Thursday, 23 July 2009

Great men die twice

One of the commentators at the Open on sunday said that if Tom Watson won at 59 years of age, it would be the greatest achievement in the history of sport. This was met not with incredulity, but general agreement from the other broadcasters. 

'I can't think of a better one,' intoned Sam Torrance, who nevertheless still sounded only semi-conscious with excitement while he said it.

The one benefit of Watson being edged out by a man in white slacks and a lime green shirt [who didn't seem to be in the first bloom of youth himself], was that it spared us further debate on the subject, which after all is unquantifiable. Even narrowing it down to sporting achievements involving advanced age would throw it up against, say, George Foreman winning the world heavyweight championship at 46, or Geoff Boycott taking a hundred off Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft in Antigua aged 41. 

Really, the more interesting, sadder point Watson made was about what it means to watch your gift ebb away, to yearn for it again, however fleetingly. 

A few years ago in Australia, I went to the Gabba to watch a charity game. It was a lot of fun; Merv Hughes was sporting a huge gut and bowling off about five paces, Goochie went in and started stroking it back down the ground with that familiar dip of his head. But the big draw was Viv Richards, who still rippled like a middleweight boxer under his shirt and who moved like velvet. 

King Viv and I had history. The first time I saw him play - my first ever day's Test cricket - he made 291 at the Oval. The second time I saw him play, he made 138 not out in the World Cup Final at Lord's. The third time I saw him, he made 118 for Somerset in a one-day final at Lord's. When I watched Viv play, Viv played

At the Gabba he played too, but not like he used to. He looked the same, but he could barely hit the ball off the square. His strength was there, but the timing had gone. He laughed a lot, and great and deserving deference was shown, but he walked off slowly when he was out, and I knew what I'd seen.

As Norman Mailer wrote, great men die twice, once as great and once as men. The fact that greatness is transient just makes it sweeter while it's there and so piquant when it's gone. 


KK said...

Sadder still is the premature first death of sportsmen - Colin Milburn's accident and loss of an eye. He came back, and like Richards in the charity match you mention, albeit after an infinitely more fulfilling career, found his gift gone forever.
Wonderful post, and lovely blog all round.

KK said...

Infinitely less fulfilling, that should have read.

sid said...

Nice piece.

Thank you.

Brit said...

Growing up I saw Viv Richards as some sort of superhuman, almost alien figure. Marshall, Holding and the rest of that Windies era too but Richards especially. How to explain without homoerotic-sounding absurdity? Well, he even had the skin of a demi-god. Our boys, even Gower and Botham, seemed prosaic by comparison.

Kids are much less jingoistic than adults - heroes and exoticism capture you - I was just as happy to see the West Indies win as England. It's a bit sad the way that innocent support for excellence over tribe gradually leaves you, for whatever obscure and bitter reasons.

Also slightly painful to hear Viv stumbling over his words in the commentary box, a domain in which feeble mortals like Aggers make him seem so ordinary.

Rob said...

With a record like that I bet Viv had his agent call you up to find out where you are going to watch next.

I grew up watching Viv play for West Indies and Somerset - all on the TV. The one day of Test cricket I was allowed to see for real, Viv was fielding (and Paul Terry took a beating). To me he was easily the best batsman of the time and even now I still consider him the best I have ever seen. He had made 25 before he had made it to the middle. I can understand what Brit is saying - Viv did seem other worldly.

The Old Batsman said...

You know it did seem like Viv always got runs, and I was thinking about why he gave that impression, and why he's one of those players who was way better than his stats [even though his stats aren't shabby, as Tony Cozier pointed out, Shiv chanderpaul's are almost identical]

I think it's because he was the ultimate big match player. You know - Tony Greig says he'll make WI grovel - King Viv averages 132. World Cup Final - hundred. First test at antigua - hundred, somerset get to big final - hundred. any big fast bowler - Viv whacked him. That's where the aura came from.