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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sunil on December 29, 2013, 10:28 GMT

    Crowe, Botham et al, played at a time when over-packed scheduling, media scrutiny, overanalysis and over thinking weren't really occurring to the dizzying level they do today for something that is in the final analysis, despite our passion and veneration, just a game. The amount of cricket professionals play today often results in injury, burnout, exhaustion, painkillers and injections to play while injured, and ultimately and understandably, jaded disillusionment. As such they might not fully understand that despite the tremendous honour of playing for your country does not compensate for possibly destroying your shoulder, or whatever was bugging Swann. Besides, the apparently "sinking ship" that is English Test Cricket was actually scuttled long ago by poor succession planning and an addiction to short term success, by the English Cricket Establishment. Vale Swann, your indubitable skill and humour will be missed.

  • Sam` on December 29, 2013, 6:02 GMT

    And there you have it, @Nathan_R_Patrick. I was wondering how long it would take for someone to bash Kevin Pietersen in a story about an off-spinner who has little or no relevance to him.

    Not watched this test? Not watched Pietersen reign in - for the most part - every instinct in his game to try and take the fight to Australia? Not watched him sit at the non-strikers end while just about every team-mate meekly surrendered their wicket?

    Failure to deliver? You say that like it is his career hall-mark. His career hall-mark is precisely the fact that he DOES deliver - write down the dozen best and most important English innings' of the last 20 years and Pietersen will fill at least half the spots. Make no mistake, he cares - but the fact that he's such an easy figure to criticise means that he just gets thrown under a bus whenever he fails.

  • Rob on December 29, 2013, 5:52 GMT

    Good enough attempt at deciphering the Swann retirement. Speculation is all we've got till Mr. Swann comes out with a book. I am sure he will have a lot to say about us colourful Aussie characters. But Martin Crowe - seriously mate, was bringing in the "bent rules/arm" jab really necessary.

  • Dummy4 on December 29, 2013, 4:00 GMT

    Wonderful piece Martin. I wonder why Swann came on the tour at all? Some in this post have suggested a painful elbow. I suspect it did not happen overnight. Surely a spinner knows when his fingers and wrists and shoulders cannot do it any more. It was perhaps arrogance that batsmen would crumble even against a half-fit Swann? In this case it does appear to be a fear of total failure - what a way to sign off a career.

  • Natan on December 28, 2013, 21:17 GMT

    Martin, it is a traditional british mindset. They hate to see themselves lose but quite a few of them expect things on silver platter. They get mentally disintegrated when they get hammered. Cook by far is the strongest in terms of mindset. KP doesn't seem to care much. One can't call his indifference as toughness. His brash behavior will continue in spite of his over-hyped image and failure to deliver. Brits in general are not used to dealing with harshest conditions traditionally. It reflects clearly in the cricket team's mindset. Oh, and their dry humor with sarcasm kills each other within the team. They themselves mentally disintegrate their own team-mates. Opposition have to do it only once (like MJ played mind game with Trott before the first test). Besides, I don't think they are competitive enough. They perform in pockets but can't be consistent. No one looks hungry to perform.

  • Dummy4 on December 28, 2013, 13:07 GMT

    He was bowling through pain, we have lost. There is a purpose in carrying on through the pain when chasing victory but little point with the series gone. Swann has explained this and it makes perfect sense. Why the genius behind Cricket Max does not accept this I have no idea, perhaps his supreme mind knows better than Swann himself

  • irish on December 28, 2013, 10:14 GMT

    Martin u have not taken into fact that His Elbow was giving up on him,,And if he knew he couldn't give his 100 percent, couldn't bowl long spells..He was spot on with his retirement,,but what shocked everyone was the middle of horrible series..I think Captain cook has failed to hold his players together in this storm..May be Swann was tired of all finger pointing because of failure of senior players to perform their role effectively..He was hurt mentally..failure to take wickets and he was hurt more with losing all 3 in row cause then there is no chance of comeback... It was up to captain cook to hold his players together but he himself is struggling..and everyone else seems to be sulking in different corners of their rooms...Team has disintegrated..Players like Swann need shoulder to cry on...They couldnt find any..

  • Robert on December 28, 2013, 9:50 GMT

    England need wickets in the 4th innings. The spinner took 5 in the third.

  • Steven on December 28, 2013, 8:30 GMT

    I find it odd the author would write this piece without any reference to any physical impediments Swann may have been experiencing. Ashley Mallett's article a couple of weeks ago would have been a perfect cited source, thereby providing a more complete picture than what we're given here.

    Bit of a shame, really. Nicely written piece, but you pointedly ignore the elephant in the room, which isn't much of an elephant seeing as it was called out on this site very recently.

  • Iman on December 28, 2013, 8:22 GMT

    Mr Crowe, although I loved your article, because of the way it is written, I would beg to disagree on the point that its the fear of success. I think he simply chickened out. Ran away from the fight. Its easy to enter a fight when you are winning, you will find deserters when the chips are down. One can remain politically correct & try to attribute this behavior to any psychological issue, the fact remains he deserted the team middle of the series. A fighter would have completed the series, not matter how battered or bruised, would have played for glory Some blame should also must go to the English press. In my opinion they over glorify their sports man, not only in cricket but in all sports. So when they fail miserably, as in this Ashes, the back lash is also understandably scathing. And people used to over glorification break down. Thinking they have lost all their abilities, and are no good any more. That's exactly what happened with Jonathan Trott, that's what is happening here.

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