Aggression and the loss of focus
I'm writing a follow-up to my article on Stuart Broad to respond to a contrary note struck by a few readers in the comments section. In doing so, I will briefly stray from cricket but I think the exercise is worth it, because it will illustrate a point of relevance to cricketers: the relationship between temperament and on-field performance.
Recall then, that in response to my claim that "Sportsmen, mediocre ones especially, have a tendency to get frustrated when they are under pressure from their opponents", some readers said that even champion sportsmen were prone to petulance. The poster child for this claim is John McEnroe.
First, it should be noted that I was not suggesting expressions of frustration under pressure are the exclusive province of mediocre sportsmen. Rather, my claim was that what distinguishes the mediocre from the great, by and large, is that the former have failed to master the art of grace under pressure. The Zidane, Cantona, and Ponting examples provided by readers are all instances where the player's behaviour was an aberration that cost him and his team dearly, and they will be the first ones to acknowledge that their behaviour was deeply counterproductive. In each case, the player's behaviour was a sign of weakness, not strength.
But what about McEnroe? He smashed rackets (and would have done the same to umpires given a chance), cursed (at himself, other players, umpires, linesmen) and generally raised hell on the court, didn't he? Of course, most but not all, of the time McEnroe's outbursts were directed at himself; his rage was in equal parts self-loathing and petulance. Still, he won seven Grand Slam titles. Perhaps this petulance was a kind of "good aggression"?
There is a problem with this thesis. It is that McEnroe almost always played badly when he was indulging in an on-court meltdown - most famously during the 1984 French Open when he blew a two-sets-to-none lead against his arch-rival Ivan Lendl. When most people think of McEnroe's behaviour, they are, in general, thinking of matches that he was either: a) playing in the early stages of his career (admittedly, his famous "you cannot be serious" outburst came during an early-round game at the 1981 Wimbledon, which he eventually won) or b) losing or c) losing in the later stages of his career i.e., after his 1985 loss to Kevin Curran at Wimbledon, including his infamous default at the 1990 Australian Open.
But when McEnroe was at his 1980-84 peak, and playing his finest tennis, he was also at his coolest. It is no coincidence that McEnroe never lost the plot during his epic encounters with Bjorn Borg. And neither is it a coincidence that McEnroe never went overboard during the finals of any of his seven Grand Slam wins. What McEnroe's temper and temperament did was to hang like a millstone around his neck and prevent him from fully realising his genius. Seven Grand Slams for a man whose talent outshone that of any other player in the modern era seem like slim pickings. McEnroe did as well as he did in spite of his temper; it was not a focusing device, it was a distraction.
Returning to cricket, the laundry list of counterexamples to my claim included plenty of fast bowlers and yet if the record of their temper tantrums is examined closely, most of them occurred during a bad spell of play, either for them, or their team (c.f Holding's stump-kicking heroics). What makes the hot-headed great really great is that he is able to transcend this weakness most of the time. When a player is involved in too many of these incidents in their career, the suspicion is entirely justified that this is a cover-up for incompetence. Great players master the public display of temper and turn it into a steely resolve; rather than the loud tantrum, they seek out an icy rage that retains their focus. That is why sledgers the world over know who lets opponents get under their skin and who plays better when taunted.
A common confusion in this argument is to conflate an aggressive attitude with displays of temper. But the two have nothing to do with each other. A captain can, by field placings, toss decisions, bowling changes, and other moves, show his unbridled aggression without raising his voice. A batsman can show his aggression by his strokeplay, a bowler with his control over line and length, with the artfully directed bouncer followed by a yorker. That is aggression, the business of keeping relentless pressure on your opponent, not letting him relax at any time.
The public tantrums are a sideshow and a distraction. And even the occasionally hot-headed greats know it.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here