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Brian Viner: Sporting glories are the ultimate human drama

Sportsmen and women should be lionised by a sense of perspective

All sports have their detractors, as does sport as a generic whole, but it is hard to think of any more maligned than cricket and golf. The late Robert Morley "would rather watch a man at his toilet than on a cricket field" while golf has been lambasted this week even by the chief sports writer of a respected national newspaper, who witlessly contended that a sport does not make the pulse race if there is no risk to life and limb. He should try playing golf with my friend Davey, who is quite capable of nutting you with his drive even when you're standing behind him, but that's by the by.

Oddly enough, I last saw this particular sports writer at Wimbledon, where he seemed to be enjoying the Centre Court action even though Roger Federer had every chance of getting out alive, but there we go, golf will continue to be dogged by the hackneyed charge that it requires no obvious feats of athleticism or stamina.

And those who don't understand the glory of Test cricket will continue to snipe at it for what they consider to be its frailties, but what in fact are theirs. "I have always looked on cricket as organised loafing," said William Temple, then the headmaster of Repton School, in 1914. It is quite distressing to think that he went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rarely, though, have I felt as sorry for the cricket-bashers and the golf-knockers as I did in the 24 hours between Sunday and Monday lunchtimes. To watch 59-year-old Tom Watson so nearly winning the Open championship, only to falter, heart-breakingly, at the very last, and the next day to watch the mighty Lancastrian yeoman Andrew Flintoff falling on one crocked knee and spreading his arms messianically wide after taking five Australian wickets to all but clinch the second Ashes Test for England... that wasn't just sport, that was human drama at its most richly compelling.

And yet there is an argument that neither Watson nor Flintoff can legitimately be described as heroes, that if a person who dives into a river to save a drowning child is a hero, then golfers and cricketers are something less. Nobody would endorse this point of view more than Watson and Flintoff themselves, men of humility and decency.

Another, a greatly esteemed colleague on this newspaper, tells a lovely story against himself, that having invoked the Battle of Stalingrad in his description of an epic sporting occasion he was telephoned by the then-deputy sports editor, who calmly pointed out that 150,000 people died at the Battle of Stalingrad and gently suggested an alternative choice of imagery.

Plainly, sportsmen and women should always be lionised with a certain sense of perspective, which is what the great Australian cricketer and wartime fighter pilot, Keith Miller, was getting at when he was asked about pressure on the field of play, and pithily replied that "pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your arse".

But the fact remains that it is what Miller did on the ground, not in the air, that captured hearts and minds. Sport is unique in its capacity to thrill, inspire and move – as Tom Watson did simultaneously on Sunday – and, frankly, all the more marvellous when it does so without any risks to life and limb.