Wednesday 29 September 2010

The Enigma: Variations [part 232 in a series...]

Ed Smith, cricketer turned journo, is the latest to have a crack at the coding embedded in the enigma that is Mark Ramprakash, and others of his ilk. Ed got a whole BBC programme, an episode of Inside Sport called 'Is Professionalism Killing Sport?' to find out. And Ramps was once more a siren, singing him towards his doom on the rocks.

Smith has a double first from Cambridge [this fact is mentioned, breathlessly and often, in BBC pre-publicity] and perhaps it blinded his editors to the lack of rigour he brought to his argument. Or maybe, in fairness, he made a programme that later had a tabloid title imposed upon it. Either way, Ed ballsed it up.

He got such access too. His interviewees included the Dark Prince of English batsmen, alongside Ryan Giggs and Colin Montgomerie. Smith hung his theory on his own fleeting Test match career: 'Would I have scored more runs if I'd worried less about my technique and just relaxed?' he asked [answer: no]. This immediately muddied his position. He aligned relaxation with amateurism, and amateurism with a youthful enjoyment of the game.

Ryan Giggs rapidly exploded this theory, although the editors didn't seem to notice, when he explained that his best football came at the age of 30, when he'd become more professional, stopped drinking and trained harder.

Montgomerie was called in to comment on the case of Tiger Woods, Smith's Exhibit A, who had become 'joyless'. No more joyless, though, than when he was winning 14 Majors and a billion dollars as he slept with a succession of gorgeous women [oh Tiger, tell us, where did it all go wrong?].

And then Ramps, who gamely conceded on camera that he had never enjoyed playing for England. Not enjoyed facing Marshall, Walsh, Ambrose, Bishop, Waqar, Wasim, McGrath and Warne - good lord...

This was a good-hearted programme, but its strands needed unpicking. Amateurism was a smokescreen. There are exactly the same number of people at the top of sport as there were in the days of Spitfires and Denis Compton. They may approach their lives more formally now, but they occupy familiar ground. Relaxation, being able to perform under pressure, has nothing to do with amateurism, or childishness.

Giggs gave Smith the clue, when he described his famous FA Cup semi-final goal against Arsenal. 'What were you thinking about?' he was asked. 'Nothing' came the reply. Here is the key: entry into a state of pure instinct, unimpeded by conscious thought. The best have an ability to remove their brain from the equation. The physiology of that would make a truly interesting programme.

Smith's initial question of himself - would he have scored more runs if he'd thought less about technique - had a touch of ego about it. Here is another truth: ability has its ceiling, its outer limits. Anyone watching him bat could see that he had arrived at his. There is no shame in that.

He did not go away from Test cricket and make a hundred first class hundreds, as Ramprakash and Hick have done. Those vast, sad codas to their lives are in part acknowledgment of the unfulfillment, and of that part of themselves that they were unable to overcome. It was about the complex uncertainties of being human. That, though, doesn't fit easily into a catchy programme title.

A final point must be considered, and it's a brutal one too. Lots of the best sportsmen are a bit thick. It helps. Strangely, so does professionalism - from an early age, all they'll ever do is play, thus ensuring that a certain unawareness of the outside world persists.

One of cricket's great paradoxes is that in its simplicity, it is complex. It attracts thinkers, brooders, obsessives, and then it drives them mad. It really would help, Ed, if you were thick...


Tom Redfern said...

Absolutely brilliant

Tim Newman said...

Giggs is truly one of the greatest sportsmen ever. I think volumes will be written on him when he retires.

Tim Newman said...

I've just watched the programme on iPlayer. I thought Ed Smith was stretching his thesis pretty thin. Firstly, England did not get outplayed by Germany because they are too professional. The Germans are equally professional and they played with all the flair Ed wants to see so much. Secondly, Usain Bolt is relaxed because he knows he is 3m faster than anyone else he will come up against. If he had much tighter races, he might be less relaxed. Clive Woodward didn't seeem too impressed with his thesis, at any rate.

Mark said...

Some people I know at Kent CCC say that Smith was an pretentious twat all the time he was there.

As for Clive Woodward, you can put him in the same bracket as Steve Waugh in that England have produced a fair few world class rugby players over the years, but only Woodward was lucky enough to be coach when at least six were in the prime simultaneously.

Likewise any of us could have made a decent fist of skippering Australia with the line up that Waugh inherited.

diogenes said...

actually Germany employed some university undergrads to do an in-depth study of England's likely tactics, which proved devastatingly accurate. Germany were the true professionals; England relied on exercise and diet.