It must be 20 years since I declared to the girlfriend I was soon to marry that I couldn't countenance being friendly with a man who didn't love sport. She sometimes reminds me of this, for two of my closest male friends where we live in Herefordshire would far rather clean out their gutters than watch, let alone play, football, rugby, cricket, golf, tennis or any other ball game you care to mention, and their agnosticism extends to boxing, athletics and horse racing.
My job of interviewing sports stars is a source of puzzlement and occasional wonder to them both. "You flew to Germany to talk to a boxer? On a Sunday?" Not even out of loyalty to a mate would they waste £7.99 on the book I wrote about growing up in the 1970s as a sports nut. It would be as mystifying to them as a memoir written in Sanskrit, in fact possibly more so, because they would recognise the words without being remotely able to embrace their spirit.
Yet we never struggle for things to talk about, even though I assumed in my twenties that bonding with such men would be impossible. Maybe it would have been then, but middle age brings other shared interests: the challenges of parenting teenagers, the pleasures of good food and wine, the discomfort of dodgy knees and backs. I still think they're missing out on one of life's joys, though, and was reminded last weekend of the instant camaraderie that sport can ignite.
I went to Scotland to play golf, the 12th man in a party of 12 that had been organised by a policeman friend of mine. The others were mostly colleagues of his, yet when somebody dropped out, he kindly invited me. That I didn't know any of the other 10 predictably posed no problems. When you've struggled round Muirfield in the rain, then propped up a bar long into the night discussing England's chances in the rugby and the cricket, Michael Carrick's new contract, and whether Tiger Woods has another major in him, you don't need any shared history.
Muirfield, incidentally, was as aloof and patrician as a 14th earl with a monocle. Infinitely more pleasurable was our experience at North Berwick, even more venerable than its illustrious neighbour, having been there since 1832 (by comparison Muirfield is an arriviste, on its current site only since 1891) yet both course and clubhouse are run with the kind of gregarious warmth that has no more place at Muirfield than a statue of Billy Connolly, naked.
It always comes as a surprise to me to encounter exclusivity in sport, which should, almost by definition, be an inclusive exercise. I know golf doesn't enjoy much of a reputation for democracy, but I'd defy anyone to spend half a day at North Berwick and not think it the friendliest game in the world. That said, several of my new golfing pals had silly dress-code stories, as I do. At too many golf clubs, retired Lieutenant-Colonel "Toff" Toffington, wearing a blazer and regimental tie that offer clues as to what he had for lunch the Tuesday before last, can show the door to a young man smartly kitted out in a polo shirt and ironed trousers, and invariably does.
The actual sport, though, whether you're playing or watching, is irresistible. What else in life but sport can offer, sometimes all within the space of 90, 80, or if you were at Cheltenham yesterday, even 10 minutes, both euphoria and heartbreak, both nail-biting tension and explosive relief? Sex, say my two friends in Herefordshire, but I tell them that, if that's truly the case, they must be doing it wrong.
Harlem wizards trot back from a lost world of sport
There is great excitement in the Viner household over a forthcoming family night out, although the excitement is largely confined to my wife Jane and me. We're going to see the Harlem Globetrotters, the basketball wizards who loomed large in our 1970s childhoods, and yet not even their marvellous, evocative name had made the slightest inroads into the consciousness of our three children. "What are they?" said our youngest. "Are they dancers?"
For this, I blame the passing of World of Sport. Was there anything more thrilling circa 1975 than finding out from your TV Times, or Dickie Davies telling you from under his moustache, that after On The Ball and before the ITV Seven the cameras would be going to Wembley Arena to show the Globetrotters, whose star player, the irrepressible Meadowlark Lemon, was almost as much of a hero to me as Muhammad Ali and Bob Latchford?
Lemon is pushing 80 now (and, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, is part owner of the American Basketball Association's recently formed Smoky Mountain Jam), so I'm presuming the Globetrotters have new wizards. Their 2011 nine-date tour of the UK starts on 24 April in Manchester. I can hardly wait.
Time overtakes the 'Rawalpindi Express'
The Rawalpindi Express is pulling into the sidings. Shoaib Akhtar is quitting all forms of international cricket after the World Cup, and not everyone will lament the decision, for he has attracted controversy like a picnic attracts wasps. But I do, not least because his retirement confirms the remorseless passing of time. Can Shoaib really be 35? It's like realising that Michael Owen, that gilded youth, has turned into an old crock.Reuse content