Sport is like love: it can only really hurt you if you care. Or for that matter, bring joy. You can’t explain sport, any more than you can explain the Goldberg Variations: you either get it or you don’t. So it can be hard to justify a life spent among bats and balls and leaping horses. I spent 32 years writing about sport for the Times, the last 12 as chief sportswriter, all of which comes to an close at the end of this month when I become News International’s latest economy, doomed to wander Fleet Street (is it still there?) wearing a luggage label that reads ‘Please look after this bear’. What shall I write about in my last week? The usual trivia of the sporting round: triumph and disaster, victory and defeat, leadership and betrayal, revenge and counter-revenge, strength and weakness, hubris and its chastisement, hatred, horror, honour, joy and glory: all acted out in front of me. The news pages of every newspaper are about cover-ups: in sport your subject is emotionally stark naked in front of you. A sportswriter is never without a big subject.
The betrayal stuff mostly comes from the England cricket team. Last week there was a concert of sporty music at the Proms, and I did a bit of stuff for the BBC on the medium my father calls the wah‑liss. I realised in the course of this that the operatic themes that have dominated the England team for the past three years are pure Don Giovanni: Kevin Pietersen in the title role, Alastair Cook as the virginal betrayed Zerlina and Andrew Strauss as the equally betrayed and now vengeful Donna Elvira. There’s even a part for Piers Morgan, KP’s eternal Leporello, faithfully cataloguing every triumph.
Sport has power over the human imagination because it is a never-ending narrative and as an eternal metaphor. Nobody is supposed to die: that’s rather the point. The territorial ball sports are cod battles, tennis is a phoney duel, cricket is about that life and death thing — the batsman forever seeking to avoid the little death of dismissal — while horse racing on the flat is about evolution: only the fastest get to survive and become ancestors. Powerful stuff, if you happen to get it. But I’ve never got golf. The Open unwound itself across last weekend to my complete bewilderment. I was once given the apparently enviable privilege of accompanying John Daly through a round at St Andrews; after two holes I sneaked off and went birding. Golf seems a pleasant enough recreation for people too old for sport, but shouldn’t proper sport have an element of physical risk? Or at least physical commitment? I’m a horseman — I always say it’s because I haven’t discovered boys yet — and would swap all the golfers that ever golfed for half an hour with Lucinda Green, who won Badminton six times.
A Cetti’s warbler gave its sudden terrific shout from our fragment of Norfolk marsh while I was doing some horsey chores. These birds are almost comic in their attention-seeking. Not that you ever see one: they are lurkers and shouters. I was convinced there were two pairs hard at and breeding, but I have revised my notions down. Cettis operate the Beau Geste stratagem. If a bird keeps out of sight, but sings very loudly from a number of different places, you might get the idea that there is more than one of him. If you were a rival male thinking of moving in, you’d conclude that the place was too crowded for you and fly onwards. Cettis used to be an exoticism: the sort of bird twitchers boasted about. These days they’re all over southern and eastern England, wherever it’s seriously wet. The first British breeding record was 1973; there are now 2,000 breeding males annually. They’ve advanced northwards in response to milder winters; Cettis aren’t climate change sceptics.
It’s tempting to look back. After all, I’ve covered seven Summer Olympic Games for the Times, attended half a dozen World Cups and getting on for 30 Wimbledons. I’ve seen — and better, much better, written about — Roger Federer, Fu Mingxia, Michael Johnson, Dancing Brave, Ayrton Senna, Katarina Witt and Malcolm Marshall. I’ve also seen and written about blue whales, tigers, jaguars, lammergeiers and the blue morpho butterfly. And the very best of all is — But no. I’ve not spent 32 years talking to athletes to fall into that trap. It’s all been great, and many thanks to all who made it so, especially the subs who spotted and removed my many cock-ups, but well, Brian, it’s not about last season, is it? You see, Brian, me and the lads are ready for new challenges. We’re in good shape, we’re quietly confident, but we’re not underestimating the opposition. There’s a long way to go, or so we hope, but we’re taking each match as it comes. What more can any one of us do in any circumstances? Let the umpire call play again and we’ll fidget with our pad-straps, adjust our box and take guard once again.God help us, we can do no other.