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August 23, 2010

Samir Chopra

Aggression and the loss of focus

Samir Chopra
John McEnroe loses his temper during the 1980 Wimbledon, London, 1980
John McEnroe loses his temper at Wimbledon in 1980  © Getty Images
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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

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Posted by idoltalay on (September 10, 2010, 13:44 GMT)

Hi Iam Prabhu from chennai,joined today in this forum... :)

Posted by waterbuffalo on (August 25, 2010, 12:51 GMT)

@ rk and mk, yah, Pak was chasing 280, they were 100-0, Anwar was batting beatifully, but Sohail cost Pak the match with his wicket, too much adrenaline, if you are Viv Richards you can say, 'fetch the ball', Sohail was not in that class. Mark Waugh was also very cool, he just played his shots, that's all. I think Ajay Jadeja hit 40 from Waqar's last two overs in that WC game.

Posted by mk49 on (August 25, 2010, 6:59 GMT)

Aamir Sohail's dismissal in the quarter finals of the '96 World Cup was a classic case of mistaking losing one's cool for agression. Sohail lost his stumps and Pak got booted out.

Posted by rk tumuluri on (August 25, 2010, 6:12 GMT)

I recall this india-pak encounter where Aamir Sohail paid with his wicket. The bowler was Venkatesh Prasad, if memory serves. Aamir was batting like a dream but his "arrogance" got the better of his judgement. He pointed to the mid-wicket/long-on area in a manner of suggesting where he would deposit the next ball. Venkatesh Prasad had the look of a "lamb". But, neverthless he produced a beauty for the next delivery and had Aamir's wicket. His celebration was aggressive but he kept looking away from making eye contact with Aamir. Another form of "aggression", I guess. He let the ball "talk".

Posted by waterbuffalo on (August 25, 2010, 5:31 GMT)

@ Balumekka--- Waqar was quiet, used to glare , but Wasim sledged all the time, he even sledged Sachin when he was 16 years old, Wasim was extremely noisy his whole career, he and Moin were probably the noisiest two guys in the 90's.

Posted by waterbuffalo on (August 24, 2010, 8:47 GMT)

To the poster that mentioned Tendulkar, even he lost his temper late in the day against Pakistan when Bucknor gave him out against Pakistan, Bucknor did it because he was fed up with Sachin's moving the screen every over and wasting time. So, the first appeal, Bucknor gave him out, and Sachin was apoplectic. Sehwag is very cool, but most batsmen lose their temper, too, it is not just limited to fast bowlers. Boycott, Gavaskar, Miandad, all the best did it, let alone second rate batsmen like Chris Broad. Saeed Anwar and Inzi, I think were very cool, but you want your batsmen and bowlers to show some passion when they are dismissed, not to smile like Younis Khan and Shoaib Malik, an example would be Yousuf in the last Test.

Posted by RC on (August 24, 2010, 6:07 GMT)

Spot on about McEnroe. To keep it simple, he won all those titles in spite of his temper, not because of it. In fact, I have a feeling that the only ones who tried to defend Broad in the last articles were English fans, who are quick to call others (especially Australians) unsporting but never accept it when their own players fit that description very well.

Posted by Balumekka on (August 24, 2010, 2:46 GMT)

Great article Samir. One thing I hate to see is bowlers, specially quickies say few words to the Batsman after each delivery, to show the aggression. Its ok you tell few things following a really good ball without taking the wicket, but I see lot of youngsters "over using" foul language to disrupt the batsman, even after bowling innocent deliveries. Lasith Malinga, although his express and lethal, never say anything but smiling with the batsman even after bowling a deadliest bouncer aiming at batsman's head. I think by that way, he delivers the massage much better than a bowler often using foul language. Greats Wasim, Waquar, Ambrose and Walsh never used to use foul language to show the aggression. But everybody knows how aggressive they are in Cricket. Ponting is a known foul language sledger and a great believer of it. Contrary, Ranatunga never used foul language, but he was so commanding by gesture and behaviours and not even an arrogant opponent used foul language against him.

Posted by Roscoe on (August 24, 2010, 1:55 GMT)

Even great players don't always master the public tantrum. Glenn McGrath had his very OTT moments. He got away with it because his team sledged heaps anyway, & because, well he was McGrath, a great. There was that spectacular run chase in the West Indies when Sarwan induced McGrath to completely lose it. The Aussies lost, which may prove your thesis Samir. But was there a big fine afterwards as well? Or did the match ref cool it all down?

Posted by Madappa Prakash on (August 23, 2010, 23:33 GMT)

Dear Samir, I was one of your readers who could not help bringing up McEnroe into the picture. I quite agree with most of the sentiments you express in your current article. In fact, I think bad manners are bad manners regardless of who exhibits it. I've seen Nobel Prize winners who've been worse. It must, however, be acknowledged that sometimes good anger is good, especially when it corrects supercilious behavior from umpires (who seem to have all the protection). McEnroe, despite his bad manners, brought a great deal of good to tennis. I doubt that Stuart Broad has done so; I'll be extremely happy if he proves me wrong in the future.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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