James Lawton: Matchless McCoy offers latest England failures lesson in lost art of commitment

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The Independent Online

In this touchy-feely age, when the captain of England's cricket team is applauded for leaving his players on the field while he visits his wife in a maternity ward, we should probably feel a pang of sympathy at the apparently disintegrating international career of Steve Harmison, the nation's most gifted fast bowler.

This would be a lot easier if some perspective wasn't being provided here in the Gloucestershire valley where Tony McCoy, who recently broke vertebrae in his back so dangerously some aghast observers wondered if he would ever walk again, this afternoon mounts the favourite, Captain Cee Bee, in the first race of the Cheltenham Festival.

Apart from reannouncing a mental and physical courage that has long been legendary even in National Hunt circles, McCoy, it seems, is also shining a withering light on what passes for fortitude in so many other areas of high-profile, high-reward sport.

Here, McCoy comes from the literally breathtaking, world-record sub-zero temperatures of an ice chamber to ply his hazardous trade. He is doing it, he says, because if he didn't he wouldn't be any good to anybody, his owners and his trainers and his wife and young child and, least of all, himself.

Meanwhile, Harmison is marooned in New Zealand, bowling like a drain, indeed so poorly that his captain, Michael Vaughan, could not entrust him with more than four overs in the second innings of the latest Test disaster, preferring the trundling little seamers of Paul Collingwood, and complaining that he just cannot settle to the action. Harmison is homesick, pining for his new son, and hapless to the point where Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's conspicuously fair-minded cricket correspondent, has pronounced him "unselectable" for the second Test.

Vaughan probably understands to a degree – it was he, after all, who couldn't wait for the end of the day's play before haring off to the hospital – but the situation is not new.

Harmison, though plainly needing to fight to save his career, delayed his departure for vital preparation because of the impending arrival of his boy. He said nothing in the world would have drawn him away.

Certainly not, it is now so apparent, the professional obligation to present himself for a Test series in anything like the mental and physical shape reasonably required of a professional sportsman holding a juicy central contract expressly designed to produce cricketers perfectly geared for international action.

This isn't meant to be some sneering assault on definitions of "new man". Just that new man, no more than new woman, simply cannot operate on entirely his own terms. He cannot perform as a fully committed, professional sportsman, carrying the hopes of his team and all the fans who pay good money for air flights and satellite dishes, and also be the utterly attentive family man – unless, perhaps, he develops his version of Vatican roulette so thoroughly that his wife's confinements are planned meticulously for periods when England are not campaigning on foreign fields.

Following a weekend when the cricketers and rugby players of England have performed so disastrously, and when the new Italian management of the grotesquely underperforming national football team are obliged to observe and log every twist and turn in David Beckham's form and injury as he fulfils his £28m contract in what can only be described as American minor league football, the rigorous standards McCoy applies to himself appear all the more extraordinary.

Charting Beckham is, you have to believe, not some pressing priority of the men charged with giving the England footballers new values and competitive discipline, but a sop to the extraordinary sentimental pressure to grant him his 100th cap. The team manager, Fabio Capello, is learning English at a brisk lick. Even more quickly, he is acquainting himself with some of the strange prior ties of a sports culture which seems to have quite forgotten how to win in anything more than the odd, convulsively self-congratulatory spasm.

One former England Test cricketer was complaining the other day that Kevin Pietersen, England's batting hero of the Ashes of 2005 and long considered a bulwark of future prospects, arrived here as the boldest of talents. Now he is showing classic signs of the modern English batsman, conservative, tentative, under-achieving – almost unrecognisable as the charging, somewhat anarchic hitter who elected himself as the saviour of the English game.

Linking Cheltenham with other areas of English sport is something of a stretch, no doubt, but when McCoy comes on to the course today his reception will not merely be a salute to astonishing physical courage and single-minded dedication.

This is not, after all, exactly rare in the sport which each year enchants so many admirers, even as they worry over the safety of both the riders and brave and beautiful horses such as the great Gold Cup adversaries and stablemates, Kauto Star and Denman.

The cheers for McCoy will also be a tribute to an extraordinary commitment to producing the best of himself that he can muster at any one time. This is a force of ambition which has made him in the opinion of many hard judges the greatest jump rider of all time. For 12 years he has fulfilled that ambition so well, and so nervelessly, with a stream of jockey championships. When he fell beneath a pack of pursuing horses so near to the Cheltenham festival, even his resilience seemed to have been stretched too far. But, of course, it is amazing what a man can do.

He can break every significant bone in his body at least once. He can ride a winner less than an hour after having four teeth knocked out, blood streaming down his chin as he answers routine questions in the unsaddling enclosure. All he needs, says the man from Moneyglass, Co Antrim, with a stoical grin, is to be doing something he loves and, maybe when the pain is a little intrusive, the odd hit of morphine.

It also helps if you have a heart that makes most others in the world of 21st-century sport look about as big as a cantaloupe pip.

Barnsley the giant-killers can slay football's false gods

As the Football Association returns to the commercially attractive but mystique-killing practice of playing the Cup semi-finals at Wembley, it is maybe the final irony that the old tournament is now awash with giant-killers – and just one remaining giant.
But then maybe Barnsley, after 96 years, have crossed the line. With all due respect to Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth, the one Premier League club consistently to play with a spirit that reminded us this is a trophy that was once the life ambition of Sir Stanley Matthews, it is surely Barnsley who carry the nation now.
The trouble with most giant-killers is they forget that the players they have conquered have been rather more successful at developing their careers, perhaps even with more hard work and dedication, but the charge cannot be levelled against Simon Davey's team. Their triumphs over Liverpool and Chelsea were unaccompanied by the kind of hubris which can disfigure and cheapen passing glory.
Barnsley, outside of the Cup, haven't had a great season but have produced two great performances against the elite of Liverpool and Chelsea. They have played with intelligence, nerve and wonderful heart. In victory they have shown charm – and a degree of humility.
For a little while at least they are England's team. They remind us of how football was before money and celebrity became the ruling gods.

Haye's lofty ambition fitting honour for past champion

David Haye has announced a fine ambition in the wake of his hard-hitting world cruiserweight unification victory over Enzo Maccarinelli. He says he is going to bulk up and chase down the unprepossessing crowd known as reigning heavyweight champions – and become the next Lennox Lewis.
If he pulls it off, let's hope he gets more unstinting credit than the big amiable man whose very birthright as a native of the East End was questioned when he returned to England to prove that he was a rather more authentic world title candidate than the beloved Frank Bruno.
As a teenager Lewis sparred with Mike Tyson in the Catskills before spending the next 12 years trying to get him into a world championship ring. When he did so, in Memphis, Tennessee, Tyson was already deep into disrepair and paid a heavy price at the hands of Lewis. However, Lewis achieved his ambition ... he pursued every serious heavyweight of his generation and, sooner or later, beat them – except Riddick Bowe, who chose to throw the belt once worn by Muhammad Ali into a rubbish bin rather than meet who man who challenged him so doggedly.
Haye has some of Lewis's easy charm – and at least a little of his firepower. He has done a great champion some honour in setting his sights so high.

James Lawton on award shortlist

James Lawton has been shortlisted for the Sports Journalists' Association's Sports Writer of the Year award