What Sport Tells Us About Life: Bradman’s Average, Zidane’s Kiss and Other Sporting Lessons by Ed Smith (Viking Penguin 2008)
Here’s Roman poet Juvenal handily translated from the Latin. “Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” As the teeming masses of China and India need to think less of the source of their next plate of bread, the Olympics and the Indian Premier League are easy to cast as the circuses to which Juvenal refers. Ed Smith’s new book is a riposte to those who consider sport as little more than an outlet for adolescent energy and a diversion from the real competitions of life: Capital vs Labour; Women vs Men; Rich vs Poor. Who is Ed Smith and what is his case?
Behind that most ordinary of names, one finds a pretty ordinary cricket career. Schoolboy success seamlessly led to university matches, a contract with his home county Kent, a flurry of runs, an England call-up and swift discarding, captaincy and a clash with senior players (Andrew Symonds unsurprisingly to the fore) and a move to Middlesex, where he is preparing for his second season as the Lord of Lord’s. If you’ve followed those hyperlinks, you could be forgiven for believing that Smith is a classic example of the chinless wonder, a man propelled by privilege, sustained by the old school tie and found out by the brutality of sport’s unforgiving meritocracy.
But Smith’s ordinariness stops there. Like his predecessor as Middlesex captain, Mike Brearley, he used his intellectual gifts to excel in his education and then to think deeply about sport. At the age of 30, this is Smith’s third book, after the highly acclaimed On and Off the Field: Ed Smith in 2003 and Playing Hard Ball: County Cricket and Big League Baseball.
Three years in the making, the book is structured as fifteen essays topped by an introduction and tailed with “Further Reading” (which I’m almost certain Smith referred to as “bibliography” before the marketing men got hold of it). Most essays start with a question or a phrase capturing received wisdom, then spin through a myriad of examples from sport, philosophy, business, history and many other fields – at times, Smith comes across as a walking wikipedia. But, and this is the real triumph of his writing, Smith hides his immense learning in a style reliant on short sentences making pithy points, with a thread of wryly understated humour and humility weaving in and out of his arguments. It’s not a tutorial, but it’s not quite a late-night conversation over brandies either.
Perhaps the most orthodox argument is made in the first chapter as Smith takes something we all know – there will never be another Bradman – and explains why. Other chapters examine the role of luck in sport, what separates real cheating from accepted practice, Zinedine Zidane’s self-destruction in the FIFA World Cup Final of 2006 and many other such matters. This list gives some idea of the scope of Smith’s ambition.
Insofar as any chapter is typical, Smith’s analysis of how England won the Ashes 2005 serves as an exemplar. Smith sets up four historians to do the job: the Whig, who would account for the victory as the culmination of the changes in British society, beginning with Thatcherism’s sweeping away of the old certainties of class and hierarchies; the administrative historian, who examines the management and financial structures of the English game that produced an environment in which the success was inevitable; the “Great Man” historian, who would point to Flintoff, Vaughan and Pietersen as the reasons; and the counter-factual historian, who simply asks, “What if Glenn McGrath had not trodden on the ball?” What’s done is done, and few sportsmen (or leaders in any field) get very far by examining the past instead of planning the future, so what’s Smith’s point? Here he goes, “But history is about more than simple crystal-ball gazing. It is not just a means of identifying past “causes” of defeat or victory, but also a way of training our critical senses to identify how new causes, or new configurations of factors, will operate now or in the future.”
What Smith tells us about what sport tells us, is well told and worth knowing. Smith’s cricket career places him amongst many: his writing places him among very few. Already.
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Sport is a condensed version of life – only it matters less and comes up with better statistics’
In a defining moment of modern sport, football legend Zinedine Zidane executes a vicious head-butt on Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the closing minutes of the World Cup final. During the weeks that follow, the whole world asks ‘What the hell was he thinking?’
In a dazzling piece, Ed Smith teases out the answer. He goes on to explain why there will never be another sportsman as dominant as Don Bradman; explains the impact of the free market on football; argues that the issue of cheating is not as clear-cut as it might seem; and addresses many other fascinating areas where sport appears as a mirror image of life.
Praise for On and Off the Field: ‘A small masterpiece of tensions … uncannily close to the meaning of sport’ Simon Barnes, The Times
‘Terrific, exactly the kind of book you want from a professional sportsman but you never get: self-analytical, wry, and honest’ Nick Hornby, Believer
Ed Smith read History at Peterhouse, Cambridge. When still at Cambridge he made his debut for Kent, and played three times for England (against South Africa) in the summer of 2003. He now captains Middlesex. He has published two highly acclaimed books: Playing Hard Ball, a comparison of baseball and cricket, and On and Off the Field, which was named Wisden Book of the Year, 2004. He writes on sport for The Times and also reviews for the Sunday Telegraph.
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A REVIEW by Matthew Syed
I HAVE NEVER QUITE come to terms with the turnaround that happened in the summer of 1999, when I went from being a winner to a choker in two swift weeks. One moment I was the kind of sportsman who would get to deuce in the deciding game, sneer at the pressure, laugh at the fear in the eyes of my opponent and then unleash two infinitely subtle slices to win the match; the next, I was as hapless and awkward as Jana Novotna in that infamous Wimbledon final.
Why was I so good under pressure in my pre-1999 incarnation? Because of the existence of what Denis Healey called a hinterland. The other players had only table tennis; I had Plato and Kant and the other joyous diversions of life at Oxford. Sometimes I wondered if I went to Balliol merely to provide a safety valve for sport; at other times I wondered if I played sport to provide a sanctuary from the inferences of philosophy.
Either way, it was neat symbiosis.
Ed Smith, the Middlesex cricket captain, is another sportsman with a hinterland, and he is perceptive enough to acknowledge its benign ramifications. In this elegant pageturner, he goes to some lengths to explain the advantages of “having a life” beyond the pitch. He terms it amateurism, and that conjures all the right images of wider worldliness and the contrast this cuts with the intensity of unadulterated professionalism.
Smith is a writer of considerable style and not a little insight. Once you’ve recovered from the irritation of his preposterously handsome photo on the inside back cover, you can glide through its lovingly interwoven chapters with a latte in one hand and a smile on your face. It is rather like having a conversation with a witty and cultured don: rangy, urbane and with the pleasing bonus that one’s world view has been expanded without it hurting the brain too much.
But does Smith miss a trick with his uninhibited praise for amateurism?
He closes the relevant chapter with the passage: “Playing with joy, without concern about the money you might earn or the criticism you may provoke, often makes sportsmen play better. An unburdened sportsman is more likely to play his best.” But there is a paradox here: if playing sport is one of many things in a sportsman’s life, he is unlikely to train with the lunatic devotion that creates greatness; if it is the only thing in life, he is liable to be overwhelmed at the point of crisis.
What is required is a kind of double-think – you need to believe that sport is both everything and nothing. It is a trick that is as helpful to philosophers as to sportsmen (Hume mastered it: “I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours amusement, I return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any farther”). The day I became conscious of the psychic contradiction at the heart of sporting performance was the day I lost the ability to win.
Smith’s other chapters concern such worthy subjects as the free market in sport (a force for good in many circumstances), luck (more important than we care to admit), sporting dominance (easier to accomplish in Don Bradman’s day), winning streaks (the consequence of a willingness to embrace new ideas), cheating (sociological rather than legalistic in nature) and Zidane’s head-butt (caused by his atavistic rage that the narrative of the day was being scripted by someone or something other than himself).
But perhaps the standout chapter is on history. Smith artfully uses four methodologies to analyse the causes of England’s victorious Ashes campaign in 2005, and in so doing tells us everything we need to know about the inherent conceit of historical explanation. Was it because of great English players or new institutions like central contracts? Was it luck (Glenn McGrath’s injury) or judgment? Smith demonstrates that ex-post rationalisation is endlessly malleable, which is why learning from history – sporting or otherwise – is the devil to achieve.
Sport tells us much about life. It is Smith’s achievement to show us why.
[Reviews courtesy of web sites and without Ed Smith’s knowledge …. but he will soon be in the know, Michael Roberts, 6 Oct 2010 ]