A Spot of Bother


Flat.

I remember feeling like this before. I’d seen Ben Johnson win the Olympic 100 meters final in 1988. I’d watched the race live on tv and it was a fantastic spectacle. Johnson was sensational. He mullered them.

Except he wasn’t and he didn’t. He was stripped on the gold medal, having taken performance-enhancing drugs. I took it personally. To have enjoyed such a magnificent performance, then just hours later to have that enjoyment dashed by learning that the Canadian was a drugs cheat. I felt hollow. It was a real downer.

I suspect I wasn’t alone when my initial joy at seeing Usain Bolt run for the first time was tempered by the fear that he too may be on something. I remember turning to The Incumbent and saying “oh god, I hope he’s clean”. Bolt was a new face, a fresh face, with a touch of class, a bit of the rebel about him. He had a cheeky smile and a rehearsed pre and post-race comedy routine.

He didn’t act like a middleweight boxer on the blocks:- sniffiing and snorting, punching the air like these sprinters tend to do. He winked at the camera, he struck the pose, he actually looked like he was having fun. “For Christ’s sake let this bloke not be a drugs cheat”. Pleasingly at time of writing Usain seems to run short distances in very fast times without the help of any illegal stimulants (though I’m told he loves a Guinness or three) .

Cycling and F1 seem forever to be making headlines for some form of cheating or another. The lack of moral fortitude that surrounds Grand Prix racing is well documented, at one stage a F1 team impelled a driver to risk death to both himself and to the watching spectators by crashing his own car into a wall at high speed. All for the good of the team.

There is a school of thought that professional cyclists couldn’t possibly perform to the high level they do throughout the season WITHOUT taking drugs, such are the pains and stresses the riders put themselves through. Drug abuse in this sport is rife. Almost accepted.

So common are the instances of cheating in the above sports that it’s difficult to see any fan (and there must be some around, surely ?) getting too upset when the next scandal is exposed. It’d be a bit like a soccer fan having his week ruined because he saw a center forward dive in the box, or a midfielder feign injury, or a player wave an imaginary red card to get his opposite number sent off. It just happens far too often.

When South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje was discovered to have accepted money from a bookmaker in exchange for making certain decisions on the field, the world of cricket was plunged into a mire of cheating, gamesmanship and skulduggery. Part of my world, and of cricket fans the world over, fell apart. Cronje, up until that point, was universally regarded as a good egg, a model sportsman. Our beloved game was in danger of being dragged into the murky depths previously thought to be the domain of baseball, Italian football and national hunt racing.

The very phrase “it’s not cricket” was born out of a sport which prided itself on fair play, the corinthian spirit, and the feeling that ours was a noble sport, played by gentlemen (conveniently forgetting that the greatest of all english cricketers, W.G.Grace was one of the biggest rouges, diddlers and rapscallions the world of sport has ever known.) “It’s not cricket”. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s not how to play the game ! If Hollywood ever portrays an old English duffer they’ll invariably write “it’s not cricket” into his dialogue to illustrate he’s both English and clings to this quaint idea of “fair play”

Cricket, apart from being the greatest of all games, is perfectly set-up for betting and therefore cheating. There are so many opportunities to bet on each part of the action, and if people can bet and make a lot of money on those events, then you can bet your favourite testicle that someone will have worked out how to fiddle the outcome, con the bookie and make even more wads of cash out of it. And that leads us on nicely to the current scandal which has erupted over the weekend.

Several players on the Pakistan team currently playing against England in a series of matches have allegedly received money from persons unknown to bowl ‘no-balls’ (foul balls) at specific times during the match. Evidence gathered by the London News of the World newspaper suggest that specific moments were singled out for these illegal acts to occur, and right on cue that’s exactly what happened. Apparently it’s called Spot Fixing (as opposed to Match Fixing). It doesn’t seem to have altered the outcome of the match (the Pakistanis lost heavily, and would have done so in any event) but the inference is that if these lads have been found out to have taken cash for intentional cock-ups here, what else has been going on ?

Have they previously thrown matches ? Have they gotten themselves out earlier than they would have naturally have done so ? In the multi-billion dollar world of cricket betting it’s impossible to predict you’ll win a match, but much easier to chuck a match, or drop a catch or bowl a ‘no-ball’. There’s been a suggestion that some of these young men don’t merely enter into these nefarious activities because of the financial rewards offered by the odd dodgy better or bookie. Allegedly players have been intimidated, families and friends have been threatened, some have even been kidnapped. All very murky, if not distasteful and distressing stuff.

But it’s much sadder than that. One of the headline-grabbing names accused of taking bribes is that of Mohammad Amir, an 18 year old fast bowler who has been quite magnificent this year. Watching him bowl gave me the same goosey feeling that I had when I saw Bolt run the hundred meters for the first time, when I watched Ian Botham skittle the Aussies in ’81, and Freddie Flintoff destroy bowlers in 2005. I never saw George Best play as a kid for Man Utd (before he hit hit the bottle) but I reckon if I did I would have been awe inspired, realised this was the next great player. Amir has been sensational. The youngest bowler to reach 50 wickets in Test cricket, he plays the game with a smile on his face while all the time retaining that nasty streak all great fast bowlers need. But the headlines wont say that in the morning, or for weeks to come.

If these allegations are substantiated, Amir will be forever associated with this next sorry episode in cricket’s recent squalid history and not his fantastic feats on the field of play . He won’t be the first (or the last) from his nation (or any other) to be involved in back-of-the-hand deals with back-streets betting sharks. But if you’d have watched him this summer, as I have, you’d be as sad as I am for having that joy of seeing the beginning of a brilliant new career replaced by the despair of yet another young talent seduced by the dark side of professional sport.

Flat ? You bet I am.

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Fast Food


I’ve come to a decision. I don’t think I’ll become a muslim.

It’s not that I have anything against Islam, certainly no more (or less) than I have against any religion. Everyone has to believe in something, whether it’s God, Allah, Charlton winning the league or a lottery win. Personally I don’t think going to church is the way forward, but I maybe wrong. If you took away religion, money, Owen Wilson, guns, George Osborne and Carlsberg Special Brew I reckon we could pretty much eradicate violence in society once and for all, but that’s just one man’s opinion.

If I did become a muslim I’m bound to forget to pray 5 times a day, unless I organised myself to get out the prayer mat every third time I took a book to the loo, but I fear people would get bored of stepping over me, down on my knees as I bowed my head to Allah, the only God, in the toilets down at my local pub. Anyway, I think Mecca is in the direction of those machines on the wall, which would look very odd indeed if I was caught praying to them.

One upside would be I wouldn’t have to shave, letting the old salt ‘n’ pepper whiskers go all Cat Stevens on me, and I also quite fancy myself in a dishdasha – one of those full-length garments which middle eastern guys wear. I’d be able to strut around like Peter O’Toole and the loose fitting robe would cover up my ever-growing midriff – these trousers are cutting me in half.

But the reason I know I could never convert to Islam is that I get hungry. And thirsty. All the time. This of course wouldn’t be a problem for most of the year, but during Ramadan I’d struggle. Through a normal working day (more of that later) I’ll happily graze constantly on whatever comes to mouth, stuffing my little fat chops with sweeties, crisps, sandwiches, biscuits etc, punctuated by cups of tea, coffee, premium lager – that sort of thing.

But if I took up the Islamic faith I’d have to deal with fasting. Every ninth month of their calender I’d have to abstain from eating, drinking and sexual relations from dawn until sunset. Now obviously there are some things you don’t mind giving up for a good cause but eating and drinking aren’t two of them. If I was to sit at home all day (as has been my wont recently) not being able to eat or drink, never mind not have sexual relations (does that include with oneself ? hope not) I’d not only feel faint, but I’d go a funny shape. A day at work, with all the distractions of coffee bars, canteens, Pret A Mangers and suchlike, would be unbearable if a nil-by-mouth regime was to be followed.

You don’t burn (or at least I don’t burn) many calories while sitting at a desk or using a computer, but it’d take a monumental effort to survive all day without so much as a Dunkin Donut to keep my strength up. Imagine what it would be like working on a building site or a fireman or some other profession which required physical labour, some exertion from which a sweat was raised.

Take the Pakistan cricket team, for example. They’re playing England at the moment in a Test Series which involves them batting, running, throwing and catching (sometimes) for up to seven hours a day for five straight days presumably without so much as a sip of Lucozade Sport to keep their strength up. In these modern times of professional sport there is always a get-out, of course. The Pakistan team manager Yawar Saeed said. “”A player’s decision to fast is between himself and God. We don’t get involved in this matter. We don’t mix sport and religion. It is up to the individual concerned.” Given how devout the faithful can be, there would doubtless be a lot of soul-searching in the dressing room before the opening bowler allows himself to tuck into a Big Mac and Coke to keep up his blood sugar levels.

But at least their management seem to be taking the sensible position. You can’t have a player keeling over at short square leg at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, just because he hasn’t had anything since that bowl of Cheerios at 5.30 this morning. I know I’d be having dizzy spells by 11am if I observed the fast. And that’s another thing I wouldn’t be if I did: Fast. Old ladies would be able to bowl faster than me if I couldn’t eat constantly throughout the day.

In Soccerland a couple of weeks ago Ali Karimi, an Iranian footballer known as the “Maradona of Asia”, was fired by his club for failing to fast. On it’s website Tehran-based Steel Azin FC claims Karimi, once the Asian Player of the Year, “insulted officials of the [Iranian] football federation and the Tehran team’s supervisor who confronted him on the issue”. Well I’ve never been named Asian Player of the Year, or even Ageing Player of the Year (though as a schoolboy goalie I used to be known as “The Gary Sprake of Barnehurst”), but I suspect poor old Karimi would have to take lesson’s from my delivery of an insult should anyone in my dressing room attempt to deprive me of my isotonic pork pie at half time.

I managed to pick up 4 days work this week at The It Is Are You On Sunday and jolly good it was too, especially as there were numerous tvs dotted around the office on which to enjoy the cricket during the very rare occasion I found myself with nothing to do. As I trawled my way through both the very decent workload and the myriad of eating establishments dotted along High Street Kensington I watched my current sporting heroes make Keema out of the Pakistan bowling attack I allowed myself to dream of making a lot of runs and taking a karahi full of wickets this weekend. Little did I know that at that very moment the opposition were crying off, having lost several players to the start of the soccer season and to Bank Holiday domestic duties.

The crossover end of the season is always a bugger, as rugby and soccer-playing cricketers feel the need to pack away their bats and boxes, strap on the shinpads or insert the gumshields. It’s a bugger but at least it’ll give my achilles ankle and my achilles knee further time to recover from the last match, and next time I’m called upon to perform I shall be injury free, a spring in my step and a Ginsters cornish pasty in my pocket. Insha’Allah.