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Spectator sport

Spectator Sport: Following the captain

Strange to be writing about sport when outside it feels like Salem, where vengeful witchfinders prowl the highways and byways of the media and political landscape looking for someone or something, anything, to burn; where screeching harpies of press and internet call for the closure of papers they don’t like; and where sanctimonious preachers declaim from their leader columns that the intolerant consensus of the left must rule.

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

Strange to be writing about sport when outside it feels like Salem, where vengeful witchfinders prowl the highways and byways of the media and political landscape looking for someone or something,
anything, to burn; where screeching harpies of press and internet call for the closure of papers they don’t like; and where sanctimonious preachers declaim from their leader columns that the
intolerant consensus of the left must rule.

Strange to be writing about sport when outside it feels like Salem, where vengeful witchfinders prowl the highways and byways of the media and political landscape looking for someone or something,
anything, to burn; where screeching harpies of press and internet call for the closure of papers they don’t like; and where sanctimonious preachers declaim from their leader columns that the
intolerant consensus of the left must rule.

As for sport, nobody has done more for it in the modern age than Rupert Murdoch, for its variety, its mass availability, its continually rising standards, and of course its rewards. But I am a
print journalist and I know that none of the other papers I have been proud to work for, the Observer, the Independent and the Guardian, would probably be around today were it not for
Murdoch’s willingness to take on the unions 30 years ago. And whatever its occasional sins and excesses, the robust diversity of the British press owes an incalculable debt to Murdoch and his
passion for papers.


Anyway, turning from dark clouds over Wapping to dark clouds over Lord’s, if today’s weather forecast is accurate. There has been much searching of souls in the cricket fraternity this
past week. That this morning’s Test between England and India is the 2,000th Test match has prompted the question of whether we shall ever witness the 3,000th. Cricket is in crisis, we are
told. Domestic audiences are diminishing. The international game cannot cope.

If there were one man you could choose to refute such miserabilism, it might be the Samson-like figure who will lead the Indians down the Pavilion steps at HQ. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the greatest
Indian captain of the modern era. He has led India to a series of epic victories since taking on the national captaincy in Test, limited overs, and Twenty20 cricket three years ago — the
latest being India’s recent World Cup victory, achieved with a massive six from their captain’s bat; he had put himself up the order when his side started to wobble.

Through the latter stages of Sachin Tendulkar’s career Indians have been searching for a billboard substitute, a new matinee idol. With his Bollywood looks, love of fast cars and bikes (he
has 23), and multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals, Dhoni fits the bill perfectly. When he had his long hair cut a few years back, it was an event of national importance; 5,000 people went along
with him.

His career is partly a compliment to Adam Gilchrist, who changed Test cricket by being a No. 7 batsman capable of scoring very quickly; Australia could suddenly expect to score 400 rather than 300
in a day. Dhoni is very much in his mould, as a batsman/keeper rather than a keeper/batsman, but his captaincy is something else again. Is he the best modern skipper since Steve Waugh and Allan
Border? Probably. Except Dhoni has done it with a relatively mediocre bowling attack. The key to Dhoni, it seems, is charisma. Gary Kirsten, the former India coach, puts it this way, ‘One
word that comes to mind about Dhoni is “presence”. People just want to follow him.’

There’s a scene in Being John Malkovich when a restaurant fills with a hundred blokes who all look like John Malkovich. Watching the Open in the pub was a bit like that. Full of characters
with greying hair and beer guts watching a man with silver hair and a substantial physique winning golf’s oldest championship. We like it when sporting heroes look like us, which is why
everybody loves Darren Clarke. He says he was much motivated by a couple of texts from Tiger Woods. You assume they weren’t asking for a number for Darren’s beauty queen fiancée,
Alison Campbell.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.


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