It’s hard being at the top of the game in the sporting world. We all know that, and sacrifices do have to be made. The sacrifices these days, however, all seem to have a bit of a theme to them; typically preserving the chances of the solo career at the expense of national sport. Can anyone remember the last time a sports star put their solo career even vaguely on the line in order to help out the home side in their time of need? Of course being the World Number One counts more than anything else, but being part of a team counts for something as well. Yet this fear of ‘letting the side down’ seems to figure less highly in the minds of today’s top athletes, caught up in the swirling, glittering, lucrative haze of life at the top. The question is: when can we rightfully say that our sporting stars are getting a bit selfish?
Andy Murray is still the hero of British tennis despite his recent loss to Fernando Gonzalez in the quarter-final at the French Open. Admittedly it was a disappointing result, but as a nation we’ll undoubtedly still back him and say amongst ourselves encouragingly that he’s got it in him to go all the way. It may sound corny but we’ll be there for him. But what about when we need him to pull one out for us?
Two years on the trot now, British sports fans have had their hopes dashed with the announcement that Murray would not be appearing in the Davis Cup team. In January of last year, the news report was that it was a recurring knee strain preventing him from being able to play. This time around it was a nasty virus that kept him from saving his country from total humiliation at the hands of Ukraine. Now I know Murray is still a young sportsman and as such some might class his health as being a bit on the vulnerable side. I’m sure this is true to a degree; however the return of his longstanding knee injury at such short and inconvenient notice before Argentina was thought by many to be more down to the fear of injury than the actuality.
Federer and Nadal may have skipped their first-round ties this year, but is Murray really in the position now where he is entitled to behave in the same way? Does he no longer have to put the time in for the British team? Even the star’s older brother, Jamie, who did play in Argentina last year, had critical words for his brother’s decision, saying ‘it kind of affects how I feel about him’.
This March not even the fact that the tie was held in Glasgow could lure him out to watch, let alone play. There were posters of him emblazoned all over the Braehead Arena, but sadly the real Andy Murray was nowhere to be seen. His absence left captain John Lloyd to field the most inexperienced British team in the competition’s history. The question on everyone’s minds is whether he will somehow muster the strength to take part in the final play-off tie against Poland later on in the year. Falling less than a fortnight after the conclusion of the US Open, fans probably shouldn’t get their hopes up.
But Murray’s not the only one looking after the one-man-band in British sport at the moment. News hit the press last week that favourite Freddie Flintoff will not be fit for the World Twenty20 series this month. Now I love Freddie as much as the average female cricket fan, but this news comes at the end of a bad spell for the ex-England captain’s national record. At first glance, the cheeky joker from Lancashire has a more than impressive record of 75 Tests and 141 one-day internationals for the England side to his name. Looking at it from the other angle, however, he has missed 61 of the 134 Tests since his debut in 1998 due to injuries. That is a large number of times to be making a gap in the squad.
The crunch for the 31-year-old this time around came when he hurt his knee playing in the Indian Premier League. It wouldn’t take a genius to work out that this league does not refer to an England commitment. Playing in the IPL is only a recent addition to his sporting activities. It happens, incidentally, to also be a highly profitable affair. Flintoff was signed by Chennai Super Kings for a record fee of £1.1m at the pre-season auction. And we wonder why he wanted to be involved.
The popular cricketer returned to play the IPL in South Africa only a short while after having to pull out of the remainder of the England tour in the West Indies in order to get treatment on a hip injury. As England went down at the end of the series to lose 1-0, it is hard to believe that Flintoff wouldn’t have tipped the scale in England’s favour. Instead of giving himself a good rest however, he was soon on the plane to South Africa along with fellow players Chris Gayle, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood and Ravi Bopara, despite admitting that he was still in a bit of pain. Surprise surprise, it was only a few days of rather average cricket later, before he was back on the plane home with a fresh injury. Predictable just doesn’t even really cover it.
The main worry for most of us is that he won’t be fully fit in time for the Ashes this summer – the cricketing highlight of this season for both players and spectators. If he’s going to survive more than a few days, in contrast to his recent record, and come through as the major asset to England that he should be, he will need to have bowling as well as aerobic fitness. Whilst the doctors try to sound optimistic, Pietersen commented frankly as Freddie was flying home from South Africa that it is a ‘huge, huge blow come the summer for England.’ Australia captain Ricky Ponting is also only too aware of how significant an effect Flintoff’s absence would mean for the team at the Ashes this summer and no doubt he will be watching Freddie’s recovery progress with as much interest as any England supporter.
In the meantime, Paul Collingwood’s England team is entering the first global tournament to be staged since the 2004 Champions Trophy missing some of its key stars, Kevin Pietersen also having withdrawn from the recent NatWest Series against the West Indies complaining of a sore Achilles tendon.
Of course precaution is always welcome if a sportsman is generally injured. The removal of Flintoff from the side for the Wolrd Twenty20 can be seen as saving him for the more daunting task of the ashes. But surely it would have been more logical for him to miss the IPL if there was a serious doubt over his injury, so that he didn’t miss valuable time to gel with his England collegues.
We can’t blame a sportsman for loving the game. We can blame them, however, when they start to make rash decisions that will put both themselves and the success of their team on the line. Last November before the England players had been cleared to go and play in the IPL, Flintoff stressed how the publicity surrounding the IPL was completely irrelevant to why England should get involved in the league: ‘From a player’s point of view, we’ve come here to beat India – we’ve not come here to put ourselves in shop windows or for any financial gain of ourselves…’ Six months down the line with a contract fee of £1.1m, I wonder if that will still be the case.