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Soup of This Day #293: Last Of The Hard-Core Troubadours

February 24, 2013

Chickahominy bridge
This 1862 military bridge across the Chickahominy river was not necessary when you had Captain George A. Custer leading the way. Neigh, this was no bridge for lovers – Photo: D.R. Woodbury, 1862. D.R. Woodbury is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

In my last post, Soup #292, I referenced George Armstrong Custer. Most would know of him via his last stand, made at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In that engagement he injudiciously, and somewhat blindly, attempted to take on a bigger-than-he-thought team of Native American warriors who he believed were having a lie-in.

They weren’t.

And so George died, shot in the head and just above the heart.

That last could be construed as a large miss, because few could doubt that Custer had some serious ticker. It just doesn’t seem to have been mated with a commensurate brain.

These conditions are illustrated by my favourite Custer anecdote. It comes from a time when George was a young staff officer for Major George McClellan, struggling to be noticed.

And George Armstrong Custer seemed to so want to be noticed. By pretty much everyone.

He worked towards his goal assiduously – His uniform was immaculately dashing and he never shied from a chance to stand out, regardless of the propensity for danger.

You know, if for instance a chance came up to plunge into a river of unknown depth, Custer would be your go-to guy.

Yeah, he did that.

While with General Barnard’s staff and in pursuit of a Confederate army, Custer overheard the general announcing that he wished he knew how deep the river immediately in front of them was. Seeing his chance, George surged forward, thrusting his horse into the waters of the swollen Chickahominy River and propelled it to mid-stream. There, he turned back to the party of senior officers and proclaimed:

‘That’s how deep it is, Mr General!’

He’d risked his life (and his horse) for a general whose name he hadn’t troubled to remember. George was Mr. Courageous Dumbarse.

Which is not entirely why he gets some publicity in this Soup – His presence here is tied to a session I witnessed yesterday at the 2013 Perth Writers Festival here in Western Australia’s capital. It featured the author Gideon Haigh talking about the cricketer Shane Warne. Haigh, an outstanding cricket writer and commenter on the game, was worth the hour by himself – He could be talking about the evolution of the cricket stump microphone and I’d drop by. This though for me was also a chance to gain some insight into the mercurial Warne, Australia’s greatest bowler, and like Custer, a sometimes dumbarse.

The background on Warne shares some further similarities with the lion-hearted military loser. Both came into their own by slipping through a crack in the status quo. For George that opportunity was the Civil War – He had finished last in his West Point class and otherwise might have been shunted into obscurity. The Civil War though provided chances for even those thought most dull to shine. Discipline too was lax – The kind of rank overeagerness that had sent Custer into the flooded Chickahominy might have seen a floundering in his career in peace-time, whereas in war it allowed him to float towards the top.

For Shane meanwhile the gap through which he squeezed was more subtle – Cricket in the early 90’s was transitioning from a game whereby the players were largely left to their own devices – Which can sort of be summed up by Australian opener David Boon setting a record in 1989 for the most beers consumed on a flight between Sydney and London – 52, in case you were curious – And an ethos that was more professional and athletic.

Shane Warne has never been athletic. This is a man who has smoked throughout his career and who once took a banned diuretic, not so he could mask performance enhancing drugs, but instead so that he could lose some weight.

Exercise is overrated.

Still, like Custer, Warne could seize the moment. Take the ‘Strauss Ball’ form the 2005 Ashes Test at Egbaston:

England were to win this Test by an extraordinary 2 runs. Warne had been driving Australia on with the bat in a desperate run chase but was out for 42 after stepping on his own wicket with Australia still 61 runs adrift and with just a wicket in hand. He did take 10 wickets for the match, including 6 for 46 in England’s 2nd innings.

Shane Warne’s talent is undeniable, George Custer’s much less so – Both however have understood the value of publicity. Warne is said to resent material being written about him without his consent. Custer probably would have resented being written about negatively but avoided this by just penning his own august evaluations – After 1 action that he led he proclaimed:

‘I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry.’

The annals of warfare were possibly too gobsmacked to reply. They probably later breathed a sigh of relief at his demise, although his mythic legacy was maintained in the years immediately after his death by his devoted wife Elizabeth. She became a star in her own right, publishing campaign diaries and memoirs of her husband that framed him as a gentleman warrior tragically betrayed by fate.

She didn’t mention his fundamental misunderstanding of Native American sleeping habits.

Shane Warne too is partnered to an Elizabeth – The actress Elizabeth Hurley. She has yet to publish a campaign diary, but might have a role in managing the legacy of her beau. For although Warne is not dead, his cricketing career as a player is well into its twilight and probably wishing it had gone to bed a bit earlier. He’s 43 and reduced to playing cameos in T20 matches – Still outrageously talented but physically worn down.

There’s a nice comparison to be made here – Pedro Martinez is 41. His baseball playing career took off around the time Warne began his tenure in Australian cricket and it tailed off to a finish not long after Warne’s Test career closed, but not before a starring role in the 2004 Red Sox World Series triumph. Pedro is now a Special Assistant to the General Manager at the Red Sox and has not really looked like trying to get back on the mound – In fact, Pete Abraham, the Sox beat writer for The Globe, recently tweeted that:

‘Pedro Martinez has a brace on his wrist. Said he hurt himself pruning hedges. So, yeah, fair to say the whole pitching deal is over with’

I reckon Shane Warne might struggle with the hedges these days.

Which creates a problem – Shane Warne is a genius, a god even, on the pitch – I could watch the theatre of his bowling for hours. Off it and he can be a well-meaning dumbarse. Take his latest outburst – A ‘manifesto’ for change in Australian cricket, dubbed a ‘Warneifesto’ by Haigh. This is a document which promises an overhaul of a system that Warne thinks has become moribund. He’s possibly right – Cricket Australia seems to be at a selection and talent identification cross-roads, with progress stalled. The Warne solution to get things moving forward though seems to be contradictory – He wants to return to the past.

Which worked for Michael J Fox but seems unlikely in a cricket world that has moved on from the Warne era.

Also, Shane’s overhaul involved appointing his mates to all of the key positions and although this makes for a great office Christmas do, generally this kind of jobs-for-the-boys thing doesn’t lead to a successful enterprise.

Custer’s brothers Thomas and Boston and his nephew Autie were with him at the Little Bighorn and they all perished in the last stand. Boston and Autie were effectively civilian contractors.

Shane’s ‘Warneifesto’ will be unlikely to gain a bowl though and so the battle for Warne’s legacy will carry on at the boundary. I’d like to leave this post then with 1 last Gideon Haigh thought…

In describing Warne’s genius, his ability to be thinking ahead of the ball, Haigh turned to a Mike Tyson quote:

‘I always try to aim to the back of my opponent’s head. Fantasize my punch going through them and in and out of the back of the head. It sounds like a brutal sport but it’s just a technique, it’s just an art.’

Maybe that is an apt quote in more than just the 1 way, for Tyson himself, like Warne, is the epitome of a gifted player past the ropes. What he does before he takes those steps into the ring though can tend to overshadow the brilliance.

Meanwhile, I am changing my name to Mr. Blog Writer. It can’t hurt.

Last Of The Hard-Core Troubadours

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