January 11, 2016

The figure a shot makes

It's about trusting yourself rather than premeditating events, achieving simplicity in a complex environment, and finding clarity in the midst of a contest

Good shot or truly great one? © Getty Images

With something between naivety and irreverence, I have moved some words around that belong to someone else. He is dead, and the impossibility of asking his permission makes me more anxious, for I revere his work.

I've been asking myself a simple, difficult question: what does a great cricket shot look like; a really great one? What feeling does it inspire, how might we play great shots more often, and, as spectators, recognise them more fully? I'm not talking about a shot that is merely proficient and robust but something memorable and surprising. The type of shot that makes you look around the room for someone to share it with. A shot that makes you believe that sport - more than being just competition, business and entertainment - can also, momentarily, touch the heights of the arts.

The problem is that my answers kept coming back to a short essay written by a great writer. I read it many years ago in a different context. Once read, I could not put to one side. Trying to answer my own question without reference to his piece would have felt like a secret theft. So I'd rather tinker with the original than try to deny; it might be a risk but at least I am being honest:

It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first movement taken, it runs a course of lucky events, and it ends in a clarification - not necessarily a great clarification, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood. It finds its own name as it goes.

The shot will have more charm for not having the immaculateness of a textbook. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.

Its logic is backwards, in retrospect, after the act. The shot must be felt rather than seen ahead. There must have been the greatest freedom for each part of the body to move, affinity being the only consideration.

Coaches and great players thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Coaches get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; players theirs cavalierly.

Great players stick to nothing deliberately, but allow what works to stick to them. No acquirement is on assignment. They do not study, they figure things out. Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild free ways of play and performance. A great player snatches something useful from a previous place and finds it a new home - with not a hint remaining of its former context.

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, a great shot must ride on its own melting. It cannot be worried in being. Its most precious quality is having run itself and carried the player with it, unfolding by surprise as it went.

The act described here, as you may well have guessed, is not the making of a cricket shot. It is the writing of a poem. The comparison is not drawn between coaches and players, but between critics and artists. The writer knew nothing of cricket, though he did once write for Sports Illustrated and argued: "Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments and the intervals are the tough things."

The writer is the poet Robert Frost and his essay "The Figure a Poem Makes" can be found here, or better still, in The Best American Essays of the Century. If you read Frost's piece now (cheat's shortcut: the central argument begins in the fourth paragraph) my own article has succeeded.

A short book could be written on the ways that my comparison, the shot and the poem, is inappropriate or even silly. A shot takes place in less than a second, a poem can take months. A shot is final, there are no second attempts, whereas a poem (to a degree) can be "worked over", in Frost's phrase. Perhaps the best of all Frost's lines shows the limits of the comparison: "It [a poem] begins in delight and ends in wisdom." It is surely stretching the capacity of sport to describe a shot as "wise."

Colin Cowdrey, a wonderful slip fielder, told me how he caught the ball apparently effortlessly: "If I could get a clear photograph of the ball touching the edge, a Polaroid snapshot in my mind, I never dropped it."

Deeper still, however, the analogy holds. A poet must move in the mess of real life in order to experience the moments of revelation that become poems. A batsman must find his answers and solutions while immersed in the fluid, often confusing context of the match. The batsman and the poet are both opportunists - gulling, enduring and, where necessary, evading.

The poem and the perfect shot share the sense of things becoming clear. It is clarity that elevates and separates the greatest players and, I think, the great writers. The haze is burned off. Even if they are not very good at living in other contexts, their minds are clear when it matters professionally. The great batsman is an opportunist with an uncluttered mind. This is what allows him to play more shots stamped with clarity and conviction.

Colin Cowdrey, a wonderful slip fielder, told me how he caught the ball apparently effortlessly: "If I could get a clear photograph of the ball touching the edge, a Polaroid snapshot in my mind, I never dropped it." Like the moment of revelation that leads to Frost's poem, Cowdrey focused on the clarity of his apprehension - after that moment, he trusted his trained instincts.

But this is a contingent kind of clarity that cannot be imposed on events before they happen. You cannot walk out to the middle saying to yourself, "I am going to play a beautiful cover drive first ball." You bring with yourself the full complement of capacities, but the act of shaping the shot must be organic. Mastery of technique, far from a limiting concept, provides a more complete range of options.

So the sportsman's clarity, like the artist's, is open rather than closed, loose rather than fixed, and yet no less crystalline for that flexibility.

I used to think confidence was about knowing how things would turn out. Now I think confidence is about believing you can cope with not knowing how things will turn out. In this sense isn't life a bit like batting?

Trusting yourself rather than premeditating events, simplicity achieved in a complex environment, stability within movement, clarity in the midst of a fierce contest.

That, for me, is the figure a shot makes.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter