Size counts in British sports

first_imgA few years ago, when I was helping out with the coaching of my son’s under-13 club cricket team in London, I would watch with great interest who the senior coaches would choose and how they would shape the teams of the under-11s, 13s and 15s. At one point I realised that several coaches were going for boys who had a certain height and bulk over slighter- built kids. It was bemusing, because, till then, I had always thought of cricket as being the one sport that was free from size- ist concepts.I understood the logic in a sport like, say, football: you had big bodies to play goalkeeper and to cover the goal, you then had to have tall bodies to jump higher than the defenders to head in the crosses, to stay on the ball when a defender tried to force you off, and the only place for someone slightly- built was in the mid- field, unless you happened to be a short but brutally powerful genius called something like Diego Maradona.Cricket, on the other hand, had always had a funny mix of heights and body types, with someone like Alan Knott (short, wafer- thin) and Tony Greig ( several inches over six feet and not too slight) able to pull the oars for the same team in the 1970s.I did understand that even Indian and Sri Lankan players were now getting bigger, while the old big- guy teams had plateaued out a bit, better enabling us southern subcontis to fight them. Nevertheless, this sorting out of boys at these early ages on cricket grounds in North London was, neverthless, a bit baffling.advertisementPersonalityIt was only when I overheard a conversation between two of the Englishmen weighing up a young all- rounder that I understood. “Think he could be a Fred?” asked one, “I reckon he’s got the build and the eye!” replied the other man.Suddenly, the penny dropped – they were, every club, colt, regional and county team, all of them, searching for the next Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff. The phenomenon I observed was a few years before 2005.At that point, the English had been without the Ashes for nearly twenty years and they were, understandably desperate; several stars of the English team had played out their entire careers without once getting a sniff of the legendary urn and for every new talent England released onto the field, the Aussies would counter with two or three, all of them far better than anything the Poms had to offer.Think McGrath and Gillespie for Angus Fraser, think Mathew Hayden and Justin Langer for Graham Thorpe, think Shane Warne and Gilchrist for nobody comparable at all. The one cricketer that England had produced who struck some semblance of hesitation if not exactly fear in the opposition was the freak called Flintoff.Freddie was big, he was fast, he hit the ball hard, but most of all he had a certain physical personality that could impose itself on most opponents; the actual talent FF displayed with cricketing skills such as bowling, batting and fielding were, of course, crucial, but what really put both icing and cherry on the cake of hope was the maniacal scream that exploded out of him when he took a big wicket or the psycho- stare he gave a bowler after he’d hit him ( yet again) for a six.In the English imagination, Freddie was not so much a general or a commander as he was that solid oak of a Sergeant- Major who could both motivate the troops under him while nonchalantly taking out the German machine- gun nests single- handedly, handedly, time and time again.The problem was that, again, the idea had come from football. For all the refinements of the David Platts and Gary Linekers, the character England supporters really loved was the working- class hulk, Paul Gascoigne. Gascoigne wasn’t anywhere as big as Flintoff but he had the same big heart and manic personality.As he grew into his game, whatever slightness of body he had, disappeared. There does exist one of the great sports photographs of the ‘ hard man’ of football, Vinnie Jones, grabbing Gascoigne’s family area just before a free- kick melee, young Paul’s face grimacing in pain; but Jones could never get close to touching the epicentre of Gascoigne’s playing when he was at his peak.AshesHowever, for all his talents and promise, the over- riding visual most people have of Gascoigne was his face wracked with tears at his second yellow card in the 1990 World Cup semi- final against West Germany, after which England were knocked out on penalties.advertisementBy 2005, when Australia came to England to play, there was already a new, hulky- hope for English football in the shape of Wayne Rooney. Here was, to reverse the comparison, a Footballing Freddie, and one who, ironically, may have inspired Vaughan, Flintoff and Co. to finally wrest the Ashes back from the Aussies.The ‘ 05 Ashes were Flintoff’s great moment: there he was, always in the thick of the action; there he was, unflinching, seemingly devoid of any imagination that might include defeat, nervelessly pulling England through in the closest of Tests, not once but several times; there he was, psycho- scream put away, consoling Brett Lee at the end of the series; there he was, face bombed by the mother of all hangovers the day after the victory was sealed.One could have been forgiven for thinking then that this, finally, was the lift- off for a great cricketer from England – something the world had not seen for many decades.Instead, that Ashes win was to be the peak of Flintoff’s trajectory. What followed was hardly the stuff of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. The steep decline in Fred F’s career was more suited to absurdist drama or the satires of Bertolt Brecht: in the return series Down Under, under his captaincy, (the absent commander was Michael Vaghan) the Australians tore England to shreds, giving them not even a consolation draw while taking the series 5- 0; then came the drunken wrestling math with the pedallo, or what became known as the Fredallo incident and then came the withdrawal, first from Tests, then ODIs and finally, last week, from cricket altogether.IndiaDoes Andrew Flintoff’s rapid deflation give any pause to the coaches in England from looking for a replacement- giant among the teens and pre- teenagers? Not a bit of it. Because, debuting in that lonesome English Ashes win of ’05 was an articulated lorry of a South African called Kevin Pietersen.Even as Rooney fails in the World Cup, even as the Pakistanis playing in some reverse- gear manage to work out Big Kev in the last series, I’m betting England’s cricket and football coaches are still laying their hopes on over- size super- structures of bone and muscle.The lesson in all this, at least for us Indians, is to remain aware of what has brought us to the top of cricketing pile: the spread of better nutrition across a large swathe of middle and lower- middleclass society, providing us a with a far more competitive talent- pool, a sharp rise in fitness, three or four wristy players who time and place the ball beautifully, one or two bowlers who bowl well ( but none of them bulky), and one short but muscular world- beater called Tendulkar.Yes, we must value the crazy strength of the Yuvvies and the Dhonis but we must also congratulate ourselves on the variation of body- types in the Indian team.advertisementJust as it is more healthy to eat fruit vegetables of different colours, each colour bringing a different nutrient, so it is more effective to weave together a team made from the different talents coming different physical characteristics. If we remember this, not only in cricket but in other sports as well, who knows? We might even see an Indian football team in the World Cup in our lifetimes.The writer is the author of The Last Jet-engine Laughlast_img

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