June 30, 2014

Cricket as a metaphor for life

Perhaps in no other game does the adage of playing the hand you're dealt apply as much as it does in cricket

Durham's Mark Stoneman is dismissed after a fifty in what turned out to be his side's first win of the county season, after seven games. Poor season for the team? Not really © Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself about 20 yards from a major news story - a story, in fact, I ended up writing about for the next day's Guardian - as around 100 Chilean fans without tickets for their side's World Cup match against Spain smashed a door at the front of the press centre at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro and charged through, trying to gain access to the stands. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I missed it. A hundred people in bright red shirts were clattering about, being chased by cameramen, photographers, journalists with phones and, eventually, security, and I was caught up in the developing drama of the third day of what would, the following day, become Durham's victory over Lancashire in a county championship match.

"It should be their first victory of the season," I enthused to Miguel, the journalist with whom I'm sharing a flat for the duration of the tournament. He's half-Irish, half-Spanish (the liver of the Irish, the wristwatch of the Spanish, if we're dealing in cheap stereotypes) and has no interest in cricket. "Shit season, then?" he grunted.

And that's where we came upon one of those moments of cultural misunderstanding that make cricket such an idiosyncratic sport. Because Durham's season up until then, featuring one defeat and six draws had been, well, what? Not great but not all that bad either.

They'd been one wicket from beating Northamptonshire, had failed to knock over Somerset after taking a first-innings lead, had hung on after conceding 589 in the first innings to Yorkshire, had drawn a high-scoring weather-affected game with Sussex, had lost to Somerset after being skittled in the first innings (having won the toss and batted), and had drawn a weather-ruined game against Nottinghamshire. Perhaps the bowling hadn't been quite as sharp as it had been last season - hardly surprising with Graham Onions and Ben Stokes missing so many games - but essentially the draws were either down to weather, the opposition batting in favourable conditions, or running out of time when well-placed.

And that suggests one of the fundamentals of cricket - something that is probably true of all sports but which is foregrounded in cricket as in no other sport but perhaps golf, and that is that you have to play the conditions as much as the opposition.

You wake up on the first day of the game and it's raining on and off. The pitch is green and the ball is swinging. You lose the toss and are inserted and you know a par score is 180-200. You struggle on and are bowled out just before close for 220. It's a decent performance, but the next day the sun is out and a breeze dries the pitch. Par becomes 320-340. You bowl well and dismiss the opposition for 300. So even though you've performed better than expectations, in a sense outplayed the opponent, you've given up a first-innings lead of 80.

It happens. People may protest it's unfair, but cricket accepts that that's the game. You play the hand you're dealt as best you can and hope that's enough. And that's why cricket is probably a better metaphor for life than any other sport.

A priest I used to know, long dead now, loved the analogy that life was like seam bowling. "Some days," he'd say, "you'll get a greentop and some days you get a shirtfront. Some days you'll bowl beautifully and beat the outside edge 20 times and not take the edge, and some days you'll bowl a load of long hops and full tosses and take 5 for 20, but at the end of your career your figures will be roughly what you deserve. If you keep striving and putting the ball in the right place, in the end, you'll be all right."

There seems to me something quite profound in that, as neat a way of explaining the apparent unfairness of life as you'll find: sometimes it'll be easy, sometimes it'll be hard, sometimes you get what you deserve, sometimes you don't, but the fundamentals remain the same. The priest, obviously, was making a moral point, but the lesson carries over into sport as a whole; the vicissitudes of luck must be accommodated in any assessment of how a team has done. Looking at result alone is not enough, however much fans and journalists may be desperate to find reasons for failure (which isn't to say people shouldn't seek to explain results, or that that isn't the route to success, merely that there should be an awareness that not everything is explicable).

England lost their two-match series (and luck is one of many arguments as to the futility of such short rubbers) to Sri Lanka 1-0, but could easily have won it 1-0. All it would have taken was one more wicket in the first match, and Jimmy Anderson to last two more balls in the second. Rarely have the fine margins of sport been so apparent. For the most part fans and journalists seemed to accept that it had been extremely close and there was little shame in defeat.

Yet when Roy Hodgson, the England football manager, explained away 2-1 defeats to Italy and Uruguay at the World Cup with the phrase "things happen in football", he was widely mocked. But in both those games, England had more chances and more shots on target than the opposition: keep doing that over a career and you'll win far more games than you lose. "Things happen in football" was Hodgson's equivalent of the parable of the seam bowler.

Since that win over Lancashire, Durham have beaten Sussex, the two wins lifting them to fourth in the table. Luck has begun to even out and they are now getting the reward for good performances. It's easy to be a slave to results, easy to seek explanations for everything and ignore the influence of fortune, and that's true in football, in life, and in cricket.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here