Roger Alton reviews the week in Sport
How depressing, and poignant, to hear Danny Cipriani talking at the weekend about his imminent departure to join his new rugby team Down Under, the Melbourne Rebels — one of the country’s most gifted fly-halfs is heading away just when England is really short of quality at No 10. And all because the blazers at Twickenham axed a real coach in Brian Ashton (that’s a coach who makes you a better player once you start working with him) and decided to get someone famous, whether or not he was any good at coaching. And as Danny Cip recognises, the team now running England don’t want him (and why? Because, I guess, he got in the papers a bit, and upset Brian Moore). ‘It’s been made clear to me I am not in their plans, so instead of banging my head against a brick wall, I will go round it… and come back at 24.’ What a trouper, and what a loss.
Mark you, there is always a second chance. Nothing’s been cheerier recently than the sight of the fabulous and Very Very Special VVS Laxman batting through such acute back pain he could barely bend forward for a defensive shot to steer India to a sensational one-wicket victory over the Aussies in the current shamefully abbreviated two-Test series. It was the mercurial and sumptuously talented Laxman of course who created India’s wonderful victory, again over Australia, after following on in the second Test at Calcutta in 2001, in which he scored 281. It was only the third time a side following on has won a Test: the second was Ian Botham’s miracle at Headingley. But when was the first?* Congrats if you know without looking it up, though the losing side will be happily familiar.
It might seem crazy now, but after the Calcutta victory, Laxman was routinely left out of the team in favour of journeymen. Let’s hope Danny Cip remembers VVS when he’s getting bruised and battered in the St Kilda Road and feeling more than usually hacked off with the England top brass.
The miracle of this current series in India is of course the unbelievable Sachin Tendulkar, who shot past 1,400 Test runs and 49 Test centuries in the second Test at Bangalore. For the statistically minded, and who isn’t, if you break Tendulkar’s career into 1,000-run chunks, his march from 13–14,000 is easily his most rapid, in 12 innings, and at an average of just over 84. In other words, the 37-year-old is getting better and better, and his appetite for the game stronger, as he gets older. He could have retired at what seemed to be his peak, maybe a decade ago, he could have bowed out when his form seriously dipped about four years ago, but he just wanted to go on and on. Some of the greats do stop when they dip, when they can’t achieve mastery any more (will Federer be one of those?). Others can’t give up, even when there’s nothing more left to achieve. And, bless him, that seems to be Sachin. Or maybe he just wants to stop all discussion about who was the greatest of all time.
These thoughts were all made possible by the sheer pleasure of a weekend without the Premiership: no tedious outrage about another no-show from Fergie, no Alan Shearer, no Colin Murray, as omnipresent as God, and mercifully no bone-crunching brutality on or off the football field. There was, however, plenty of that in the blessed return of Heineken Cup rugby, one of the highlights of which was Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked 14 points and created the other five in Toulon’s win over Ospreys. Martin Johnson was watching, and I wouldn’t bet against brave, broken Jonny being pencilled in for the World Cup in New Zealand. How pointless, when Cip could have been there instead.
*The first time a side following on won a Test match was at Sydney in 1894, and it was England who made it by 10 runs.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.