December 12, 2013

Champs today, chumps tomorrow

In separating sportsmen into two distinct categories - tough men and cowards - we not only miss the subtlety, we miss the whole truth

Alastair Cook's dismissal in Adelaide may well have been a statistical inevitability following a long sequence of (mostly successful) hook shots © PA Photos

Gutless, spineless, clueless, cowardly, stupid, scrambled minds, send them home.

I am, of course, referring not to players but to those critics who think that every mistake that happens in sport reveals a cowardly soul lurking underneath. Sport is more complicated than brave men against weak men.

There has been a rush to explain England's disastrous two Test matches in Australia in terms of morality. That is the easy way of talking and writing about sport. Retain the adjectives, just swap over the proper nouns. Here is a template. It is easy to adapt, and can last several decades of use with a little tinkering around the edges:

"The fractured, divided and self-absorbed Australia/England team (delete according to whether you are discussing this Ashes series or the last one) have proved woefully incapable of showing the guts, fortitude and will power to match the ruthless, united and courageous team spirit of England/Australia. Sadly, England/Australia give the impression of being more interested in money, glory and fame than in putting their bodies on the line for their country. There is a clear lack of leadership from Clarke/Cook, and one senses that old wounds have not properly healed between key senior players. If this is the best XI wearing the three lions/baggy green, then one wonders about the moral collapse and decadence of a once proud old/young nation."

Job done. Save as a Word document and just remember to delete "England" or "Australia" given the state of the series, everything else stands. Sadly, as a casual explanation of why England won 3-0 at home and now trail 2-0, it does not advance the story very far.

Let's start with the charge of moral cowardice. I have increasingly lost confidence in the concept of a "bad dismissal". That is because I am yet to see a "good dismissal". I accept that running down the pitch with your eyes closed, holding the bat by the toe and trying to hit the ball with the handle - well, that is a bad dismissal.

But most dismissals - nearly all of them - only have any meaning when placed in their proper context. And I don't mean the old cliché of "the match situation". I mean the context of the batsman's whole career record of playing that shot. David Gower scored several thousand Test runs playing majestic cover drives. He also got out numerous times doing it. To argue the dismissals were "soft" while believing the runs were "invaluable" is simple contradiction. He could not have scored the runs without risking the dismissals. It's a question - all taken together - of whether Gower playing cover drives was a better bet than a potential replacement doing something else. And, of course, Gower was the right choice.

Moral courage is not revealed in the nature of mistakes but in their frequency - or, more accurately, in the case of good players, the infrequency of mistakes

During his Ashes-winning innings of 158 at The Oval in 2005, Kevin Pietersen played a series of risky hook shots against Brett Lee. In a way, he was forced into it. When he tried to be defensive, he looked like getting out any moment - so defensiveness was not a rational strategy, let alone a brave one. So he took a risk. And top-edged and was dropped. Then he did it again. And the ball just made it over the ropes for six. And then again. Coward/hero, fool/champion, disgrace/legend.

It is the same tribal fan - and the same polemical columnist - who shouts "hero" more loudly than anyone when a six is scored, and then chants "villain" more loudly still when the same shot lands in the fielder's hands. What a champion to take on the bowler! What a fool to take such a risk! The inconsistency here is not the batsman's, it is the spectator's.

Moral courage is not revealed in the nature of mistakes but in their frequency - or, more accurately, in the case of good players, the infrequency of mistakes. Alastair Cook's career average on the hook shot is well ahead of his (healthy) average for all the other shots. Yet, by the laws of statistics, even high-percentage shots occasionally cause dismissals. Yes, it looks bad when you get out hooking. But the wider point is lost: even to save a game, batsmen must play some shots to keep a modicum of pressure on the bowlers. Given that I am not a trained psychologist with access to hundreds of hours of private conversations with Cook, I am not in a position to judge whether his Adelaide hook shot was caused by "the pressures of captaincy" or whether it was a statistical inevitability following a long sequence of (mostly successful) hook shots. But I can guess with some confidence it was the latter.

That brings me to the wider argument. The moral dimension of "bad dismissals" is always invoked. Never mentioned is a subtler moral failing. Imagine a sports match as two old-fashioned armies meeting on a battlefield. Their purpose is to advance. When the front lines engage, the direction of travel will be determined by tiny acts of skill and bravery.

Surveying the melee from the sidelines, it is all too easy to ridicule the errors that catch our eye - the maverick who has broken ranks, the vainglorious solo charge. But the battle is really won elsewhere. Somewhere on the front line, an infantryman inches a foot closer to his ally, hiding his own shield slightly behind his friend's. Hence one man becomes fractionally safer and more protected - but if the action is repeated a thousand times, the army as a whole becomes significantly smaller and weaker. No one individual can be singled out as a hopeless failure. But the whole group suffers a collective diminution.

So it is in cricket. First slip inches behind the wicketkeeper to make it less likely he will drop a catch - simultaneously narrowing the cordon as a whole and making the opposition batsman safer. An opening batsman fails to hit a half-volley for four because he is too cautious: an opportunity missed to be brave because he has failed to exploit an advantage offered to his team. After all, a few good shots could have knocked the bowler off his length. A fingerspinner who doesn't dare to give it a proper rip because he fears being hit for six: he is allowing the opposition army to inch forward every ball. A swing bowler who doesn't attack the stumps but settles for the safe option of pushing it wide of off stump: he is allowing the opposition to settle in and become comfortable on the battlefield.

Critics delude themselves that the only form of bravery in batting is survival. Yes, no batsman ever scored runs from the pavilion. But I have seen countless teams imperceptibly yield an advantage - through timidity, through fearfulness, through the desire not to stand out for the wrong reasons - an advantage that they never subsequently reversed. Once the whole army is retreating, even the bravest soldiers can fail to hold the line.

And so it has been with England on this tour. So in place of "out-fought", "out-toughed", "out-machoed", "out-sledged", "out-hungered", I have a simpler word: outplayed.

I arrived in Australia this week to commentate on the Ashes. I've been chatting to some legendary Australian cricketers of the 1970s - when men were men, moustaches were mandatory, and Jeff Thomson bowled like lightning. These are not the types to excuse softness in anyone. Yet they've told me that Mitchell Johnson has been bowling awesomely fast, by any standards. And the pitch in Adelaide, though placid, was slightly uneven in bounce. Enough to make it very challenging from the perspective of simple technique, let alone bravery. "I wouldn't have wanted to duck due to low bounce," one ex-player told me, "but standing up and playing carried serious risks too. All round - pretty bloody difficult. I'd have rather faced Lillee!"

No one said Test cricket should be easy, of course. But the central truth about this series so far is that extreme pace - as it often has in Test history - has exposed weaknesses that would have otherwise survived unobserved.

It is one of the great themes of history. Ask any real leader - from business, sport or the military - to explain his success. There will be a smile of recognition (assuming he has a brain, that is) and a nod of acknowledgement. He will know that had circumstances become fractionally more difficult, had the enemy been one degree more imposing, then all his best-laid plans could have been blown away.

In separating sportsmen into two distinct and permanent categories - winners and losers, tough men and cowards - we not only miss the subtlety, we miss the whole truth.

For England, one comfort remains. This England team, for all its achievements, has never quite captured the public imagination. When they have won, it has been with measured professionalism not memorable daring. As a result, they have felt more respected than loved.

Well, I have good news for them: turn this one around, and they'll never have to worry about a lack of adulation again.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on December 16, 2013, 11:49 GMT

    Admirable article as usual - Ed Smith's great gift is in constantly challenging the cliched assumptions which have held in cricket since time immemorial. The only point I would add is: why have Australia played so much better than England in this series? England beat this same side 3-0 a few months ago (and being 'lucky' can only partially explain a 3-0 scoreline). And 3 years ago, most of the same personnel as now met on these same Autralian pitches and the scorecards were completely reversed. The only real explanation for this must be the changing psychologies within each team, both individually and collectively. And it shows what a huge element this must be towards performing successfully. Footballers can succeed largely through talent and hard work alone; but cricketers need something else - a very strong mind to deal with all the excruciatingly fine-margins.

  • Dummy4 on December 14, 2013, 2:00 GMT

    The fourth paragraph reminds me of the famous letter from the army in 'Catch-22'


  • ESPN on December 13, 2013, 11:22 GMT

    Ed, Thank you for the well-thought, and highly constructive article. I personally have been watching cricket for many years, seen losing situations turn into wins and visa versa.

    From what I have observed from not just cricket, but any other sport, a true champion is able to examine the current situation, and is able to adjust/adapt to turn things around, make the difference.

    For example, be the one who is the main resistance of a batting team collapse. Or a bowler who makes the key breakthroughs of stubborn batting partnerships.

    Every team needs experienced players who have seen/been through a lot of pain and triumph. Instinct and pure ability is sometimes not enough. You need to take risks of losing in order to gain the advantage (or win). Some competitive games go down to the wire and a simple lapse of concentration is all it take to declare the winner. Sometimes the margin for error is paper thin.

    It is still up to the player to paint the path to destiny and ready to adapt

  • Dummy4 on December 13, 2013, 6:57 GMT

    This is a wonderful piece of writing about the nature of sport which lazy sports writers keep failing to understand or convey. Well done.

  • Paul on December 13, 2013, 2:03 GMT

    Don't agree. You, yourself, used the word "high-percentage" which is the sort of shot Alastair Cook should have been playing to Mitchell Johnson on Day 4 in Perth. He would have survived a high percentage of the time, hence his expected innings life would have been longer. But it was easier and weaker to cling to the belief that you need to play attacking shots to survive - you need to play your own game. Rubbish. He needed to survive. Maybe all dismissals are bad, but some are horrendous and the ones that sap the spirit from your team who're looking to you for leadership are the worst of all. And your "template" piece of trickery would have been much more effective if you'd used it before England started imploding.

  • KP on December 13, 2013, 1:02 GMT

    Fantastic article Ed, written by a cricketer and not a journalist. There have been many articles written during the last 7 test matches that England or Australia have been getting "smashed" or "thrashed" due to a lack of fight. This is blatantly incorrect, sure there have been some one sided results but within the games the losing team has had their opportunities early on but did not take them and could not find a way to get back into the game. Looking at Brisbane, England were on top when Johnson walked in and then the following day couldn't find their feet on a quick pitch against exemplary bowling. And much the same can be said of Adelaide, who knows what could have happened if Carberry took that catch when Haddin was on 6 and Clarke's first innings had its fair share of fortune as well. I think what we are observing is actually some of the finest test cricket by two evenly matched sides, with neither side being able to halt momentum within games. Great article Ed :)

  • Dummy4 on December 13, 2013, 0:23 GMT

    Excellent piece Ed Smith and I would like to say that I agree completely with all you say - except that I believe I have detected what I can only describe as a leakage of T20 technique into the longest form of the game so that batsmen are making life considerably harder for themselves than they need to. It would be easy to point to the 5th day of the Adelaide Test and say it was the shot a ball mentality that contributed to the woeful picture we have been left with. Whilst I agree with your point that even in a defensive situation, a batsmen cannot eliminate risk by becoming strokeless, there is a great deal of difference between taking the attack to the bowler for the appropriate ball, and the sort of thing we saw on that final morning. Following a prudent path is easier when the batsman plays from a sideways position, but all too often of late, we find even top order batsmen with their front foot tracking to the leg side. It can't work like that!

  • Ralph on December 12, 2013, 23:17 GMT

    Nice article Ed. I would raise another point, that often it is not about toghness, courage or even skill, but rather about cricket smarts. If you know there are 2 men back for the hook shot then your chances of hitting it to them are double if there were only one. It also means that there are gaps elesewhere so perhaps it would be smarter to duck the short ball, find the gaps and force the opposition to move the field.

    Sometimes ego, not courage, leads to poor decisions. KP dancing down the pitch and trying to chip over 2 short mid-wickets is not about courage or skill, it was about ego overruling sense. You may be the best player in the world, but of you do not have cricket smarts about what to play and when to play it then you will have more failures then wins.

  • M on December 12, 2013, 22:52 GMT

    @Hitesh Parate; Firstly... get a grip!! What a ridiculous thing to say that the only difference is Mitch Johnson, collectively the batsmen have been better, the bowling much better and the fielding way better... Now Mitch is in fine fettle but I am not sure he is the only contributor in all these areas... Although he is averaging more than most the English with the bat this series and has taken some very good catches already...

    As for saying they weren't expecting such hostility - really?? Why not? A) This is Ashes cricket - the pinnacle of the sport between these two nations hostility is the first ingredient added to the mix, B) These are fast bowlers - thats what they do, bowl fast and hostile, C) This is Mitch Johnson and he has a lot to prove to England and the Barmy Army after his last mediocre performance.

    If they weren't expecting hostility then they really should have just sent the EPP.

  • John on December 12, 2013, 22:37 GMT

    Great article! "England were outplayed" is a far better assessment than George Dobell's excuses that "England are jaded" or on previous occasions that "England were complacent". That is an insult to the opposition. I think that England look jaded because they are being outplayed in all facets, and they don't have their home crowd buoying them by cheering mightily at every single run scored by their batsmen.

    If England can come back and win or even tie the series, it will change my opinion about their character and real ability. Great challenge for them.

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