Yesterday morning I bumped into Norman Gifford in the Malvern College car park. He told me that he had been asked by his former club, Worcestershire C.C.C., to put in a few appearances at the club’s winter training base at the school to offer some advice and coaching for the spinners on the staff. “You’ll be lucky,” I said, “The nets aren’t even out. They’re all playing football.” And they were. I had watched them from the balcony that morning, half envious, half fearful, as they climbed into each other with evident gusto. I remembered such impromptu games of football during pre-season training on the outfield of Hampshire’s home ground in Southampton when the nets were too wet to practise. Actually, there were a few of us who were not at all bad at the game; several had played semi-professionally and one, Bob Stephenson, had been a full-time player at Derby County under Brian Clough. “Did you play football?” I asked Norman, “I bet you had an educated left foot.” He admitted that he had been a pretty useful player when he was younger “but I gave up all those silly games when I turned pro at Worcester.” Why was that, I wanted to know; after all, there were a number of cricketers around at that time who doubled up as pro footballers in the winter, three of whom had been team-mates of Norman’s at Worcestershire – Jim Cumbes, Ted Hemsley and Phil Neale. In those days (the 1970s) it was perfectly possible to combine the two careers. By way of an answer, he gave a little grim smile. “There was always some maniac trying to break your leg and put you out for the season.”
This little encounter set me thinking about the nebulous nature of team spirit within a professional environment when, frankly, everybody is usually out for himself. Yes, you want your team to win, and there is a much better chance of doing so if everybody pulls together. But at the end of the day, or should I say at the end of the season, it is your contract up for renewal, not the team’s. You might ask why both Norman Gifford and I shuddered when we contemplated a vigorous game of 12 a-side football in a gym between county cricketers. Surely such exercise can only be good for morale as well as fitness. Well, yes and no. I suspect if you hauled any one of those players to the touchline and asked him whether he thought what they were doing was a ‘good thing’, he would probably look you in the eye and wonder from what planet you had recently landed. Risk of injury? Don’t be silly - you can hurt yourself warming up in the dressing room. I’ve seen it done. Our quick bowler rotated his arms just before stepping out of the door, smashed an overhanging light bulb, cut his wrist and was out for the match. By their very own nature, these lads are made of fiercely competitive stuff. They wouldn’t survive very long if they were not. The will to win is in-built; every 50/50 ball, every tackle, every header, every decision would have been keenly contested and only wimps pull out at the last moment. But more than that, there are petty jealousies, internecine squabbles, conflicting agendas and intense competition for 1st team spots in any team and it’s hard sometimes not to feel selfish. Don’t tell me that an inopportune injury to a rival competing for your place would not go down – whisper it quietly – rather well.
All right, breaking a leg might be going a bit too far, though you will remember that American figure skater, Tonya Harding, who was banned for life for hiring a hitman to break the leg of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 (there is a film about it all that has just been released). Nonetheless, have you ever taken note of the glum faces on the benches behind the manager at a football match? Each and every one of them is probably cross at not playing, wondering what he has done wrong to upset the manager and dead behind the eyes because, truthfully, he is not terribly bothered by what is going on there out on the pitch. Without ever wishing ill on any one of the eleven players participating, secretly he must be hoping that someone has a nightmare so that he can be summoned and prove the naysayers wrong. Rugby substitutes appear more animated but they know they will make an appearance at some time; it seems de rigueur these days that after 60 minutes, the coach will ‘empty the bench’. Cricket is slightly different – there are no substitutes. But there will be players out of sight who are impatiently knocking on the door and hoping, silently of course, that their competitor for a place in the team gets out for a duck or is carted all round the field.
All this may well sound base and cynical, bereft of the magnanimity that can exist between team-mates. I am sure that not every professional sportsman sticks pins in an effigy of his rival and that some can genuinely take pleasure in another’s success. Everybody has a good angel perched on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other. We try to listen to one and ignore the other. Sometimes they both speak to us at once. Our emotions are mixed and confused. Courtesy, civility, etiquette demands we utter the words of congratulation and pleasure but underneath we wish it were us basking in the limelight. I am reminded of the fixed grins among the losers at the Academy Awards as the name of the winner is announced; their enthusiastic clapping looks a little forced.
It is often mooted that a happy team is a winning team. I would go further and contend that a happy team is a winning team that is settled. Usually the two go hand in hand. After all, why change a winning team? Next time you witness the spraying of Champagne and the dancing in celebration at the presentation of the cup, spare a thought for the reserves and the forgotten bit-part players. Remember poor Jimmy Greaves, injured then left out of Alf Ramsey’s triumphant World Cup winning England team that summer’s day in 1966? He was there, pitchside, in his suit, as Geoff Hurst slammed in his hat-trick goal to seal the win. He said he slunk away from Wembley that day, feeling, in spite of himself, alienated from the victory celebrations. You see, professional sportsmen are inherently selfish. They have to be. For a competitor in an individual sport, there is no dilemma. It is dog eat dog. For a team player, the paradox is complex, the loyalty to the group skin deep. Some people have a thicker skin, that’s all, and are better at concealing it.