Yesterday I travelled to Brighton to attend an evening meeting of the Sussex Cricket Society as the guest of a pal of mine who had recently joined it. The guest of honour and main speaker was Alastair Hignell, the former England rugby international and Gloucestershire cricketer. Aged 59, he had been suffering from MS since the late 1990s and now gets about in a motorised wheelchair.
The title of his talk was ‘Last of the dinosaurs’, by which he was referring to himself as a four-time blue and year-round elite participant in two different sports (rugby and cricket) in an era which he regards as the last in Britain which this was still a physically possibility.
Hignell is an articulate speaker, as one might expect of someone who once spent the best part of a decade as a teacher and then pursued a career as a sports media reporter. His personal style, full of self-deprecating humour and insight, easily drew his audience into amused recognition and recall of many of the characters and incidents to which he referred. Once or twice he seemed to get his facts wrong and/or become confused as to whether he was playing cricket or rugby at the time, but I took these to be minor blips possibly contributed to by the effects of his condition but more likely – as with my own instances of similar – simply the product of enthusiasm for his subject.
As hinted in his theme, Hignell’s era of sporting excellence (approximately 1973-1983) was indeed a halcyon period. Cricket was nominally professional but still entirely old-school amateur in approach and rugby was still a decade and more from official professionalism. With deftly-chosen examples he highlighted the gulf between how elite sport was organised and played then and now.
I’m glad he avoided the elephant trap of seeking to claim that the world of sport was superior in his day. It was just different, that’s all. The big plus for someone as widely talented as Hignell was that in the 1970s and 1980s playing two major sports to elite level was still possible which, in the current era of almost year-round seasons, is no longer the case. In addition, as he was able to demonstrate with his mix of amusing tales of eccentricity and extraordinary incidents, the truth is that, in his day, nobody played elite sport for the money [pitiful by today’s standards].They played it essentially because they were young and exuberant and doing it was as much fun as it was possible to have with your clothes on. The fact that they got paid for it (at least when playing cricket) was simply a welcome incidental bonus.
I was impressed by Alastair Hignell. He was open, answered every question – whether trite, complex or bland – with direct honesty and was happy to expand or defend his points of view as circumstances demanded. After his talk was over and the ceremonies completed, he stayed for a pint and a chat with those that lingered.
And he never mentioned his MS once.