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Sports lessons

What Sport Tells Us About Life: Bradman’s Average, Zidane’s Kiss and Other Sporting Lessons
Ed Smith
Penguin books, 2008, 190 pp., £14.99

I rarely buy new books in hardback at full price, because I rarely want any particular book. Usually I am just looking for something that is interesting, and prefer to soften the financial blows by taking my chances in the remainder and charity shops. But something about Ed Smith’s little book appealed to me, despite its combination of brevity and a high price-tag. Partly it was that the first three people quoted on the cover saying how good it was were Mike Atherton, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Michael Brearley, all of them big names if you are an England cricket fan like me, and all people whose opinions I greatly respect. Ed Smith himself is also a name, if you follow England cricket, because he is one of those many unfortunates who played a handful of test matches (his were in 2006 against South Africa), but who was then, somewhat unluckily, discarded. He now captains Middlesex. On the other hand, maybe he won’t prove to be so unfortunate in the longer run, because England batting places are now up for grabs again, following several batting debacles in recent months, and Ed Smith, who read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, is just the kind of thoughtful, intelligent type – like the aforementioned Michaels, Atherton and Brearley – whom selectors like to have trained-up and ready to take over as England captain, should they be caught short for one. There are a few broad hints in his book to suggest that Ed Smith has not given up on such hopes himself. He certainly still hopes to play for England again. Meanwhile, I was not disappointed by this book, nor did I feel that the fifteen pounds I spent on it was wasted or bestowed upon an unworthy cause. There are basically two big reasons why I liked it.

The first reason is simply that Ed Smith writes not just about sport, but, as his title suggests, about the psychology, sociology and history of sport, and about psychology, sociology and history in general, merely illustrated by sport, in the sort of relaxedly middlebrow way that I particularly enjoy. Recently I have been doing some teaching, having always wanted to, and there is a lot of the teacher in Smith and in his family. You can entirely see why he is now a county captain. Smith is, for instance, very illuminating on the subject of what makes a champion sportsman, and what does not. What does not, it seems, is an easy ride in the sport when you were young, fueled by pure talent, but unaided by the strength of character that you didn’t need when young, because you were so talented. I recall Geoff Boycott making the same point during a cricket commentary. Boycott said that boys who outclassed their school mates often came a cropper when they moved up to professional cricket, because suddenly they were up against people as naturally gifted as themselves, but they hadn’t acquired the mental toughness they also needed. Never having had to fight before, they were unable to fight now. Other less gifted boys, on the other hand, having toughened themselves up with defeats and harder-won victories in their youth, often did better later on. Smith confirms all this so eloquently that I rather suspect Boycott of having read this book himself. But maybe Boycott was just thinking of himself, and of how he personally made the maximum possible use of less that supreme talent, and maybe Smith owes the insight partly to Boycott.

Smith also mentions in particular the younger brother syndrome. Many a sporting younger brother, he says, learned to give of his best, and to prevail against formidable and grown-up as opposed to feeble and youthful opposition, by practicing on his stronger elder brother, in a way that required the maximum possible effort and strength of will. Basketball legend Michael Jordan had an elder brother, for instance, of whom Jordan said: “When you see me play, you’re watching Larry.” In learning to defeat Larry, Jordan learned to beat the world.

I particularly recommend the bit where Smith tells the story of a certain Billy Beane, who oozed sporting talent when young and who sailed into professional baseball like the superstar that all assumed he would inevitably become, but who, six years later, became “the first player ever to say” that he now wanted to be a scout instead. At which he proceeded to excel! Prepared by the bitter disappointments of his own failed playing career, Beane then became supremely good at bossing the very game that he could not himself play successfully. Struggle as a player, then triumph as a manager, is a pattern repeated in sport again and again. Says Smith: “We never think more deeply than about our profoundest failings. They often form the foundations of our clearest analytical insights.” You can see how a bumbler like me, who nevertheless now aspires to teaching excellence, would like that, the exact opposite of the those-who-can-do-those-who-can’t-teach cliché. I have reproduced this Beane story at my education blog, here. Recommended, if you do not know this story already, and, actually, even if you do.

Smith also summarises the story of how baseball triumphed over cricket in the USA, which I have copied and pasted here, the point being that there was once upon a time actually quite a lot of cricket in the USA to be triumphed over. It was the Civil War that made the difference, Smith says, because baseball was less complicated for relaxing soldiers to set up and play than cricket. Otherwise the USA might just as well have used cricket to get back at the accursed Brits by beating them at it, in the manner of the West Indians and the Indians and Pakistanis – in fact, come to think of it, in pretty much all the countries outside Britain that now play cricket – rather than by shunning it and playing something else.

I like what Smith says about amateurism. Of course all that nonsense with initials behind your name if you were a professional but in front if you were an amateur was indeed fairly ridiculous (Smith recycles the “F. J. Titmus should read Titmus F. J.” announcement that greeted the great spin-bowler Fred Titmus when he walked out to the wicket in his first match, as a professional cricketer). But, perhaps a baby has been lost, along with much snobbish and unjust bathwater. Mark Ramprakash, for instance, is another type of sporting failure, the supremely effective county or provincial sportsman who could not “scale up” to the international game, despite appearing to have all it took and much more. Perhaps if Ramprakash had learned not to take it all quite so seriously, says Smith, he might have made the step-up to test cricket work better. Ramprakash apparently really enjoyed all the practicing he did for his Come Dancing triumph, and was struck by how much everyone else involved enjoyed it too. Maybe if he had made a point of enjoying his cricket more, and his test cricket playing in particular, he might have done it even better.

I really enjoy reading such ruminations, and in general, I consider this book to be a fine addition to the clever-stuff-for-the-intelligent-layman-who-can’t-spare-too-much-time-for-reading-but-who-wants-to-be-diverted-and-entertained-in-the-train genre, and its appearance soon in paperback is inevitable, especially given that Penguin is already its publisher. It will be a nice little earner for Penguin as a stocking filler next Christmas, is my bet.

There is another reason why I was happy to have parted with my fifteen pounds for this book. It turns out that, ideologically speaking, Ed Smith is one of us.

Chapter 7 is entitled “Is the free market ruining sport?”, and Smith’s answer is that far from ruining sport, the seriously (i.e. lashings of money with lots of noughts on the end) free market that has recently emerged in many sports in the age of television has actually brought some interesting and formerly neglected facts about sport to light. The oft-observed way that, in cricket, it is the batsmen who get the knighthoods and the plaudits, but that, on the other hand, it is bowlers who more often than not win the actual games, is supported by what the English counties are now prepared to pay. Effective batsman are relatively easy to come by, and thus relatively cheap, but good bowlers are, if not priceless, then the next best thing, very highly priced, more so than almost all the merely good batters. In American football, the now much freer market in players has revealed interesting facts about who the M(ost) V(aluable) P(layer)s really are. Yes, the quarterbacks of course get paid fortunes. But so too do the hitherto undervalued offensive linemen who protect those same quarterbacks. Very good “left tackles” also now earn comparable fortunes, despite many fans still having to struggle to remember what their names are.

Most revealing of all, ideologically, is Smith’s final chapter, which is entitled “Cricket, C. L. R. James, and Marxism”. James’s famous book about West Indian cricket, Beyond a Boundary, tells of the emergence of West Indian cricket into international prominence, thanks to such legends as the great Learie Constantine (the first West Indian cricket superstar), and then that golden generation of the Three Ws (Weekes, Worrell and Walcott), the spin duo of Ramadhin and Valentine, the uniquely brilliant Gary Sobers, and, just a bit later, the founders of that great dynasty of West Indian fast bowlers, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. And James does it not just by writing about the cricket, but about the world that the cricketers emerged from.

Smith notes the current malaise of West Indian cricket, but, making use of the story that James tells so memorably, doubts that it can be easily cured, because the circumstances that made that earlier success are no longer present. Post-colonial resentment and lack of other outlets for intense personal ambition caused West Indian cricket to explode. Neither explosive is now present in nearly such an intense or pressurised form. Merely coaching West Indian cricket better won’t be any substitute, Smith reckons, noting that most truly great sportsmen are pretty much self-taught, under only the most relaxed and laissez faire of tutelage (that teaching vibe again), if any. Sporting greatness, in other words, is about individual self-expression, as well as about the social circumstances that stir such ambitions.

Smith nails James as a characteristic twentieth century type, namely the believer in and chronicler of human freedom who nevertheless refuses to see that in calling himself a Marxist he is supporting not a means of liberation but one of the great modern sources of tyranny:

James’s book is about achieving excellence in cricket despite being outside the ruling establishment and all its privileges. In fact, that is an understatement. It is about achieving excellence because of exclusion from the ruling establishment. It is about being the underdog, and how that can be more inspiring than being governed by the prescriptive rules of conventional wisdom.

So far so “Marxist”, in the class-warfare sense. But then Smith offers another quote about what C. L. R. James’s leftist assumptions necessarily lead to when they get into power, from George Watson’s The Lost Literature of Socialism:

Socialism necessarily means government by a privileged class, as Lenin saw, since only those of privileged education are capable of planning and governing. Shaw and Wells, too, often derided the notion that ordinary people can be trusted with political choice. Hence the aristocratic superiority of the Bolsheviks, who reminded Bertrand Russell, when he visited Lenin soon after the October Revolution, of the British public-school elite that then governed India. Socialism had to be based on privilege, and knew it, since only privilege educates for the due exercise of centralized power in a planned economy.

Writers about cricket with pretensions towards literariness tend these days to divide either into old school traditionalists in the manner of Christopher Martin-Jenkins, whose fogeyishly antiquated solemnity is often mocked even by other Test Match Special commentators, or else left-inclined ‘intellectual’ types. Ed Smith dodges past these two stereotypes. He certainly is an intellectual, who likes to mention Thackeray and Wagner and Philip Larkin and Milovan Djilas as well as Bradman and Bannister and Mohammed Ali and Billy Beane. Yet he is neither any sort of blindly traditionalist fogey, not any sort of nitwit about the twentieth century’s most mercilessly destructive tides of nitwit opinion. He’s read Beyond a Boundary and entirely gets the point of it and entirely rejoices at the wonderful story it tells. But he also sees what is wrong with it.

In the acknowledgements at the beginning, we learn that among the people who read and commented on early drafts of the manuscript of Ed Smith’s book was a certain John Blundell. I’m not sure, but I rather think that this is the same John Blundell who is the Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs. On the other hand, this particular John Blundell may be a sports psychology professor of the same name. But if it was John Blundell of the IEA, well done him. Put it this way: if it was him, it makes perfect sense.

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6 comments to Sports lessons

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Bloody hell but that was a great review, Brian. When you’re done, may I borrow the book? (You can borrow my copy of Ronald Reagan’s radio broadcasts as a swap)

    Mike Atherton recently wrote a fine book on gambling as well.

  • Magnificent review, Brian, but blast you because I’m going to have to buy it now.

  • Very interesting Brian, and I am not interested in sports at all.

    Says Smith: “We never think more deeply than about our profoundest failings. They often form the foundations of our clearest analytical insights.”


  • renminbi

    I remember the boxing trainer,Teddy Atlas, saying that Mike Tyson relied on intimidation to win and that if that failed he would lose. He lacked the character to be great. He also described ,in his memoir, how the 44 year old George Foreman took a beating while setting up Michael Moorer for a knock-out to claim the heavyweight title. Sport is interesting for the light it sheds on the willingness to accept pain for what is often an otherwise trivial accomplishment(well the money maynot betrivial).

    Thank-you very much for this interesting post.

  • watcher in the dark

    Having read ‘Moneyball’ and being familiar with Billy Beane’s record and achievements, may I say I am glad he is becoming known more widely. For me, what he did best was he looked at a system (it happened to be baseball) that everyone had imagined was exactly like this or that, and turned it upside down to look over there and behind that.

    In other words, Beane didn’t take the accepted conventions at face value, on other people’s say so. He went beyond the usual expectations and habits and got success.

    Now, if only we could have politicians and leaders who would be prepared to do that…

  • Kristal L. Rosebrook

    Great review! Nicely done.