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Back at the pavilion

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First Published: Sat, Jun 21 2008. 12 02 AM IST

What Sport Tells Us About Life:Penguin, 208 pages, Rs595
What Sport Tells Us About Life:Penguin, 208 pages, Rs595
Updated: Sat, Jun 21 2008. 12 02 AM IST
WHAT SPORT TELLS US ABOUT LIFE | ED SMITH
The Middlesex and England batsman Ed Smith stands in the tradition of a kind of one-in-every-generation university-educated British cricketer —Mike Brearley and Michael Atherton are his immediate predecessors—interested in the life of the mind as much as in the hurly-burly of sporting action. He sees sport as only a part of life instead of the totality that it is for many professional sportsmen.
What Sport Tells Us About Life:Penguin, 208 pages, Rs595
Smith’s two previous books were Playing Hard Ball, an unusual study about the similarities and differences between cricket and baseball, and On And Off The Field, a memoir of the highs and lows of the season of 2003, in which he was picked for the national side and then dropped after two games. The title of his new book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, explicitly places the insights of sporting life at the service of other systems and interpretative frameworks. His book, says Smith, is about “sport’s intellectual lessons and practical uses”.
Smith has a talent for provocative generalizations. “Sport is a condensed version of life—only it matters less and comes up with better statistics,” he declares (although that is not how a champion sportsman would think, and Smith knows this). As it is a condensed version of life, we can use it as an analytical resource to explore many of the questions that preoccupy us in life. Smith does so in a series of essays, each of which is devoted to exploring a single question, such as “Is the free market ruining sport?” or “When is cheating really cheating?”
In one essay, he explains why there will never be another batsman in cricket to match Don Bradman’s astonishing Test average of nearly 100 (the current generation of greats, despite their work being made easier by more powerful bats and less complex pitch conditions, average in the high 50s). Not only do opposition teams today have access to better defensive tactics and more information about their opponents, the general baseline of achievement in cricket has improved remarkably. That is to say, if we look not at the best players in any team but the poorest ones, we find that they play to a much higher standard than the poorest players from an earlier age.
Why should this affect performance right at the top? Smith quotes a study by the great evolutionary scientist and baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould, which shows that as the overall quality of any sport improves, the gap between best and worst narrows: that is, “systems equilibrate as they improve”. “The sophistication of the modern game works against freakish solo domination,” concludes Smith.
Again, Smith has an unusual but persuasive explanation to offer in defence of sports being played by the rules of the free market. The traditional argument against this —one that has often been used to justify restrictions on transfers and, therefore, on player wages—was that in a club system, the richest clubs could buy up the best players and thus, the poorer ones were condemned to failure.
But Smith points out how, in baseball or soccer, smaller and poorer teams routinely beat richer sides with more stars. Inequalities at the level of skill are compensated for by sharper tactics and smart innovations. “So,” he argues, “the free market has a far more subtle influence on sport than simply giving athletes more money.” Further, a rapidly expanding talent base, such as the one visible in India now because of the Indian Cricket League and the Indian Premier League, ensures that richer clubs won’t have a monopoly on talent. The greatest challenge to healthy professional sports is not the free market or higher wages, says Smith, but that from “computer games and the neglect of sport in the school curriculum”.
When Smith is good, he is very good. But What Sport Tells Us About Life is an uneven book. Several essays, such as the one about the place of luck in sport, regurgitate old platitudes before offering material of modest interest; others jump in and out of an argument too fast, and have a kind of pop-science air about them. Smith is clearly an erudite man, but sometimes, his choice of figures to quote—an English bishop here, an Italian novelist there; a dash of Wordsworth, a smidgen of Nietzsche—can seem like elaborate name dropping. There is certainly a place for a book such as this, and only a professional sportsman such as Smith could have written it. But even so, this is no more than a modestly good book. Respond to this review at lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Jun 21 2008. 12 02 AM IST