“Ambition’s debt is paid.” So spake Brutus standing over the corpse of Caesar, bloody dagger in hand.
For years, Shakespeare’s words puzzled me – ambition is a good thing isn’t it? What do the ambitious owe to anyone? Is it not the unambitious (Ayn Rand’s despised “moochers”) who owe the rest of us, the young thrusters and achievers getting things done? I found some comfort in the sticky end which awaits Brutus and his fellow conspirators – surely it was their gang that paid the debt, their lives for the stifling of Caesar’s ambition? But, as so often with Shakespeare, the awesomely perceptive quality of his words came with the grey hair that marked Cicero’s wisdom, if not mine own.
If I increasingly believe that in one’s career, in one’s family life, in one’s interests, it is the seeing and taking of opportunities that matters so much more than the plans, the dreams, the (Lord preserve us) KPIs, that are fueled by the false god of ambition, so it appears to me in cricket too.
“Why doesn’t everyone bat like Chris Gayle – is it because he is so strong?” asked my son, as his favourite player flayed the Kiwi bowling all over Jamaica. “Well, obviously, but there’s more to it than that. There’s his balance and the fact that he plays so few shots.” As I said it, I immediately thought about Chris Gayle’s extraordinary lack of ambition.
For Chris Gayle was not the masterblaster holder of the record number of ODI centuries for West Indies when he started out way back in the 90s. It took him 55 matches before he scored an ODI century against a Test playing nation – like Sanath Jayasuriya, he was as much a containing slow bowler as batsman, when making his way in the game. But while the rest of the cricketing world was developing Dilscoops, perfecting the reverse sweep to the level of hitting Murali for six and maneuvering the ball into areas of the field so obscure they didn’t really have names, Chris Gayle went the other way.
Watching Gayle bat, you realise the paucity of his ambition: if the ball is wide of the off-stump, it is cut or left alone; if it’s on a middle, off or fourth stump line, it is hit in the V for one, four or six or (early on especially) defended texbookly; if it’s on the pads, it is deflected to the leg-side fine for four, or squarer for one at most. And that, aside from a baseball slog or two when he feels set, is it. The bat is almost always swung vertically, with the full face of the bat meeting the ball directly below the eyes. This self-denying ordinance would not work for everyone – Gayle can play out five dots knowing that the sixth ball will go for four or even six – but it works for the big Jamaican.
Reducing batting to a handful of strokes also aids concentration and promotes the focus that one-day cricket demands – and this lack of ambition can work in other elements of the game too.
How often do you hear commentators say that bowling at the death is all about getting six balls in the blockhole? Bowlers who have been mixing up slower balls (at least a couple of variations thereof) with bouncers (fast and slow) and cross-seam deliveries with seamers and off-cutters, “go death” and, if they get it right, become almost unhittable having, more often than not, gone for a few when going through their repertoire. So why not “go death” as soon as aiming at the top of the off-stump becomes that line and length the hitters get under and whack? Sure it’s hard to do, but I saw Glenn McGrath bowl a maiden of yorkers at the death and even less skilled bowlers (ie every one of them) can get four out of six up there. There’s the risk of a low full toss or a half-volley, but there’s no risk of a wide and it’s not as though other deliveries are risk-free. And if you can let the batsman have one in the ribcage, it’ll keep them honest too – as KP found out when advancing at Glenn McGrath. It’s unambitious in its lack of imagination – but there’s no points for artistic interpretation.
In captaincy, I’m pretty sure that changing the bowling every three minutes messes up the bowlers’ rhythms at least as much as the batsmen’s, as does the inevitable between overs conferences and even the mid-over summits called to decide whether to bring up Third Man. Do all these field-changes and general pointing and shouting really help? We hear that there are plans for every batsman, but one boundary often appears enough to go not just to Plan B but Plans N and G too. Ambition’s gnawing demand that a captain must take action, react to the match situation, lead his team, can do more harm than good when the adrenaline is coursing through the veins.
And that’s perhaps the best illustration of the main benefit of a lack of ambition – it makes for a clear mind and a sense of perspective. Chris Gayle has just his few scoring shots to consider as the ball leaves the bowler’s hand; Glenn McGrath was often at the blockhole or at the cakehole; and Mike Brearley could become invisible on the field for 10 overs while his bowlers got on with their jobs. In cricket, as in life, bearing in mind the White Rabbit’s advice – “Don’t just do something, stand there” – can reap its rewards.
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