Oh! those glorious days

Henry Cooper, Alec Bedser and their contemporaries were serious sportsmen and completely different from today's stars. They wrote thank you letters after being invited to ceremonies, they sent flowers to those who helped them and they were friends with everyone. By Ted Corbett.

I was once walking with the late Alec Bedser through the posh club area of central London to attend the Wisden dinner when he began to talk seriously about the events of the day.

A policewoman had been shot dead by someone in an embassy and, six or seven hours later, the streets were full of her mates, all trying to look as if they did not know what a shoulder holster might be, but all clearly ready to be very cross if they caught the North African villain responsible.

The mood was not lost on Alec, a traditionalist 30 years after his days as the world's finest quick medium bowler with a leg cutter that made his Surrey team-mate Peter May, the England captain, wake in a muck sweat some nights even though he never had to face one.

(May, over-modest like many of that time, told me: “I had a bit of success in my career but if I had had to face Alec I would have been half the batsman. His leg cutter — well, you know what he did to Bradman — could stop anyone.” Alec got Bradman out often, just in case you had forgotten.)

By the time we got to our destination — a club too exclusive for the likes of you and me, as my mum used to say — a cop told us we would have to go in by the back door. Alec warmed to his subject.

“These people come into our country, cause trouble, disrupt the lives of ordinary people but I tell you, faced with a good old British copper they are all cowards under the skin. Oh, here we are. Just knock at the door and let's get off the street and . . . oh my God!”

I swear that at that moment Bedser self-levitated his own height in the air.

It just so happened that the club servant who opened the door was clearly Middle Eastern. Too much for Alec, whose imagination let him visualise all sorts of unpleasant moments to come.

As it turned out, before Alec was half way through his much needed first pint of beer, this servant had nothing more on his mind than how to make guests feel at home.

It was the death of Henry Cooper, heavyweight boxing champion and almost a winner against Cassius Clay, that brought that tiny incident to mind.

Just as Bedser was a popular British hero between the end of the Second World War and his premature retirement from Test cricket, so Cooper filled the minds of sports followers and the back pages while he was British heavyweight champion.

They were both honourable and polite men — Cooper was “too nice to be a boxer” someone said — and belatedly they were both knighted.

That was a great era for British sport. Our athletes won Olympic gold, Cooper put Clay — later Mohammad Ali — on the seat of his pants before losing with his eye streaming blood in the next round. We competed with the Australians for the Ashes and, you didn't think I would leave this out did you, we won football's World Cup for the only time.

Dave Field, my favourite boxing expert, tells me that if there had been a cruiser weight division, as there is now, Cooper might have been world champion but that “he could not cut it against some of the best heavyweights boxing has ever seen.”

No pun intended, he said, because Henry Cooper was as famous for being cut as he was for that knock-out weapon, the left hook.

Cooper, Bedser and their contemporaries were serious sportsmen and completely different from today's stars. They wrote thank you letters after being invited to ceremonies, they sent flowers to those who helped them and they were friends with everyone.

Cricketers called umpires by their first names, boxers showed respect for referees and even footballers obeyed the game's officials.

Performance-enhancing drugs were an experiment for future generations. Bribery and corruption is best summed up by Richie Benaud who says he used to lie awake at night wondering how he could beat the opposition. The modern cheat lies awake plotting how to lose.

Coaches were still, to quote Ian Chappell, another great Australian captain, the vehicles that took the team to the ground, not the men who find a way to justify their wages by tinkering with the techniques of proven stars.

Sports writers were often friends — the great radio commentator John Arlott was voted president of the Players Association. Twitter was just a notion in a mad scientist's brain, the millionaire superstar was not even a concept and golf was a businessman's leisure pursuit rather than a way for a pro to top the rich list.

Cooper in East London, Bedser in sleepy Woking, the whole Yorkshire team and most footballers lived among the fans who watched them every Saturday and sometimes next door to the chums of their schooldays.

“Henry would always make time for you,” Field remembers and Bedser, while he was cautious until he knew someone well, could be surprisingly open. “He's not really good enough,” he told me about one batsman. Why did you pick him? “Nobody else. Can't go into a Test with ten men, can I?”

I am not trying to pretend it was a better age but it was certainly a simpler time, when men walked if they were out — well, most of the time — and amateurs enjoyed their athletics, tennis and Rugby without pay — well, most of the time.

Sometimes I wish those days would return but I am afraid that is an impossible dream.