December 7, 2011

Winning is everything? Sorry, no

In cricket, as in other sports, it's not about the statistics and the bottomline. It's about how much joy you give, how well you are loved and remembered

Hundreds of thousands of men and women have played professional football. None, surely, could have so fully lived up to the name Socrates. He played as though football was a creative puzzle, to be teased out like a philosophical enquiry. He played with grace but also with lightness.

Not all of you may have encountered a mischievous theory called nominative determinism. The idea is that people are predetermined to pursue certain professions by their names: your name is your fate. Britain's leading jurist is called Igor Judge (his professional billing is "Judge Judge"); the world's fastest man is called Usain Bolt; and "Dudus" Coke awaits trial in the US for allegedly running the Jamaican drugs mafia.

Socrates certainly lived up to his nominative destiny. He was a qualified doctor, a political activist and an independent thinker. His attitude to life was appropriately philosophical. He knew that smoking and drinking were damaging his health, but retorted, "It's a problem, but we all have to die of something, don't we?"

The same joie de vivre informed Socrates' attitude to sport. He was unflinchingly committed to the joga bonito - the beautiful game. "Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy." Even people who don't like football remember being uplifted by Socrates' grace and audacity. They remember his mistakes as well as his triumphs. They remember his movement and imagination as well as his goals. And they remember that he was unique - perhaps the highest accolade any sportsman can achieve. I almost forgot the most important thing of all: he is remembered, full stop.

A great deal is written about greatness in sport. There is a natural human urge to seek objectivity and proof about who is the greatest. Averages are measured, metrics invented, comparisons fed through the meat grinder of statistical analysis.

But statistics, I'm afraid, can never tell us the whole truth about greatness. Because sporting achievement is not quite the same thing as greatness. Look at cricket. Viv Richards was an exceptional performer in Test cricket, but he wasn't off the map in terms of pure stats. Greg Chappell and other contemporaries pushed him hard. But in terms of greatness, Viv stood alone. The numbers don't quite capture the complete Viv effect - not just on opponents but also on fans. Whenever I remember watching him on television, a smile comes over my face - even now, 25 years later.

Mark Waugh's Test match average was "only" 41 (that still sounds pretty good to me, but it's undeniable that lots of players average 41 these days). But the numbers don't reflect the pleasure he gave. A sublime Waugh flick through midwicket was only worth four runs - the same as an ugly thick edge from a lesser batsman - but it was worth much more to those who paid money to watch.

Some of the most astonishing things Waugh did on a cricket field weren't recorded at all. Greg Chappell tells a lovely story in his book The Making of Champions about watching Waugh field on the footholds at extra cover and midwicket in ODIs. The ball would be bouncing unpredictably on the footholds and Waugh would swoop effortlessly and pick it up without fumbling or diving, like a cat pouncing on a ball of string. Chappell writes that he wanted to stand up and cheer every time. Statistically it was an non-event. For the discerning fan, it was pure magic.

According to the averages, the racist cheat Ty Cobb was a better batter than Babe Ruth. But Cobb was nowhere near as great a sportsman. Not if we use the correct measurement: the extent to which he was loved and remembered.

If you still think that winning in sport is all about the final score, I recommend reading Rafa: My Story, the unflinchingly honest autobiography by Rafael Nadal. When he writes about Roger Federer, his great rival, something strange happens to Nadal. Rationally he knows that he has beaten Federer more often than Federer has beaten him, but he insists that Federer is the greater player. Partly, that is because Federer still possesses more grand slams. But the deeper reason is that Nadal deeply respects - perhaps even envies - the way Federer plays. "You get these blessed freaks of nature in other sports, too."

If you produce grim, boring and joyless sport, it is reassuring to fall back on the delusion that it is all in a worthy cause. Socrates knew better. He knew that sportsmen are entertainers

Here is the interesting thing. Nadal does not congratulate himself for being the more worthy champion. He congratulates Federer for the more sublime talent. And Nadal may be right. In an era of wonderful tennis players, Federer has been the most elegant, refined and instinctive.

Socrates' death has been described as a terrible day for sporting romantics. In fact, it is a much sadder day for sporting ultra-rationalists. Because the win-at-all-costs brigade has once again been shown to be completely wrong. Socrates never won the World Cup, and lost the biggest match of his career playing on his own terms. And how is he remembered? As a loser? No. He is remembered with respect, with adoration, with love. Over the long term, it is very simple: he won.

Remember Socrates' career and legacy the next time you hear "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." That was American football coach Vince Lombardi's dictum about sporting priorities. And in the 50 years since Lombardi's quip, the reductionism of winning at all costs has hardened into conventional wisdom.

Of course, it is a consoling thought - if you're a production-line automaton incapable of playing sport creatively, or if you're a coach determined to stamp out individuality and risk. Yes, if you produce grim, boring and joyless sport, it is reassuring to fall back on the delusion that it is all in a worthy cause.

Socrates knew better. He knew that sportsmen are entertainers. They must try to win, too (no one is entertained by skill without will). But entertainment is not bolted onto sport as an afterthought. It is at the core of the whole project.

Professional athletes are only the temporary custodians of their sports. Their highest calling is to pass it on to the next generation enhanced rather than diminished. By that measure Socrates won - and he won big.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith is a writer with the Times. His Twitter feed is here