July 31, 2013

Ashton Agar's big challenge

Can he enjoy a sustained career at the top and still retain his essential core?

Ashton Agar Model 2013: a helluva nice lad © Getty Images

The career of Ashton Agar will be a fascinating study of nature v nurture. On the face of it, we have a fresh-faced kid who appears to be a helluva nice lad. He's good-looking, modest, talented, and is imbued with strong family values and an admirable sense of perspective for one so young. His reaction to being dismissed for 98 on Test debut spoke volumes for how firmly grounded he is, though he would have been forgiven for daring to have his head in the clouds if he so chose.

On the flip side, he now enters a profession that can so easily corrupt absolutely. In Australia, and perhaps around the world, male professional sport can take a most charming young man and spit out a grizzled, surly, decadent old one. In some celebrated cases, you don't even need to wait that long; the system can change you before you are long in the tooth. The question I pose is whether Agar can enjoy a sustained career at the top and still retain his essential core personal brand despite a career in professional sport rather than because of it.

His will be a fascinating case study for me to follow. When I'm not hunting lions (with a camera) in Africa, I spend my days working with professional athletes from a variety of different sports in Australia. I've witnessed thousands of young men come through the system, find their feet on the big stage, slip up spectacularly now and again, and emerge from the other end of the sausage factory. What I've seen is a phenomenon that almost makes me wish that my sons won't ever make it in professional sport, despite the obvious pride I will have if the unthinkable happens - unthinkable only because they will have the weight of genetic disadvantage to contend with!

Australian sport, obvious exceptions notwithstanding, currently faces a crisis of confidence in terms of ethics. Performance-enhancing drugs, salary-cap rorts, sexual-assault allegations, drink-driving charges, bar fights, match-fixing, gambling, wife-beating, social-media indiscretions, you name it. There is barely a day that passes when a new scandal is not aired, 99% of it focused on male athletes, coaches, administrators, or player-agents from high-profile sports. Some of it is inevitably a subset of the normal population statistics for such behaviour, but much of it can be directly attributed to a culture that tempts, cajoles, and almost forces impressionable (arrogant) young men to conform to an ugly norm.

An inconvenient truth it may be but I've seen it happen too often to write it off as mere coincidence. The fact that most sporting codes run extensive player-education programmes - to cover topics that most other young men would have expected to have learned at home - is proof that being exposed to the rarefied atmosphere of the professional sport culture is enough to corrode basic values.

Professional sport isn't helped by the culture of denial and cover-up that pervades it. From CEOs to medical staff to coaches to media officers to sponsors, and even the police in some cases, the prevailing culture is undeniably to win at all cost

In many senses, it is inevitable. Take a young man with a yet-undeveloped pre-frontal cortex, add an unhealthy dose of narcissism, a wad of cash, limited post-school education (sometimes barely even that), loads of female attention, too much time on his hands, and too many bars and casinos open late at night, and you've created the perfect storm. It would take someone pretty special to be able to emerge unscathed from this environment.

Professional sport isn't helped by the culture of denial and cover-up that pervades it. From CEOs to medical staff to coaches to media officers to sponsors, and even the police in some cases, the prevailing culture is undeniably to win at any cost. To navigate these murky waters and emerge unmarked by these influences calls for a young man with strong family values and a belief in something greater than his identity as a mere sportsman. Of course those young men exist, but they do it despite the system, not because of it. That's where the nature v nurture experiment becomes fascinating to watch.

In Agar, we have a young man whose family will surely provide him with a level of natural immunity that will no doubt afford him some protection. You only have to look at someone like Mike Hussey to have faith in the notion that good men can always remain thus. Cricket and rugby union have more of these success stories than many of the other major team sports, but that again speaks to the power of family background. It is no guarantee but at least many of these athletes start off with a shield around them that the system tries hard to weaken. I work with many young men across issues like drugs, alcohol, violence, and respect for women. I monitor their social-media sites, I hear their stories, I'm often involved in counselling them when things go wrong. For that reason alone, I almost wish for a different destiny for my own sons, despite my passion for cricket. But they have a good mum, so they'll be okay!

Agar will hopefully enjoy a ten- or 15-year career at the top. He might soon have to cope with that first wrench of disappointment if he gets dropped from the Test team, but if his reaction to being caught in the outfield or denied Stuart Broad's wicket at Trent Bridge is anything to go by, he will smile, shrug his lanky shoulders, and thank god for his blessings. Listening to his family being interviewed made me proud to be associated with the sport, despite having no contact with him whatsoever. It was just a feel-good story all round.

Anyone familiar with Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" might wish for an Ashton Agar who can "talk with crowds and keep your virtue / Or walk with Kings-nor lose the common touch". Or someone who can "meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same".

If he can walk that thin line of fame and fortune and still remind us of Ashton Agar Model 2013, it will indeed be a triumph of nature v nurture. It used to be the case that life used to be a metaphor for sport, reminding us of all those values that the Greek philosophers waxed lyrical about: sportsmanship, good health, camaraderie, respect for opponents, honesty, chivalry and fair play. Sadly it is now all too common that the reverse is true - sport has now become a metaphor for life and is rife with terms like "cheat", "liar", "thief", "profiteer", and "win at all costs". Young men like Agar have the power to remind us that Kipling wasn't just a poet - he was a dreamer.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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