TV has cost sport its cast of characters

Beware those who talk about “characters” in sport. These men — they are always men, women aren’t stupid enough — often cite Ronnie O’Sullivan, the troubled savant of snooker. They dream wistfully of sporting days lost, of four-point tries and eight-ball overs, a comforting nostalgia.

In tracing characters’ decline, they talk of the foul-mouthed Ilie Nastase; the brattish John McEnroe; and the febrile Paul Gascoigne, the gifted English footballer whose tears were the catalyst for floodgates of national grief. John Daly, the golfer, pops up; and in rolls Shane Warne.

Warnie was a big lad, a man of large gesture and huge appetite. Baked-bean guzzling, Cortina-driving, he was even sartorially unique. He wore a yellow Speedo beneath his whites on his Test debut for Australia.

Then there’s the loveable overweight cricketer, Colin Milburn, who once passed his Northamptonshire team-mates out on a pre-season training run by thumbing a lift on a milk float.

He was 18 and had just arrived at the club because they offered 10 shillings more than Warwickshire. Milburn had to be good — and well-liked — to live down that misguided career move. In the 1960s he played nine Tests for England. There should have been more.

A batsman of power and slick reflex, Milburn was no Colin Bland in the field. Even before a terrible accident that blinded him in his left eye (the dominant eye for a right-handed batsman), he was stranded by the sport’s tide of gathering athleticism, a man to prop up the bar.

If characters don’t emerge, perhaps they can be made. In Kagiso Rabada and Quinton de Kock — or “KG” and “Quinny” — South African cricket have a ready-made pair. Rabada did drama for matric at St Stithians in Randburg. It led the Saints’ director of Cricket, Wim Jansen, to dub him a “drama queen”, a good beginning. Both are photogenic, De Kock in a more boyish way; both are representative of an age. They might become cricket’s main characters yet. 

The argument pining for the loss of characters in sport goes roughly like this. Sport was once fun. As fun, it had more room for the unconventional personality. Allan Lamb, for example, once brought his cellphone out to the middle in a Test match. He asked the umpire Dickie Bird, to answer it if it rang, he was expecting news from the races. 

Bird — now there was a chirpy character — was uncomfortable with Lamb’s request but reluctantly put the phone into his pocket. Lo and behold, it rang. Bird answered. It was Ian Botham in the England dressing-room, crowing. “Tell Lambie his horse came stone last in the 3:30.”

To continue the argument, those who mourn the loss of character point out that sport is business now and, as business, is dominated by television. Television is a homogenising medium, hostile to non-conformity. As such, no characters. Why? Because television has no time for lip, for wordplay, for comedy, for fun.

Add globalisation to the mix (South Korean golfers speak the same thin English that Americans do) and you have a recipe for a sort of uniformly dull sporting brilliance. There are no Eric Cantonas anymore. Character has been assassinated. 

There might be nothing whatsoever in this but let’s assume there is. Let’s assume that the sporting universe was once filled with a fair proportion of characters. They were fat (Milburn) or stout (Warnie), they wore their hair long or in a mullet (Nastase, Daly) and, despite their brilliance, supped with demons (O’Sullivan, Cantona). They could always be relied upon to do something unusual, say something funny. Cantona launched himself into the stands to kick a fan kamikaze-style. 

The football pitch was his university and he used it to soliloquise about love and life. “My best moment? I have a lot of good moments,” he once said, “but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan.” 

Cantona rather fancied himself as something else, a philosopher perhaps, or a film star. Here we dig down to character’s essence. Characters frequently pride themselves on not taking what they do that seriously. It was Cantona himself who said that too much football was bad for you.  Of all the examples, O’Sullivan is arguably the most off-the-charts brilliant. The son of Ron senior (“Ron’s the name, porn’s the game”), who owned a chain of West End sex shops, the nominally right-handed O’Sullivan once played — and beat — Alain Robidoux, a World Championship contender, left-handed. Robidoux was incensed.

You can watch it all on YouTube. “I don’t think Alain was too pleased with that exhibition from Ronnie — but the crowd liked it,” purr the commentators, gingerly treading through the minefield.

As the break unfolds, there’s a giveaway moment. O’Sullivan can’t resist a furtive look at the camera. It’s the cheeky look of a boy who knows exactly what he’s doing. But it’s more. It’s a look that asks you to take sides: an invitation to collusion. “Come over here,” O’Sullivan is saying. “It’s more fun.”

O’Sullivan’s talent was too big for him, the fit between talent and personality uneasy. That is why he played left-handed — because he was bored. He head-butted opponents, because he was bored; he was addicted to marijuana, Prozac and alcohol. His talent brought him no comfort.  “I’m fucking, you know, searching,” he told journalist Sam Knight in The New Yorker last year. “I kind of know who I am but I don’t like who I am, do you know what I mean? I wish I was a bit more fucking stable.”

It didn’t help that comparatively early in his career Big Ron was jailed for 18 years for murder. After that Big Ron’s wife was briefly imprisoned for tax fraud. O’Sullivan junior went off the rails, playing for his dad but hating him at the same time. The tabloids, with the mean brilliance that is their wont, saw the fault-line in junior’s soul and dubbed him “the two Ronnies.”

Now that’s character — when you have enough left over for two.

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