Alastair Hignell: 'I've seen so much kindness. There's no point being negative'

England rugby star, county cricketer, BBC journalist: a remarkable life in sport was cut short in May when multiple sclerosis forced Alastair Hignell to give his last radio commentary. But he refuses to be downhearted
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The Independent Online

A fittingly momentous rugby match provided the backdrop for Alastair Hignell's valedictory radio commentary for the BBC last May: the Premiership final at Twickenham between Wasps and Leicester.

And the Rugby Football Union did the right thing by a popular broadcaster who in the 1970s won 14 England caps at full-back – and played cricket for Gloucestershire, scoring one of his 11 first-class centuries against the touring West Indians – but had been forced into retirement, aged only 52, by secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. The RFU laid on a post-match reception so that "Higgy" could say a professional farewell to his many friends.

The only problem was that the room was located between the stadium's first and second floors, inaccessible by lift. Yet Hignell can barely manage stairs these days. So everyone who wanted to say goodbye to him could get there without difficulty, but he couldn't. "I don't want to knock the RFU," he says, "and the last thing I want to be is Mr Angry Disabled, but it showed the basic problem in the provision of facilities for the disabled, and that's lack of imagination. The goodwill is there, but the joined-up thinking sometimes isn't."

His erstwhile employers were guilty of just such a lapse at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards eight years ago, forgetting to install a ramp so that Tanni Grey-Thompson, who finished third, could get on to the stage in her wheelchair. There was no such oversight at the Sports Personality awards last month as Hignell, leaning heavily on a stick, made his way up a blessedly shallow incline to receive the Helen Rollason prize for courage in the face of adversity, and made a speech so dignified and eloquent that, for this observer at least, it upstaged the thunderous ovation given to Sir Bobby Charlton as the highlight of the show.

I arrive at Hignell's home in Stroud on the day that he and his wife Jeannie finally take delivery of the BBC trophy, which is still in its cardboard box waiting to be unpacked. In some ways it is the unlikeliest of all the baubles won by one of the most talented all-round sportsmen of his generation, yet its arrival could hardly be better timed, for it is 10 years to the week since Hignell was diagnosed with MS. He remembers the day with devastating clarity. "January 8, 1999. I drove home in a bit of a daze. I was pretty scared, but the old competitive thing kicks in: I'll fight this. Jeannie was away, on a business trip in America, due back on Monday. I didn't phone her, I wanted to tell her in person. I had a bunch of flowers for her. I said, 'I've got something to tell you, I've got multiple sclerosis'. She was fantastic. She said immediately, 'It's not yours, it's ours'."

Hignell is the least self-pitying of men, yet his eyes brim with tears as he tells me this. So do mine. One would need a heart of stone not to be moved by the spirit with which he and Jeannie deal with their predicament. "It's very low-maintenance," he says when I remark on the Japanese-style garden outside their ultra-modern home. "For you it is, it's actually quite hard work for me," she tells him, eyes twinkling. They have a private little chuckle together.

Even now, though, if anything can be said to define Hignell's life, it is not MS but sport. So let us go back not 10 years but 50. Cricket was his first sporting love, from the age of three. "And I can remember throwing a coin into a wishing well at age 14, wishing that I might become a professional cricketer."

His father, who had represented Great Britain in the javelin at the Empire Games, was an RAF officer, who sent his three sons to his alma mater, Denstone College in Staffordshire. There, Hignell flourished as a cricketer, and wound up playing for England Schools in a team crammed with future county players. "We had a hell of a batting line-up. Nigel Briers, who became captain of Leicestershire, then Gehan Mendis, Sussex and Lancashire, Chris Tavare three, Vic Marks four, Alastair Hignell five, Paul Parker six..."

In the summer of 1973 he scored a truckload of runs for the schools side and various other representative teams. Gloucestershire duly signed him for the following season, but in the meantime he yearned to play rugby, at which he had also represented England Schools. So he offered his services to Bristol, who were short of a second-team scrum-half that weekend against Gloucester. Nobody told him that matches between Bristol and Gloucester were like Sam Peckinpah movies, but it didn't take him long to find out.

"Someone was punched and carted off with a fractured cheekbone in the second minute," he recalls, cheerfully. "I was so scared, this little boy scrum-half being taken apart by men. But before three weeks were up I was playing for the first team, and that season we won the equivalent of the Premiership now, then called 'the Sunday Telegraph pennant' or something. So we were champions of England, but cricket was still my priority. I got a few games with Gloucestershire towards the end of the '74 season. Then I went up to Cambridge."

A fresher who had played cricket with Mike Proctor and Zaheer Abbas, and had won honours with Bristol RUFC, was hot property. Ian Robertson, the first-team coach and coincidentally Hignell's future BBC colleague and close friend, decided to try the newcomer at full-back, where he thrived despite a torrid experience in his first game against proper grown-up opposition. "Against Cardiff I lined up Gerald Davies for a tackle, he sidestepped, and the next thing I knew he was under the posts and I was in the stand."

Gentle, sotto voce self-deprecation like this informs most of Hignell's reminiscences, and it is with almost an apologetic air that he recalls being written up, in the days when a large press corps reported Oxbridge matches against top club sides, as a potential England full-back. Sure enough, he got the call for the tour to Australia in the summer of 1975.

"England in those days were a bit patronising towards the Australians," he tells me. "They regarded them almost as an emerging nation, and a tour there as an opportunity to pick an experimental side. So all four half-backs had one cap between them. On the other hand we had Tony Neary, John Pullin, Fran Cotton, Mike Burton, to add some weight."

In more ways than one. Hignell's Test debut was the infamous Battle of Brisbane, in which Burton became the first Englishman to be sent off in an international. "It was extraordinary," he says. "The first line-out ball went straight over the top, and they all turned round and thumped each other. Then Mike Burton got hold of this guy and gave him the 'Kingsholm kiss'. It was mayhem. Bill Beaumont went off for stitches. And I still hadn't touched the ball."

Scarcely had Hignell got home, with the bruises still to show for it, than he was turning out for Gloucestershire in Sunday League cricket. A week or two later in the Varsity match he got 60 against an attack spearheaded by Oxford undergraduate Imran Khan. And when his county form continued the following season there were some who pressed for him to play cricket for England: truly, his was a gilded sporting career that reminds us how things have changed in 30 years. For four years, while first-choice full-back for England ahead of Dusty Hare, he continued to perform solidly every summer for Gloucestershire. I ask him to tell me about that century against a West Indian team presumably in its pomp. "Oh, but it wasn't against Holding and Roberts and the real fast-bowling armoury," he says softly. "It was the lesser lights, Vanburn Holder, Bernard Julien, Collis King..."

I search Hignell's open, kindly face for signs of false modesty: there are none. Then he tells me that on the rugby field he played a part in three Grand Slams. Really? "Yes. In 1977 France beat us 4-3 at Twickenham, I missed five kicks out of six, and they went on to win the Grand Slam. In 1978 we lost 9-6 to Wales, I missed four kicks out of six, they won the Grand Slam. I played my last game for England in 1979." A broad smile. "And in 1980 England won the Grand Slam."

He retired from rugby because persistent ankle injuries were jeopardising his cricket career, which after all was his bread and butter, not that he could afford much jam. Then, after quitting cricket too, and a few years after joining the staff of Sherborne School, he decided to give broadcasting a whirl. He had already done stints as a rugby summariser for Radio Bristol and occasionally Radio 2, so it wasn't a complete leap into the unknown. He became a BBC sports assistant, and was seconded to Test Match Special. "My job was to open the champagne, cut Brian Johnston's cake and do the odd interview." In that order, I assume.

Later, to facilitate a move back to the West Country, Hignell joined the television company HTV. But by 1997 he had returned to the BBC to work for 5 Live, and it was while interviewing the Saracens and England flanker Richard Hill that one of the early signs of his MS materialised.

"I was holding the microphone and my hand started shaking violently. I decided it was the cold, but by then some other things weren't working properly. I was having problems with my bladder – I know now bladder urgency is an MS thing. And I was getting pins and needles. And headaches. But I had myself checked and they couldn't find anything wrong."

But the problems worsened and eventually he had a full MRI scan, which yielded the horrible diagnosis. I ask him how his two sons took the news. "They were teenagers at the time, with their own things to deal with. I don't think it's disrespectful to say that they didn't react very well. They'd grown up knowing their dad had been a sportsman ... this wasn't something that should happen. The younger one in particular hid it away. But they're great now."

Hignell carried on working, and covered three more World Cups. But after the 2007 tournament he realised that the next World Cup or Lions tour would be beyond him. He stopped driving after a nasty car crash in 2005 – possibly caused by MS-blunted reflexes – and can no longer walk without a stick. And although the disease is not galloping as quickly as it might, his mobility will get increasingly limited. He knew it was time for him to vacate the commentary box. Moreover, retirement gives him more time for physiotherapy, and for his fund-raising work for the splendid Multiple Sclerosis Research Centre (MSRC), whose patron he is, work that would be tireless if only he didn't get so damn tired.

How often, I wonder, does he reflect on the cruel irony of someone so blessed with sporting talent now losing basic physical faculties? A bright smile. "I actually think the MS has been a blessing, because it has allowed me to see how brilliant people are. When you have a disability you are exposed to so much kindness you wouldn't otherwise have experienced. There is no point dwelling on the negatives. Despite my competitive instincts, you can waste a lot of energy by fighting against something. Sometimes you have to let it take you somewhere."

This is his cue to rise, and with obvious difficulty, to accompany me to the door. And as I leave his house I reflect on what the golf writer Pat Ward-Thomas wrote about the great Bobby Jones, who at 46 was diagnosed with the debilitating spinal disease that would eventually kill him: "He enjoyed the best that life could throw at him, and endured the worst, with equal grace." So it is with Hignell.



Higgy's Heroes, a band of volunteers, undertake regular charity challenges on behalf of the MSRC. For details, or to join them, please contact msrc.co.uk

A good sport: Ali's almanac

*Born: 4 September 1955, Cambridge, England

*Represented Cambridge University and Gloucestershire at cricket, as well as winning 14 caps for the England rugby union team.

*Weeks after his England rugby debut in 1975 (a 'brutal' encounter with Australia in Brisbane), Hignell was staring down the crease at fast bowler Imran Khan in the Varsity cricket match.

*First person from Cambridge University to captain both rugby and cricket teams, winning blues for four years running in both sports.

*Worked as a teacher in Bristol and Dorset while playing rugby for Bristol and England in the winter and cricket for Gloucestershire during the summer.

*Scored 11 first-class centuries in 170 matches, averaging 29.48 and posting a top score of 149*.

*Began career in journalism after his retirement, as well as continuing to teach, working for BBC radio.

*Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999; works to raise funds and spread awareness about the disease.

*After his final commentary for BBC Radio last May, the retiring Wasps captain Lawrence Dallaglio dedicated his side's Premiership final win to Hignell.

*Awarded Honorary Master of Arts degree by Bristol University in 2004 and the Helen Rollason award at the 2008 BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards.

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