Jimmy White, Andrew Flintoff and the embodiment of sport

Garry White Roar Rookie

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    One of Test cricket's most famous scenes occurred at Edgbaston - the ground housing the third Test of this year's Ashes. (AFP PHOTO/ALESSANDRO ABBONIZIO)

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    What is sport and why does it matter? Is it about the quality of the competition and the occasion?

    Is it just something to be viewed as a theatrical spectacle with the result secondary to the entertainment and the skills on display.

    Or is it only about keeping score and the opportunity to exhibit partisan rivalry? The entertainment might be not necessarily derived from the competence or flair of the participants but linked solely to the bare result and the intensity of the struggle to achieve it.

    Is sport all about money and marketing? The integrity routinely traduced in order to create further pay-days like a giant functioning Ponzi-scheme.

    The reality is that it is probably all three. The money and marketing provide the multi-media outlet that connects the demand to the supply in a way that was unthinkable a generation ago. These days we can all have a virtual ringside seat, if we have the money, the time or the inclination.

    Entertainment, quality and world-class skills are of huge import. With a saturated supply we all have it in our armoury to discern. Take Spanish football for example. To the non-Spanish punter it is largely devoid of partisanship, yet it is widely watched for an appreciation of its skill.

    This is sport as high-brow theatre with the audience removed and distantly separate from the proceedings.

    Real Madrid's forward Cristiano Ronaldo controls the ball

    But, for sport to really matter and to pull us deep into its spell, we have to care about the result. We also have to believe in the integrity of the participants and maintain our faith that they care at least as much as we do.

    Match fixing, doping and to a lesser extent player disloyalty are all the enemies of sport. As the integrity drains away sports power over our psyche is reduced and we have mere Broadway theatre.

    Something that is pleasing on the eye but diminished from the fierce competition that we need and value.

    However, when those pure elements do combine we truly discover the essence of sport. It is the gold dust that keeps us coming back time after time for triumph and often disappointment. When victory, failure, anxiety, sorrow, joy and angst all come together and we get to step out of our chair, into the arena and feel what the battle means from the inside.

    The moment when sporting occasion breaks out of its confines and imprints itself on real-life.

    I can recall many such moments. An obvious one is Andrew Flintoff and Brett Lee at Edgbaston in 2005. Lee was cast as the lone warrior defending his post to the last round of ammunition, but with an absence of comrades and confined by the rules, ultimately forced to concede.

    Flintoff recognising that act within the context of his own triumph allowed us to see sport as a true metaphor for life. A vivid portrayal of the human condition and all its emotional strength and frailty.

    Andrew Flintoff (R) consoles Australian Brett Lee

    Remember also Derek Redmond at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and his hamstring snapping half-way through a 400-metre semi-final. Realising in a heartbeat that his moment had gone, yet being determined to still finish the race with the aid and support of his father.

    Or how about Jim Peters in the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver? He entered the final stages of the Marathon 17 minutes ahead of his nearest rival and certain of a Gold medal. He was listing across the track like a drunken sailor, every bit of mind, body and sinew spent.

    Peters was moving his legs purely on his will and spirit with a primeval desire to keep on going. A moment when sport threatens to transcend through life and into death. Peters saved from himself only by trackside support with his limbs loose and discordant like an abandoned puppet.

    Or a lesser light like poor Scott Boswell. A journeyman cricketer thrust into opening the bowling for Leicestershire in the final of the English 2001 50-Over domestic Cup final at Lord’s and proving unable to even land the ball on the cut-strip.

    The action of bowling a cricket ball is one he must have repeated thousands of times over. But, when it really mattered the metronome short-circuited under the weight of his own expectation. Self-doubt ultimately reducing him to a very public humiliation. It is still painful to watch this even now.

    But, none of them can hold a candle to Jimmy White. Yes, the Snooker legend. Not a name or a sport you would probably expect to find here, but an individual manifestly deserving of his place.

    If you look up ‘angst’ in the dictionary you will probably find a picture of Jimmy White. It would feature any one of the six occasions that he sat in his chair watching another world title slip away.

    His face a clammy white pallor brought about by endless years spent in dark smoky snooker halls. A body fuelled on fags, fry-ups, gallons of booze and occasional doses of cocaine. A track-suit only used for watching TV or a crafty trip to the local betting shop.

    It’s no secret that Jimmy liked a punt. A preference for the horses but not adverse to dogs or poker or anything else. Most of those bets probably ended the same way as those World Championship finals. As he stood in the betting shop contemplating another nag that failed to deliver, his visage was probably interchangeable to all those times that we watched him on television contemplating another match slipping away.

    We got to look deep into his soul and could see the self-realisation and frustration that he had let it all slip away again. The pain finally giving away to grudging acceptance and ultimately acknowledgment but crucially never sinking into self-pity.

    Occasionally an opportunity would arise for him to redeem himself. We would fool ourselves it would be different this time and he really could do it. But, eventually a jerky yip-ridden mishit would occur and that would be that. Jimmy internally cursing himself all the way back to his seat to renew his relationship with the ever disappearing packet of Silk Cut.

    The end would follow swiftly and Jimmy would nobly observe the pleasantries, never bitter or blaming anyone but himself. Sometimes a wry line about the efficiency of his opponent or his own shortcomings.

    Ultimately despite all the angst he left you thinking that the biggest game of his life was really nothing more than another screwed up losing betting slip. At least that is what he wanted us to think. Somehow I doubt that Jimmy is big on introspection. The booze and the betting ably removing the requirement.

    He is the greatest player never to win the World Championship. He will probably always be the only player to lose six finals and five in a row. He didn’t win when it mattered most but he certainly did lose with style. Most importantly he never left us in any doubt that the game as a manifestation of the here and now, really mattered and we got to live every moment with him.

    The true essence of sport and the integrity of its competition can therefore be found in the shadows of a dimly lit snooker hall. It wears an ill-fitting waist coat, an uncomfortable bow tie and an overly ambitious hair weave. Ladies and gentleman it is Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White.

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