WHY THE G.O.A.T. CAN’T ACT THE GOAT
On our recent Northern tour of cricket clubs, Barry Richards, interposed between ribald reminiscences of our Hampshire days, expanded on an interesting theory – you might call it a philosophical deliberation – about what it takes to be acomical public speaker, as opposed to someone who canrecount amusing anecdotes. Barry was obviously talking about cricketers and the after-dinner circuit, or the cricket clubs and societies, like the one we were embarked upon.
First, it must be stressed that Barry is a very accomplished speaker, his talent honed as it was by years of commenting on Test cricket for the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation), before he was summarily and unfairly ejected in order that his bosses fulfil their ‘quotas’, that is to say, ensuring that a majority of black or coloured commentators are on the roll. He wasn’t the only white pundit to be so dismissed. He remains remarkably sanguine about the snub. “I sort of understand it,” he says, “It’s payback time.” In other words, apartheid in reverse. We can debate until the cows come home about the morality, or indeed, the common sense,of such a policy, but that is not my point. Barry spoke fluently, compellingly, interestingly, and intelligently, laced, as his talks always are, with amusing stories about team-mates and opponents.
“But I am no Geoff Miller,” he asserted as the lights turned to green and away we sped. For the record, Geoff Miller is always in great demand on the speaking circuit of cricket. He is a very funny man, and his dry, self-effacing humour has enlivened many a rubber chicken dinner. “The point,” continued Barry, “is that he can take the piss out of himself whereas I can’t.” This did not betoken any lack of humility in my companion; he is perfectly aware that the vicissitudes of life, both on and off the field, can affect him just as much as the next man. No, it had more to do with his standing in the game. “If you are, or were, a great player, people do not expect, do not want, to hear that actually you were pretty clueless at times. The ordinary player can draw on any number of incidences when he has acted cluelessly and make a joke at his own expense about it. I can’t do that.”
He recounts many stories of Sir Donald Bradman, with whom he had an affectionate and mutually respectful relationship. In order to point out their respective standings in the game, let me remind you that Bradman’s Test average was 99.94, generally regarded as the greatest achievement by any sportsman in any major sport. Barry’s Test average was 72.57, second on the all-time list, but as he only played four Tests, the figure is largely meaningless. However, Bradman placed Barry at the top of the batting order of his World XI of the best players he had ever seen in his lifetime. He knew greatness when he saw it. (By the way, he picked himself to bat at No 3. Of course he did.)
Now Bradman, contrary to his public reputation as a dour run machine, possessed a dry and understated wit and some of the stories Barry told about him were genuinely funny. “But he never made fun of any of his innings,” Barry said, “It was unthinkable. None of his listeners would have believed him anyway.” If you reach the pinnacle of your profession, an unassailable pinnacle, you haven’t got there by underestimating or undervaluing your talents. Thus, any admission of frailty, of vulnerability, undermines your status of greatness. Imperfection? Greatness does not permit such doubts. For example, I once asked Barry why he didn’t wear a thigh pad. He looked bemused. “Why would I want to wear a thigh pad? That would mean I missed the ball.”
He was not blowing his own trumpet here. It is generally accepted that he was one of the greatest batsmen the world has ever seen, even if his appearance on the world stage amounted to only those four Test matches before South Africa entered sporting isolation. The truly great performers in any walk of life always freely acknowledge their greatness. False modesty is just that – false. What he was saying was that he cannot recount episodes where he fell over and missed a full toss, or he dropped a dolly in the slips or any other pratfalls that the rest of us have endured, because it never happened. Yehudi Menuhin did not play the wrong notes in the Albert Hall and laughed about it in subsequent interviews because it never happened. Can you imagine any one of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror, Oliver Cromwell, Duke of Wellington sitting around a campfire discussing with his generals all the cock-ups he had made in his military career? They would swiftly have to change the topic of conversation because there would be nothing to talk about.
Before I go any further, I should remind my readers that Geoff Miller was a fine cricketer, good enough to play 34 Test matches for England. A fine player but not a great one, as he would – amusingly – attest. The life of a professional cricketer, even a very good one such as he, provides fertile ground for the bizarre and the comical, and he uses it to buttress his witty dialogue. There wasn’t much that was amusing about Barry’s batsmanship; it was glorious in its perfection. A work of art, not of comedy. We do not laugh at Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel. It takes the breath away, but we cannot imagine the artist recounting tales of when he mixed up his colours and botched the job. It would remove some of the mystique. We just cannot imagine it ever happening.
“Never mind,” I consoled my friend, “Your guests do not come along expecting you to be Michael McIntyre.”
“McIntyre? Wasn’t he a Surrey ‘keeper?”
“That was Arthur McIntyre. I’m sorry. I can’t think of a South African comic.”
“I can. There are a few in control of South African cricket.”
With which he put his foot down, with a little bit of feeling, I sensed.