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