The sportsman of the century

Frank Keating

Friday December 31, 1999

Sobers the gallant knight smiles down upon Bradman, Nicklaus, Hoad, Pele and the rest...

Utter and unparalleled achievement is taken for granted. But charm and chivalry, a clear and glistening inborn spirit and nature for fair play, is the crucial ingredient and yardstick here. Sheer fame and a peerless mastery at a pursuit is one thing, but this judge and one-man jury dwells on aspects more ethical and pure than solely super-eminence at sustained performance. Only irreproachable sportsmanship makes this shortlist. Nobility is our gauge. We seek the century's very best performer, but the most gallant and courtly too: Le preux chevalier. This at once rules out a supposed favourite, the self-styled "greatest". For all his ticket-selling bombast, the prizefighter Muhammad Ali well understood, and usually displayed, a fearless foehonouring heroism but he forfeits any claim to this shortlist - he can be "personality of the century", a different thing altogether - for the remembrance of his two shaming performances against Floyd Patterson in 1965 and Ernie Terrell two years later. With a vicious spite and no end of illegalities, Ali toyed with both men for allegedly addressing him as "Clay", asking "What's my name?" between each humiliating assault.

Even two of Ali's ringside fans were sickened: after the first contest against the decent, outclassed Patterson, Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times compared Ali's conduct to a playground bully "sadistically pulling the wings off a butterfly"; against Terrell, the Daily News's Gene Ward called Ali's "a disgusting display of calculating cruelty, an open defiance of decency, sportsmanship, and all the tenets of right versus wrong." Those two condemnations toss Ali from this list.

Mind you, greybeards of the fancy roundly dismiss Ali's claim to be the century's greatest anyway - pound for pound, the two Sugar Rays, Robinson and Leonard, would have had his measure, they say; and of those his own size, the all-round technique and fluid menace of Joe Louis, the intellect of Gene Tunney, and the relentless bombardments of Rocky Marciano would also have ambushed Muhammad.

At his very different sport - cricket batsmanship - there can be no shred of doubt, however, that Don Bradman was the century's utter and unarguable champ of champs. His indelible figures in Wisden still defy all imagination. He averaged 99.94 for every time he went to the crease in a Test match. In 52 Tests he scored 29 hundreds. In all, in 338 innings, he hit 117 hundreds. His cricket brain and his captaincy was second to none, so was his ruthless allegiance to the game's ethics.

Bradman's batting made pygmies of the art's previous totems, Jack Hobbs and Victor Trumper. He all too often turned his contemporaries, the glorious likes of Hammond and Headley and Hutton, into bit-part characters, cricketing versions of "attendant lords that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two".

Yet I fancy there was something bloodless about Bradman's merciless concentration. As a boy, Neville Cardus saw WG Grace play once; and he saw Ian Botham play once in the year before he died - but it was enough for him to tell that they both "played cricket with the whole man of him in full action, body, soul, heart, wits, and pomp." He would never have said that about the remarkable ascetic calculator that was Bradman.

As the veteran Australian writer Les Carlyon put it last year: "You might wish your son might bat like Bradman, but you don't necessarily want him to take on Bradman's persona. Such a kid would be rather fussy and finicky and not a lot of fun to be around." But the Don unquestionably makes our shortlist of five.

In the middle segment of the century, between the 30s and 70s, the world's most popular pastime was blessed by two very different paragons, Stanley Matthews and Pele - and such was the nobility of standards they set that around them gathered almost as talented courtiers of civility, grace and charm: Finney, Puskas, Di Stefano, Garrincha, Best, Charlton, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and Platini. There was also the supremely gifted Argentine, the chancer Maradona.

But if all the virtues of both simplicity and grandeur which made soccer so compelling in most every cranny of the universe were to be embodied in one supreme practitioner, that footballer has to be Pele, who wanted only that his unparalleled resplendence on the field serve as an earnest of the rapture he stored in his heart for his "beautiful game."

The same sort of thing went for another consummate beau ideal - golf's emperor Jack Nicklaus. He won 20 majors - a street ahead of anyone else - and was runner-up in an astonishing 19, but such was his smiling sportsmanship as the last putt fell that you had to check with the scoreboard to see if he'd won or lost.

One used to be able to feel the same about the century's host of grand Olympians, the runners and throwers and jumpers of sporting competition's most antique manifestation. Not any more. The pill-popping moderns have wrecked it. Is he or she "on it" is the question now, not who won or lost? They have not only smithereened the records of yore, but besmirched with doubt as well their famed and honest predecessors, like Nurmi and Zatopek and Bannister, Thompson and Lewis and Coe... even those who ran so heart-wrenchingly not so much for themselves but for their whole race, Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Tommy Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos.

History's nonpareil

If the cricketer Denis Compton illuminated for Britain the drab, grey, bomb-scarred and still scared post-war late 40s, so in the following decade a tennis player lit up with warmth the whole world. Lew Hoad was the very best player at tennis as well, simultaneously, as the very best sportsman at sportsmanship. From 1953 to 1956, Hoad won an astonishing 13 grand slam titles, 10 out of 12 Davis Cup singles for Australia and seven out of nine doubles - inevitably with a grin on his face and always contemptuous of caution, nervousness or any mannerism remotely connected with gamesmanship, meanness or sly endeavour.

I used to watch him win at Wimbledon on fuzzy-pictured monochrome television, but his power and purpose, speed and smile, imaginative fearlessness and chivalry, came over in Technicolor. I worshipped him as only the young can worship - and much later got to know him, and realised that his generosity was as genial as his immense talent and that losing never bothered him overmuch if it happened dead on opening time.

Hoad's compatriot, that enchanting fawn Evonne Goolagong, is this page's Sportswoman of the Century even though she lost more Wimbledon finals than she won - three and two. But she won with grace and happy naturalness and lost with grace and happy naturalness and, well, simply the earth would have stopped turning on its axis if Evonne Goolagong had been heard to grunt in a tennis match.

We have four on our shortlist of five - Bradman, Pele, Nicklaus, and Hoad. Our fifth, born peasant and pauper, was to become the glistening monarch of a game which supposedly rooted its whole existence in fair play and chivalry. For at batting and bowling and fielding, for sheer and utter presence and sense of theatre, history's nonpareil has to be Garfield Sobers, of little Barbados and all the big wide universe. He began laying down his markers in the game when West Indies still had to have a white man as captain - and then for 15 years from the late 50s he was, simultaneously, the world's best batsman, best fieldsman, best left-arm swing bowler, best left-arm spin bowler - as well as the best foe-honouring and smiling ambassador any institution, let alone a game, could possibly wish for.

Sir Garfield Sobers, gallant knight, played his ravishing cricket with a radiance which transcended the simple boundaries of games-playing. He was beloved and esteemed as much by those he played against as with. Expressing this theme, many years ago in these pages the Guardian writer Alistair Cooke wrote an obituary of his hero, the shining American amateur golfer Bobby Jones:

"What we talk of here is not the hero as sportsman, but that someone the world hungered for and found - the best performer in the world who was also the hero as human being, the gentle, chivalrous, wholly self-sufficient male. Jefferson's lost paragon: the wise innocent."

Sir Donald Bradman... Jack Nicklaus... Lew Hoad... Pele... all hail... Step forward - with a smile and that unforgettable feline gait - the Sportsman of the Century: Sir Garfield Sobers.

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