The insularity game begins at home

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The Independent Online
HOW appalling for England's cricketers to be subjected to that humiliating homecoming at Heathrow Airport with the lights, cameras and cruel questions about their World Cup failure that merely turned the knife in wounds already mortally deep. Surely the English cricket authorities know that there are people in Pakistan who could have easily arranged for an overland journey in the secret compartment of a comfortable lorry and for them to be have been quietly dropped by rowing boat on a deserted Essex beach under cover of darkness.

The lads could then have been absorbed back into our daily life without any of the attendant nastiness. It would have been a fitting parallel, too, to a proud episode in our turbulent history from which we in sport have neglected to learn.

I refer, of course, to Dunkirk the memory of which still stirs the nation's soul. That Dunkirk was a defeat mattered naught against the sight of the boys returning to these shores pale, bedraggled and blood-stained but unbowed. Had they returned tanned and pushing trolleys full of duty-free and holdalls packed with presents for wife and kids in the manner of the England players, I fancy their reception would have been less sympathetic. However, it is what happened next that is more revealing. They stayed home for four years and the next time they sallied forth into Europe were a damned sight more successful.

This is not an attempt to make light of a serious event but to introduce the thought that insularity can be a powerful force in the rehabilitation of the vanquished. Nowhere else should that provide a more appropriate lesson than here in the islands that gave the world its main sports.

That we have lived to regret our generosity during years of being brought to our knees by countries who've forgotten how to be humble is a monotonously repeated joke that never ceases to amuse the rest of mankind. It is time we rummaged back through history for the answer and it is contained, clear enough, in the profound realisation that we didn't invent these games in order to beat the world; their prime purpose was to allow us to beat hell out of each other. The further we've moved away from that original purpose the worse has become our self-regard.

The climax of the Five Nations' Championship yesterday was an emphatic reminder of this. The usual rousing success, it has been riveting from the start and packed with incident, controversy and enough debating points to last for months. The quality of the rugby might not suit everyone but the drama is unsurpassed and we can't build stadiums big enough to accommodate everyone who wants to see it.

The French have been involved since the early 1900s. The Triple Crown, mythical trophy that it might be, has been with us since 1883 and yet I read one opinion last week that suggested it was becoming an irrelevance. It is seriously mooted that other European teams like Italy and Romania should be added so that one day we may have a two-tier championship with promotion and relegation.

This is folly in the extreme. We venture away from the roots of our strength at our peril because what we have is more than a rugby championship; it is an historical pageant. The Welsh warrior princes ride again, the Irish come looking for Cromwell, Napoleon struts the field of battle and if you didn't sense the burden of history when England went up to play Scotland at Murrayfield two weeks ago your soul is not tuned in.

Scotland started brilliantly and were poised to win the Grand Slam. England had plodded into view like shire horses. Strangely, there were those who suggested they go to Murrayfield like ballet dancers. Fat chance. They went intent on quelling an uprising of the Celts and the way they did so would have stirred the remains of any Redcoat. We should be more than satisfied with what our domestic championships delivers. If any of our home countries are capable of producing a playing system good enough to attack the world it will gain from being tempered in the furnace of the Five Nations.

The worst thing soccer ever did was to get rid of the Home Internationals. England and Scotland connived at it because they thought they could improve by playing better opposition. That's a laugh. Then, with the help of Margaret Thatcher, England dropped Scotland and little good has accrued.

As they approach the European Championship, the Scots seem more excited at meeting England in the group matches than they are about the rest of the tournament. They yearn for the traditional challenges just as Wales and Northern Ireland do. Neither are England any better. Friendlies have not compensated for the real tests the old domestic championship used to provide.

English cricket never had an equivalent international home tournament. It is about time we put that right. After the countries we've seen in the World Cup, I trust Scotland, Ireland and Wales are already planning to develop their national teams in readiness for the next one.

Meanwhile, I suggest the county championship be treated with a little more regard. Only from that competition can English cricket be resuscitated. The counties are robbed of their best players for Test duty throughout the summer. They are then taken away for almost the entire winter and returned exhausted and demoralised in the spring. It is time our priorities were put back in order. Superiority, like charity, begins at home.

WITH only one favourite winning during three days, last week's Cheltenham Festival has been described as a paradise for bookmakers. The bookies may well have cleaned up but that doesn't mean it was a disaster for all punters. Not everyone slavishly follows favourites and on behalf of those, mostly impoverished, who wouldn't back a favourite if it was the only horse in the race I would like to say it was a terrific Cheltenham.

Winners, seconds, thirds and fourths flew past the winning post at prices that made each-way betting a delight. Experiences like that take you back to the days when place-betting was more generously rewarded and the sport more fun accordingly.

Thanks to the tipsters in the Independent I made an uncharacteristic strike on the first day, netting pounds 900 for an outlay of pounds 35. Had the third leg of my treble not run so dozily I would have won in excess of pounds 10,000.

I am not a man to hold grudges but I was puzzled by the story that jockey Graham Bradley lost his place on Alderbrook in the Champion Hurdle because he missed a workout through oversleeping. That seems very harsh when jockeys who obviously nodded off during a race seem to get away scot-free.

HEARTILY sick of the sinister circus surrounding the Bruno-Tyson fight, I am delighted it is all over at last. I'm eager, however, to know how many paid to see it. Unofficial estimates say 500,000 households coughed up the pounds 9.95. Extra to that would be those watching in pubs and clubs and the cable audience. It's vital to know since the figure is bound to affect the future of TV sports watching. Unfortunately, Sky are not obliged to say.

Perhaps we could pay to view it.

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