December 27, 2013

Swann and the fear of success

It takes an extraordinary athlete with an exceptional mind to not fear the pressures that achievements bring, and to soldier on regardless

Another one bites the dust. Graeme Swann flies away into the sunset, calling a sudden close to a fine spell as England's premier spin bowler. Whatever way you look at it, supportively or otherwise, it's bloody odd. The timing, that is.

Frankly, to anyone who loves the game, the chance to play in Melbourne in a Boxing Day Test, then to go on to the SCG, is simply something you don't turn down. You are lucky if you get it once, so when a second opportunity comes along, you grab it with both mitts, for second time round you should be better equipped to play better, the familiarity becoming a friend. Let me repeat, when you are privileged to represent your country at two of the greatest grounds in the world, in the most famous series of all, it's a classic no-brainer. Yet for Swann it was a flight and fight too far.

I have spent days trying to work out the rationale for the timing of such a decision. A decision, by definition, is the making up of one's mind. In Swann's case it would appear to be a mind suddenly fuelled with confusion and negative distortion after only three Tests on the wrong side. From where does this apparent about-turn come from, may one ask?

This is a man who carved out a beautiful reputation, a man with humour and humility, a bowler with courage and skill. He didn't rely on bent rules, or false illusions. He bowled with a genuine conviction, a feel for the art, and a calmness that carried him through thick and thin.

And then it stops being so. Just like that. Within a blink of an eye he sits at home watching, as we all are, admiring a packed house in the greatest atmosphere on the planet; at the 'G, in front of 91,012 cricket lovers, a new world record by the way. Who wouldn't want to be out there in the middle?

So we have a reputation and a decision, but what lies in between? Surely not the carry-on by others with heads up bottoms? Come on, every team has a few. It's part of the act of cricket to see a few gooses conjure up behaviour that throws itself under the skin of the rest. It's another small dose of life, is it not? No Graeme, there is no rhyme nor reason for this.

Unless the fear of success, or perhaps more appropriately the pressure of success, has spoken. Many fear failure, of humiliation, rejection and of unworthiness. However, once you steam past that and move into the stratosphere of triumph and glory, individual and team success, you enter another world; the expectant world.

Basic failing is actually a very acceptable human trait. What isn't is the lack of courage to get up and try again. Then after a few attempts, a certain amount of learning should kick in and the performance - whatever it is that you are doing - should improve, and the journey goes on.

The butt kicker sometimes is that in life's decision-making eyes, whatever you are doing might not be good enough at a given point, and therefore we are stood down for someone else.

For those, like Swann, who fork out an honest and, at times, exquisite period of very-goodness, we simply reach a point of breaking strain. And that is okay too. We are all made differently

In other words, you are picked to bat at No. 5, you average only 25 in five games, but there are signs of something, so another five Tests are given, you average 35, but alas it ain't enough overall - ten Tests at 30 is deemed average, so you are discarded. Did you fail? Actually, no. It was tough at the start, which it mostly is, and then you improved once exposed to what was required. Then the determining factor of whether it was a good investment overall comes in, and you are replaced, according to an apparent expert, for a potentially better player. Tough gig.

However, if you get through that initial induction and get another ten Tests and continue that improvement then the criteria for success start to emerge: 20 Tests averaging 40 and a career is truly underway. Before long that gets up to 45. Throw in the team's winning ways and life is sweet. You and your team go on a golden run, and expectations soar. As they do, the fear of failure is left far behind and in its place comes the first inkling of a new fear, another kind of pressure - that of success; of having to meet a new expectation, a new realm. Having to get up day in and day out and perform to a high level begins to slowly eat away at your nerve. How long can you keep this going?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the $64,000 question. The very question that faced Swann when the Ashes were mercifully and brutally extracted from England's once-firm grip. In the aftermath of the urn being handed over in Perth, and the mauling that Shane Watson dished out to Swann, and George Bailey to James Anderson, came the searching, gnarly, nagging question into the mind of Swann himself: "Oh my god, what's next?"

We have heard the rationale from him about nothing left to give, allowing another to feel the privilege. We respect it, it's his decision and his fine career prompts us all to listen and respect. But do we believe?

I believe that the fear of success took its toll. It's the eroded belief, the exhausted energy, that called Swann out and said: "I am sick of having to succeed. Let someone else do it! Let someone else chase the figures that I was expected to produce as the lone spinner. I am done." This I believe.

It takes an extraordinary athlete with an exceptional mind to keep producing great feats. Geniuses like Tendulkar, Warne, McGrath, Dravid, Ponting and Kallis, to name a bunch, all showed an amazing appetite and a groundedness to resist the pressures of success and go into the twilight, and even long into the night.

It's a hard one. And some folk, like those six mentioned, have the innate immunity to rise above any fear and to feel the love instead. That's why they are the chosen ones. For the rest, like Swann, who fork out an honest and, at times, exquisite period of very-goodness, we simply reach a point of breaking strain, a need to go home and rest a weary and sore head. And that is okay too. We are all made differently.

The mind-and-body connection gets you in the end. In the cases of those like Swann, who have decided to go unexpectedly in the middle of an intensely fervid battle, well, it does make you ask why. Maybe it just comes down to a basic preference, when you knew the nerve needs another stimulant. Kallis, as we have seen, has broken through many pressure levels and finally, after nearly two decades, feels the bird is cooked. Swann had his fill and will move on to other modes of preference and taste. He will do well.

And so one can sense where Swann is at. In fact, we all know where he is at - he is on his comfortable couch in the middle of the night, watching one of the greatest Tests you could play in, possibly contemplating that jingle-bell question: "Could I have done two more Tests and lowered my fear of success to one of basic participation? Could I have just got through ten more days and had time off to consider this all?"

Christmas food for thought.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand