Brian Viner: Fat is no bar to sporting greatness

Sacking an England cricketer because he is overweight is just plain wrong
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The Independent Online

The cricketer Samit Patel has been dropped from England's one-day squad because he is fat – the F-word for which sports administrators, perhaps because in certain instances they themselves could benefit from shedding a stone or two, like to find euphemisms.

"His fitness levels have regressed," was the delicate way it was phrased by Hugh Morris, the managing director of England Cricket, but the message was unequivocal: Patel is a lardbucket, and people on the lardy side have no business playing international sport these days.

This is plain wrong. More than most sports, cricket has an honourable tradition of portliness, upheld in recent years by the podgy former captain of Pakistan, Inzamam-ul-Haq, whose laboured running between the wickets provided the modern game with one of its most enjoyable spectacles yet in no way diminished his greatness as a batsman. There are further examples going all the way back to WG Grace, who gave up playing cricket for England, it is said, when he could no longer bend down to pick up the ball.

The Australian captain Warwick Armstrong wasn't nicknamed "The Big Ship" for nothing, either, and his prodigious girth didn't stop him skippering the Aussies to a 5-0 whitewash in the 1920-21 Ashes. Nor did a set of love handles prevent Shane Warne from playing a potent part in a similar humbling of England in 2006-07, while our own most talismanic cricketers of the past 30 years, Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff, both fought the flab with varying success. In the latter's case, it might even be argued that he was a sight less injury-prone when he spent fewer hours sweating in the gym.

As for poor old Patel, he has answered criticism of his increasing rotundity by insisting that he is "cricket-fit," a term that has most unfairly met with widespread scorn. More deserving of our scorn is the notion that leading sportsmen and women need perfect bodies, that without a six-pack they are somehow letting the side down.

This is the mentality of the army barracks and the science laboratory, and makes no allowance for physical idiosyncrasies or indeed the romance of sport. The most evocative name in American sport is that of baseball legend Babe Ruth, yet he was what would now be uncharitably called a tub of lard. As was the Liverpool and Denmark footballer Jan Molby, who in the 1980s carried more of a Party Seven than a six-pack, yet the beauty of his game was that he didn't need to puff around the pitch; he could stay in the middle spraying inch-perfect passes left and right. Today, he would be kept back after training until he had a washboard stomach like everyone else, maybe at some cost to the precision of those passes.

There are some sports in which excess weight is less of an issue. Golf was one, until the advent of Tiger Woods. Now, inspired by Woods, most top golfers put away their seven-iron on the practice ground only to go and pump iron in the gym, but this only alienates them even more from the rest of us.

We want at least some of our sporting role models to be flawed physical specimens, whose hand-eye coordination might be godlike, but with whose spare tyres we mortals can identify. So bring back Patel, and let the fatsos play.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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