September 26, 2012

How do you play cricket without becoming a machine?

The challenge for most cricketers- and other sportsmen - is to retain their personality while getting better at the game

"The challenge is to play cool without being cold." That was the assessment of the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. What he said of playing jazz is also true of playing cricket. A sportsman cannot be at the mercy of his moods and emotions. And yet sport becomes dull and lifeless when it is drained of warmth and spontaneity. Sportsmen must search for the right emotional bandwidth: they want enough coolness to feel in control, and yet sufficient rawness and authenticity to feel excitement.

There is no doubt where the Afghan cricket team lies on that continuum. They are joyful, volatile, emotional, unpredictable and deeply expressive. That is why they are wonderful to watch and have lit up this T20 World Cup, even without winning a game. Their performance against India was deeply moving because you could see how much it mattered to the Afghan players. Every six was joyous, every fielding error was agony.

These were not the learnt, mannered responses of professional sportsmen playing to the gallery. The Afghan cricketers have not yet learned how to hide their feelings. In time, they will become more controlled and clinical. But hopefully not too much. Indeed, we can all learn something from the spirit and the naturalness of the Afghan cricketers. Joy - even vulnerability - has its practical uses, too.

There is a counter argument to my view, of course. Some argue that sport is not about self-expression or enjoyment at all, but rather resilience and reliability under pressure. I've never seen this view better expressed than by Chad Harbach in his excellent novel about baseball, The Art of Fielding. (I make no apology for quoting it at length):

The making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius […] This formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport […] Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren't a painter or a writer - you didn't work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn't just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error […] Can you perform on demand, like a car, a furnace, a gun? Can you make that throw one hundred times out of a hundred? If it can't be a hundred, it had better be ninety-nine.

It is a wonderful passage, full of insight. But while I agree with many of the steps, I cannot follow all the way to Harbach's final conclusion. Sport is not quite about the elimination of human individuality, or the progress - if that is the right word - towards machine-like efficiency. True, a good player cannot be too vulnerable, he cannot allow his human weaknesses to surface so often that they undermine his performance.

But nor do the best sportsmen, I believe, allow themselves to lose touch completely with their human dimension. We must think carefully before trying to turn ourselves into machines: we may find we lose more than we gain. There is a balance to be struck: between naturalness and pragmatism, between voice and efficiency, between joy and control. Crucially, that balance is different for every player (and every team).

Inevitably there are outliers on that continuum - some players are exceptionally self-denying where others are extraordinarily natural. Rafael Nadal's game is based on the fearless elimination of error, the repeatability of relentlessness. In contrast, Roger Federer's is freer and more intuitive. Federer has said how he cannot bear to "play the same point twice". He needs to be trying something new, at least to some extent, in order to fully engage his talents.

There is a balance to be struck: between naturalness and pragmatism, between voice and efficiency, between joy and control

It is a myth that sportsmen can simply choose to adopt the best strands from the personalities of other players. Instead, they must search for the right balance that suits them. The natural, laconic David Gower would not have benefited from trying to become more like the dedicated professional Graham Gooch - nor vice versa. The quest for self-improvement must be tempered by the retention of authenticity.

The same balance applies to teams as well as individuals. Every team has an instinctive personality, a natural temperament. The challenge is to develop and strengthen that collective personality without losing what makes it unique. Over decades as a rugby fan, I have noticed that France play best when they keep their innate flair but harness it within collective discipline. They are much less successful when they rely too much on flair or when they travel too far in the direction of self-denial. To win, France must be France - they cannot pretend to be England.

This logic has consequences for the way we think about getting better at sport. Development - for both the individual and the team - is only partly about honing skills and perfecting techniques. Perhaps the bigger part of the story is learning how to be yourself. This can become harder, not easier, with experience, which explains why many players do not improve with age, but regress. The more they try to become machines, the worse they become. That is why the art of coaching - yes, the art, not the science - is at least as much about understanding people as it is about imparting technical knowledge. What kind of player might he become, what kind of person?

Where does all this leave Afghan cricket? Yes, they need to become more consistent. Yes, they will need to become better at controlling their emotions. Yes, their techniques will have to become more polished and reliable.

But all those things must be developed within a context of remaining true to themselves. They should not lose sight of the spirit and innocence that makes them such a compelling team to watch, and such a dangerous team to play against. In the lovely phrase of ESPNcricinfo writer Sharda Ugra, they "bring to a somewhat tired global community the fresh, bracing air of the mountains".

Afghanistan's cricketers are so refreshing because they aren't like everyone else. It would be a shame if they merely become part of the crowd.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Philip on September 27, 2012, 23:02 GMT

    cont/ That shouldn't mean, however, that Murali's view should be disregarded. It is encumbent on those who can to encourage a wider mindset. A wider mindset (whether batting or bowling) can easily be seen in a developing team like Afghanistan where displaying a diversity of styles is likely to be both successful and entertaining if continued.

  • Philip on September 27, 2012, 22:49 GMT

    The idea that Gower could never have batted like Gooch (or vice versa) is correct (& thank heavens for that)! You are what you are, and in order to make yourself even better you seek out influences which confirm & support this. An article in a Melbourne paper reports the great Murali as saying Australia won't produce good spinners because their coaching is too regimented along "pure" lines and thus the more unorthodox styles like Mendis are discouraged. A relevant top coach's view is that there aren't many coming through who bowl like that anyway because they are not influenced by such a tradition. There is probably some truth in this. Keen young Australians are too often stuck in an insular mindset where they only seek to emulate their fellow countrymen and, then, only those from the modern eras. Old-time mystery spinners such as Gleeson and Iverson are unknown to almost all of the current generation. Without those influences those that could bowl like them will never get started.

  • Adam on September 27, 2012, 3:28 GMT

    It will be a shame if IPL ignore some of these Afghan Player likes of Hamid Hassan, Daulat Zadran and Mohammad Nabi.

  • Dummy4 on September 26, 2012, 21:29 GMT

    Afghan's rise has been amazing....the ICC should do something to keep such teams from just falling away as is the case with most small cricketing nations

  • Mahboob on September 26, 2012, 17:48 GMT

    First of all, I would like to THANK YOU Mr. Ed Smith for bringing the attention of the world towards Afghanistan's National Cricket Team. Honestly I was having goose bumps when I was reading your article. ONLY an Afghan will understand how it feels to be on the front page of the news in a positive manner. Definitely Afghanistan needs improvement in batting & a little in fielding, yet they are as dangerous as any other team when it comes to bowling. We HOPE to watch more of Afghanistan on TV on a regular basis, as it brings a lot of joy & happiness to all Afghans around the world. LOVE YOU ESPN...<3

  • Dummy4 on September 26, 2012, 17:18 GMT

    Thanks Ed Smith ,great article I think ICC should give them more chances against top teams and Afghanistan players need to improve their fielding

  • Jackie on September 26, 2012, 17:10 GMT

    Ed Smith has a point because in the 2007 World Cup Ireland was my favourite team. Was that the one when they made their chicken impressions? However the word "entertaining" is not the same thing as characterful. I think luks is right to say that Test cricket allows the real characters of players to emerge. The back stories around Test cricket add to the day-on-day drama. In some ways t20 has the opposite effect, it creates a mould for the cricketers to fit into. They can only express themselves by doing what t20 batsmen are expected to do, hit every ball without worrying about losing your wicket. The 50-over game has far more room for characters. But I really agreed with Ed about coaches. Unfortunately most coaches seem to have a paradigm in mind. Especially Gooch.

  • Dummy4 on September 26, 2012, 16:33 GMT

    Lovely article , Really enjoyed reading this. I think Afghanistan need more games for practice from ICC and then they will be able to attract a good experience quality coach. In matter of almost 4 years Afghanistan already impressed the world with their passion, and hunger for cruising into the big games. the more they play games the more they will learn how to deal with the matches in different situations. Afghanistan are playing very good in T20 matches but they have to learn how to play in ODI matches where they need to be very careful in middle overs. they have poor fielding, giving extra runs alot and they play rush shots in batting which will be improved when they play more. They played brilliant ODI matches against Pakistan and Australia and they nearly snatched a historical upset against India in T20 world cup but when they needed experience they did not have it and that caused them to wait for their first win. I am a proud Afghan and Love them and wish them the best.

  • Dummy4 on September 26, 2012, 14:42 GMT

    Thanks Ed Smith ,great article about our spirited Afghanistan Cricket Team .

  • Aqeel on September 26, 2012, 13:48 GMT

    This article reminds me of a philosophical conflict of being a drop or a pearl in the ocean.

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