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2016 was a great year for throwback athletes

James Graham likes smoothies. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Colin Whelan)
Roar Pro
20th December, 2016
1

Rangana Herath, James Graham and Andrew Johnston are unbeatable choices as sportsmen of 2016.

Rangana Herath
Herath could score in any year just on his cricket statistics.

The 38-year-old has taken 351 wickets in 75 Tests at 27.97, has become only the third man to take five wickets in an innings against all countries, and capped it all with a hat-trick against Australia in Sri Lanka earlier this year.

But Herath didn’t score a spot because of stats.

As the song says: “You’ve either got or you haven’t got style”, and Herath has got kit bags full of his own.

The portly 165cm spinner looks like he’s never seen the inside of a gymnasium and couldn’t sprint 50 metres without a force-10 wind behind him. He takes short, Poirot-like steps to the crease; you’d see better run-ups at any park game.

But at the bowling crease he becomes Hercule Herath, mastering all the mysteries of flight, change of pace and spin, while presenting many a batsman with insoluble puzzles.

Added to that, he’s a gutsy batsman and an agile fieldsman.

Australian spinner Bert Ironmonger made his Test debut at 50. Herath looks like he could still be a matchwinner at 60, long after muscle-bound gym freaks have broken down.

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He’s a deadset freak, legend and worldbeater, and it’s just reward that he’s been named captain for the Sri Lankan tour of Zimbabwe, replacing the injured Angelo Matthews.

James Graham
Graham looks as though he could break down at any minute. The Canterbury Bulldogs and England prop doesn’t so much charge but almost collapse on to the ball.

With body tilted forward, Graham staggers towards the defence, seemingly about to fall before he reaches it. When he’s tackled, there could be a market on whether he can get to his feet again, such is the slow-motion, tortuous effort.

Akin to Herath, Graham looks like a pudgy, ten-schooner forward who has wandered out of the 1950s and ‘60s. Yet there is no fitter or more tireless forward in the game.

When a back has broken away, it’s invariably Graham who has sprinted – yes, sprinted – 80 metres in pursuit.

The patron saint of the bargers’ art, the late George Piper, would be proud of him. There can be no higher praise than that, and Graham offers hope and comfort to all NRL aspirants who don’t fit identikit pictures.

Ditto Alex Johnston for golf aspirants.

Alex Johnston
The smiling Englishman, nicknamed beefy, represents all that should be good about the game.

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Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Speith have followed Tiger Woods down the running, weights-supplied, muscle-bound route to score. Well, they’ve followed him down most routes.

But Johnston has gone his own way. He’s in the great tradition of Porky Oliver, the young Jack Nicklaus, Craig Stadler, Lee Trevino and John Daly.

Noted sporting scribe Rudyard Kipling might have had a vision of Johnston when he labeled triumph and defeat as imposters to be treated the same.

Fairways and forests, lawns and lakes, birdies and bogeys, pars and penalties, the 175cm, 96kg 27-year-old Johnston smiles through triumph and disaster – and the gallery smiles with him.

The game could do no better than have Johnston smiling up to the 18th at St Andrews or Augusta, a Major winner. That would bring the crowds back to golf.

Hackers everywhere would be shouting the bar. He already deserves a memorial trophy from the sainted Laura Davies.

But where there are heroes, there must be villains.

This year there has been no bigger villain than Melbourne Storm and Kangaroo halfback Cooper Cronk.

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Cooper Cronk
Halfbacks who direct the play and don’t get tackled are referred to as playing in dinner suits. Cronk doesn’t play in a dinner suit, though he seldom gets tackled.

He isn’t a footballer, he’s a computer programmer.

Cronk programs tries; he produces millimetre-perfect passes and kicks, plots his position on the field and manoeuvres teammates as though sitting before a screen.

Not for him spontaneity or exciting fallibility.

When interviewed after games, he’s hardly out of breath and there isn’t a hair out of place. He gives articulate appraisals.

He’s a disgrace, and betrays everything that made rugby league the greatest game of all.