November 6, 2013

Harder to get to the top or to stay there?

And what are we to make of the inimitable Mitchell Johnson then?

Coming as it did within a few days of the death of his old partner in shockability, Lou Reed, how apt that the world should learn last week that David Bowie's latest ruse to swell his unsparse coffers is to prance about plugging the wares of Louis Vuitton. Being street and hip is evidently no longer necessary for popular culture's deftest chameleon. Still, there is one constant with Bowie: he will always remind us of the human capacity for change, for renewal, for reinvention.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. So the French have told us for time immemorial. On this I am a fundamentalist: we can change, provided the will is there. Which in turn means not only being able to identify areas of inadequacy and weakness, but, much more awkwardly, to acknowledge that they apply to you. Professional sportsfolk, by the uniquely competitive nature of their job, have to ask such questions, and answer them, more than anyone. Not changing means not adapting to new opponents, new conditions or new challenges. Not changing usually means losing.

In the main, of course, change is a reaction to failure. Last week the Boston Red Sox won the World Series a year after propping up their division, a season when, as that Titian of baseball writers, Tom Boswell, put it, they were "a symbol of everything wrong with rich modern pro sports". All too readily did manager John Farrell recall the "tremendous sense of embarrassment" he encountered when he was hired. Yet changing from a position of strength makes more sense, negating the horrors of self-doubt.

Let's take a step back. Is attaining sporting excellence harder than maintaining it? For some, the ascent is all, the consequences irrelevant. Reaching the summit, though, means confronting an even sterner challenge: to stay there, to enhance one's standing, perhaps even, for the most driven, to leave a legacy. George Bailey, Sohag Gazi and Rubel Hossain, to cite merely the most recent cricketers to wow multitudes for the first time, are now embarking on this new journey. What if what got them to this level isn't enough to keep them there? Besides, now they have to contend with the loss of novelty and the invasion of fame, with warier and cannier opponents, with the expectations and demands of colleagues, media and public. Call it pressure.

Joni Mitchell captured the inherent difficulties, when recalling an encounter with Bob Dylan, her closest rival as the modern songwriter non pareil. "He stole all of his lines out of a Japanese hoodlum's novel. There was a lawsuit pending but it got dropped. He told me, 'I haven't written a song in years.' I said, 'What're you talking about? Who's writing them, then?'

"He came down to craft. Inspiration doesn't stay with a lot of artists long, then you're in the game and you've got to sustain it. You notice it - like one-trick wonders or two good albums, then they peter out. To sustain a gift for a long time is rare."

If anything, craft is even more integral to sport, which is why Steve Waugh, the game's steeliest modern practitioner, would doubtless scoff at the slightest suggestion that gifts had anything to do with his lengthy encampment on that mountain top. Still, Geoff Lawson spotted something special after his team-mate's belated maiden Test century at Headingley in 1989. "I had a quiet drink in town and an ugly ranch burger on the way home with Tugga. He was still pretty quiet, just pleased to have got to three figures though I think he could sense that bigger things were to come."

And so they did, but not before Waugh had been dropped during the 1990-91 Ashes (replaced, even more gallingly, by his twin), and thus not before he rang the changes: re-examining his technique, renouncing the hook and turning pragmatist. Actual or feared, failure was his fuel. Maybe that's why, as captain, he allowed himself to laugh at it.

That willingness to adapt, to change, can also be seen in an illustrious couple of openers, Graham Gooch and Desi Haynes. Both won their international spurs through self-assertiveness - in his first ODI Haynes treated Jeff Thomson as if the planet's most petrifying paceman was floating it up underarm - yet secured longevity through self-restraint. Both hailed from unprivileged backgrounds, Haynes appreciably more so; both became businessmen-cricketers. And just as captaincy changed Gooch, having a dozen dependents changed Haynes.

Now Bostonians worship Koji Uehara, who threw the winning strike for the Red Sox. Long one of Japan's pre-eminent starting pitchers, he came to the US at 34 and floundered, but pride took a back seat. Taking the ultimate insult on the chin, he accepted demotion to the constricted role that is the relief pitcher's lot, then bounced back with a vengeance this year, breaking all manner of records at a ripe 38.

Yet even the noblest intentions can be thwarted. On the flight back to Philadelphia after winning the world heavyweight title in 1962, Sonny Liston, the illiterate ex-con whose thuggish image and links with organised crime had made him the bane of the civil rights movement, was rehearsing a speech. His sounding board was Jack McKinney, a local boxing writer.

Reaching the summit means confronting an even sterner challenge: to stay there, to enhance one's standing, perhaps even, for the most driven, to leave a legacy. George Bailey, Sohag Gazi and Rubel Hossain are now embarking on this new journey

"I want to reach my people," began Liston, "reach them and tell them, 'You don't have to worry about me disgracin' you. You won't have to worry about me stoppin' your progress.' I know it was in the papers that the better class of coloured people were hopin' I'd lose, even prayin' I'd lose, because they was afraid I wouldn't know how to act." Nor would he be satisfied to be the champion of "my own people"; he wanted to be "the world's champion".

As he disembarked, Liston noticed that the anticipated welcoming hordes amounted to a smattering of press, paps and PR flunkys. "His eyes swept the whole scene," remembered McKinney. "He understood immediately what it meant. You could feel the deflation, see the look of hurt in his eyes. It was almost like a silent shudder went through him. He'd been deliberately snubbed. I knew from that point on that the world would never get to know the Liston that I knew."

So it was that Muhammad Ali, who defeated him two years later, became "the world's champion", while Liston was bumped off at the behest of his erstwhwile backers, dying early and alone, unlamented, unfulfilled.

****

Which brings us, inevitably, to Mitchell Guy Johnson. Being called home from India with an ODI series in the balance, the better to reacquaint himself with red balls, certainly seemed to confirm him as the Australian selectors' latest candidate to turn back that Pommy tide, at once the owner of 205 Test wickets and an extensive rap sheet for committing arguably the most grievous of sporting sins: talent abuse. Even the Cricket Australia website characterises him, somewhat disloyally, as "one of the most enigmatic players to have graced the cricket field".

Much as the Barmies relish composing ditties in his dishonour, this is mostly because they recognise the threat Johnson poses. After all, with the possible exception of a miserly-yet-attacking wristspinner, a left-armer who can swing the ball at pace is a captain's holy grail.

That Johnson made his Test debut six days after turning 26, having endured four stress fractures of the back, and survived being proclaimed a "once-in-a-generation" bowler at 17 - by no less grudging a dispenser of compliments than Dennis Lillee - augured well for a prolonged extension of his rampant start (142 wickets in 31 Tests at less than 52 balls per throw). Having navigated all that, been strengthened by all that, how could he not cope? How easy to say in hindsight that reliability was always going to be elusive for a bowler who insisted on operating with such a ridiculously low arm.

Enigmatic is indeed the word, triggered by a fragility apparently more mental than physical. Did the ensuing decline signify uncertainty? Or was it obstinacy, an overdose of pride firing a resistance to change? In fairness, it is extremely difficult to believe it was unrelated to a luridly public feud with his mother, one that culminated in him not inviting her to his wedding in 2011 - less than a week, pointedly, before Mother's Day. Also unwanted were his international team-mates, which says something too.

Yet while his last 20 Tests have brought humiliation aplenty, they have also produced three of his five Man-of-the-Match awards. Indeed, so persistent is his potency that, of those 205 strikes, even allowing for that decline, 71.7% have felled members of the top seven; even Dale Steyn's proportion is only 67.6%. Constancy amid the inconsistency, then.

And so to the obvious question: not so much whether Johnson, 32 last week, has grown up, but is he professionally fulfilled? Is he content to focus the remainder of his career on a diet of lighter workloads, maximising longevity? Or does he aspire to once-in-a-generation-ness? To achieve that, though, means trading enigmatic for automatic, which in turn means change, of technique and/or mindset, though one seriously doubts the former is possible without the latter. The chance to stuff a considerable number of words down an awful lot of throats should be incentive enough.

He could do a lot worse than emulate Michael Clarke, whose aim, he declares in the latest edition of the Cricketer, "is to get better every day". Call it a commitment to talent. Without it, well... better make way for the homo superior.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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