Lessons in mastering the twin impostors

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The Independent Online
IT IS an indication of how much our sport has been consumed by patriotic paranoia when we allow the Americans, of all people, to give us a lesson in how to submit gracefully to the whims of the arena. The way they took the loss of yet another of their beloved US Masters green jackets to a European last weekend was a masterpiece of magnanimity.

Compared with the pathetic slavering that took place when the previous week England lost the third Test to the West Indies after a second innings of 46 all out, the Americans were a model of dignified restraint and rendered to Jose Maria Olazabal all due honour and respect.

The scenes were just as embarrassing when the same derided England team wiped the insults off the soles of their boots to win the fourth Test last Wednesday with a second innings of quality and courage which brought 394 runs for seven wickets. The West Indies were left with a total that proved beyond them but which they went for with no obvious sign that eking out a draw was ever on their minds.

Our sporting brand of xenophobia - fear of losing to foreigners - creates as bloated a reaction to victory as it does to defeat. The strains of 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' which the English bellowed around the Kensington Oval in Barbados would not only have convinced the casual onlooker of what a topsy-turvy world we live in but also provided a contrasting noise to that orchestrated by the defeat two weeks before.

England's lowest Test score this century triggered a hysterical outcry that demanded, among many other remedies that fell just short of the birch, fundamental reforms of the way we play cricket in this country. The bloodlust would have been less had England lost by an innings and not played so well as to put themselves in with such a good chance.

It was as if the promise of a win earned them a much fiercer reprimand because of the amount of unrequited salivation flooding the place. I blame the media, of course. Thanks to a proliferation of television channels and an increase in the number of sports pages in the newspapers, we have the benefit of more commentators, analysts and columnists than ever before. Lots of them, in addition, are former cricket stars whose claim to our admiration is not hurt when the present crop fails.

In fact, there are so many pundits about these days that one can barely make one's views heard without being as caustic and dramatic as one's particular megaphone can stand. It is not a temptation always resisted in this space but when firing a cannon one must be so careful of the recoil. Thus, when Curtly Ambrose's wicket was shattered by Chris Lewis to give England victory by 208 runs, tunes were changed at record speed. The birch was back in the museum and the reorganisation plans were pushed aside in favour of the most generous of praise.

'Worst innings since 1887' jeered the headlines after the third Test. 'First Windies defeat in Barbados since 1935' they trumpeted last Thursday. Actually, both statistics are well-nigh fatuous and we are left now with the question - are we to regard them as deadbeats or darlings? Perhaps we had better wait until the outcome of this fifth Test in Antigua before committing ourselves.

Few mentioned the part Ambrose played in all this, except to report with camouflaged glee that he had been fined pounds 1,000 for knocking a stump out of the ground after Lewis bowled him. The giant fast bowler had taken six wickets for 24 runs in England's second innings of the third Test and none for 75 in the second at Barbados. Had those figures been reversed we could have got the resurrection in before the crucifixion.

Did Ambrose deserve his punishment? When he looked back at his wicket, he saw that Lewis had uprooted two of his stumps, so perhaps it was his sense of symmetry that caused him to add the third. But anyone who wondered if the West Indies, having already won the series, were content to let England have a rare win would have been persuaded not to believe it by Ambrose's demeanour.

Neither should anyone assume by the demeanour of the Americans that they enjoy the fact that only one of the last seven Masters has been won by a home-grown golfer. They hate it but they live with it and, I believe, they were resigned to it this year.

Fred Couples, their one recent success, was absent, as was Paul Azinger, who won the final major of last year, the USPGA. Each would have been among the favourites. Added to that was Greg Norman's presence as one of the hottest favourites of all time. And when Tom Lehman became the last of the Americans in a position to challenge Olazabal over the final holes they had braced themselves for another foreign victor, perhaps not too ungratefully.

As well and bravely as he played the Minnesotan Lehman has never won any sizeable tournament - and nobody likes unknowns winning the Masters. Given that Olazabal had long been regarded as the finest player never to win a major, there could have been far less acceptable winners. For Europe it was a wonderful result. The Ryder Cup defeat last September and the fading of the lights that once illuminated the paths of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle made the arrival of a new hero a matter of extreme urgency. Olazabal is not only a great Masters champion, he is a gift from heaven to the golfing season on this side of the Atlantic.

As gentlemanly as they were about it, the Americans did get in a sly dig against the foreign domination. One of their main newspapers reported that Spain had now become the first country apart from the United States to have two Masters winners, Ballesteros being the other. Something wrong, surely] What about the British. Well, Lyle is Scottish, Woosnam is Welsh and Faldo is English. Although Faldo has won it twice he is still only one man.

Such subtleties reveal all. Leaving these aside, the American papers confined themselves to a serious discussion about their recent failings in this event. And we can learn from them. Our sporting scene would be a lot healthier if we reacted to our disappointments with more patient and constructive discussion and fewer lynchings.

SADDEST story of the week was of an 11-year-old footballer invited for a trial by Norwich City. The invitation had to be turned down. Kelly Hughes may be promising, but she is a girl.

The Football Association forbid mixed football after the age of 11. As Kelly asked, 'If I'm better than the boys why can't I be a professional when I grow up?' Kelly is experiencing sexual discrimination at a distressingly early age.

But there's another aspect to the tale - sport in schools. The Sports minister Ian Sproat's admirable campaign to get games back into regular school activity is being bitterly resisted, even though examples like Kelly's prove that kids can benefit from the widest range of activities.

It is disturbing that many newly raised voices against the proposal come not from educationalists but from those whose views may be scarred by the memory that when it came to physical challenge in their schooldays they found they had no bottle whatsoever.