Alistair James Hignell

Master of Arts

12 July 2004 - Orator: Mr Bob Reeves

 Mr Vice-Chancellor: Alistair Hignell

On May 31st, 1975, England lost to Australia in a rather brutal rugby international, played in Brisbane, and nowadays referred to as the ‘Battle of Ballymore’. Making his debut for England was a nineteen year old Cambridge University fresher, Alastair Hignell, who, as one reporter wrote, ‘with his Viking beard and flowing locks, was an unmistakable figure who showed a maturity beyond his years’. Five weeks later, Alastair Hignell went in to bat for Cambridge in the ‘Varsity match at Lords, with the score 20 for 3, to face Imran Khan, one of the fastest bowlers in the world, on a bouncy wicket. His method of avoiding the barrage of short bowling he faced was simply to drop to the ground. It was not graceful, but he survived the onslaught, leaving the field at the end of the day with few runs and covered in dirt and bruises. The next morning, he and Peter Roebuck went on to complete a 161 run partnership, with Alastair’s contribution being 60. The papers wrote of ‘gutsy determined’ batting. Sports journalism is full of epithets that ascribe to sportsmen and women heroic qualities more suitably associated with holders of the Victoria Cross. It might have begun when Henry Newbolt, formerly of Clifton College, in ‘Vitae Lampada’, exhorted young Englishmen to ‘play up, play up and play the game;’ using ‘honour’ and ‘courage’ to link the cricket field and the battle ground.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, Alastair Hignell did ‘play the game’ and he is one of very few sportsmen and women who, in both sporting and private lives has proved worthy of those descriptions of bravery and undaunted spirit which are wasted on so many.

Before his first birthday, Alastair was demonstrating the determination and, yes, stubbornness, which would prove to be so important later. His brother could walk, so he had to, even though he was only 11 months old. Steering was not easy, so he stumbled headlong into any object in his way, but he walked. At the age of two, not willing to take ‘no’ for an answer, he insisted on riding his tricycle in the garden when there were six inches of snow outside, and cycling was well-nigh impossible. He persisted until he had had his fill and shown that it could be done.

His brother went to Smallwood prep school so Alastair wanted to, even though he was a year too young. The head, former England rugby centre, W.P.C. Davies, at his interview, kicked a rugby ball to him, which Alastair caught cleanly and kicked straight back. He was accepted. In his final two games of cricket for the school, still only 12 years of age he scored a double century in 90 minutes and a century in 38 minutes, both undefeated. A real talent was emerging.

Alastair went on to Denstone, going straight into the school 1st X1 at the age of 13 and making the 1st XV when only 15. By his last year, he was in the England Schoolboys teams at cricket and rugby, captaining the latter.

Alastair was intellectually gifted also, but before following in his father’s footsteps to Cambridge, he took a gap year, teaching at Tockington Manor, playing rugby for Bristol and cricket for Gloucestershire. He made his first-class debut in both sports at the age of 18. A rival for the scrum half position at Bristol, Richard Harding, was also the established incumbent at Cambridge. So Alastair switched to full back, the position in which he was selected for England less than two years later. His first game for Cambridge was against Cardiff. Alastair recalled it thus- ‘Gerald Davies was on the right wing and when I lined up for a tackle he stepped off his right foot. He was under the posts and I was among my mates in the stand’.

At Cambridge, Alastair won four blues each at cricket and rugby. He was the first person to captain the University at both sports. Ten of his fourteen England rugby caps were obtained while still a student. The 1978 Rothmans Rugby Year book described his display in the 14-9 defeat to Wales in Cardiff, as ‘well-nigh faultless’. At cricket, he scored 100 in both innings against Surrey. In 1979, he made his highest first-class score, 149*, off 93 balls in 99 minutes, against Northamptonshire.

These statistics suggest precocious talent, certainly, but they tell nothing of the pugnacity and doggedness that this outstanding sportsman possessed, and which have become so necessary in recent years. Nor do figures tell of the fun, conviviality and generosity of spirit with which Alastair has approached all things and all people.

Great sportsman he clearly was, but there was also the Corinthian about him. He enjoyed the life of a student and all that that entailed.In the early days with the County Cricket Club, he also had his fun.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I feel I must tell of the goings on inside the scorebox at the County Ground, not far from here. Stocks of beer for the Jessop Tavern next door were kept in the box, with the operators upstairs working the scoreboard rollers. Young members of the playing staff were often made to work the scoreboard all day. No-one understood why Alastair and his friend Andy Brassington regularly volunteered for the task, neither did anyone notice the large number of flattened beer cans in the waste bins near the scorebox at the close of play. It was a while before the two players, still in their teens, received a bill for the missing drinks.

After four years at Cambridge, Alastair returned to Bristol in 1978 to teach at Bristol Cathedral School during the winter and play cricket in the summer. He was to have two more seasons playing rugby, as injuries took their toll and he needed to be in shape for professional cricket. In 1979 he played all four matches for England in the five-nations rugby championship, his last major games.

At cricket, he may not have played according to the MCC Coaching manual, but he had the admiration of his colleagues, who talk to this day of his bravery when fielding at short leg and of his terrific hand-eye coordination. It was written of him- ‘He has a rumbustuous approach to batting, with the eye and reflexes which befit a great ball game player, is a brilliant close fielder and in the open the fastest runner/thrower in the side’.

Alastair retired from cricket after the 1983 season. He had married Jeannie in 1980, meeting her on a blind date at a Goldney Hall barbeque. Adam and Dan had soon followed, so it was time for a more secure job. He enjoyed two years teaching history and coaching cricket at Sherborne School, but he seized the opportunity, when it came, to join the BBC as a sports assistant.

He wanted to learn about journalism, and he studied broadcasting from the bottom up, even working out how best to read the football scores and racing results on Radio Bristol. From 1989, he commentated on World Cups and Lions tours for HTV. He joined Radio Five Live in 1996 covering the Lions Tour to South Africa the following year. By this time he had osteo-arthritis in his hip. It was after interviewing Jonathan Webb, the former England rugby player and Bristol graduate, and now an orthopaedic surgeon, that Alastair realised he would need a hip replacement, when Jonathan remarked that he was walking like some of his patients.

As his broadcasting career flourished, Alastair’s health deteriorated. In January 1999, he knew that something was seriously wrong, and he booked an appointment in the neurology department in Bristol, having already, according to Jeannie, diagnosed his condition, multiple sclerosis. It was established that he had the ‘secondary progressive’ form of the disease, with no known cause, no known cure, and precious little remission.

Alastair has taken on multiple sclerosis in the same way he made many of his rugby tackles, head on. He refuses to be beaten by it, and is determined to live life to the full, despite the obvious complications and difficulties, and with his sense of humour intact. His walking stick, Michael, after the German tennis player Stich, is the subject of an article by Alastair in the current edition of ‘New Pathways’, the magazine of the Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre. He writes ‘When I say Michael has very human characteristics, I’m thinking teenage sons. He is never there when you want him, never responds when you call, and when you do share the same space, he is always under your feet. Worse still, at social gatherings, he leans drunkenly against the wall before choosing the worst possible moment to slide gracelessly and noisily to the floor’.

Chris Hewitt, formerly sports writer for the Bristol Evening Post, and now the rugby correspondent of the Independent, knows Alastair as well as any. Chris tells of the time in 2001, when in Australia to commentate on the Lions Tour for BBC radio, all the journalists took a trip out to the barrier reef to scuba dive and snorkel. Even though he could not join in that activity, Alastair went, and it was a very rough trip to the reef. When others struggled on the even rougher journey back, Alastair was the life and soul of the party, keeping everyone’s spirits up. Only recently, in New Zealand to cover the England rugby tour, it was Alastair who organised a rail excursion round the Otago peninsular for the travelling media army, followed a few days later by a hugely enjoyed wine-tasting at a nearby vineyard.

Alastair has taken the least comfortable options. He wants maximum independence. He never moans. As such, he is held in enormous esteem by colleagues, who have spoken to me of his ‘fantastic company’, of being a ‘treasure’ and a ‘legend in the broadcasting community’. These compliments are not solely related to the way he has handled multiple sclerosis. He is admired as a first-class broadcaster. Thankfully, his voice, recognised early on as a really good one for broadcasting, has stood up well. He is extraordinarily fluent. In live commentaries, he rarely makes a mistake. He is a great reader of the game. Ian Robertson, Alastair’s co-commentator on radio, and a great supporter over the years, believes that Alastair is one of the very best sports broadcasters, certainly the most respected by the players. Perhaps it is because he has been there and done it, recognising that anyone can have bad days as well as good ones, that he always gives a balanced and never too negative appraisal of any performance. Maybe it is also because of his wealth of experience, coupled with a great love of the game. It may also be that in the great scheme of things, there are more important issues.

One important component of Alistair’s life is something about which I am sure he would prefer me to say nothing, namely his charity work. Though he has had his own and his family’s needs to consider, Alastair has increasingly committed himself to supporting the work of local and national multiple sclerosis charities, which are dedicated to helping those even worse off than himself. He actively supports four such charities and is patron of one. Money he makes from speaking engagements and other functions is donated to these worthy causes.

Alastair has no hint of bitterness about his condition and is never heard to complain. He lives positively for today because he knows that in six months time it will be worse. Cliff Morgan, the doyen of sports broadcasters, and who was himself the first ‘sporting’ honorary graduate of this University, sums up Alastair thus-

‘He is always smiling. In his broadcasting he has a sense of quiet authority. He is very good at what he does. Unlike those who might believe the world owes them something, Alastair is a humble man. He felt privileged to be blessed with such sporting talent. He now feels privileged to be a broadcaster’. For, as Cliff points out, ‘How else can you get the best seats in the stand after you retire?’

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Alastair James Hignell, as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Arts honoris causa.


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