A closet supporter

2019-10-23 06:02

THE change came almost overnight. After being a passionate rugby and cricket follower for many decades — first as an ardent supporter and then as a sports writer — I suddenly thought: why not not watch?

It all started with a trip into the bush last year. We were in glorious isolation and it was only on our Monday return to dump city that I heard that the Sharks had lost (again). Funny, I mused, that wasn’t so bad. I can handle this. I wasn’t dragged through 80 minutes of frustration or reeling about, heart pounding, red-faced and with eyes bulging. There was no slamming of doors or kicking out at the dogs, no critical moments of the game to rehash through a restless night and I did not even know the name of the bloody referee. Defeat had never been this easy.

I must try that lark again, I thought, and did so the very next Saturday, avoiding the game on television and refusing to submit to the weekly torment. It worked a treat and now it is the norm. The flashbacks have gone. Life is suddenly a breeze. Strange, a blink ago and I was paid to watch rugby and cricket, and loved it, but today it is better for everyone, including the dogs, if I just lay low without the self-inflicted weekend stress. I have found everlasting peace.

Friends and family are confused that I have tamely surrendered after pursuing a life in sport for so many years. There are murmurs of dementia. There was even a message from Witness editor Yves Vanderhaeghen last month. He had been reading the Guardian and stumbled on an article on the eve of the Rugby World Cup which, he said, reminded him of me.

“When the All Blacks run out to face South Africa in their opening Rugby World Cup fixture on Saturday, Brian ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan will drive more than 40 km into the bush, switch off the ignition and sit in absolute silence for several hours until he is satisfied the game is over. Why? Morgan, a rabid All Blacks supporter, cannot bear the thought of his team ever losing and doesn’t trust his already weak heart to cope if they don’t win,” the article read.

Yes, I responded, that’s the new me and that is exactly how I now behave. My sporting news, bad or sometimes good, must now be delivered in one helping without the frills. The reason is not that I now care too little but that I still care too much. The Sharks have admittedly made it easier and I blame them for the transformation. Since the King’s Park suits, in their infinite wisdom, gave coach John Plumtree the heave-ho in 2013, the Sharks have been rubbish. Avoiding their games has been like ditching a bad habit.

It was not always like this. I was a fanatic. It all started way back in the summer of 1952-53. I was just six and didn’t go out much. Jack Cheetham’s Springbok cricketers, the team no one wanted, were in Australia.

It was a tour the Aussies, bless their cotton socks, wanted to cancel. They had a team of genuine stars while the Springboks were a willing but limited outfit. No one in Australia, they said, would watch a one-sided series. But my Dad remained loyal and there he was, in the pre-dawn dark, huddled over the large radio in our Scottsville home, trying to catch Charles Fortune’s crackling commentary. And, finally, he spread the good news. The Springboks, thanks to Hugh Tayfield, Roy McLean, astute leadership and extraordinary catching, had won the fourth Test and shared the series 2-2.

Later that year, on Boxing Day in 1953, we were at Ellis Park for one of the most emotional days in Test cricket history. New Zealand left-hander Bert Sutcliffe was felled by a vicious short delivery from Springbok paceman Neil Adcock.

There were fears for his life as he was stretchered off and rushed to hospital. But later, as wickets fell, Sutcliff returned to smash seven sixes in an undefeated 80. At the fall of the ninth wicket Sutcliffe had started to walk off.

Everyone knew that fast bowler Bob Blair would not bat. His fiancée had been one of 151 people killed in a New Zealand railway disaster and that day he had been left grieving at the team hotel.

But suddenly he emerged from the pavilion and was met halfway to the wicket by the bandaged Sutcliffe. The Ellis Park crowd stood in silence but then started cheering as the New Zealand pair added 30 for the last wicket, clobbering four sixes in one Tayfield over. I was hooked.

We travelled frequently to Durban to watch Natal and South Africa at play. The French rugby tourists in 1958 made a particular impression largely because they pranced about in their light, low-cut soccer boots. (Our boots, on the end of skinny legs, were massive and cumbersome with high cuts to support the ankle.) That night, I took a pair of scissors to my birthday present and transformed my new boots into French-styled slippers. My Dad wasn’t half miffed.

Ahead lay the golden era, the sixties, the decade of sex, drugs and rock and roll (though it was to be years before we were told what we were missing). And there were other attractions. Natal had Keith Oxlee, and were playing a brand of audacious rugby that we will never see again, and a host of world-class cricketers, including Graeme Pollock, Eddie Barlow, Barry Richards and Mike Procter, were on our doorstep.

It was fun and exciting and it was just the start as my sporting hobby became my vocation. The many moments of excruciating tension were bearable then because it was my job and I had to at least keep up the pretence of being a neutral and objective observer.

Professionalism has, of course, turned sport on its head but I miss the days when cricket and rugby kept to their seasons and there was a certain rhythm to our lives. Modern sport is a mishmash, an overkill, as sports’ money-grabbers demand all-year action and players even have to be rested from internationals because they are tired.

And what of the Proteas, now without those world-class performers who for many years provided cover for the inept, short-sighted, self-serving Cricket South Africa administrators? The current players are cannon fodder and only South Africans with masochistic tendencies will be watching their painful disintegration in India.

But back to last month when the Rugby World Cup kicked off, New Zealand faced South Africa, and Mad Dog and I took refuge in our own way.

The modern rugby game drags over some two hours — 80 minutes of rugby and 40 minutes for the half-time break, injury stoppages, the many TMO referrals and the interminable substitutions. I busied myself reading a book and dozing. Finally, I turned on my laptop, groaned once and then wandered quietly through to the lounge and my wife.

“We lost,” I said matter-of-factly, patting the dogs.

“Oh, no, who was playing?”

I want to be like her.

• John Bishop is a former Witness sports editor and wrote cricket and rugby for the newspaper for 42 years.

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