“From nowhere to nothing”, deadpans David Bowie in a pickled-in-experience voice, on his comeback from a decade-long artistic slumber. ‘The Next Day’ has Bowie portray a soulless universe in thrall to celebrityhood, an occasionally “primitive world” where people “walk the dead” and men lead “blind lives”.

The kick-in-the-guts of the title track (“Here I am / Not quite dying”) encapsulates the life of 21st-century everyman, and the nebulous moralities, the bedlams and the schizophrenias that suck the spirit out of us all (“They can’t get enough of that doomsday song / They can’t get enough of it all”). In an echo of Robert Johnson, the enigmatic bluesman alleged to have sold his soul to the devil, Bowie bemoans, “They can work with Satan while they dress like the saints / They know God exists for the Devil told them so”.

If Bowie’s a “man lost in time” (as he croons on Where Are We Now, an elegiac reflection on his Berlin years), his grasp on the here-and-now is far from incoherent. His is a worldview as far removed from Bob Dylan’s as the 1960s is from the 2010s.

In 2013, 46 years after he released his first album (and 10 years on from his last), Bowie is unafraid of opening up a dialogue with reality. Dylan, meanwhile, gives the impression that his mind is elsewhere, visualizing instead a musical Arcadia. No bad thing, of course. The old curmudgeon anyway has lightened up, and listening to any of his three releases from the last decade – ‘Love And Theft’, ‘Modern Times’ and ‘Together Through Life’ – one finds a levity that very rarely manifested itself over the course of his career.

Dylan’s 2012 disc, ‘Tempest’, came 50 years after his first, and continued the nostalgia trip of the preceding three – as if he’d rather take shelter in the comforts of an old America and her homespun shibboleths, than make an acquaintance with Millennial bleakness. The reclusive minstrel who used Biblical imagery to fashion seminal folk tunes all those years ago, has become roots-music’s cranky grandfather. Bowie’s latest, on the other hand, has all the conviction, grit, gravitas and the unvarnished narrative of a man who cares about life – the gutter and the stars – no matter how disillusioned he may feel about it.

It’s as if Dylan, never the most outwardly political of songsters post his folk years, has fought too many battles, and he’s damned if he’ll fight any more in the autumn of his life. Bowie, though, has never shied away from confronting the naked truths of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Clearly, the Englishman still has his ear to the ground, reluctant to detach himself from the pains and prejudices of humanity, a distant – sometimes sardonic – observer of the goings-on of our world.

Quality-wise, over a half-century as recording and performing artist, Dylan’s career has been more hit-and-miss than Bowie’s. When he was good, he was very, very good. When he was bad, he was dire. But the irony cannot be missed: Bowie has taken the soul of early Dylan to channel his sentiments, while Dylan has chosen to discard that young self – that politically, socially and culturally aware self – in favour of pursuing a down-home Americana, the music of the popular imagination (ballads, even!). One’s now wistful, the other’s become warier.

Dylan so tired of the ‘conscience of the generation’ thing (a label given by the folk brotherhood, one that he never really cared to live up to) that he went electric in a two-fingered gesture to those who’d dare anoint him. So out went the protest songs, and the anti-war ditties, and in came the hallucinatory images, creations lightning-streaked by an absurdist strain. Dylan’s imagery was an outlet for his febrile mind, little rooted in belief and reality. Bowie’s subject matter in ‘The Next Day’, on the other hand, is very much of the moment – and more disturbing for being so. It’s almost as if Bowie is imagining Dylan’s Desolation Row in the context of the 21st century, with all its dystopia and its disconnectedness.

Whereas Dylan’s last three albums after ‘Time Out Of Mind’ came across as lightweight – with the odd flash of the old Zimmerman chutzpah – Bowie’s latest has heft and substance. He has so much more to say, and wants to say it (the printed lyrics on ‘A New Day’s’ sleeve echo Dylan in their stream-of-consciousness-like arrangement). The Minnesotan began as a young chap trying to set the world to right in his earthy folk songs; the London boy seemed set in his folk-impressionistic ways, content to mine English dance-hall traditions and follow the psychedelic path of that King of British Whimsy, Syd Barrett.

Of course, Bowie would get serious later on, the loquacious poet-artiste (would-be Dylan?) turning Cassandra in ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Station to Station’. Kaleidoscopic in his musical ambition, he would go on to create the soundscape of the future with fellow avant-gardist Brian Eno in the brilliant Berlin Trilogy. Dylan, post the confessional masterpiece of ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and the gypsy strut of ‘Desire’, would veer between pseudo-spiritualism (‘Long Train Coming’), half-baked political posturing (‘Infidels’), welcome earnestness (‘Oh Mercy’) and fin-de-siècle jeremiads (‘World Gone Wrong’, ‘Good As I Been To You’). His output in the second half of the 1970s, and for much of the 1980s, oscillated giddily in quality – when he got it right, as in the widescreen opera of Brownsville Girl, he’d blow you away.

Before he so stunningly emerged from creative hibernation this year, Bowie’s last great album was the muscular ‘Scary Monsters’ (1980), a record that was as fiercely Orwellian a statement as the decade that spawned it. And while the rest of the 1980s was otherwise forgettable for the erstwhile Thin White Duke (his back-to-rock-roots Tin Machine project sinking rather embarrassingly), the 1990s saw him return to his experimental best (assimilating dance and industrial beats, for example, in the intrepid ‘EART HL ING’). Even if album sales stalled, the esteem in which this now elder statesman of British rock was held only went up.

And it’s Bowie who looks to have more relevance in 2013, the thinker-artiste likely to leave the more lasting epitaph (he’s certainly prepared to “Turn and face the strain” [Changes, ‘Hunky Dory’]). Bowie has come up with a magisterial work that’s replete with the same lyrical intensity, razor-sharp intellect and musical vision he’s always been noted for. Changes, then, seem to have bypassed Dylan, but not Bowie, the indefatigable challenger of cultural convention. Of the old dogs from the 1960s, the Londoner’s the last man standing, as defiant and as unbowed as once Dylan was.

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These proud five, giants of the English game, certainly won’t be looking back with regret. One began his stint as manager in the pre-Premier League days, back in the old First Division, and went on to become a living legend. Two swore allegiance to one club; another was world football’s de facto ambassador. The last among the fabulous five was the rolling stone, grateful that his delicate physique allowed him to reveal his gifts for as long as he was able to. All have stood tall in their many seasons of service, for both club and country.

More than anyone, David Beckham, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, Paul Scholes and Sir Alex Ferguson proved that it is the hard yards you put in before games, and your uncomplaining contribution on the pitch, that matters. Football, especially in England, seems awash with show-ponies intent on making idiots of themselves, on- and off-camera. These five are the very antithesis of the pampered 21st-century footballer – uncomplicated, determined and fiercely proud of their craft. Football, and not just the oft-derided Premier league, will be much the poorer for their absence.

I think Frankie Sinatra’s signature lyric captures the philosophy of the retiring five. Each of these individuals, singular men all, knew of no way other than their own. Admirably (and thankfully), none of them raged against the dying light. Their final decision was based on pragmatism rather than sentiment. Each left on his own terms, bowing out with competitive spirit intact, and with a lifetime of purposeful endeavour behind them.

None was a paragon of virtue, and each had his flaws. (It is, anyway, expecting way too much of today’s sportsmen and sportswomen to be role models.) Ferguson’s frequent, and at times tiresome, invectives against referees led many to believe that the men in black were intimidated into giving decisions in favour of Manchester United. Beckham, in his infamous red-mist moment, used his boots to kick an opponent (Argentina’s Diego Simeone) rather than the ball, at the 1998 World Cup, and often battled with his demons. Carragher and Scholes were of the old-school, defiantly so on occasions, never shying away from (and relishing) the odd scrape (of the hard-tackle footballing type, rather than any physical argy-bargy). Only the cleancut Owen can boast of as incident-free a career as it is possible for a modern footballer to have.

What all five did well was switch on and focus come matchday. For all Fergie’s protestations that Beckham’s glamour-boy existence was a distraction to Manchester United, he was almost without fail the model pro, putting in the hours in training and the performances over 90 minutes. He was as dedicated as any in his pursuit of excellence and success. In midfield and at the back, Scholes and Carragher did their jobs with honest, at times intense, endeavour, knocks and injuries rarely ever getting in the way of duty. Owen spent much of his later career on the physio’s table but never lost motivation, and continued (when body and mind were in sync) to poach goals in classic striker’s fashion. Ferguson, meanwhile, was always first at the training ground, setting the example for his cohorts to follow.

These days, it’s all so easy – and, sadly, all too common – for young talents to (literally) take their eyes off the ball. This is where, I believe, Ferguson will be missed. Was there a better man-manager than the Glaswegian? Over his one-score-and-six years at Old Trafford, his steadying influence on impressionable youngsters was vital in keeping them on the straight and narrow. Stern yet avuncular, Fergie was like a second father to many of his wards, there as much for a supportive arm-on-the-shoulder as for a (usually deserved) verbal rocket.

As for Beckham, those who comment on his obsession with appearance miss the point entirely. While the Leytonstone lad was indeed very conscious of his image, Beckham the celebrity is chiefly a creation of the glossy media (he was, after all, wedded to pop royalty). As the celebrity grew, so did the brand. At times, his footballing personality, and what he accomplished on the pitch, was almost incidental. But there were two Beckhams – the football pro and the lifestyle icon – and, by and large, the man who won league titles in four countries had little trouble in keeping the two separate. But Beckham was also more than just the chap who’d arc laser-like passes into the box, more than just a free-kick specialist. He was talismanic in his ability to lift those around him with his presence. Now that’s a rare quality.

Owen, at the top of his game, and when injury didn’t leave him a frustrated observer on the sidelines, had a quality that all the best strikers possess – vision to anticipate the ball, allied with an ability to (more times than not) slot it in. Scholes’ perky industry in the middle of the park was a joy to behold; his was a dynamic presence in all the great Manchester United sides that Sir Alex put out, and Scholes would invariably be at the heart of every move goalwards. Carragher was probably the most unsung of the five but the no-nonsense Liverpudlian was a tower of strength at the back, tormenting the fleet-of-foot with a manic you-won’t-get-past-me resolve.

How many times all four played together for England is a question for the anoraks (and the statisticians). But I can’t help thinking: What if Fergie had been England manager any time over these last 26-and-so years? He’s cut a few prima donnas down to size, and would have been the ideal man for the job. With an eye for detail, insistence on proper preparation and occasionally confrontational manner, it’s not hard to imagine Ferguson transforming the underperforming men of England into international achievers. But SAF was too busy – and too happy – winning silverware at Old Trafford, carving out a career as football’s most successful manager bar none.

One thing’s for certain: Trepidation would be the dominant emotion next season. Followers of Manchester United would find it more than a bit unnerving – orphaning even – to see someone else patrolling the touchline. And there won’t be the comfort of witnessing Scholes busily, and unfussily, manning the midfield. The brows of Liverpool supporters, meanwhile, might be a bit more furrowed when next an offensive move is directed towards their goal, knowing that there would be no ‘Carra’ to provide robust defence. And no longer will we set eyes on the darting runs of Owen, or the mathematically-pinpoint and geometry-defying crosses of Beckham.

More than their skills, however, it is this quintet’s professionalism, and unswerving loyalty to football’s traditions, that will be missed. What they leave behind is an unquestionable commitment to the game and an indomitable desire to excel. Coming generations would do well to follow their examples, once they’ve realized that legacy has nothing at all to do with fat salaries, penthouses and all-night benders.

They might as well have had Cliff Richard’s ‘It’s so funny (how we don’t talk anymore)’ playing in the background while Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia were slugging it out at TPC Sawgrass during The Players Championship. It felt like a scene straight out of a Western, the two gun-slinging protagonists wordlessly plotting to ‘smoke’ each other out. The atmospherics spoke of an eerie lull before the electric storm.

Sporting rivalries, of course, haven’t always been about hushed animosities and undertows of friction. In play, two competitors might be trying their darnedest to stamp their superiority, stretching the rules for that tiniest advantage, flirting with the line that one dare not cross. The Late, Great Severiano Ballesteros was a past master at on-course ‘brinkmanship’. Tigerishly competitive (especially when opposed by an American, especially during the Ryder Cup), Ballesteros relished the needle of one-on-one contests for it brought out the best in him.

Garcia, too, needs the high-voltage drama of a Ryder Cup to feel at home (just what is it about the Spaniards and the Americans?). For in the white-heat crucible of the majors, the 33-year-old has struggled to crack the code. Like a few others (Ernie Els, for one), he’s had the sheer bad fortune to have been born in the same era as one Eldrick Woods (a quirk of destiny that the magisterial Walter Hammond – to use an example from another sport – would have empathized with back when the utilitarian Don Bradman was taking all the fun out of batting).

That sun-dappled late-summer afternoon at Medinah Country Club, Chicago, seems so far away now. Woods, the frontrunner on the final day of the 1999 PGA Championship (as he would be in major championships for much of the following decade), suddenly found himself tailgated by a whippersnapper from Borriol (Castellón), Spain, with talent and moxie to match. It was rousing stuff, up there with the best closing-day tussles in golf’s history book. Garcia’s eyes-closed all-or-nothing shot, with green unsighted, from behind a tree on the 16th hole, was as outrageous as any Seve conjured up in his prime, a low fade that curved towards and then onto the green. That scamper onto the fairway and the scissor-kick jump, as he tried to follow the ball’s flight, has been enshrined in legend (Garcia ultimately finished a stroke behind Woods).

It did, back then, appear as if Spain – and Europe – had found her successor to Ballesteros, a golfer with as much spunk and effrontery as the feisty Seve. Almost 14 years on, however, it seems like an impossible Technicolor dream, too good, it turns out, to be true. Woods, for all his (well documented) travails, both on and off the course, is still 14 majors up. Garcia has 0, contender many times over (18 top-10s, on three occasions going toe-to-toe with Woods but fading away in the face of the Californian’s red-hot brilliance) but never The Man.

Woods not so much as intimidates or bullies Garcia as cheese him off. The Spaniard goes into a contest with TW hoping rather than believing he can win. “What’s the point?” El Niño might as well be asking. Clearly, all those close-but-no-cigar denouements have taken their toll on Garcia. Instead of a man who should be approaching the high noon of his golfing life, you have someone who feels lugubriously hard done by, a victim of The Fates. The latest instalment of the TW-SG rivalry, in golf’s ‘fifth’ major, was less notable for the golf (though that in itself was gripping) than the frosty vibes each seemed to give out. Tiger had his eye on victory (on a course he had little time for); Sergio looked as if he couldn’t care less.

Despite his occasionally charmless and petulant demeanour, it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for Garcia, a fine enough player without being compared to Woods, and at his very best a shotmaker as good as any in this era. On the flip side, it’s always been difficult to engage with the greatest-after-Nicklaus, he of the gimlet-eyed focus and a game face of uncommon intensity. While universally respected for his accomplishments, Woods has never been the easiest of fellows to admire. Post-scandal, however, we have come to appreciate a less aloof, and a more human, man. Why, he’s even lightened up a bit.

It’s a pity, this golfing cold war, for theirs could have been a wonderful rivalry, a duel of opposites – the frighteningly single-minded American pitted against the oftentimes ornery European. Yet the more chances that have slipped by for Garcia to win a major, the more disinterest he has shown in being bothered about the ‘big ones’ (in a moment of candour, he admitted after the 2012 Masters that he wasn’t “good enough” to be a major winner). Woods, meanwhile, has been relentless in his pursuit of success, intently eyeing the peaks as the rest struggled to leave base camp. So while the rivalry sparked only intermittently (simply because one had the measure of the other), the Woods-Vijay Singh and Woods-Mickelson matchups turned out to be intriguing asides, because they too had their share of little acrimonies.

With Woods now back in his element (and back at number one), and Rory McIlroy threatening to make the next decade his, a rivalry for the ages beckons. There’s mutual respect there, and also a jokey geniality. This forecast is of sunny skies, as meteorologically distant from the cumulonimbus rumble of the Woods-Garcia pairing as it’s possible to be. (Or maybe some of those ridiculously young Asians could throw the gauntlet down to the American and the Northern Irishman, and make golf’s next chapter an Asia v Europe/US one.)

As for Garcia, he’s still young enough to have plenty more shots at majors, though all those near-misses must have left their scars on that fragile psyche. He could do much worse than take a leaf out of Seve Ballesteros’s manual, ‘How to annoy the Americans’ (only, Woods is not easily riled). Bloody Tiger, Garcia might conceivably mutter to himself every time he steps up to the tee, and sees Señor Woods gleefully shadowing him, ready to consign him to second-best, yet again.

And if he’s well and truly done with golf (which I hope isn’t so), Garcia could consider a career as a blues musician – there’s plenty life material there, plenty of could-have-beens and should-have-beens (courtesy Tiger, Padraig Harrington et al) to fill an album or three. “Woke up this morning…” Yeah, you get the drift.

My most abiding image of those uncompromising men from the other side of the world was formed by the 1989 Ashes, the first England-Australia tug-of-war I took any sort of interest in.

Around the same time, shortwave radio (those were the days!) introduced me to Aussie rock – or at least rock with a uniquely Australian inflection. And it wasn’t INXS (though I would, in time, come to ‘dig’ this six-piece, with their infectiously catchy groove-laced rock). Just as Allan Border’s band of men were devouring the Englishmen as if they were juicy steaks on a midsummer barbecue, through the airwaves crackled the outback-marinated vocals of Pete Garrett, and the politico-ecological beef of his no-frills outfit, Midnight Oil (formed 1972).

The song was ‘Beds are Burning’, parachuting into the charts in that summer of ’89, a bit-part player as unexpected as, well, an Aussie cricketer asked to do his homework. The Brits indulged the Oils as if they were a long-lost, and slightly barmy, member of the family (Border & Co, meanwhile, were dismissed as lightweights, no-hopers against the might of England). But it wasn’t as if Australia hadn’t figured in recent memory. Just three years earlier, Crocodile Dundee had become a huge crossover hit (even if it begat a stereotype of the Aussie male, a tough but genial “cobber”); a year later, Pat Cash won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon.

But more than the music, it was the cricketers from Down Under that caught my imagination (and caused no end of anguish to this growing boy: how dare these gum-chewing so-and-sos beat my adopted team?). Border, the teak-tough, no-nonsense Queenslander, had the misfortune to inherit a side that had seen three giants (Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee, Rodney Marsh) walk away from international cricket, and a few more good ’uns choose money over country, joining a rebel tour to South Africa (then still very much in the iron-grip of apartheid). The Aussies were poor. So were the English. But the latter prevailed, more often than not, in contests between the two countries.

It had, in fact, been more than six years since Australia last held the Ashes, a point of fact no self-respecting Aussie was prepared to take lying down. On being appointed captain (following Kim Hughes’s tearjerker of an exit), Border had asked Ian Chappell if the latter had any advice to part with. Chappelli offered, “Just don’t lose to the bloody Poms!” A gruff fellow (not for nothing was he nicknamed “Grumpy”), ‘AB’ resolved to give David Gower’s Englishmen the silent treatment, mulishly setting out to play the antagonist. The ‘Poms’ were there to be beaten, not socialized with.

Luckily, he had the personnel at his disposal, fellows who’d outdo each other in truculence and meanness: Geoff Marsh and Steve Waugh, flinty warriors who’d give their wickets away only over their dead bodies; David Boon, gunpowder-in-a-keg stout and frontline combatant (and still, I hear, the holder of the record for the most cans of beer imbibed on a Sydney-London flight); the menacing Merv Hughes, with his magnificent whiskers and a lumbering run-up that (somehow) forged pace like fire; Ian Healy, new behind the timbers but already with a reputation of being an almighty scrapper; and Geoff Lawson, arch-adversary of the English and, nine years on from his Test debut, more senior craftsman than young tearaway but still the epitome of pace-bowling malice.

Border was only carrying on a recent Australian tradition (started by Ian Chappell’s feisty and hard-nosed bunch in the 1970s), that of playing the role of hard bastards to the hilt. Gower said he couldn’t recall a more unfriendlier group of Australians than the 1989 tourists. Almost a quarter-century on, the belligerent and bloody-minded Australian, a species peculiar to the island-continent, seems to have vanished. It looks as if it went with Ricky Ponting, the last of the belligerents. In the recent Test rubber against India, the Aussies just didn’t show up. They must have misplaced their mojo in transit for the series felt like a late-Edwardian tea party (complete with cucumber sandwiches and dainty cups of tea). And when the beleaguered visitors did manage to summon up their inner Rottweiler, it was far too late.

And what of the music scene Down Under, post-Midnight Oil? Their distinctively Australian brand of protest songs, championing the rights of the country’s indigenous people and crusading for Mother Earth, seem to belong to the past. But the message was blunt, and the sentiment behind the lyrics deadly earnest. The Oils would wind down their career in 2002 so that Garrett could focus on his activism and political career (he served as minister for environment, heritage and the arts, in Kevin Rudd’s Labor administration [2007-10]).

So where are the ‘fair dinkum’ Aussies, plain-speaking folks who’d call a spade a spade (anyone remember Paul Keating, the refreshingly straight-shooting prime minister of Oz [1991-96], who once, memorably, called one world leader a “recalcitrant”?)? Three months down the road, an Ashes series will be upon us again (then yet another, at year’s end), not much time for Michael Clarke and his cohorts to find their moxie. They’ll never be a patch on the hard men of yore, but they sure can make themselves hard to beat.

Still, whatever the 2013-14 Ashes double header brings, I do hope we haven’t heard the last of the hard bastards. The Australians’ bushfire wisdom and their wit (as dry as this vast nation’s hardscrabble interior) never failed to enliven conversation, while an eagerness for a scrap always made sportsmen from Down Under compulsive viewing. An anodyne Australian would be more than an oxymoron. It would be a requiem for the genuine article: a down-to-earth, resourceful and (if roused) sharp-tongued bloke loath to complicate life. As if the ‘global village’ wasn’t already over-homogenized.

When, after going through many an old issue of The Cricketer monthly (now long gone), I became sufficiently enthused to turn into a writer on cricket (years after reaching the realization that I was hopelessly inadequate at making it to club – let alone Test – level), I figured what a fantastic life it would be covering the game and its characters. And travelling the world doing so (still a dream).

It was those sketches of players from decades past – some beautifully evoked in cameos of 800 words, others intriguingly elaborated on in wordy, essay-length pieces, yet others over-egged profiles in reams of rococo prose – that caught my still-young imagination, compositions not only describing feats of grandeur by the masters of old, but also the epiphanies of journeymen grafters.

All that came back to me when I read this week of the passing away of Frank Keating, one of England’s finest sportswriters, and a fellow who could bring to life sporting personalities with portraits that charmed the reader, displaying a love of, and empathy for, their subject. What Keating did brilliantly was convey the joy that sportsmen, of every skill and of every station, felt making a living out of sport.

Getting into the skin of sportsmen and sportswomen, trying to understand their emotions, their troubles, their worries, their insecurities, and making sense (or trying to) of their foibles – that’s what the best sportswriting succeeds in doing. Yet it’s becoming increasingly difficult, in this hard-nosed and starkly-black-and-white age of ours, to find such writing (there are, as always, exceptions to the rule). Are we living in such a joyless universe that we’ve become immune to celebrating the best that sport has to offer?

Sympathy is in short supply. These are times of unblinking (and often unthinking) opinion, where a missed penalty, a dropped catch or a fluffed three-footer is pounced upon (or, in the mouth of hyperbolic commentators, labelled a “disaster” or “a tragedy”). There probably isn’t room for the over-romanticized wordsmithery of a Neville Cardus (or maybe there is, for wouldn’t a painter of words or two sweeten the tart aftertaste of many a withering putdown?).

Honesty and straight talk (of the Antipodean sort) for the purposes of exposing drug cheats, match fixers – or frauds of any shade – is perfectly acceptable. Sarcasm for pricking pretence is fine too. But why come down hard on the unfortunate individual who just happened to fluff their lines? It’s as if mistakes have no part to play in the amphitheatre that is modern sport. It takes a journalist/writer of rare compassion to look beyond the choke and identify with the young woman who has double-faulted her way to a loss in a grand slam semi-final. Much of contemporary reportage has taken the pleasure out of the spectacle (or maybe it’s a reflection of present-day competition, where winning is all that counts).

Sport is so full of human stories, but much writing on sport fails to accept, to understand, the humanity behind it all. Flawed athletes make for fascinating character studies, yet the flaws, rather than being given an empathetic airing, are ruthlessly picked apart (“This guy won’t cut it at the top level – he simply hasn’t got the nerve”). Vultures in press boxes seem a mite too eager to swoop on the latest failure, whether of greenhorn or gnarled pro, captured in full glare of the world’s cameras. The media seem to be more versed in ‘mental disintegration’ than any fair dinkum Aussie worth his salt.

I wonder how a Ray Robinson would get by in today’s dog-eat-dog world of newspaper and magazine journalism. Robinson, an Australian, was a brilliant cricket miniaturist, a bloke who, fascinated by a facet – or a quirk – of a cricketer, would expand on that detail in uncomplicated but shimmering prose, trying to figure out what made the cobber tick. With Robinson, there was no overanalyzing of technique, no surgical dismantling of temperament, only a relish in the tradesman and his craft.

Sport, paradoxically, has become more tribal as it has become more international. Yet there’s more interest around the globe, a growing desire to know, and find out about, a particularly gifted midfielder from Poland, or a classical wrist-spinner from Bendigo, Victoria, or a young lady from Medellin especially adept at the sliced backhand, or a sprinter from Lagos with a phenomenally quick burst of speed. It’s a delight to be able to feast eyes on new talent, as much as it is to witness a maestro summoning up a last effort of willpower and aplomb.

The many who make up the numbers with admirable perseverance wouldn’t be doing so if they didn’t enjoy chasing that solitary moment of glory. Sport should always be about the players, about the soul behind that chunk of willow, that frame of graphite, behind the technology that (seemingly invariably) goes into the making of modern champions. When we marvel at a Djokovic or a Rooney in action, we live vicariously for the star we could have been. Why, I wonder, do we not feel for the dogged but luckless participant, the athlete who gives their all but falls valiantly short? We’ll root for the underdog but are we, deep down, voyeurs, running down second-bests?

Sadly, patience is no longer a virtue, and thoughtful reflection a quality so old-fashioned it might as well be given a decent burial. Sport is enriching because it fuses the ordinary with the extraordinary – without the former, there would be no podium finishes, no medal places. The script would remain unwritten (and it’s not always the winners that write the script). Sport is incomplete without its bridesmaids.

The Fab Four redefined popular music, pushed the proverbial envelop as far as it could go (and then some more), leaving behind a body of work that will always inspire, a legacy that is unlikely to ever dim.

The Fab Four of modern tennis – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – will, surely, leave as lasting an impression on the future of their sport. Lucky we are, indeed, to have witnessed the flowering and the flourishing of these singular talents in the last half-decade or so. This is a constellation as bright as any the game has seen.

It got me thinking: which of these leading lights would be dead ringers (personality-wise, of course) for Liverpool’s most famous sons?

Paul McCartney’s winning charm, Here, There, and Everywhere ubiquity, and his iconic musical personality make him the perfect fit for Federer. Besides enthralling audiences with his refined court-craft, the Swiss virtuoso has the knack of being in the right place at the right time (even his boasts don’t sound arrogant). But just as Macca, England’s barometer of feelgood, has a mushy-nostalgic side to him – in his quirky dancehall Englishness, and a tendency to sugarcoat his undoubted lyrical ability with a little too much tweeness – so too does Federer.

Just as Macca, in tribute to those tunesmiths of old, has mined the songbook, so too has the 17-time Grand-Slam winner shown respect for what has come before him, aware that he’s both the taker – a link to the game’s history – and passer of tennis’s baton. Federer’s been known to get weepy on occasions (so overcome was he with emotion once, upon receiving the Australian Open trophy from Aussie legend Rod Laver, that he blubbed right there on court, in front of the great man).

Just like Macca, Federer can bring out the sentimental in us. But he’s extraordinarily (and universally) well-liked, possessing a planet-encompassing popularity which rivals that of Sir Paul (now Brit-Pop’s elder statesman). His on-court symphonies are the equal of some of the Liverpool knight’s finest compositions (just don’t expect him to be creating magic when he’s 64).

John Lennon’s character would go to Murray, an often-contrarian fellow who, like Lennon, has never been the easiest person to warm to (that lachrymose performance at Wimbledon this year – ah, tears again! – and his subsequent success at the Olympic Games and the US Open, has got folks all over opening their hearts to him. A 21st century Everyman?).

Murray’s early struggles to break into the exclusive club have been well documented. By dint of talent, he belonged, but achievement didn’t meet early promise. His inability to land a Grand Slam until recently gave him a prickliness, a me-against-the-world defensiveness (shades of John McEnroe?) that he’d let slip with terse and offhand responses to inquisitorial queries. Lennon, arch debunker of pompousness, was the master of the withering putdown – in lyric as well as in public (memorably, he had a go at McCartney; remember How Do You Sleep??).

But if you forget, for one moment, his public persona, Murray comes across as a regular guy: straight-up honest and unpretentious, someone focused on winning matches, tournaments and Slams, someone happiest when he’s on court dismantling opponents with delightful sleight of hand (the tennis equivalent of psychedelic whimsy). Like the iconoclastic-minded Lennon, Murray’s engaging because he’s so refreshingly not anodyne. But the Walrus (or eggman) he ain’t.

George Harrison was content to let his guitar do the talking. And Rafa Nadal is in much the same mould, a tennis pro most at ease with racquet in hand (which he wields as a torero would bait a bull). The prowling Spaniard is the ‘quiet’ one of the quartet, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t short of a word or three, if he wants to get something off his chest.

If Harrison ever felt frustrated within the close-knit family that was The Beatles, it was when his occasional forays into songwriting failed to earn any appreciation from the band’s chief lyricists. Little annoys Nadal (apart from the chap across the net – nothing personal, of course – who he’d dearly love to outmuscle off the court with his heavy-metal technique). But, well, he too can be vocal (court conditions, drug-testing procedures), though critics have painted these outbursts (unjustly) as the whinges of a grump when things aren’t going his way.

It rarely ever seemed to bother Harrison that a good deal of the attention was on Lennon and McCartney. He quietly carried on laying down the chords, burnishing the band’s tunes with his no-frills but expressive playing. Nadal, too, is more than glad to let Federer hog the glory, and consciously ignore the hoo-ha that might surround a contest or a rivalry. And odds are that it’s his opponent’s racquet, rather than the Majorcan’s, that’ll be ‘gently weeping’ at match-end.

Finally, Djokovic can audition for Ringo. The only time one knew Ringo was around in a Beatles number was when the drums came in. Otherwise, he was pretty much anonymous. The absurdly fit and lithe Djokovic, with his blood-and-thunder tennis, is far from being anonymous, but he’s so superb all-round that no facet of his game stands out; he’s the complete player. Ringo, too, was darn good at what he did; and when no one notices you, it means you’re doing alright.

Ringo was the joker in the pack. ‘Nole’ is the ‘Djoker’ amongst the four, capable of hilarious take-offs on his fellow pros; but the Serb’s deadly serious with a match, or a Slam, on the line. Behind the levity resides a fiercely determined competitor. Ringo, too, was a proud craftsman; he might play the clown but behind the drum-kit, he was all business. On court, Djoko is a fearsome prospect for anyone to take on; squaring up against him is like being invited to the Octopus’s Garden party.

Unlikely, though, that there will ever be a bitter parting of ways among this quadrumvirate. There’s just too much respect going around. For as long as they’re excelling, Federer, Murray, Nadal and Djokovic will keep on bringing the best out of each other, and leave as many moments to savour as the original Fabs did. For us privileged observers, in stadia or in front of the screen, the Love Me Do lovefest continues.

New York’s Patti Smith gave us one of rock’s seminal moments. The brilliant ‘Horses’ (1975) packed the three-chord primitivism of punk, sulphurous lyrics and a kick-in-the-guts delivery. Smith, 65, has returned this year with her 11th studio album, the first since 2004’s ‘Trampin’ (her take on post-9/11 America that merged searing rage with an uncommon empathy). ‘Banga’ is worlds away from the bite and power of her debut but is, nonetheless, as fine a set of songs as she’s ever put together.

Poet, punk-rocker, weaver of stories, Smith is a child of the Big Apple’s DIY punk scene. She has been at the forefront of not just ‘rock’ but of culture for close on 40 years. The new decade has seen something of a creative revival for this most original of artistes. ‘Just Kids’, Smith’s graceful and affecting memoir of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe – two budding artists finding their way in the world – won the ‘National Book Award’ (USA) last year. And ‘Banga’, it appears, has been in the works for a while. It’s certainly been worth the wait.

As she has always done, Smith seamlessly fuses the personal with the universal. Except this time around, she has brought it off with a scope and ambition that dazzles. It’s as if she had a canvas in front of her, and a palette of dreams, observations and thoughts eddying around in her head, clamouring for attention. The resulting ‘brushstrokes’ are a mosaic of moods, and even if it lacks the spit and snarl of her early work, ‘Banga’ is still a masterpiece, a record of depth and delicate beauty.

The music apart, there’s a free-flow lushness, a poetic quality, to Smith’s writing in the album’s liner notes (before breaking through as a musician, she was a post-Beat poet ‘performing’ readings at ‘gigs’ around NY). “New songs were written at sea, in Hoboken, New Jersey, in Electric Lady (studios, New York City), and on the road – from Assisi to San Juan. They reflect our travels, our concerns and the musical evolution of each band member,” reveals Smith in the accompanying text.

If there is a melancholia coursing through ‘Banga’ it is because this world can be, well, a rather lugubrious place. But it’s a melancholia that’s imbued with hope, a hope that humankind will survive despite man’s avarice (and despite nature’s increasingly wrathful ways). Blunt yet sympathetic, Smith filters her reflections on the world today – in all its complexity, wonder and chaos – through dream and reality. This delicious dichotomy makes for a sometimes surreal listening experience.

‘Banga’ opens with the overture of Amerigo, a song about voyage and discovery – more specifically, about Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (the first man to ascertain that the continents of North and South America – the ‘New World’ – were distinct from Asia). A song, too, about condescending Europeans, obsessed with shining a ‘civilizing’ light on a ‘cultural’ darkness. “I imagined,” Smith writes in the text, “Vespucci coming to the New World with great expectations that they would convert the natives, only to find himself utterly transformed by the purity of the land and the people.” No saving of the savages’ souls here, then. As Smith sings, ‘But wisdom we had not / For these people had neither King nor Lord / And bowed to no one / And they had lived in their own liberty’. Oh, the simplistic assumptions of the colonialists!

In the plangent Fuji-San, a rock song penned in the memory of those who lost their lives in the horrific tsunami that struck Japan in early 2011, Smith calls to Mother Nature for a “protective cloak of love” (liner notes). Jack Petruzzelli’s guitar rings out with an emotive punch that provides a perfect foil for Smith’s prayer-like vocal. This is the Girl, a tribute to the tortured Amy Winehouse, is proof that Smith can do pretty and tender. In a melody that hints at the doo-wop harmonies so beloved of Winehouse, Smith sings of one who “yearned to be heard”. It’s beautifully heartfelt and not in the least mawkish.

The title track is vintage Patti. It’s an acidic, angry, whirligig of a rocker that first smoulders and then “explodes” into a wall (and wail) of siren-like guitars mimicking the frenzy of the words. Words that Smith initially chants, then howls; her delivery on Banga is an unsettling mix of menace and fury. Banga, incidentally, is the name of the dog in Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s most celebrated novel, ‘The Master and Margarita’, a wicked satire set in an atheistic Soviet Union.

But Bulgakov isn’t the only nod to Russia here. The spooky meanderings and spoken-word shimmer of Tarkovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter) – a “response” to a film (‘Ivan’s Childhood’) by Andrei Tarkovsky, screen legend and father of metaphysical cinema – are carried along on the improvisatory atmospherics of cosmic-jazz dude Sun Ra. The feverish wordplay of the 10-minute Constantine’s Dream, meanwhile, hints at a nightmare vision of ecological apocalypse. It gives Smith room to ruminate on art and on nature, using imagery both religious and secular.

Then, as if to lift the gloom, she closes with a consoling cover of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. On ‘Banga’, Smith holds out hope for humanity, holds out hope that light can penetrate even the darkest corners. Part seer, part shaman, she continues to open our ears and eyes to the reality around us. There are, today, few more honest delineators of the human condition. We should treasure her.

Last week, two South African sportsmen, at different junctures of their sporting lives, gave the world moments to savour. One, a cricketer, composed a symphony of such attractiveness and aplomb that it even had the old-timers in raptures. The other, a golfer, displayed character and flintiness to add another ‘big one’ to his collection, when many thought his best days behind him. To admiring onlookers at Lytham St Anne’s (Lancashire) and Kennington (London), these men performed with a grace and magnanimity of spirit very rarely seen nowadays. But above all, Hashim Amla and Ernie Els showed they were ideal representatives of the Rainbow Nation.

At first, Hashim Mahomed Amla didn’t set the international game alight. His technique against the rising ball was quickly found out, and there were murmurs that he was a ‘quota’ selection. Plainly, Amla was not ready for Test cricket. Rather than being disheartened by those early failures, he went back to domestic cricket to relearn his game, to prepare assiduously for the day he next received the call-up. Since his return, in late 2007, he has made the number three spot his own. Today, Amla, 29, is as inseparable from one-down as was his predecessor, Jacques Kallis.

Indeed, watching him compile that masterpiece at a (latterly) sun-dappled Oval, Amla almost resembled Kallis both in his barndoor solidity and the ease with which the runs flowed off his bat. I’d go so far as to say that there’s no finer batsman in the world today than this Durbanite. Neither the placidity of the pitch nor the (surprising) ineffectiveness of the home side’s attack should take anything away from a mighty effort. Amla’s triple against the Englishmen had everything: wristy flicks to the onside, delightful back cuts, sweetly-timed drives to cover and (best of the lot) effortless punches off the back foot. All this buttressed by a sound defence.

Fully forward or back, defence or attack, Amla committed himself one way or the other; rarely, if ever, did he find himself betwixt and between (or becalmed). And he looked as fresh upon reaching 300, on day four, as he did when asking for his guard on the second evening. That speaks of a fellow fit in body and agile in mind. Had there been enough time, Amla would surely have breached 400, so serene was his progress. Neither a pace bowler’s thunderbolts nor a spinner’s bite is ever likely to discomfit him.

A recording of his 311* should be shown to every schoolkid with dreams of test cricket in their eyes. Magnificently bewhiskered, and modest to a fault, if anything’s a dead cert, it is that Hashim Amla, prince among batsmen, is on his way to a glorious career for South Africa.

When it comes to economy of method, Theodore Ernest ‘Ernie’ Els, 42, does not suffer in comparison with Amla. His swing has always been a thing of beauty, a natural synchronisation of muscle. Yet in the last five years or so, golf has been anything but straightforward for the ‘Big Easy’, the wins becoming sporadic, fallow interregna the norm. Still, though the majors kept slipping through his grasp, though form would suddenly forsake him, Els never lost heart, bravely taking life’s unkindnesses on the chin.

Els was 32 when he last celebrated a major win (which also happened to be the British Open, at Muirfield in 2002). The feeling endures that he should have won more but for the supremacy of one Tiger Woods (to whom Els has been runner-up thrice in majors, out of a total of six second-place finishes). His ‘lack’ of success at the topmost level led some (prematurely) to insert a what-might-have-been slant to Els’ career story, a story that was far from over.

Despite the exasperating dips in form, despite those near misses (despite Tiger), Els has maintained his sanguinity and his dignity. Having a son who is autistic certainly puts things into perspective, makes you realise that golf is not the be-all and end-all. Away from the tour pro’s globetrotting existence, Els has dedicatedly concerned himself with charities which raise money for those afflicted with autism, while his Foundation looks after the educational needs of children, from underprivileged backgrounds, who demonstrate a talent and a spark for golf.

But golf is Els’ life, and after years of disappointment, he looks to be enjoying the game again. His performance at Royal Lytham was in keeping with a modern trend, that of golfers prospering in their 40s. Vijay Singh showed that life can begin again after 40, and there’s no reason why Els cannot become his country’s most successful professional golfer. The indefatigable Gary Player has nine major wins; Els is currently tied with Bobby Locke on four. The Open Championship triumph really does feel like a turning of the corner for this immensely likeable South African.

In their inspiring feats this past week, and in their life stories, Hashim Amla and Ernie Els have unequivocally proven that a quietness of ambition and decency of endeavour have their place in the universe of modern sport. So, too, does the gentleman sportsman.

Rahul Dravid’s recent remark that he “maybe thought too much about technique,” put me in mind of another technician. Mark Ramprakash, who retired earlier this month, would also obsess about the nuts and bolts of his game (though someone who ended up with 35,659 first-class runs surely can’t have been so distracted by method that he disregarded the business, and the pleasure, of scoring runs).

Ramprakash, of Middlesex, Surrey and England, made his first-class debut way back in 1987. That’s 25 years ago, a full quarter-century. ‘Ramps’ was the last link to a decade that had as its soundtrack the storm-tossed symphonies of the West Indian quartets. It feels like another age.

Margaret Thatcher was in power, striding ever so purposefully, and provocatively, towards a place in history. Charles & Di were six years married. Madonna’s La Isla Bonita was number one in the charts. The top flight of English football was the First Division (no overpaid Premier League show-ponies here). Imran Khan’s Pakistanis were about to embark on a victorious tour of England (a tour whose undertow of mistrust would flare up later that year in the infamous and unseemly Mike Gatting-Shakoor Rana contretemps). And, for what it matters, I was on the cusp of my teens, trying desperately to impress the chaps who mattered at prep school that I was worth a punt in the cricket XI (I failed).

It was a time when the national cricket team ― Botham, Gower, Gooch, Gatting et al ― was middling at best (they beat the Aussies, and that was what mattered), and the game’s governing body (then the TCCB) muddled along much of the time (the counties called the shots; there was no concept of ‘Team England’). It was into such a cricketing milieu that Mark Ravin Ramprakash walked, and immediately caught the eye.

The 17-year-old scored 17 and 63 not out in a county championship game at Lord’s. It was an assured innings against a decent Yorkshire attack boasting the medium-fast wiles of Arnie Sidebottom (father of Roger Daltrey lookalike Ryan), the parsimonious left-arm spin of Phil Carrick and skiddy pace of Paul Jarvis (a quick bowler of immense potential who but for injury, and unsympathetic selectors, would have played more for England).

To keen observers, it was obvious that here was a talent cut from a different cloth (his father was Guyanese, his mother English, Caribbean fecundity and English detachment in one body). Ramprakash possessed a technique to keep out the most searching of bowling (fast, swing and spin), and a range of strokes all round the wicket. Temperamentally, too, he looked the part. Those early impressions were confirmed a year later when Ramprakash, 18, guided Middlesex to a nervy three-wicket win in the domestic knockout cup final, playing an astonishingly cool hand of 56, on a Lord’s pitch that had more in it for seam and swerve than usual.

Since Ramprakash called time on his career, many of the tributes focused on what he didn’t accomplish in his career, rather than what he did. What he did achieve was, let’s face it, monumental. Ramprakash’s glorious late summer and autumn called to mind the run-harvesting feats of the masters of old: Hobbs, Hendren, Hammond, Mead, Sutcliffe. In the chocolate brown of Surrey, he was a man at the height of his powers, a craftsman beyond compare, untouchable among willow-wielders of the land. Ramprakash was England’s champion batsman.

Though he had scored stacks of elegant runs for Middlesex, Ramprakash really flowered when he crossed the Thames to Surrey, in 2001. At The Oval (and elsewhere), runs came in torrents (but with easy panache): he averaged 100 over the 2006 and ‘07 seasons, a feat only a select few had pulled off (Bradman, Boycott and Gooch, among them), and 50 every season bar 2011 and ’12. The most wondrous of his exploits was that of becoming the 25th batsman to reach 100 first-class hundreds, possibly the truest measure of desire, dominance and longevity. It was almost as if we were back in the days of Hobbs and Co.

England might have seen the best of Ramprakash had he cast off the shackles more often, as he so memorably did when participating in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, the BBC reality show which he won with some style in 2006-07 (those effortless salsa moves evoked the surefootedness of his best batsmanship). In 1991, the first time he pulled on an England sweater (literally, for it was at a frigid Headingley), he showed equanimity and courage in a pair of 27s, in never the best of light, against an attack of Curtly Ambrose, Patrick Patterson, Courtney Walsh and Malcolm Marshall. Those knocks seemed to sum up Ramprakash: promise aplenty but, alas, unfulfilled. His stop-start career seemed to epitomize English cricket’s lost decade.

Yet, we should be grateful that Ramprakash didn’t allow his lack of fulfilment at the international level rob him of his love for the game. County cricket gave him a keener focus, renewed spirit and contentment. He responded with a refreshing loyalty. At his happiest, at his most confident, he was a stylist among batsmen. His farewell wasn’t in the script; no Rolls-Royce innings to set hearts aflutter. But by any yardstick, Mark Ramprakash was a success, his 25 years in cricket bubbling over with champagne moments that will warm many a memory.

A blend of music and sport (my two passions) this week. The superb ‘Chariots of Fire’ will see a July rerelease to dovetail with the London Olympic Games. There won’t be a better occasion than this Olympic summer for today’s moviegoers to acquaint themselves with this heart-stirrer of a period film, a slice of cinema that attempted to portray sporting endeavour at its most noblest. It succeeded evocatively, and magnificently.

The uplifting title music of ‘Chariots of Fire’ has an understated drama about it, and my first memory of hearing it goes back to the Los Angeles Olympics (when it would introduce each day’s action). The 1984 Games, held among the still deep-frost of the Cold War, wasn’t the most fraternal, what with Russia (or the Soviet Union, as it was called back then), and most of the nations of the erstwhile Soviet bloc, choosing to boycott the quadrennial (a tit-for-tat of the USA’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics). It was a stand vehemently at odds with the Olympic ideal. But, I digress.

A British undertaking through and through, directed by Hugh Hudson and produced by David Puttnam, ‘Chariots of Fire’ has as its narrative the memorable clash between a couple of British track athletes, Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Abrahams (who competed in the 100m and 200m sprints at the 1924 Games), a pertinacious Englishman and a Jew, competes to demonstrate that men and women of his faith are in no way lesser beings than those belonging to other creeds; Liddell (400m) is a dutiful Christian from Scotland who runs for the glory of God.

‘Chariots of Fire’ is the story, then, of these two determined and driven men, and their personal voyages of self-realization. The aspirations of Abrahams and Liddell (victory and glory, but not at all costs) are the same, but not their motivation. The film, unconsciously (but never preachily), champions those old-fashioned (and, nowadays, much-mocked) values of amateurism and Corinthian fair play.

Musically, ‘Chariots of Fire’ is not a vehicle for rousing, tub-thumping refrains. The film is carried along on a soundtrack that has drama and sensibility. Like the best soundtracks, it sculpts the mood, nudges the action along, enters and leaves at just the right moments. Vangelis’ score never intrudes, never commandeers the visuals; it glides into the proceedings, a splendid accompaniment to what we are seeing. It provides the perfect aural backdrop.

For ‘Chariots of Fire’, multi-genre Greek composer Vangelis (Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, to give him his full name) chose to give the impossibly lush orchestrations of the soundtracks of the time a miss. He plumped, instead, for synthesizers (predominantly) and piano. It was a radical departure from the likes of John Barry (he of 007 fame) and his pretty compositions. That the score did not drown in a discordant deluge of keyboard noise was a tribute to Vangelis’ compositional command, a sharp ear for setting and an unerring knack for creating the right sonic ambience. It is possible, in these arrangements, to hear the influences of the great symphonists.

While itself an enjoyable album heard on its own, the ‘Chariots of Fire’ soundtrack carries more emotional heft when listened to alongside the film, especially since all but one of the seven ‘tracks’ is an instrumental. The odd one out is the poignant Jerusalem, a 1916 work of English composer Hubert Parry. Often sung as a hymn at church services, Jerusalem, a paean to a pastoral beauty menaced by encroaching industrialization, also inspired the film title. Almost a century on, it has become England’s unofficial national anthem (and a popular singalong at sporting events).

The slow-building, and much played, Titles (remembered largely for the iconic beach-running scene) is a grand piece of music, symphonic if not in scope then at least in effect; as it soars on a buoyant piano, it stays on the right side of sentimental. Meanwhile, the heart-warming Five Circles evokes the majesty of the works of the great composers, the synthesizers eloquently mimicking a Mozartian blast of trumpets. And where Abraham’s Theme is subdued, melancholic almost, Eric’s Theme rings with hope.

‘Chariots of Fire’ was nominated for seven Academy awards, winning four (including ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Original Screenplay’ and ‘Best Original Music Score’). Of course, the London Games will have its own theme tune, but there’ll likely be plenty of airplay given to the title music of a movie made 31 years ago. It may well become the soundtrack to the XXX Olympiad. And hopefully, the stories of Abrahams and Liddell will inspire athletes to feats worthy of the planet’s greatest sporting event (minus the modern proclivity for skulduggery and sharp practice).