I’m sure I was not alone in thoroughly enjoying the recent tribute to Sir Gareth Edwards on TV, celebrating his 70th birthday. Apart from the excruciating and wholly superfluous rendition of ‘Sloop John B’ by some perky, bright-eyed singing ensemble, the programme was a warm and nostalgic trip down the memory lane of his playing career. One could not help but be struck by the number of affectionate tributes paid by former team-mates and opponents; clearly he was, and remains, a popular fellow. Given the length and success of his career, this would be hardly surprising but the fact that he played a team game necessarily meant that the guest list would have been ten times larger (all right, fifteen times, as we are talking about rugby here) than it would have been for, say, a golfer or tennis player. The audience in the studio was packed with familiar, if slightly more craggy and age-weathered, faces from teams he played for or against. The point is that team sports as a matter of course build up a wider circle of compatriots than a lone gun, so to speak.
That is not to decry in any way the achievements of those who compete in solitary sports. In fact I am in admiration, often awe, of their dedication and mental resilience, without any of the support and encouragement that team members can supply. But I do feel a bit sorry for them. Who is going to share in their rare successes and frequent failures? Who is going to lighten the mood with a quip or a prank? Who is going to pick them up when they’re down and cut the ground from under their feet when they’re getting too cocky? Who is going to have dinner with them after a hard day’s play and discuss what went right and what went wrong? Who is going to say something or do something that will have everybody in stitches and provide cannon fodder for endless get-togethers and celebratory dinners in the years to come? It must be a lonely existence playing just for yourself.
Lone sportsmen and women have their ‘teams’ of course, an entourage of support staff fulfilling a variety of roles and responsibilities. A Wimbledon champion or the wearer of an Augusta green jacket always takes care to thank his team, without whose help and support ‘none of this would have been possible.’ But the word ‘team’ is misleading. There is no ‘I’ in team, goes the popular cliché, but in Andy Murray’s team or Sergio Garcia’s team, there most certainly is an ‘I’. Nobody is in any doubt whose team it is. There may be a main coach, a day-to-day coach, a strength-and-conditioning coach, a mental coach, a nutritionist, a physio, a caddie or hitting partner, a romantic partner, an agent, a manager but they are there at the behest of their employer and as such prey to his every whim and fancy. Not really team-mates, as team members understand the term. It would be a brave employee who would grab hold of his boss’s kitbag and chuck it over the dressing room balcony (as happened to Kevin Pietersen at Nottinghamshire).
In a few weeks, Hampshire will hold their annual past players’ reunion, a jolly affair replicated by all counties these days. In no way will it match up to the Gareth Edwards jamboree in celebrated personnel and there will be no rendition of ‘Sloop John B’ (unless of course Alan Castell gets hold of the microphone) but generations of Hampshire cricketers will foregather and tell tall tales of times gone by. It is true that the Augusta Golf Club hold a champions’ dinner on the eve of the tournament but it is perforce a small and exclusive gathering. Would conversation at that dinner ever become….well, boring? No such chance at a Hampshire reunion.
For my part, I only ever played team games. The reason, I guess, is that we were encouraged to do so at school; there was little opportunity to play any individual sport. Had my parents been interested in golf or swimming or athletics or archery or gymnastics and had I shown any inclination or talent in those directions, my sporting career might have taken a different course. But I have never regretted for one moment that it did not. There is something about the shared experience of team games, both on and off the field of play, which has always appealed to me. And when I meet up with my old team-mates, or more significantly when I meet up with old opponents, I know instinctively that I belong to a very special, albeit populous, club. No matter how bad a day I ever had on the cricket pitch, there was no moping around back in the dressing room. Perhaps it is the same back in the regimental mess after a distressing day on the battlefield; the camaraderie, the comradeship, the esprit de corps, the team spirit, call it what you will, is the common bond.
“You know, I have never laughed so much in my life as when I was playing with you guys,” commented a Hampshire stalwart of a certain age at one of these reunions. We all nodded our heads. The fun to be had playing a game we loved with our mates was worth the little money we earned and more than the king’s ransom to be had in the more lucrative individual sports. The win bonuses had to be shared eleven ways. So was the experience.