When Tony Greig announced in early 1976 that he intended to make that year’s touring West Indian Cricket team “grovel” he lit a fire under his opponents that would not go out for twenty years and demonstrated serious ignorance of the enduring strength of the human spirit and his own rank stupidity.

It did not help, of course, that he was a 6 foot 7 inches (2m 02) tall blond South African with a strong South African accent (he had been born in the Eastern Cape to a Scots father and a South African mother). Although the Soweto uprising did not begin until a couple of months later, I should imagine that that further stoked the fires of resentment that the West Indians felt against him when it broke out in mid-June of that year. West Indies went on to thrash England in the Test series and for the best part of the next twenty years were to dominate world cricket.

One might have thought that that was a salutary lesson to all in the world of sport and, indeed other walks of life such as politics. Amazingly bonehead coaches, managers and politicians still resort to bombast of this sort in the belief that it intimidates the objects of their attention. Almost always it inspires them to play out of their skins instead. Witness the reaction of the Indian team this year when another South African in English colours, Kevin Pietersen, managed to fire them up by engaging in some silly antics meant to demean his opponents. Just last Saturday an England Rugby team produced out of nowhere the performance of a collective lifetime: it was no accident, surely, that in the run-up to the match John O’Neill, the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union, had this to say:

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s cricket, rugby union, rugby league – we all hate England.”

Australia duly choked and have gone home, England advanced to the semi-finals.

In politics too this sort of language inevitably fires up the opposition. Witness Neil Kinnock who announced recently to a Labour fringe meeting that “We’re going to grind those Tory bastards into the dust”. Quite apart from demonstrating once again how perspicacious the British Electorate was in 1987 and 1992 in declining to allow him anywhere near No. 10 Downing Street, he did it at a moment when the Conservative party was in some disorder pending its own Conference and the possibility that, in the light of polls favourable to a labour victory, they would soon be facing a fourth defeat since 1997. Who can deny that it had a galvanic effect upon the Tories who swiftly closed ranks and played, if not yet the tournament winning game, a real blinder which has seen a dramatic turn around in their fortunes? If Labour lose the next election, some of them may yet curse the Welsh Windbag for allowing his unpleasant character out of the house that day.

Such threats always inspire. Who can doubt that the Allied demand in 1943 that Germany surrender unconditionally caused them to raise their game and keep it going to the very bitterest of ends? Whilst it may have been right to pursue the war to completion and in the process so destroy Germany that it would never resort to aggression again, it would have been infinitely better to leave them a way out by thinking that terms might be available. Then, as soon as they had tentatively raised the white flag, they could have been told what the deal was, namely unconditional surrender. Once the white flag had been shown, even for a moment, it would have been very hard to put it away again, not least because their troops would have known all about it and would have been all but impossible to motivate once more back into the firing line.

What we surely need now is for one of the French team or their coaches, or preferably a particularly arrogant and haughty French politician to run off at the mouth and tell us how bad our food is, how poor are our cheeses, how warm our beer and how dowdy our women. Then we might just see them eat not a meal of foie gras and lobster thermidor but a plate of crow followed by a large serving of Humble Pie.

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