Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Balancing act

Why are you here?

No, this isn't some deep, philosophical meandering about our place in the great scheme of things. Just a simple straightforward query about the choice of reading material this morning, this evening or whatever time of day you've taken the time to peruse the sports pages of this publication.

Are you looking for enlightenment, inspiration (if so, then obviously you're reading this column for the first time), or just some good old-fashioned acidic, cynical negativity to get you all worked up? Maybe you're expecting something in the aftermath of Trinidad and Tobago's third consecutive Caribbean T20 triumph that ties in Sports Minister Anil Roberts' comments about the availability of Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo and Sunil Narine for the Champions League in nine months' time.

Then there's the issue of "Gally" Cummings refuting suggestions by new Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) president Raymond Tim Kee that the former national striker and coach has been appointed to a revamped technical committee, or any other bit of bacchanal on the local football front.

On the other hand, do you prefer "positive" writing, be it an appreciation of an outstanding performer or some broader perspective on the role of sport in building a disciplined, productive society? As my elder daughter often reminds me, I don't do "positive" well, which is why I'm intrigued by what you're looking for in light of the fulsome appreciation of the work of English sportswriter Frank Keating following his passing at the age of 75 last Friday.

"Frank who?" you ask, while wondering what it has to do with the rambling that preceded it. Well, it was Keating, longtime sportswriter with The Guardian and The Observer of London, who wrote Another Bloody Day in Paradise, a book that gave me a better understanding of great, compassionate, colourful, indepth sportswriting. Yet the irony is that while his wonderful, behind-the-scenes account of England's 1981 tour of the Caribbean opened my eyes to what covering a cricket tour is all about, I'm not sure that his sympathetic treatment of the sporting personalities who he clearly also admired constitutes proper journalism.

Since his death from complications related to pneumonia, media colleagues and British sports stars—among them Sir Ian Botham, captain of the beleaguered England squad on that ill-fated campaign 32 years ago—have been tripping over themselves in rushing to acclaim the life and work of a man who was much-loved by readers and sporting personalities alike. Indeed, it is suggested that his style reflected a benevolent character, a true sports fan at heart who hardly ever resorted to fierce, intemperate criticism, even when it was perfectly warranted.

In Another Bloody Day in Paradise, that style works briliantly, from his colourful and evocative account of events, expeditions and experiences outside of the actual cricket to being there at the very heart of the battle. But does that sort of "fan's view" treatment reflect balanced reporting? Do you prefer to see events through the eyes of someone who, while certainly staying true to the facts and not seeking to twist or misrepresent issues in any way, leans on the side of the player in his analysis?

Keating answers that question himself in the book in the aftermath of England's heavy defeat in the third Test at Kensington Oval, during which coach and former Test batsman Ken Barrington died of a heart attack. Obviously a great admirer of Botham, he pondered on his predicament as a journalist on tour having to report on the captain's role on an assignment that was going terribly wrong:

"I knew I could never be a 'real' newspaper journalist — it was such a difficult job to be hail-fellow-well-met-what's-yours-old-boy in private life and next day have to scalpel-slash a reputation in public print."

There are many, I know, who prefer a Keating-style sympathetic leaning. Invariably though, these are fans of the subject in question, who often see anything remotely critical of their hero (or son or cousin or neighbour as the case may be) as a spiteful, unwarranted attack on a national icon. Yet some of these same blinkered individuals question the impartiality of reporters and writers when someone they don't like is praised for a match-winning performance.

You can't win. Nor, really, should you try to win. Everyone has his or her own version of what is fair and what is balanced: who like who, and who don't like who. And don't believe for one minute that rabid fanaticism is the preserve of the comparatively uneducated or underprivileged. On the contrary, some of the most narrow-minded, short-sighted people in matters of sport (and other things as well, I suppose) are hoity-toities whose brand of eloquent irrationality might even cause you to question the facts laid bare in front of you.

So is it scalpel-slashing to report on a poor shot that changed the course of a match, or a striker wasting a relatively simple scoring opportunity and costing his team a trophy? Of course, the extent and depth of the analysis becomes an issue. Was the error an exception to the rule or typical of a certain pattern? Again, one person's aberration is another person's norm.

At the end of the day though, this is all entertainment, and it is a privilege for us to be making a living this way. That's one thing reflected in Keating's work, a sort of boy-days fascination with sport that made him so popular, even if it's a road that many of us would choose not to follow.