Posted by: nestaquin | March 25, 2008

Ed Smith: What Sport Tells Us About Life

CoverIn what we hope to be a permanant addition to the team at 99.94 our man from The Dart, better known around the traps as The Tooting Trumpet, espouses his often forthright views on a recent cricketing tome. The editorial staff would like very much to reveal the true identity of our esteemed literary cricket critic but to protect the innocent, the guilty and his somewhat precipitous reputation our legal eagles have prevented its publication. However, I have been given permission to state unequivocally that he is not a moonlighting Stig or the Tea Lady at Taunton.

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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Responses

  1. Reading the links from The Times that contain extracts from this book I can only surmise that this fellow Ed Smith, chinless wonder or not, is a terrific writer with a sharp and consistent mind.

    Great stuff Toots! and thank you for the education. Thoroughly enjoyable.

  2. Brilliant! Being Australian I’ve never heard of this writer but after reading his piece under the ‘cheating’ link I’m buying this book.

    Very similar to what happened this last summer passed.

  3. Cheers guys. Matthew Engel in The Wisden Cricketer said that he was likely to read the book again, and, less than a week after finishing it, I want to go back to some of Smith’s questions and read again what he has to say. He’s never 100% correct, but he’s 100% interesting, and that’s the brief delivered!


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