mourinho gains only disgrace by deceit - Does Croft know cricket if he only cricket knows

Rarely since the notoriously rabid supporters of the New York Rangers ice hockey team had an extremely unnerving experience while riding the subway a few years ago has the pent-up fury of sport's distant cousins been so forcibly expressed.

Rarely since the notoriously rabid supporters of the New York Rangers ice hockey team had an extremely unnerving experience while riding the subway a few years ago has the pent-up fury of sport's distant cousins been so forcibly expressed.

The memory of that bizarre episode was provoked this week by the ferocious reaction of the British chess federation to the news that it may be barred from dipping into Sport England's somewhat arbitrary but quite often exceedingly generous gravy boat. If it proves so, it will be for the old reason: while the heirs of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky may burn off vast amounts of nervous energy, they do it with insufficient "physical agility".

Not quite as much, for example, as the darts players hauling pints up to their jowls with relentless precision. Or snooker players nipping off for a drag, or worse. The latter possibility recalls a long lunch with Hurricane Higgins. Copious amounts of Chablis were followed by several large snifters of brandy. When he left at dusk he was asked where he was going. Plainly slighted wounded, he nonchalantly lit up a cigarette and said: "Practice of course."

What happened in New York is thus something of a warning for the bureaucrats doling out the largesse. The audience at the Metropolitan screamed, scuffled, and threw programmes, and some heavier objects, at the stage when it was announced that Luciano Pavarotti had been adversely affected by the Manhattan fumes and would not be doing his stuff.

Such alarm was created that the following day a spokesman for the New York Rangers, noting a sharp drop in attendance for a punch-up with the Pittsburgh Penguins, theorised bleakly: "It maybe that our fans are staying home for fear of tangling with the opera crowd."

Coming on a slightly different tack, A J Liebling, author of The Sweet Science, marshalled a brave defence of his beloved sport of boxing while wading into the great cultural divide.

He said that anti-boxing forces tried to rationalise their position by proclaiming solicitude for the fighter's health, and then counter attacking with a thumping rhetorical question. He asked what the reaction would be if a boxer ever went as "batty" as the celebrated dancer Nijinsky? Liebling provided his own bracing answer. "All the wowsers in the world would be screaming 'punch-drunk.' Well, who hit Nijinsky? And why isn't there a campaign against ballet? It gives girls thick legs."

Liebling, like the chess body now, was wading into the eternal question of what truly constitutes sport, at what point do you draw the line between the body and the mind?

Of course it has long been blurred. When you go to the gymnastics hall, as some of us did relentlessly to see the sublime Svetlana Khorkina at the Olympics of Sydney and Athens, do you go as an aficionado of the beam and the bars or an impassioned stage-door Johnny?

If a batch of beautifully synchronised swimmers stick clothes pegs on their noses and come out of the water without a millisecond between them are they Olympians - or refugees from an old Esther Williams movie? Is ice dancing, so beautifully expressed by Torvill and Dean, sport or entertainment or, too frequently, a fix?

Once the late James "The Shunt" Hunt brooded restlessly about the dangers of Formula One. He confided: "Sometimes I wish I had been a golfer. What a lovely, risk-free life."

But was Hunt talking about a swap from one nominal "sport" to another? For me, no. Formula One demands nerve and stamina and unworldly reflexes. Winning a major demands wonderful natural co-ordination and feel for the subtleties of timing and imagination.

In one sultry week former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis had two contests. In one he ravaged the myth of Mike Tyson. In the other he was slaughtered by the 14-year-old chess champion of Mississippi. He seemed to be much more drained by the defeat.

Lewis's trainer, Emmanuel Steward, who looks after fighters in that part of Detroit where they tend not to pin up posters of grandmasters, hated the hours the champion spent over a chessboard. "Fighting and chess, hell, you couldn't find two more opposite things," said Steward. "In the ring it's explosion and instinct. In chess you have to think through everything you do. I worry that Lennox will take off some of his edge."

Thinking things through, however, never seemed to hold back Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, or, come to think about it, Lewis.

According to one study, the epic duel between Fischer and Spassky produced in both contestants the heart-lung and blood pressure rates of competing boxers and footballers. This is an impressive detail in a debate that can never be satisfactorily resolved anywhere except in the mind of a pedant.

For what it's worth, the opinion here is that the ultimate examinations of sportsmen come in the mountains of the Tour de France and the square ring. How do you split these rival demands? Perhaps only in the reality that on the Tour no one is trying to separate your head from your shoulders.

But if the debate can never be truly settled, a brilliant compromise has already been been adopted by the Germans and enthusiastically advocated by the British grandmaster Jonathan Speelman. It is to have a separate category of "mind-sport". Here at least is one true gathering of the competitive instinct. Certainly it is hard to think of a great sportsman who didn't have a mind as strong as tungsten.

Mourinho gains only disgrace by deceit

There is something of a consensus that Jose Mourinho has scored a victory over the feeble justice of Uefa.

If this is so it has to be one unprecedented in the often murky history of English football. No one ever before had his reputation enhanced by being exposed as a liar and a trickster, someone so intent on winning that he didn't care who was taken down, and however dishonestly.

From time to time Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger draw strong and legitimate criticism for their one-eyed view of the game they dominated here for so long. Ferguson has been bullying and ruthless, Wenger has seen more or less everything from his own point of view. But neither, you have to believe, has the instinct or the capability to commit the outrage of Mourinho when he falsely declared he had seen the Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard enter the dressing room of the Swedish referee Anders Frisk.

For all of Mourinho's coaching brilliance, he damned himself when he did that. He can have the Premiership and a half-dozen more Champions' Leagues, but he will never fill the hollow centre of his success.

Some are inclined to salute the smart-guy winner. They, too, can ultimately only be pitied.

Does Croft know cricket if he only cricket knows

While the fiasco of a Test match proceeded in Georgetown, Guyana, the former West Indian pace star turned broadcaster Colin Croft told Radio Five that it was quite understandable that half the home team, including the captain Brian Lara, were missing from the action.

He explained that they were caught in a serious dispute between two rival sponsors and telephone companies. In his superb book "Beyond A Boundary" Trinidad's C L R James wrote about the meaning of cricket in the islands. He said how it had shaped his people's character, given them pride and dignity, adding, "The British tradition soaked into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday. Yet for us to do that we would have to divest ourselves of our skins." Or their sponsors.

James, dubbed the "Black Plato" by The Times, also asked, "What does he know of cricket who only cricket knows?" Croft, for all the destruction he wrought on the field, did not provide an encouraging answer.

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