No, I don’t mean Moeen Ali. I’m talking about Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of all time, who sadly passed away on Saturday morning. Mo might have scored a few runs up at Durham, but he’s got a long way to go before he can be compared to the sportsman of the century!
Watching all the media coverage of Ali’s death, and seeing the old footage and evocative tributes, got me thinking. Has cricket ever had a personality so large and influential? It wasn’t just Ali’s natural talent and showmanship of course. Because of his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, and his very public support of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s, he was well known to people around the world who didn’t follow boxing. In many ways he transcended the sport.
I have to admit that I’m struggling to think of any good comparisons in cricket. Sachin Tendulkar is probably the most famous batsman of recent times, but although he’s worshipped like a god in a similar way to Ali, and has turned his hand to politics too, Sachin’s so well-mannered and humble that direct comparisons seem absurd.
Another cricketer who might be compared to Ali is Imran Khan. Imran became an absolute icon in Pakistan, won the World Cup, turned his hand to politics, and also had a penchant for making comebacks. But although Imran had some of Ali’s arrogance, he never had the same charisma. In many ways he’s always seemed a bit aloof (a bit like royalty). He’s never really been a man of the people. Nor is he loved by people outside his own country.
Although cricket has had many showmen – from Viv Richards to Kevin Pietersen – it’s hard to find someone who was box-office both on and off the pitch. It’s also hard to find someone who was principled and known for taking moral stances. Someone like Basil D’Oliveria was a gorgeous player to watch, and became enormously important politically, but this was down to what he represented rather than who he was. Dolly never courted controversy like Ali.
Shane Warne is another larger-than-life cricketer we should consider. After Sachin, he’s possibly the second most famous cricketer of the last two or three decades. However, although Warney was a genius like Ali, he was often in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Who can forget his ban for taking banned substances, the lewd text message scandal, or the controversy when he have information to bookmakers? Shane was a showman who revolutionised the game (or at least made leg-spin fashionable again) but he was more punk than principled pugilist.
In terms of trash-talking, or winding opponents up, I suppose Glenn McGrath should also get a mention. His 5-0 predictions weren’t exactly poetry, and he never came up with anything remotely as good as ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’ (Glenn was more gallop like a giraffe and pout like princess), but he did grab a few pre-series headlines.
I think the closest we’ve had to an Ali in England is probably Ian Botham. I accept the parallels aren’t exactly (Beffy has never been a political animal to my knowledge) but he certainly had the flamboyance and fame beyond cricket. Although Sir Ian didn’t refuse to fight in Iraq or anything like that, he has done some absolutely tremendous work for charity – which shows a benevolent side in addition to his rebellious streak and distain for authority.
I’d love to hear your own suggestions. I doubt we’ll find a precise comparison to Ali but there are certainly cricketers that share similar traits. Perhaps, at the end of the day, cricket is just too stuffy, in this country at least, to produce such a transcendent personality.
Imagine an Ali type character coming through the England ranks today? I suspect he’d ruffle a few feathers at HQ and have his card marked fairly early on. Can you imagine Muhammad Ali at an ECB media training session? That would be fun.