Christ McGrath: James Horwill and Novak Djokovic remind us that sport can be about dignity and respect

The Last Word: Djokovic’s interview was a masterpiece in decorum

Billing this as a golden week for British sport implied some fairly incautious presumptions about the English doing their bit in the cricket. It was largely the Welsh, after all, who had got the job done in the rugby; and a Scotsman who finally requited a national craving at Wimbledon the next day.

In the event, the skittish opening exchanges of the series soon confounded any notion that there could ever be anything perfunctory about winning the Ashes. Yet it was precisely in absorbing this reproof that the England players completed a golden week for sportsmen of every flag.

For in lining up to applaud Ashton Agar off the field at lunch on Thursday – their tummies rumbling reproachfully, after the extra half-hour had been claimed – they only maintained the exemplary standards set by those for whom British success last weekend was sooner a matter of disappointment, even humiliation.

Whether measured by his sentiments or their expression, can you recall a finer concession than that offered by James Horwill moments after his team had been mauled by the Lions? Received by boos from the stands – reflecting his reprieve from allegations of stamping earlier in the series – the Australian captain did not put a foot wrong, so to speak. He did not just acknowledge that his men had been beaten fair and square. By lavishing praise on the atmosphere, heritage and ethics of a Lions tour, he also stressed how agonisingly precious a prize had been ripped from his grasp.

No doubt Horwill had intended his own contribution to that unique buzz with his audacious rejection of so many birds in the hand, by repeatedly instructing his kicker to go for the corner in the first half. But whatever his own sense of culpability, he assured his men of his pride in their efforts, inadequate as these had proved. His every syllable was saturated with dignity and respect.

If his opposite number was made to seem rather clumsy in his rejoinder – Sam Warburton’s consolation ultimately comprised “yeah, um, unlucky” – then Warren Gatland contrived to sound plain graceless as he dwelt resentfully on the rancour ignited by his decision to discard Brian O’Driscoll. In a moment of transparent personal vindication, he might have made his point far more eloquently by resisting the opportunity to labour it. No words of his, now, could gnaw at the conscience of his critics more painfully than those they had themselves written during the build-up.

As it was, he encouraged them to cling to a sense that victory would have been sweeter still had his every 50-50 call favoured variegation – rather than consolidation, as some may suspect, of a Welsh challenge for the World Cup. That way, of course, victory might not have been achieved at all. But it definitely meant a lot more to one neglected Lions constituency, for instance, at least to see Richie Gray on the field for the final whistle.

Another son of Scotland, meanwhile, could soon testify to his opponent’s generosity in defeat. True, Novak Djokovic was hardly going to reprise Andy Murray’s own, tearful performance the previous year, given the consolations available in their respective Slam records. But Murray, interviewed before this match, had described seeing great players sobbing uncontrollably in the locker room; and how excruciating the formalities after a final can be. You can’t just slink off first, as usual, while the new champion is clambering past your partner and family and coaches to exult with his own. With that in mind, Djokovic’s charming interview was another masterpiece of decorum in circumstances that permit no dissembling.

If Djokovic and Horwill came across as gentlemen, then that is exactly what they are. We have all seen sulky, perfunctory exhibitions in parallel situations. When every veneer has been blistered by emotion, nobody is fooled by insincere platitudes.

How edifying, then, to see Alastair Cook’s men so aptly capture the mood of their compatriots by forming a cordon for the ingenuous author of their embarrassment. Those of us who monitored proceedings from the July Course at Newmarket were doubtless typical in constantly stopping to update each other on this unfeasible last stand, turning from vexation to admiration to dread, ultimately, on behalf of Phil Hughes. Can you imagine if he had got himself out with the lad stuck on 98?

Now it is not as if this entire England team should be depicted as paragons of chivalry. After all, the day was otherwise dominated by recriminations over umpiring, while it must be said that Graeme Swann’s instinctive gesticulation to the crowd, after denying Agar his ton, was in unlovely contrast to the romance he had just quenched.

In fairness, Swann was then first to shake Agar’s hand. And his team had already heeded the example of Horwill and Djokovic. We watch sport, remember, for what it tells us about human nature. That means we must sometimes witness cheating, meanness or greed. But it’s just nice to know that sometimes the inner man can also stand revealed as – well, simply as a good sport.

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