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Higgy's Heroes

Alastair Hignell (Fitzwilliam 1974Alastair Hignell CBE (Fitzwilliam, 1974)

Alastair Hignell has always been serious about sport. “As long as I can remember,” he writes in his memoir, Higgy: Matches, Microphones and MS, “I had pestered my dad – and, to be honest, any ambulant adult – to catch, pass, kick, throw, hit or return any ball (or anything that looked like a ball).” By the time he arrived at Fitzwilliam in 1974, Alastair had already represented England at schools-level rugby and cricket. He was capped by England at the end of his first year, played Test rugby throughout his time as an undergraduate, and was the first person to captain both rugby and cricket at Cambridge.

Training and preparation during his undergraduate years were intense. Alastair recalls the run-up to his first rugby International (England v Australia, 1975) with its “sudden increased training and agonising nerves, then the pride as the national anthem plays, which still makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise.”

Winning, he says, was “euphoric. Joy mixes with relief and pain disappears. When the muscles do protest, the glow of victory makes the pain bearable.” As for the well-deserved celebrating, Alastair’s recollections include “sake in Japan, ‘fizz-buzz’ in Italy and ‘Snow White’ in Cornwall”, and an after-dinner “port and nuts” tradition in Cambridge that epitomised Light Blue restraint with its solemn toast, “GDBO” (“God Damn Bloody Oxford”).

After graduating in 1977, Alastair continued to play rugby for Bristol and England, and cricket for Gloucestershire. Ankle injuries forced retirement from sports and he moved into TV and radio presenting – until his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis in 1999.

“Colin Cowdrey was my cricket idol. All-Black Chris Laidlaw and Springbok Dawie de Villiers were my rugby heroes. But growing up, I hero-worshipped my dad.” Today, the trophies, triumphs and trials continue, albeit in different forms. In 2008, Alastair was awarded the BBC Helen Rollason Award for courage, and was made a CBE in 2009. Sporting heroes have taken on new forms, too. Inspired by Alastair’s heroism on and off the pitch, a group of his old Cambridge rugby team-mates got together in 2008 to run the London Marathon in tribute to him. They were dubbed “Higgy’s Heroes”, and the name stuck – and today, by getting involved with the MS charity of which Alastair is patron, anyone can be a Higgy’s Hero.