August 20, 2014

The importance of being insatiable

Careers tend to blossom or fizzle out depending on a sportsman's craving for success

When does desire turn into selfishness? Mr Waugh might know © Getty Images

"In whose bed you gonna be and is it true you only see
Desire as a sylph-figured creature who changes her mind?"

- Prefab Sprout, "Desire As"

Writing in the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Mark S Allen, Iain Greenlees and Marc Jones recently accused sports psychologists of making "disappointing" progress since 1938, when the Chicago Cubs became the first ball club to hire one, Coleman Griffith, widely acclaimed as the first of this now ubiquitous tribe. Indeed, what discoveries there have been, the authors contend, have hardly been earth-shattering.

Elite athletes are "more extraverted and emotionally stable" than those who compete primarily for fun. Compared with those competing at domestic or regional level, these achievers demonstrate "lower levels of neuroticism and higher levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness". Team players, meanwhile, display lower levels of conscientiousness than solo competitors. The only conclusions a shockingly unscientific mind like mine can draw from this are that 1) sharing responsibility can lead to a subconscious slackening of intent, and 2) in a team, selfishness pays.

To back up the second point I give you Steve Waugh. To appreciate the modern game's most ardent competitor, the key question is not so much "Has any cricketer wanted to succeed so badly?" as "Has there ever been one more selfish?" Not to these eyes. Having a twin to vie with can do wonders for the competitive urges.

So driven was Waugh, he didn't bother trying to convince us otherwise. Even on that cringingly orchestrated farewell lap of Australia, ambition still burned: having played on his own terms, he was bloody well going to go out on them. Clearly, understandably, he felt a season of curtain calls was his due. Few have guarded their self-image so avidly or so jealously.

At one end of the spectrum lies that regime-changing 200 against Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh at Sabina Park in 1995, closely followed by those teeth-clenched, injury-defying centuries at Old Trafford in 1997 and The Oval in 200 : the three most bloody-minded innings I've ever seen. At the other end lies the creator of "mental disintegration" and that equally ruthless approach to batting with tailenders. Most notoriously, at the MCG in 1999 he took up residency at the non-striker's end while team-mates shrank before Dean Headley's pace and bounce: come what may, his average was not going to suffer.

There is a temptation, therefore, to boil it all down to the d-word - desire. Win and you're brimming with it; lose and you're bereft. How else to explain India becoming the first Test side since 1937 to lose all remaining matches in a five-match series having been ahead after two? When Michael Holding lamented that he had been watching too many unmotivated players, how easy it was to nod. Millions of Indians doubtless did likewise when Kirti Azad pronounced himself "ashamed". Being a political creature these days, the Test player turned MP didn't actually say so, but I'll bet he was most ashamed of what he perceived to be wrong with the collective attitude: a dearth of the d-word.

Hunger and desire. Desire and hunger. To listen to the punditocracy is to see them as interchangeable. At the bottom, though, hunger is about need; desire is born of want

Asked a few days ago why the England f***ball team had endured such an unfabulous World Cup, Alan Shearer was more explicit. The centre-forward turned pundit trotted out the usual suspects. "Too many foreign players and English players not getting a chance"? Tick. "Paid too much too soon"? Tick. "Put on a pedestal too quickly"? Tick. Beyond that, as a consequence of reasons two and three, lay palpable deficiencies in the h-word and the d-word: hunger and desire.

Hunger and desire. Desire and hunger. To listen to the punditocracy is to see them as interchangeable. At the bottom, though, hunger is about need; desire is born of want. And failure in sport - because we kid ourselves it can be so simplistically explained - is regarded as divine punishment for insufficient craving.

"You didn't want it enough." A pat retort to misfortune, sure, but not without substance. Given its oppositional nature and constant susceptibility to luck, sport is seldom that straightforward. If desire was all that mattered, Mark Ramprakash would have racked up many more Test tons than Sachin Tendulkar.

Consider Chris Jones. Shortly before the 2013 Ashes, Alviro Petersen's 12th-hour replacement struck a widely feted maiden century for Somerset against Australia, doing much as he pleased against Messrs Starc, Siddle, Pattinson and Faulkner. But here, problematically, was a young man with choices. Cricket wasn't the be-all, end-all or even semi-all: the previous week, Jones had gained a first-class honours degree in Economics from Nasser Hussain's alma mater, Durham University. There may never have been the remotest question where Hussain's dreams lay, but Jones always harboured doubts.

He's had a middling time of it in his first full season. Self-deprecating and candid, he has publicly queried his own selection: he hasn't always felt worthy. Last week he took the plunge and decided what he didn't want - or maybe just didn't want enough. His most recent Championship appearance, in July, had brought a season's best 87 against Northamptonshire, but that could have been because his mind was already made up: cricket was not the winner. Next month he will embark on a business career.

Whether that hundred against Starc and Co was illusory we will probably never know: at 23, Jones has scarcely given himself time to find out. It was certainly the handiwork of a man with options, allowing him to relax while simultaneously breeding confusion and unfocused striving. In other words, like so many sporty types who attempt to turn a hobby into a job, he lacked sufficient desire. Perhaps he recalled another Somerset batsman, Mark Lathwell who rose above the limits of his desire, briefly opening for his country, and lost his love of the game; only when money was removed from the equation did he regain it. But would desire alone have enabled Jones to make the mental, strategic and technical adjustments? Ay, there lies the nub.

Before Kerry Packer relocated the goalposts, you could get away with a part-timer's outlook. After all, that's what most cricketers were. As late as the 1980s, it was still possible to juggle county duty and First Division f***ball. But to make it as a professional sportsman in the 21st century, let alone a world-beating one, you need to be unwaveringly committed. How, then, do you stay successful? Not without the ceaseless fire of renewable desire.

Which brings us, somewhat inevitably, to Virat Kohli. In Wellington in February, in his 24th Test, he collected his sixth Test century; two months earlier he'd made 119 and 96 at the Wanderers; throw in 116 in Adelaide on that horrific 2011-12 tour and it was hard to believe he hadn't cracked it. Here, plainly, was no homie; here, surely, was a man for all disciplines, all conditions, all soils. As my school biology teacher Mr Buck never tired of asserting, nothing is surely except in Fleet Street.

Clueless as to the whereabouts of his off stump, Kohli has just completed the second-most crushingly fruitless five-Test rubber ever endured by a top-four batsman; extras amassed more runs. It may be facile to attribute this sudden acquaintance with the merciless glare of prolonged failure, in good part, to the IPL's easy acclaim and cascading banknotes, but that doesn't make it an unreasonable theory.

Having reaped as much as he has, at such a tender age, can do little to sharpen the edge for less profitable activities, or even maintain it. Yet to blame Kohli's slump on premature fulfilment would be to ignore his efforts to find a remedy: the straightening of the bat in address, the shift towards a more sideways-on stance, the tempered aggression. You don't meddle with a successful formula until it doesn't add up.

For a more blatant case of the missing d-word, let's turn instead to the England party that buckled against Australia last winter. So many who flew out had already reached the pot at the end of their rainbow; having spent their childhood watching hammering after pummelling, three Ashes triumphs were pure fantasy, much less four. Some had won MBEs in their early 20s; some had won their country's first global trophy; most had won a series in India. Worse, only a couple of months earlier they'd got away with it against the same opponents, playing erratically and negatively but still winning.

Some were better placed to cope than others. With ego making promises his body belied, Kevin Pietersen might regret not excusing himself from that flight. Matt Prior and Graeme Swann had nothing left to prove, to themselves or anyone else; besides, they were aching too. Given his obsessive tics, it was a minor miracle Jonathan Trott had kept his demons at bay as dauntlessly as he did and for as long as he did. Was it pure coincidence that those who survived to retain the Pataudi Trophy - James Anderson (most Test wickets by a England bowler), Alastair Cook (most Test runs by a England batsman) and Ian Bell (100 Tests) - all began the summer with major goals unscored?

"There are two tragedies in life," as George Bernard Shaw proclaimed. "One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it."

Prefab Sprout's antagonist was half-right: desire may well be a sylph-figured creature who changes her mind, but she also responds to direction. Sadly, unless the national boards stop banging on about the primacy of Test cricket and put their money where their platitudes are, the opening line of "Desire As" may become a mantra: "I've got six things on my mind - you're no longer one of them."

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book, Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport, will be published in the summer of 2014

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Prasanna on August 21, 2014, 3:26 GMT

    "The spirit of cricket" - a phrase that is used way too often by the indian fans whenever their team loses !!!

  • Prasanna on August 21, 2014, 3:25 GMT

    MrMonty, By extension, why don't you predict what would happen at the NYSE today ?

  • Warks on August 21, 2014, 2:47 GMT

    I do wonder about sportsmen in general. How many of us would kill to have half a chance at what they do? You'd think you wouldn't need any more desire. Just to be in an international team you'd always want to do your level best to win or at least play as damn well as you could. It's hard for us to imagine the desire fading. We have the desire but they have the ability. They must also have had the desire to get there in the first place but over time it must become something of a job instead of the greatest thing ever.

    Just like footballers who are paid ridiculous sums of money (more ridiculous than the IPL by a factor of 10) and still can't kick straight when it really matters: "You had one job!"

  • Jay on August 21, 2014, 2:00 GMT

    Rob - Good column! Yes, the Indian Test team played spineless cricket & lost its way. Kudos to England for its 3-1 turnaround. But somewhere along the way England lost its way too: The Spirit of Cricket. The Gordon Lewis verdict was "not guilty". But as Rahul Dravid stressed "Message sent is it's okay to abuse". Anderson admits his aggressive on-field persona is a key part of his success. That sadly reflects a state of "mental disintegration": aka Steve Waugh's key to success! As Shaw observed "The secret to success is to offend the greatest number of people". Amen! So ECB ignores his incessant boorish behaviour: Moores calls it Anderson's 'hard' brand of cricket. Cook calls the Anderson charge a 'tactic' to sideline him. Not to mention ECB's approval of "Moeen Ali's wristy business"! Where's the honour? The Bard gets it: "Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; Take honour from me, and my life is done." In plain English: It just isn't cricket, Rob!!

  • c on August 21, 2014, 1:47 GMT

    ADDITION to my previous post: DETERMINATION vs DESIRE. Desire don't get you anywhere. Desire is a wish. A hope at best. Determination SEES YOU THOUGH situations but desire does not. Those who DESIRE an objective and eventually achieve it do so because of their DETERMINATION. Not because of they desired.

    Hint: stick-to-it-iveness. You achieve what you desire by sticking to processes though DOGGED DETERMINATION. Therefore, DESIRE, however insatiable is useless if not met with DETERMINATION to stick to processes that works to get to an objective.

    What of TALENT? Quite useless in the absence of determination to make one's contributions count. Especially in Test Cricket.

  • c on August 21, 2014, 1:34 GMT

    Don Bradman showed DETERMINATION to not give his wicket away. Of the 52 Tests he played we have records for his strike rate for 39 of them = 58. Marginally better than Sanga @ 54. No wonder Sanga's father laments that Sanga gives his wicket away too easy!

    Steve Waugh, for all his determination and insatiable tag, averages 51 in 168 Tests. Border was more reckless but has 50 in 156 Tests. It is said Viv never cared for records but also has 50 in 121 Tests.

    NOW Bodyline was an aberaton. Don was used to easier bowling with due consideration for a batsman's safety by the adminstrators, bowlers, and the public. Granted he DID SCORE MORE than his peers. How? Determination. Things changed in the 70's with Lillee/Thomo and how WI responded to AUS fan's "kill them" chant with their own "violent" response - against all comers! Waugh, Border, Sanga, Viv had to contend against TOUGHER opposition tactics yet LACKED THe determination Bradman had to NOT give wickets away. No more, No less.

  • Max on August 20, 2014, 22:51 GMT

    The suggestion that Steve Waugh batted to preserve his average is pretty poor. Waugh's reasoning was twofold: that too many runs were wasted by "protecting" the tailenders, and that the tailenders would rise to responsibility if they were given it. Over the course of his career, it worked pretty well. The example of Melbourne in 1999 is a particularly unfair one: batting at nine in that game was Matt Nicholson, who had four first class hundreds to his name and didn't "shrink" from Headley but batted well for 41 minutes. The other batsmen whom Steen presumably thinks Waugh should have shielded were the likes of Darren Lehmann and Ian Healy. The last two were MacGill and McGrath, but Waugh didn't have much chance to help them, as Gough knocked them both over within four balls. Having played against Waugh and watched him over his career, I agree he was a selfish player, in that he was determined to achieve personal success. But I never saw him sacrifice his team's interests.

  • T G on August 20, 2014, 21:58 GMT

    It is naive to suggest hunger and desire alone are what makes a great player. They are two ingredients, but there are also others. When Steve Waugh was failing with the bat, was this because he was not as hungry or was lacking in desire? No. Perhaps the bowling was too good, or he was out of form, or the pitches were too juicy, or the umpiring dodgy. Even great cricketers (apart from Bradman) go through lean periods, not because they lack hunger or desire, but for other reasons. It is accepted, to succeed, there has to be a desire to succeed. But hunger and desire alone are not enough.

  • Dummy4 on August 20, 2014, 21:15 GMT

    One cricketer who had desire in spades must've been Bradman. Stories of his determination to win are folklore. And not just at cricket. He intalled a full size billiard table at his home and practised until he could regularly make breaks of 100, he reduced his golf handicap to scratch after he retired, he won the South Australian squash championship in the 1930s after taking it up to get fit. But my favourite story is one Colin Cowdrey told that during the 1950s he showed Bradman the ancient game of royal tennis early in the English summer and being an accomplished player he naturally defeated Bradman who was in his 40s. Bradman apparently went away, studied the rules and challenged the young Cowdrey later in the summer. The result - Bradman prevailed. Yes he had talent - but it was his insatiable desire to win every time that set his record apart from other talented individuals.

  • Jai on August 20, 2014, 18:21 GMT

    The article is excellent, but the caption....really? Virat Kohli? He is quite literally the last international player I would accuse of a lack of hunger or desire. This is the man who scored a hundred to save a match for his Test side the day after his father passed away. He has a relentless work-ethic, unending dedication and so badly does he want to win, that one look at his face tells you the game state most often.

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