March 22, 2014

Anger isn't all bad

Ben Stokes may have broken his wrist by punching a locker door in anger, but that's much the same emotion he needs to channel at the top of his run-up

Chris Broad smashes his stumps like a guitar-destroying rock star, in Sydney, 1988 © Getty Images

"And the locker door downs the firebrand Englishman, Ben 'The Durham Destroyer' Stokes, on a technical knockout, with the redheaded allrounder forced to retire from both the Battle of the Dressing Room and the World T20 with a fractured scaphoid. What a punch!"

The becalmed batsmen who never even swear in anger, let alone assault inanimate objects, might trouble to understand the mindset of a man who punches things. To the well-adjusted the temper tantrum is something of an enigma. And even if you acknowledge that Stokes' run of poor scores had ratcheted up the tension, you might not empathise with his need to violently snap.

As a player whose bat occasionally arrives at the pavilion before he does, I admit to a series of PDFs (Public Displays of Frustration) when cosmic justice is awry - that absolutely plumb lbw decision not given, or, for the second week running, I've been caught behind off my pad. If the surge of adrenaline is too much for my body to hold then a physical act is required to release the pressure, and the subsequent guilt/embarrassment of bat-slinging, cap-throwing, ball-kicking is usually enough to douse the fire.

If I hadn't played cricket with my father I'd have doubted this fury was in my genetic make-up. Off the pitch he is a mild-mannered social worker with a Zen-like approach to life. On the pitch he is swearing banshee, cursing at every missed edge and roaring his appeals. Yet I doubt he's ever right-hooked a dressing-room door.

Sir Alex Ferguson infamously kicked a boot into David Beckham's face, and his "hair dryer" bollockings are folklore. Yet where Fergie has the outlet of shouting behind closed doors, or taking penalties at his star player, the cricketer must first tuck his bat under his arm and walk back to the pavilion silently fuming.

Although if you are Chris Broad bowled by Steve Waugh at the SCG in 1988, you scythe down your stumps before trudging away - or you don't walk at all: Broad infamously stood his ground in Lahore after being given out caught behind, protesting for a full minute before Graham Gooch convinced him to go. And even if you do walk quietly back to the dressing room you may then demolish it, as Aussie Dan Christian did three times in a single season for South Australia. The Aussies even punch holes in walls better than the English, as Christian KO'd the brickwork without breaking his hand.

There are few sights more pitiful than a batsman hacking down his wicket. Still, in tennis, where the frustrated mangle their rackets with little punishment from the authorities, destroying a graphite banjo is a near-accepted act of release. And if Mr Perfect himself, Roger Federer, whacks the court in anger, then what chance does a fiery youth from Durham have of keeping his cool?

"Anger is a normal physical emotion," says clinical psychologist Isabel Clarke, official advisor on the NHS web page dedicated to controlling rage. "Be aware of what your body is telling you, and take steps to calm down."

Temper at the crease is usually fatal, and angrily trying to smash the bowler back over his head is a kamikaze mission. In an ill-mannered "friendly" last season, playing for a team of thespians including several young actors, one of whom was swishing and missing, the sledging degenerated to bat-waving, finger-wagging, and finally two players squaring up. The umpires intervened before blows were landed, and play was resumed. The fuming young actor tried to belt the next ball into the next field and was subsequently bowled.

I imagine Ben Stokes will be sat on the sport psychologist's couch, and that he'll be trained in calming strategies. He might be encouraged to practice breathing exercises or to do yoga. And they may well work. Punching locker doors is not a healthy activity. Yet running in to bowl that bit quicker is. Or making that diving stop that saves four runs.

Skill is nothing without control. But the Stokes fire shouldn't be put out. Yes, cricket is different from rugby, ice hockey or American football, where untrammelled aggression can win a game. It's a sport of fine touches and subtle cunning. And it's also a game where the fury of a Bob Willis running down the wind can win a Test match.

Angry young men who can work fire like a blacksmith forging steel into a sharp blade can be better players with aggression - focused.

Hopefully Stokes will nod his head and hold his breath when the psychologist tells him to visualise that "happy place". He'll sit on the couch and do as he's told. He might even enjoy yoga. But when he laces up his boots and stomps in to bowl I want him swearing and grunting, all that rage whanged down the wicket and knocking over stumps.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award