Ed Smith
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Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman; writer for the New Statesman

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

Ed Smith

September 26, 2012

Comments: 25 | Text size: A | A

Shapoor Zadran reacts after taking the wicket of Craig Kieswetter, Afghanistan v England, World Twenty20 2012, Group A, Colombo, September 21, 2012
Afghanistan haven't yet had the joy ironed out of them by the cricket grind © Getty Images
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Series/Tournaments: ICC World Twenty20
Teams: Afghanistan

"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

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Posted by ygkd 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.

Posted by ygkd 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.

Posted by F.Hashimi 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.

Posted by   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

Posted by MahboobGulestani 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

Posted by   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

Posted by jackiethepen 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.

Posted by   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.

Posted by   on (September 26, 2012, 14:42 GMT)

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

Posted by aqeel.Ilyas 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.

Posted by   on (September 26, 2012, 13:42 GMT)

I think Pakistan also needs to go back to that balance. Pakistan, particularly under Misbah, are becoming machines. Winning and loosing is secondary in sports. Since we are quoting is this one is from a Hollywood movie "It's not what you do, its how you do it"

Posted by 2.14istherunrate on (September 26, 2012, 13:39 GMT)

This article throws up a lot of questions. Obviously in some teams there is this massive machine like tendency and the enforcement of subsuming individuality to the whole. Having an attack of four right arm fast medium bowlers bowling right arm just outside the offstump is an example of this. In the end it is boring and quite likely not to b e very effective if the pitch is not doing a bit. mEngland teams have often tended to this extreme. and look like moving back in that direction, playing dull attritional cricket. players like KP, Morgan are seen to undermine this sort of ethos, in KP's case with lethal effect in two opposite directions- ie crowds will enjoy him more, if they have sense, but the rest of the team may object as they play with robotic predictability. No wonder there is friction. From the analysiis I understand more why Federer got me watching tennis again, and Nadal is a turnoff. In the end people have to play as they are, without predetermining rules.

Posted by   on (September 26, 2012, 13:17 GMT)

The Afghan team is like the HarlemGlobtrotters:they play for laughs.To win,you gotta be like Nadal-bloodyminded,staying-put,waiting for errors from the other team. By the by-isnt this why 20-20 was started:-a quick silly splash and dash-and another and another-with the players getting large payments(and I didnt mention the music and cheerleading). The English county circuit has to be one long endless drudge for most players-those who know that they will not get a(another) international call up.Maybe the counties should sign the Afghans.

Posted by H-Masoom-Islam on (September 26, 2012, 11:57 GMT)

Very interesting article - the Afghan team is certainly emotional as well as unpredictable. They are playing for their country - "a matter of national honour" - in a country where over the past 30 years there has been little opportunity for joy and a sense of unity in achieving in the international sporting arena. A comparison of the Afghanistan vs India match with the England vsa India match is very interesting - Afghanistan actually played a better match against India than the "first nation of cricket"! Unpredictability? England then thrashed Afghanistan in their match.

Posted by   on (September 26, 2012, 10:00 GMT)

Thanks ED Smith for the nice article about my national team and the kind words that you have used truly boosted our moral for the future...but I advise my team players not be as clinical as Misbah-ul-Haq! I also agree with Luks comment!

Posted by kickittome70 on (September 26, 2012, 9:27 GMT)

Two words - Javed Miandad - the most entertaining cricketer ever

Posted by   on (September 26, 2012, 8:12 GMT)

An excellent article - the Afghan team is certainly emotional as well as unpredictable. They are playing for their country - "a matter of national honour" - in a country where over the past 30 years there has been little opportunity for joy and a sense of unity in achieving in the international sporting arena. A comparison of the Afghanistan vs India match with the England vsa India match is very interesting - Afghanistan actually played a better match against India than the "first nation of cricket"! Unpredictability? England then thrashed Afghanistan in their match.

Posted by ballonbat on (September 26, 2012, 7:40 GMT)

Thank you for an insightful article, as always most elegantly expressed. If I wanted machines giving near to perfect performance I'd watch Olympic gymnasts and divers. It's all very impressive - incredible performances - and disciplined and comes from hours and hours of rigorous training, repetitive routines and self-denial. But personally I find the end result boring. Here are sports where competitors are working almost entirely to eliminate errors. To err is human and in our more human sports of cricket, rugby and tennis, for instance, we spectators have the opportunity to achieve divinity by forgiving our imperfect heroes. Players in these sports also train rigorously and do repetitive drills, but the element of chance - who knows what the bowler will do with the next ball and how the batsman will respond? - combined with the players' innate and unique skills provide the entertainment that all sport should bring to its spectators.

Posted by Nutcutlet on (September 26, 2012, 7:23 GMT)

Yes, Ed: to my mind you are right, as you nearly always are! It seems to me that you are stating a case that every teacher should know. The art of coaching/teaching is not a science (though it calls on science as its servant) because it asks the coach/teacher to know his/her charges - to appreciate each student's unique nature and enable that student to recognise & appreciate himself & be true to his nature, calling on his strengths & at the same time be mindful of his weaknesses. Teachers always need to hold up mirrors! For the cricket fan, the unbelievably swift arrival of the Afghani team on the world stage offers the prospect of something new, different & very exciting - akin, perhaps, to the early, carefree days of theWIndies in the 1950s. What the Afghanis need now is inspirational coaching, atuned to their natures, that leads out (e + ducere) their undoubted talent & flare for their personal sporting fulfiment & the enjoyment of all who love & appreciate our game.

Posted by sachkaan on (September 26, 2012, 6:40 GMT)

Mr. Smith, I love your articles. I have not seen much of your batting. I have hard that you are technically sound and all. But I must say, you are just wonderful in writing stuff about sports. I hope you keep writing a lot of articles and some day a book about sportsmen. I would love to read your views.

Posted by Webba84 on (September 26, 2012, 6:27 GMT)

Well said. Hope the administrators are listening because as far as we, the fans, are concerned you are preaching to the choir.

Posted by Loveofsport on (September 26, 2012, 5:33 GMT)

Very interesting article by a very good author. I would suggest however that there may also be an existing belief that to be great at sport the athlete mustn't think at all. They must purely live in the Now when they play/compete. This involves the ability of the athlete not dwell on a lost point, passionate crowd or hostile opponent. The French rugby team therefore possibly shouldn't waste time and energy trying or not trying to play like the French rugby team as in fact they shouldn't think about anything other than what is happening in front of them at that very second. There is a very interesting person in the US that has conducted this line of thinking with a large number of baseball batters. Shame there aren't more sports journalists like Ed Smith that discuss insightful and meaningful issues over simple regurgitation of events and points we already know. Great stuff.

Posted by silly_pt on (September 26, 2012, 5:29 GMT)

Very nice article. Such articles are needed once in a while to gauge where a particular sport or sports in general or any profession for that matter is headed.But i think that more insight could be gained if one traces back to the origin of any sports. I don't believe that any sport was invented only to compete and to win or lose. The desperate need to express oneself and experience the joy through expression must have played a prominent role in bringing up any sport. But as national interest and pride got involved winning or losing became more important than self expression and joy. That is why efficiency and repeatability matters more than artistry. But if originality of any sport is to be persevered there should be an adequate room for self expression.Else it would be just too mechanical and no joy would be left. Cricinfo publish.

Posted by   on (September 26, 2012, 5:18 GMT)

Thanks for the article. Afghanistan cricket team will improve faster if ICC give more chances to them to play against full members team.

Posted by luks on (September 26, 2012, 3:38 GMT)

But, T20 is not sport. It is a professional league for entertainment. There is no time for characters to show their imperfections and miracles. Which is again why Tests are a superior sport (maybe not as entertaining), because characters have enough time and don't actually need to be machines.

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