My friends tell me I am completely bonkers because I frequently get up at 3 am or thereabouts, to watch various games being played on the other side of the world, like in New Zealand or Australia. Usually what I watch is Rugby, sometimes cricket, and more often tennis, minority sports in this part of the world, which makes me seem even more like a kook.
Many of my friends have hang-ups about sports in general, arguing that they are a weapon in the armory of the right-wing conspiracy to keep the public tranquilized and apathetic.
I can’t deny it, but my excuses are on a different, more personal level. I grew up in the 1930s in a society which was mad about playing games. We almost all played. I went to school every morning as early as possible to get first dibs on the fives court; I stayed after school in the afternoon to practise Rugby, and returned home usually covered in mud ; I went back happily in the evenings to perfect my cricket. In addition, I ran races and jumped longwards and highwards, and when the links were not charged, my friends and I snuck in to hit a few balls along the fairway. I don’t remember ever having to pay for any of this.My parents didn’t have to break themselves to buy the sparse equipnent involved. It was all done within the rubric that physical activity is good for the growing child, and the facilities were paid for in one way or another by the public purse.
One of my fondest memories of my childhood is of sitting up overnight beside the radio to listen to the broadcasts of the Aussie cricketers when they were in England, contesting the Ashes.
Naturally, with all this as part of my inheritance, I became a fanatical follower of sports. Of course, in those days, all these sports, even at the international level, were amateur: no money --- except for minuscule payments for food and lodging for traveling teams --- changed hands. The closest any of our star-sportsmen acquaintances came to being paid for their brilliance on the fields was that they worked in jobs that willingly let them go for three months or so while they went on tour, secure in the knowledge that their job would be waiting for them on their return. This sport was all so local that even young men in our community, friends of my brothers, could emerge as national representatives, and visit with us from time to time, just as they had always done.
As a kid I grew up with the pictures of every represntative national Rugby team since 1905 on my wall; alongside shots of the greatest international cricketers, the fastest international runners. In my teens I read voraciously of the history of cricket, and as I have told many people since, the remarkable innings of 187 not out played at Sydney Cricket ground by Stan McCabe against the fury of “bodyline” English bowling, (so unfair, although nothing to what is trundled up these days) --- though I was only four when it happened --- became a landmark of sporting brilliance for me. (Tough, though, when I have told people about it over here, I have usually said he scored 232, confusing a later innings, one of the greatest ever played, in Nottingham in 1938. Never mind: most aged reminiscences must be riddled with such errors). At least I have got it right now!)
One day when I was in high school I took a walk with my father, who asked me what I intended to do. I said, I seemed to be good at only two things, one, composition, as we called writing essays in those days, and two, sports. We agreed maybe I could think of writing about sports to make a living. And so, in 1945 I gor a job on the lowest rung of journalism, had to give up playing sports myself because I had to work on Saturdays to collect the results of games being played around me, and so became a member of the working class, which, I like to say, I have been a member of ever since.
I went into journalism with a mind stocked with information about the world’s great cricketers, Rugby players, and tennis players. Since then I have been a mere spectator. I interviewed Frank Sedgman, the Aussie tennis player, and Norman Von Nida, the golfer, and Bobby Locke, the South African golfer, who visited our town while on a tour; I scraped near-acquaintance with such great runners as Herb McKinley, of Jamaica, at that time the greatest 400 metre runner ever; and with various others who were notable in their fields.
But eventually I began to realize more interesting things were happening out there, and my pursuit of sporting stars waned --- of course, in my day, and at my level, we never thought to interview the players after a cricket or Rugby match, allowing their performances to speak for them --- but my obsessive interest in the world of sports has never entirely disappeared.
I began to watch Wimbledon on TV right from the moment I went to England in 1960,--- I listened to it on the radio in the early fifties ---and have missed hardly a year of it since --- cursing the American commentators for their petty volubility. Until the last few months when I stopped buying newspapers, the first thing I looked at in the daily newspapers were the sports pages.
So that is my defence for supporting this socially regressive area of human life. I know full well that if we called things by their right name, we would refer o Djokovic, Federer and Nadal as sales people for their various sponsors. I know that.
But I still love watching them at play. And this morning I watched every ball of the five hours and 53 minutes of the remarkable --- indeed, one might say epic --- Aussie Open final between Djokovic and Nadal.
I know Nadal is a nice boy, modest and well-spoken off he court, but his postures on the court put me off. At one moment in the fifth set, he seemed to be grasping towards victory with such ferocious obsessiveness that I found it quite off-putting, and was finally glad he lost.
He was, however, a gracious loser, one of the things you have to learn if you are to be a real champion.
It was the third or fourth morning I got up to watch the Aussie Open, and I am relieved it is all over, and I can get back to sleeping, like a more or less normal human being.Normal, did I say?