Sorrow of a short innings

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FOR A pleasant, nicely mannered chap, David Gower has been the centre of a staggering amount of fury in his short life. Despicable, foul- mouthed ruffians have passed by almost unnoticed in comparison.

Even when he announced his retirement last weekend it was the signal for a national slanging match to break out. Friends and admirers foamed at the mouth at the England selectors for precipitating his decision while others accused his Hampshire County Cricket Club of not fighting harder to keep him.

His detractors think it was typical of his carefree, cavalier attitude that he should retire early; as if you couldn't expect a batsman who took so many chances with his wicket to be any less profligate with his career. 'He disappointed a few people in not carrying on during certain innings,' grumbled Alec Bedser. 'He should have applied himself more.'

There were compliments with a sting. 'He was a sublime timer of the ball when the mood was right and the bowling allowed. He will be missed but the time to retire comes to everyone,' said Ted Dexter, the former chairman of England's selectors, airing newly discovered wisdom.

A few little digs apart, the praise for Gower's brilliance has been widespread and sincere but I fear that he will not be remembered kindly for the speed of his departure. We don't like it when great players make early exits. Why should we, when they number so few?

There is a duty in having so much talent. If the Good Lord were to adopt an equal distribution policy with sporting excellence as he does with parts of the body, think how boring it would be; a heart each, one stomach, two legs, a square cut, a 270-yard drive, a side-step, a pass back to the goalkeeper . . .

He prefers to concentrate gifts such as these on individuals, thereby creating stars to enrich our sporting lives. In return, we heap upon them great adulation and riches. It is an excellent arrangement which goes wrong only if the recipient turns out to be a rotter or if he or she makes a premature dash for a quiet life.

This robs us of the ultimate sporting pleasure - that of informing stars that we have had enough of them. We have certainly not had enough of David Gower. Indeed, it was only a year ago that a group of well-to-do members of the MCC incurred great personal denigration by mounting a campaign to have him included in the England party to tour India. They failed gloriously but made their point.

Now the object of their unselfish efforts has packed it in and the England selectors appear to be more accurate in their assessment of his staying power than Gower's supporters were.

At 36 years old, he still had time to win his place back in the England team. At the very least he could have continued to entertain county cricket crowds for several seasons. He said he found playing for Hampshire getting to be a bit of a drag, trailing around the country. Please form an orderly queue to tell him about jobs that really are a drag.

He may find that the new career he has chosen for himself has a certain dragging power of its own. He is going to write for a Sunday newspaper and add his voice to the cricket commentary teams of BBC and Sky.

It is becoming noticeable that the number of stars on view in our sporting arenas is decreasing in inverse proportion to the number of ex-stars in the press and commentary boxes telling us how it should be done. The days of eloquent ignorance in the media are being seriously threatened. The sports stars who retain most admiration are those who go on past the time at which their abilities begin to wane. I watched the great John Charles play football for Merthyr when he was past his 40th birthday, and he was not ashamed to be playing on park pitches with creaking joints.

Ray Illingworth played county cricket after he was 50. Arnold Palmer still plays in golf tournaments and is still able to thrill the galleries. Jack Nicklaus is following him along that winding trail, wanting to compete but not afraid to fail.

There is something of nature's cycle about it. They may be past their best but in carrying on they acknowledge that it is the sport they love, not merely being great at it, and in the end the sport wins. They allow it to dominate them as they once dominated it. Such is life.

LADBROKES may have gone a touch over the top with their new idea of offering incentives to credit-betting punters who lose generous amounts to them. Many customers who last week received a letter from the bookmakers outlining the scheme were not feeling at all flattered.

They are being offered membership of the 'Diamond Club', which guarantees them 'two chances to win' every time they place a bet. The trouble is that they have to lose in order to win.

The punter receives a point for every pounds 100 he loses and he can redeem the points for a free gift. For instance, you get a posh pen, or an umbrella with 'Ladbrokes' all over it, if you lose pounds 1,000. There's a pocket television for doing in pounds 11,000 and a weekend at one of their hotels if you've watched pounds 15,000 going down the drain. The more you lose, the more you win - right up to a trip to the Breeders' Cup in the United States for waving goodbye to pounds 85,000.

Obviously, there are people who lose these amounts or it wouldn't be worth trying to keep them sweet, but sometimes I wonder if bookies really understand their customers. Tim May of Southampton wrote to the Sporting Life to complain about the scheme: 'Losing is bad enough but insult should never be added to injury.'

Perhaps I can recommend a prize for the biggest loser of the month - a pearl-handled revolver.

IT IS always a pleasure to record a triumph of sport over culture. Doing the rounds of Welsh theatres at the moment is a stage version of Lady Chatterley's Lover which features full-frontal nudity and simulated sex.

The production has been playing to packed houses all over Wales - except last Wednesday night when the heavy breathing echoed around a semi-deserted hall in Pontardawe in West Glamorgan. Organisers glumly admitted that most people preferred to stay home to watch Wales play Romania on television.

I don't know what D H Lawrence would have said about it, but he might have thought of a word for a player who misses a vital World Cup penalty.