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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

On how Tim Bresnan and Shane Battier make winning teams

Taking refuge from having to think about the Surrey cricket team, who yesterday had another nightmare day in the county championship, I instead turned to a piece about the extreme effectiveness of Tim Bresnan as a member of the currently very effective England cricket team, who begin their third of three test matches against the West Indies today.

England is now the top rated test team, but they haven’t won every recent game they have played by any means. However, every one of the thirteen five-day-long test matches that Bresnan has so far played as a member of the England team has been won by England. What, asks Ed Smith (a writer whom we have already noted and quoted here), is the secret of Bresnan’s mysterious contribution? Until the second game against the West Indies in which he took eight wickets, Bresnan’s numbers haven’t been that great, yet whenever he plays, England win. (Let’s hope that in the South Africa tests later this summer, that continues to be true.)

Smith links to another piece, by Michael Lewis, about a basketball player whose personal numbers seem to be even worse that Bresnan’s, yet who likewise seems always to make the team he plays in twice the team it would have been without him, a basketball player called Shane Battier.

Smith picks out this paragraph by Lewis about Battier, as do I:

Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.

And, as Michael Lewis also explains, lost that ability as soon as Battier, whether because of being sold on or because of injury, stopped playing for them.

At this point, I had, as in my custom in many of postings here about sport, intended to end with a brief but profound Samizdata point, pertaining in some way or another to the desirability of the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, as illustrated by the thoughts alluded to above. What that point was going to be, I did not know, but I would, I felt sure, think of something. Instead I found myself speculating, more pertinently if in a rather less Samizdata-ish way, about what exactly the Bresnan Battier effect might consist of, or at any rate part of what it might consist of. I believe that much of the trouble in the world consists of men (and it is usually men) disagreeing about their relative status, about their places in the pecking order, their position in the pack. “You think you’re better than me, do you?!?!?” “I’m as good as you, pal!!!” Etc. Nowadays we are less ready to use those exact sort of words, perhaps for fear of sounding as if we are performing in a pre-WW2 black and white American movie, but the sentiments remain the same, wherever man quarrels with man.

I also believe that once you understand all that, you can avoid a huge amount of trouble by not trying to be acknowledged by the other fellow as being as important as you think you are, but merely by going along with how important he thinks you are, and more to the point how important – often how much more important than you – he thinks he is. If you can both agree about all that, even if you are only pretending to agree with him, a huge amount of everyday difficulty just melts away.

I’m not saying you should never front up to the other guy and face him down or fight him. I am saying: reserve such behaviour for times and circumstances when it really matters, when winning such a fight will accomplish something significant that couldn’t have been accomplished more harmoniously.

So what has all that got to do with Tim Bresnan and Shane Battier? Well, quite possibly nothing whatsoever. Being a fan of the England cricket team, I know a little of Tim Bresnan’s personality and abilities. But I have only just heard about Battier, by reading these two articles.

Nevertheless, I surmise that at least part of the contributions made by Bresnan and Battier to the teams they are in might well have something to do with the fact that they don’t spend any time disagreeing with their team-mates about who comes where in the team pecking order, no time at all, not one single fraction of a second. Their attitude, I surmise, starts out as and for a long time continues as: You fellows are stars! I’m just lucky as hell to be on the same team sheet with you, sharing the same dressing room, being on the same pitch. They don’t necessarily say this, because that would probably be too obvious, smarmy even. But their every verbal nuance, their every moment of willingness to be told what to do, their every little gesture or facial expression of admiration for the other guys when they practise their amazing star player tricks, says this, without it being said.

The result of all that is a bunch of prima donnas, every one one of whom now feels that little bit better about himself, and who is that much less likely to want to quarrel with those other damn prima donnas about which of them is the most prima of all the donnas. Hey, let’s just leave it that we’re all better than Battier! Let’s just relax about where we each are in the Great Chain of Basketball Being. Let the Hall of Fame guys sort all that out for us, later. Meanwhile, let’s play ball! Thus confirmed in their high opinion of themselves, by Battier or by Bresnan, or by whoever, the prima donnas are that little bit more willing to play for each other, rather than merely for their brilliant selves, than they might otherwise have been. (The phrase “prima donna”, incidentally, being powerful verbal evidence that although such behaviour is a mostly masculine problem, it is by no means exclusively such.)

Better yet, the Bresnan/Battier types progress from merely acknowledging the skills of others in the team towards seriously studying those skills and reflecting on how these skills fit together, and thus how they themselves can best contribute to the combined team effort. At which point it makes a big difference that players like Bresnan and Battier are actually, despite their willingness not to be acknowledged by their team-mates as such, pretty damn good players themselves. They don’t ignore their own skills, even if they are content to let others do so. But the point is, they develop and apply their skills in a way that will best enhance the performance of the team as a whole.

Then, as the wins start piling up, bottom of the heap Battier and lucky-to-be-there Bresnan mutate from being bottom dogs into unofficial team leaders, while still treating their team mates and their more fragile egos with kid gloves, suggesting this, asking about that, and all the while still taking care never to have any dog fights, still least among equals if that’s what it takes. Maybe, eventually, they achieve senior dog status, but by near silent acclamation, never by making an aggressive grab for it.

No doubt there are technical things peculiar to cricket and to basketball involved in the success of Bresnan and Battier of which I know little, and in the case of Battier nothing. But, I bet what I just said also has something to do with it. And, in the event that what I say is not true for Battier or Bresnan, I bet it’s true of many other of sport’s less well-knowns whose teams always seem to do well whenever they are around, but less well when they aren’t.

Here endeth the lesson. So, does any of that say anything about the desirability of the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange? Very possibly, but I can’t now think what. Any suggestions?

Latest news from Edgbaston, where the third test against the Windies is scheduled to begin. An emailer quoted on Cricinfo says:

The forecast is pretty poor for every day of the Test bar Saturday, … I doubt there’ll be enough time for a result, so looks like Bresnan’s run of winning Test matches might come to an end.


4 comments to On how Tim Bresnan and Shane Battier make winning teams

  • I think you might be onto something here, Brian. As Ronald Reagan once said:

    “There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit”.

  • Hey, Briffa, I thought of the applicability of that Reagan quote. How dare you diminish my glory by sliding it in hours before me!

    Brian: there is a Samizdata free market moral there, about how contrary to popular belief, nice guys don’t necessarily finish last. You hear a lot about dog-eat-dog capitalism, but I think there is a lot more dog-make-other-dog-happy capitalism out there.

  • Eurymachus

    Not to disregard the factors you have identified Brian, but I can’t help thinking this is just a natural statistical aspect of team sports. By definition, most players are average. Even successful teams will have a number of (relatively) average players on it, eventually you are bound to have a few like Battier and Bresnan who are unreasonably successful compared to their actual skill and performance levels.

  • Two days into the scheduled times of the test match, and it is yet to start, and no sign of the rain stopping. If the game does not start at all, Bresnan’s run is safe.