Spectator sport

Two big hitters leave the crease

3 March 2016

3:00 PM

3 March 2016

3:00 PM

Two great men have just bowed out from their chosen trades and it is bloody sad. The New Zealand cricket captain Brendon McCullum and the journalist Hugh McIlvanney might not seem to have much in common but they both made the world a better, more joyful place.

I sat up until the small hours a few of weeks back watching McCullum: it was his last Test, in Christchurch, against the old enemy from across the Tasman Sea, and his side had been put in to bat. McCullum has redefined what it means to be a batsman and for his farewell he wasn’t going to leave anything in the pavilion. He proceeded to score the fastest Test century in history, 54 balls, with jaw-dropping skill, grace and aggression.

But his achievement is far greater. His teams played with freedom and sportsmanship. His leadership made good players out of ordinary ones, and great players out of the merely good. For a muscular, tattooed guy who made Popeye look like a cissy, he was quietly spoken, polite, and always talked phenomenal good sense. No one could not learn from him.


I knew Hughie McIlvanney over the years and hero-worshipped him. For a titan of sports journalism, he treated a squirt like myself with great warmth and friendliness. The gruff words, ‘What are you having, big man?’ were always a guarantee of a good evening ahead, if a splitting head the next day. His longevity in a tough old business and his prodigious output for some of the best newspapers in the world are a tribute to the medicinal properties of good Scotch.

He wrote like an angel, especially on his beloved football, racing and boxing. How about this on a January day at Ayr racecourse: ‘It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.’ When the British heavyweight Joe Bugner said he felt so good before a fight that he could beat anyone, including Jesus Christ, Hughie pointed out, ‘Yes, Joe, that’s because you know he had bad hands.’ He also said Bugner was built like a Greek statue, ‘but the statue had more moves.’ Hughie is one of the great journalists of the age, and one of the funniest and kindest. Let us hope he can be persuaded to write again.

One of McCullum’s achievements was to make the Aussies think about their ghastly behaviour. Now it seems they have decided not to be diverted from their ‘hard-edged’ style. Well, I might be thicker than a docker’s sandwich, but aren’t they world No. 1 because they are superb cricketers and not because they can be arses on the field? Now some Kiwi crowds have been taking it out on them for bad sportsmanship. With levels of irony near-impossible to plumb, the combative Aussie vice-captain David Warne, who when I last looked wasn’t training for the priesthood, said: ‘Some of the stuff was pretty derogatory and vulgar. If my two daughters were in the crowd, I wouldn’t want them listening to that kind of stuff.’ As my own daughter would say, WTF?

Always a treat when sport and reality intersect, especially in the rarefied world of championship golf. The admirably named Martin Slumbers is chief executive of the Royal and Ancient, golf’s governing body, currently trying to develop, yes, ‘inclusivity’. You know, the clubhouse is very much open to women on the third Tuesday morning of the month and all races and religions are welcome here… but don’t try, pal.Well, Donald Trump owns the Ayrshire course, Turnberry, which sooner or later is due to stage an Open. For fans of inclusivity his approach to Mexicans and Muslims could be a headache.

How tragic to see that our old buddy KP has announced a ‘two-week holiday from social media’. Well, stop all the clocks. We may just as well lie under a table until these terrible weeks are over.


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