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The weekend read – What sport tells us about life

April 3rd, 2009 by TWC in Miscellaneous

Every Friday we’ll be picking a classic cricket book that has been reviewed in TWC to help you pass the weekend. Make your recommendations in the comments below.

What is it?
What sport tells us about life by Ed Smith (Penguin Books, £8.99)

What’s it all about?
A highly acclaimed analysis of the psychology behind some of sport’s most infamous moments

What did we give it?

What did we say?

What’s the point of sport? To win, of course, some bar-propping clot might exclaim. But it isn’t, is it?
Even at the professional level, the motivation of the participants is far more complicated than that. I always bridle when the papers bang on about champagne celebrations whenever any team wins some stupid tinpot trophy.
Not everyone in the side will, deep down, be celebrating. This is especially true in cricket, partly because no sport is more laden with stupid tinpot trophies and partly because in no other sport (except maybe baseball) do individual and collective achievements interconnect in such an intricate fashion.
Someone in the team will have failed on the day; someone may be facing the sack. Anyway, the case of Marcus Trescothick should have taught even the most obtuse follower of the game that sportsmen, like the rest of us, lead complex lives in which professional success is merely one strand.
Still, sports followers – however intelligent they might be in real life – like to leave their perceptions at the turnstile on match-day. And why not? They’re there to relax. But anyone who wants to understand what is really going off out there ought to unearth Ed Smith’s little gem of a book.
Though brief, and beautifully written, it is not an easy read: it’s deep enough to repay two or three attempts. It’s not flawless either – most significantly the book dribbles away into a digression about CLR James when Smith might sensibly have pulled his thoughts together into a final, rousing climax.
It is also unclear to me whether the title is quite right. Smith – captain of Middlesex, polymath and the first writer in history (surely?) ever to link Freud, Wagner, Michael Jordan and Rupert Murdoch in a single chapter-heading – seems to be teaching us primarily about sport through life rather than the other way round. No matter: this has the whiff of a potential classic.
I don’t recall ever mentioning to Ed my own theory that worldly success derives from mixing the four elements of luck, skill, determination and charm in the correct proportions. But he has arrived at roughly the same conclusion (even in sport, in this marketing-led era, charm is no longer a negligible part of the mix).
But it is the nexus of skill and determination that fascinates Smith. And perhaps the finest chapter in the book is his dissection of French footballer Zinédine Zidane and the infamous headbutt minutes before the end of his last match, the 2006 World Cup final against Italy.
Here Smith the cricketer has seen enough greatness at close quarters to have an inkling of what might be going on. “Scratch a brilliant sportsman deeply enough and you reach a layer of self-certainty in his own destiny,” he says as he recalls watching late Botham, bowled cheaply as he tried to secure victory for Worcestershire in a Lord’s final (the 1990 B&H, I presume).
“Botham furiously raised his arms in disbelief and looked pointedly at the wicket. What was going on here? Who was responsible for this mistake? The pitch? The groundsman? Which buffoon had failed to read the preordained script correctly?”
Smith attributes Zidane’s headbutt not to the Italian defender’s insult but to the goalkeeper’s save that stopped him heading home the winner just beforehand. The gods had abandoned him “and left Zidane in solitary despair – as they eventually do everyone, even Muhammad Ali and Don Bradman”.
Luck is always part of it too and, as he moves down the scale from the very greatest, Smith muses, without rancour, on the freakish run of high scores that got him into the England team in 2003 and the iffy lbw that pushed him out of it.
What he is adamant about is that nothing in sport is preordained. He is scathing about the cricketing mantra after a close-run win: “We were always winning that one.” Indeed for Smith the time there should have been an enquiry was after England won the Ashes, not after they lost them again. It’s a very shrewd point.
I commend this book to any thoughtful fan. For administrators it should be made compulsory.
Matthew Engel, April 2008

What did they say?

There is something of a movement right now for sport to enjoy an elevated cultural weight. Another advocate is David Goldblatt, author of the socio-political history of football The Ball Is Round, who expressed the point forcefully in a recent issue of Prospect. No one questions the popularity of sport - just look at the World Cup or the Olympics, still the most notable expression of internationalism - but it still remains an academic irrelevance or joke. As Goldblatt points out, the subject has not been touched upon in more than 50 years of Reith lectures, while Eric Hobsbawm manages to sum up the importance of sport in half a page of his four-volume, 2,000-page treatise on global history.
A vital requirement, Goldblatt contends, for increased credibility is an improvement in the ‘scope, sophistication and sheer quality’ of sports writing in Britain. (As someone who last appeared on these pages reviewing a selection of the most notable sports books of 2007, an insane proportion of which were about Lewis Hamilton, I was close to shedding a tear reading this sentiment.) Smith might not match up to the benchmarks that Goldblatt sets - Norman Mailer and George Plimpton from the States, Nick Hornby and Simon Barnes from here - but the ambition he shows during the course of 15 disparate essays in this collection is something to celebrate.
Smith typically begins each chapter by posing an intriguing question - is the free market ruining sport? When is cheating really cheating? What do people see when they watch sport? - that he may or may not get round to answering. He is at his strongest, unsurprisingly, on his home turf, and there are excellent pieces on the true greatness of Bradman and the real reasons behind England’s Ashes win in 2005. Smith is on shakier ground when a subject requires more than armchair theorising; I was disappointed that more chapters were not dominated by first-hand research. He may also be too much in thrall to Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, but, as it is hard to think of two more perceptive writers on sport, there are worse people to use as inspirations. It would be no surprise if Smith became one of our great sportswriters, maybe even bringing the subject academic, as well as popular, acclaim. For now, he sets up some first-class arguments that you may want to pursue in a pub, or somewhere even more highbrow than that.
Tim Lewis, The Guardian

Why not tell us what your favourite cricket book is, or which book you’d like to see in ‘The weekend read’ in the comments below …

Posted in Miscellaneous | 1 Comment »

One Response to “The weekend read – What sport tells us about life”

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