Working the benefit system

When Big Jack embarked on his 134th Nobby Stiles anecdote the Cowdreys exchanged despairing looks
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The Independent Online
Last Monday, I attended a benefit dinner for the great South African fast bowler Allan Donald. It was a black tie do for around 1,000 people - among them Colin Cowdrey, Ernie Els, Gareth Edwards and the entire South African cricket team - in London's Park Lane. Chris Cowdrey was an impressive MC, Donald's captain, Hansie Cronje, spoke graciously. The South African rugby captain, Francois Pienaar, made a speech. So did Jack Charlton, who had been asked to talk about the World Cup final he played in, but evidently misread the invitation, and spoke, bless him, for the same duration as the World Cup Final he played in. When Big Jack embarked upon his 134th Nobby Stiles anecdote I saw the Cowdreys, father and son, exchange despairing looks.

Still, it was a wonderful occasion, and I was lucky enough to sit near one of the Cricket World Cup's official ambassadors. Not Caprice, regrettably, but Rory Bremner, who was engaging, witty, and very pleased to be off duty, although he did later do a hilarious impromptu turn at the microphone - a Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela duet.

Allan Donald roared with laughter, not that he needed Rory Bremner to make him happy. For the room was packed with people who had not only given up their Monday evening for him, but also the contents of their wallets. Tables of 10 cost pounds 1,000. Raffle tickets were 20 quid each. An auction raised pounds 65,000. Some people snuck away without buying a copy of Donald's autobiography, but not many. "If I'd known how generous you were going to be, I'd have pitched it up to Mike Atherton," Donald told the merry throng, who earlier watched highlights of his ferocious duel with Atherton at Trent Bridge last summer. How we tittered.

It was a hugely enjoyable evening, and I remain indebted to the generous friend who invited me. But something stuck in my craw, and it wasn't a smoked salmon parcel. Benefit years have become part of the sporting landscape, and were conceived years ago for the worthiest of reasons. Professional sportsmen have short careers. They bring a lot of pleasure. So it is only right and proper that those who have been so richly entertained by them should help feather their nests for the years ahead when their earning power will be much reduced.

In the case of journeymen county cricketers and one-club lower division footballers, this logic still holds. But Allan Donald must already be a wealthy man, probably a sight wealthier than some of those who were effectively chucking money at him at the Grosvenor House. It is true that he is approaching his twilight years as an international cricketer, but he is certain to find lucrative employment when he can no longer bowl 90 mile-an-hour yorkers.

So what the hell were we doing, giving him our hard-earned dosh? And why did it not go, in Donald's name, to a cause more deserving than his deposit account? To be fair, it could be that Donald is planning to share a chunk of his benefit year income with underprivileged kids. And even if his intention is to take the money and chuckle all the way to the pavilion, he can hardly be criticised for it. But I do think that charity should have been more conspicuous on Monday night. Quite apart from appeasing the consciences of bleeding-heart (or maybe just plain envious) liberals like me, it would have represented a more tangible and enduring appreciation of Donald's sublime talent. The Allan Donald Home for Distressed Gentlefolk, Bloemfontein. It could have a plaque: "Built with money donated by lots of slightly pissed and over-excited people in London."

The excitement reached a head during the auction, bullishly conducted by Jeffrey Archer, who has a habit of muscling in on these events. Going, going, gone. If only it were true of Lord Archer. But he is an effective auctioneer, and somehow generated a fortune for a grotesque Waterford Crystal cricket bat. What a shame that Courtney Walsh, to name one tail- ender not overly skilled in laying bat on ball, didn't buy it. He could have safely taken it to the crease.

Most of the other lots, were more appealing. I quite fancied a round of golf at Wentworth with Donald and Francois Pienaar, but with pounds 250 as the price I was prepared to pay, sadly had to drop out of the bidding before it started. A very fat man with a very large cigar paid pounds 3,500 - he and several others like him proving my theory that men who bid ostentatiously in auctions at sporting dinners are trying to assert their macho credentials, having failed, long ago, to do so on the field of play.