Roger Alton

Rob Burrow is in a league of his own

Rob Burrow is in a league of his own
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What a privilege the other night to see Rob Burrow, the Rugby League legend, win Autobiography of the Year at the Sports Book Awards at the Oval. Burrow is one of the most successful players in the history of League, although only 5ft 5in and less than 11 stone in a sport populated by big men battering each other. Now he is confined to a wheelchair, ravaged by motor neurone disease, yet radiating huge warmth with a permanent wide smile. He was greeted with a long standing ovation, and made a moving speech using an eye-activated computer device with his own voice.

Sportspeople do not have to be the best of us, but it can be overwhelming when they are. And to see a man, once the embodiment of health and fitness, so reduced but still so warm and human was deeply humbling. As a player, Burrow’s agility, speed, strength and courage made him an icon of the sport, representing Leeds, England and Great Britain. He needed all that courage after he was diagnosed in 2019 at the age of 37. His book, Too Many Reasons to Live, is totally devoid of self-pity, and if you can read it without a tear in your eye you are made of stronger stuff than me.

Lord’s is still not, at time of writing, a sellout for the first Test. Which is a pity as it’s England under Ben Stokes for the first time taking on the world Test champions, New Zealand. Stokes is one of the few players in the world who can empty the bar when he goes out to bat. So it looks pretty tasty in every way apart from one: the ticket prices are astronomical – £120 for most seats, with only a tiny handful of reductions for kids.

Contrast this with Trent Bridge, where you can (just) still get tickets priced from £16 to £60, with plenty of reductions. The always enterprising Oval charges under-16s a quid, admittedly for a T20 game. Lord’s should watch out if it wants to keep its status. But maybe it doesn’t deserve to sell out. Private members’ clubs should have no future in running big events. The world has moved on.

Meanwhile Joe Clarke, the Notts batsman and ubiquitous white-ball player, has been told he is in Rob Key’s pending file for England selection. For some years now the holder of that unwanted label as the ‘best uncapped player in the country’, in 2017, when he was 21, Clarke was involved in a repellent series of Whats-App messages about sexual conquests with two then Worcestershire teammates, including the convicted rapist Alex Hepburn. He has addressed the issue recently: ‘I have done a lot of reflecting… I was involved in what was a terrible thing,’ he said, though cynics might suggest this is because he is on the verge of getting the nod for England.

The more high-minded among us take the view that England’s cricketers should march to a higher standard, though that makes me uneasy. Sporting figures being looked to as role models and moral guiding lights is absurd: only a handful can do that, notably men like Burrow. Footballers, cricketers, boxers, all sports people in fact, are normal folk with as many flaws and foibles as the rest of us, though blessed with an outstanding talent. Clarke’s transgressions were moral, not criminal, and there should be room for people to change. And few of us would want to be judged for ever on what we were like at 21.

Massive honours for accuracy to the BBC trainee in the sports department typing out random practice items for the ‘Breaking news’ ticker without realising they were showing on viewers’ screens. So when ‘Manchester United are rubbish’ suddenly appeared it was as if the BBC was pronouncing from on high. Absolutely true, too: what a pity the Beeb felt the urge to apologise so gushingly.

Written byRoger Alton

Roger Alton is a former editor of the Observer and the Independent. He writes the Spectator Sport column.

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