'You have to be yourself... Trouble is that people who report on and follow football want to see something that is seldom there'

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The Independent Online
A considerable burden for some emerging talents in sport is to be compared imprudently with heroes from past generations. No sooner are they off and running than resemblance enters the equation.

Accordingly, Dominic Cork's encouraging all-round performance for England in the fourth Test against West Indies provided fresh impetus for the absurd notion that he is Ian Botham's natural successor.

If not oblivious to the commercial benefits that may accrue from this assessment, and accounting for a Test hat-trick, something which Botham never managed, Cork dealt with it sensibly. To be even half the player Botham was would be an achievement, is more or less what he said.

The obvious difference between them, one that highlights the naivety of such comparisons, is that Botham is one of those blessed people who woke up one morning with their gift and didn't have to a damn thing about it to excel. As a golf professional once said to a pupil on the driving range: 'Look, Seve Ballesteros rolled out of bed one day with his swing. You and I have to work at it."

This applies as much to Cork as it does to the Yorkshire fast bowler, Darren Gough. Gough clearly has a long way to go in the batting department but stirred last year by his combative nature and evidence of a good eye, the popular prints merrily predicted a career of Bothamesque proportions.

In fairness, such loose thinking is historical. Who was Botham compared with at the outset of his thunderous career? I don't remember. Probably, one of Australia's finest, Keith Miller. Curiously, it happens more in cricket and football than other sports.

The dangers inherent in comparison can cause insomnia in coaches. "Why won't they let the boy be himself," I recall one grumbling when discussing a player of great potential, fearful that hyperbole would increase the size of his cranium.

Not yet 17 years old when included in Brazil's 1966 World Cup squad, Edu was unfortunately described as the "new Pele". Edu had the gift but he couldn't handle the burden. By the time of Brazil's greatest triumph four years later he was no longer under serious consideration.

A talented batsman, Ian Craig, was one of a number in Australia who suffered inevitably from being known as the next Donald Bradman. Understandably, young West Indians, even Brian Lara, flinch from comparison with Garfield Sobers, Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell.

People debate the merits of boxers from different eras but reincarnation never comes into it. Nobody refers to another Muhammad Ali, a Joe Louis, a Rocky Marciano, a Sugar Ray Robinson. Athletes can only be compared by what shows on the stopwatch and measure.

Footballers do not invite comparison but quirks of style can recreate old images. From the moment Ryan Giggs stepped out in the colours of Manchester United he was lumbered with memories of George Best. Never mind that Best was one of the truly great footballers, similarities were unavoidable. The balance, the acceleration. "Let the boy be," you could imagine Alex Ferguson thinking. Significantly, I think, we are still waiting for Giggs to fulfil his potential. And it isn't only in nationality that he differs from the Ulsterman.

I once put it to Pele that his great status in the game could have a debilitating effect on attempted emulation. "I had my heroes," he said, "but fortunately nobody ever saw me as one of them. You have to be yourself: I am Pele; Cruyff is Cruyff; Maradona is Maradona. Trouble is that people who report on and follow football want to see something that is seldom there. When I looked at Alfredo Di Stefano I saw a great player but I didn't see anything of myself. We were different."

Apart from being different to Botham in style and application, Cork simply isn't in the same class. It is exactly the comparison between Giggs and Best: pointless. Fortunately this appears to be something they both understand.

What I find difficult to understand is this eagerness to saddle cricketers and footballers with somebody else's persona.

Mind you, it could be worse. Imagine being known as the new Vinnie Jones.

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