The Spin | What should sport's position be in the British honours system?
In 2009, aged 33 and four years before he retired from active competition, the cyclist Chris Hoy was knighted. “To become a knight from riding your bike, it’s mad,” he said. Five years earlier the rower Matthew Pinsent, already an MBE, OBE and CBE and still only 34, had been similarly honoured. “I was shocked,” he said. “I wasn’t convinced the powers that be would believe I’d done enough.” Andy Murray, then 29, and Mo Farah, then 33, were both knighted in the 2017 New Year’s honours list, when the rower Katherine Grainger, 41, and heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, 30, were made dames. “It’s a big honour, but with that comes a bit more responsibility,” Murray said. “I’m still competing and obviously don’t want anything to distract me or affect my performance on the court.”
This is not a problem that many cricketers have had to cope with. In the entire history of the sport, only one British cricketer has been either knighted or made a dame before they retired from playing: Alastair Cook, in 2018. His is the only English cricketing knighthood to have been bestowed on an athlete in their 30s – of the 15 cricketing knights 10 were at least 60, and there have been as many in their 80s (two) as in their 40s. Two of the 15 died of old age the year after their knighthoods. The average age of cricket-related English knights upon their investiture, a figure massively reduced by the ennoblements of Cook and the 42-year-old Andrew Strauss in the last couple of years, is a shade over 65. If this is a reward for sporting achievements, why is it not made while the achievements are still fresh in the memory? Why the long wait?
Recently someone was knighted for happening to be the favourite cricketer of a departing prime minister, and a lot of people were angry about it. In 1998, after Geoffrey Boycott’s conviction in France of domestic abuse, the Guardian published an editorial in which it argued that the former cricketer’s suspended jail sentence should not be the end of his punishment: “He has not lost his liberty, but he should lose his reputation.” He was, for a while, ostracised from the domestic game but in time returned to mainstream broadcasting and went on to earn another reputation, or rather the same one again but from a new audience and by different methods.
Geoffrey Boycott was convicted of domestic assault, so why has May knighted him? | Marina Hyde
May repeatedly referred to him during her time as prime minister, feeling his obduracy worked as a pleasing metaphor for her own premiership. When asked last November “how many wickets need to fall in your cabinet before you walk”, she immediately spoke of the Yorkshireman: “And what do you know about Geoffrey Boycott? Geoffrey Boycott stuck to it. And he got the runs in the end.” The previous year she praised him in a BBC interview because “he stuck at it – he had a plan and he got on with it, and more often than not he delivered”. Boycott has essentially been knighted for services to convenient Brexit-related metaphors, and thus joins the ranks of cricket-but-not-really-cricket knighthoods, joining those connected to the game who have been honoured not for playing it but for writing about it, or administering it, or for being named governor-designate of Bengal.
Outside individual events, and particularly in disciplines that remain excluded from the convenient quadrennial athlete-rating exercise that is the Olympics, the allocation of honours is evidently difficult. The accumulation of major trophies will inevitably bring attention, but the idea that an outstanding athlete in a team sport is rendered more admirable simply because he happens to play at the same time as enough other good players that they manage to win a particular trophy is absurd. Sir Geoff Hurst, who across his club career won one FA Cup and no league titles, became the fourth footballer to be knighted, essentially – and inexplicably – because he played well in a single game. At the end of 1999 the magazine World Soccer published a list of the greatest footballers of all time, which contained 23 Britons. These are all people who have had a significant impact on one of the world’s most important sports, every one of them having had appreciably more of an impact both in their field and in British society than this politician or that diplomat. Three of them had been knighted (another, Kenny Dalglish, has followed). Particularly given the honours scattered around in individual sports, this is unjustifiable.The Spin: sign up and get our weekly cricket email.
When Len Hutton was knighted in 1956 the Australian spinner Arthur Mailey famously quipped: “I hope next time it’s a bowler – the last bowler to be knighted was Sir Francis Drake.” Alec Bedser – who when named a CBE in 1992 sniffed: “A knighthood? They’re for fancy-dan batsmen” – though he did finally get one four years later – remains the only English specialist bowler in all of history to be knighted. Jack Hobbs wanted to turn down the knighthood he received in the Queen’s coronation honours but was persuaded not to by Sir Walter Monckton, president of Surrey and a Conservative minister under Winston Churchill. As Hobbs wrote to Herbert Sutcliffe: “I am easier in my mind now, for I realise that it is a compliment not only to myself but to cricket in general and the professional in particular.” The professional batsman, maybe.
There only seems to be two possible solutions to all this. One is to conclude that the entire British honours system is a complete irrelevance, one that has throughout its entire history been incapable of rewarding excellence in team sports, and decide not to be bothered by it; the other is for a decision to be made that sportsmen should never be honoured just for winning stuff. Trophies, medals and public acclaim will just have to do. If an athlete goes on after their retirement to become a brilliant administrator, a tireless fundraiser, a politician’s pal or, for that matter, governor-designate of Bengal they can be honoured then, and for that. In the meantime, leave them be.
But the crux of the matter is this: sport does not need a complicated and often unreliable system for identifying the outstanding individuals in their disciplines and rewarding them – it is one.