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     Volume 7 Issue 16 | April 18, 2008 |

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Book Review

A Magisterial Thesis

Matthew Engel

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

What Sport Tells Us About Life
by Ed Smith
(Viking, 208pp, £14.99)

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 head-butt in 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 head-butt 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.

This review was first published in the Wisden Cricketer.

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