In an interview with Shubham Nag, eminent sports writer and former cricketer, Edward Smith talks of the underexplored significance of sports in life, how sports shapes social histories and a lot more…
One of your previous books- “What Sport Tells Us About Life”- it sort of reiterates the point that sports is this microcosm of life, and you also press hard for sport to be taken more seriously. But don’t the age old Olympic ideals sort of culture people to treat sport more as just a piece of entertainment and an object of relaxation?
Good question. I think sport is both entertainment and also something very important. Let’s put it differently. What is it that you think makes an activity of say a few minutes’ experience important or significant? Emotional range informs the degree of meaning that people pour into it, the feelings of belonging and identity. Well, if you put it in that context, sport is one of the most meaningful and important things you can do or you can follow. However, on any given day, the result, even in professional sport, unless it’s your career that’s riding on it, isn’t the whole point of the story. So what I’m saying is, I am looking to draw out some of the underexplored meanings or significance of sport, and maybe focus less on the circumstantial elements- who’s up, who’s down, if you’re gonna make it, if you’re not gonna make it, which is the stuff that we like for our daily news cycle.
True. And when we talk of the significance of sports; it has always been the biggest platform for internationalism, if not more. Still, it is hardly used as a tool to record or serve social histories. Why do you think is that so?
Well, it can be used as a tool to record social histories. I think of Ram Guha’s book…
Corner of a Foreign Field…
Exactly. A nice example of using sport as a prism, isn’t it?
Because the book’s about India, not just cricket… cricket is the way into it. Take the example of Ken Burns’ film about baseball. Ken Burns, as you probably know, made three great series of films about the American experience- Civil War, Jazz and Baseball. Now, his film is more narrowly the story of baseball than Ram’s book is the story of cricket, if you can say that. But it still tells you a great deal about America. In fact when I researched for my own book on baseball and cricket called ‘Playing Hard Ball’, I was actually trying to write a book about America, about an Englishman in America. And Baseball seemed the best way into the story. In no way was it a comprehensive book, it was a very personal book. But I was using sport to actually try and get to compare countries.
I was going through one of your pieces about why there are no good cricket films, on cricinfo. We had this great film on the Golden Era of Caribbean Cricket, ‘Fire in Babylon’…
Yes, I should’ve mentioned that. I mentioned it in my tweet. I felt guilty about not mentioning it.
Yes. But again, it was really an exception…
Well, let’s put it this way. I would love to be involved in making a kind of definitive film about cricket. I actually think that Ken Burns’ ‘Baseball’ is a wonderful model – incredibly moving and informative. And I think cricket is a great, great story. And I’m a bit surprised that no one’s managed to find the funding or have the ambition to do it. It is something that I would love to be involved in. Particularly now, I think that Indian cricket provides a whole new meaning to the story of cricket. I think that it provides a grandeur, and a modern significance. It’s now actually a part of one of the most exciting cultures in the world, a central part of one of the most exciting cultures of the world. I think the story of cricket has never been more interesting than right now. So, I think this is a brilliant moment to be following the story.
So, if we come to the point that why are good, big films not made on cricket, is it because a lot of cricket lacks that grandeur and that drama, which, Indian cricket is sort of an exception to? The way it’s followed in this country?
Exactly. That was the argument I was trying to make in that piece. If you compare the absence of great cricket films with the regularity with which Americans make great films about their own sports, I think one of the reasons is that the story of 20th Century America is so interesting- the country’s just becoming the preeminent power of the world, and that search for identity in the midst of it all. It’s happening in its sport, in its art, It’s just an incredible story. The story of baseball in particular, but also the story of all other sports. And of course, you have all the tensions as the grandeur. So, now is the time to do something similar with cricket.
Sport does not become a better spectacle, where there are never any mistakes. One of the points I make in the book is that football has a clunky scoring system, where one football goal is the biggest unit in the sport, as a currency. It actually makes a very interesting talking point…
And if we come to your latest book, which is unexpectedly on luck in sports…
Not in sports. Luck, full stop. Luck in sports, luck in life.
If we go through the dictionary definitions of luck, it would read something like – success or failure, apparently brought by chance. So it was intriguing me as to what drew you to study luck in the context of sports, if we keep it to sports.
Sure. First of all, mentioning dictionary definitions- I’m sure that’s one of the definitions in the dictionary. But in English, and I mean the English speaking language, there’s actually a sense of optimism built into the word- “luck”. Chance is even-handed as a word, it implies neither good luck nor bad luck. If you use the word ‘luck’, it tends to mean some kind of built-in optimism. You have to specify if you mean bad luck. It’s a very difficult word to define. In one context luck and chance can be very similar. In another context, luck and chance can mean quite the opposite. To a gambler, or to someone interested in probability or mathematics, a chance is something which can be calculated. A number can be attached to chance – there is ‘x’ chance that the next card would be an ace. But if you say there is ‘x%’ luck that the next card will be this card, that is a meaningless phrase. So, luck is unquantifiable, but to a mathematician, chance is calculable. So, it’s a very complicated context which obviously has its roots in the classical world- Fortuna. Sometimes, Fortuna was a Goddess; sometimes it was just a force. So, from the very beginning, luck travels between the divine and the human world. What really got me writing a book about it was my own experience- as a kid, if you like it, a teenager and a pretty cocky one at that, I didn’t believe in luck. I would go along with the cliché- ‘you make your own luck’. But I actually learnt that while agency and determination are a huge part of the story, so, too, is luck. And the most important, in fact. There are three incidents of my life that really made me think about the idea. One was being given an LBW in what turned out to be my last test match for England. Now with DRS, things may not have been the same. Secondly, I broke my ankle when I was the captain of Middlesex and everything was going very well. The injury wasn’t diagnosed in time, we didn’t do an x-ray and I didn’t know if I had broken my ankle, I never played again. Thirdly, I met my wife on a train. Some people say, you know, you had to meet your wife somewhere, or you always meet people by chance. No. Nonsense. At that given time in my life, I don’t think I wanted to settle down, or get married. So, in actual fact, my life, I think, would have been very different in every sense if that meeting hadn’t happened. So, those things really prompted me to think about luck. But then, we can think about the idea in a much broader, moral and historical sense, an anthropological sense, as to why luck is a very useful concept in society. And I try to grapple with all those questions, in part a memoir, in part history of an idea, and in part an ethical arguement that luck is very important and that we should not try and get rid of its centrality in explaining the world, but we should try and really embrace luck.
When it comes to sport, how do you differentiate between luck and destiny?
There’s a little chapter in the book: it’s two pages long. It’s called ‘What is Luck?’, and it just deals with this family of words which mean destiny, chance, fame, serendipity and luck. Now, they’re all different, and what I tried to do is disentangle what these different words actually mean. And of course they’re used in different ways by different people in different cultures. To me, destiny is fixed. Maybe not as gloomly as fate. Your fate is a gloomy version of your destiny. Luck is very different. Luck is beyond your control: like destiny, like fate. But, it’s also something that is unpredictable. It interacts with your determination and your control to create surprises and questions you could not have anticipated. So, when people say that “I can’t believe in luck ‘cause it’s like believing in destiny”, I say it’s nothing like believing in destiny. You don’t hand over the control of your life to some independent force. You keep doing what you can. But people should acknowledge that your efforts have played out within a much wider context.
And in the world of sports, do you think that we can sort of grade luck based on the social conditions from where sportsmen come from?
We’re talking about luck there as in privilege. Certainly, it becomes a massive part of how sportsmen get to the top, if they’re fighting for themselves much harder than others. And in different sports, the proportion of people from different backgrounds is very different. If you look at a sport like sailing, then obviously all people cannot have access to a boat- it is something which requires a degree of fortune, normally. Whereas, if you look at a sport like running, you can go ahead with a pair of trainers. So, yeah, I think what’s interesting about cricket is that, in a country like India, it’s been opened up, and its success has really inspired many people to take up cricket professionally, which otherwise could have been a lost opportunity. One of the reasons why football is the most popular sport is that in football, your chances don’t generally decline without a great deal of equipment or resources. So, yeah, I think we can compare and contrast sports in the degree to which they allow their participants to partake.
And if we talk of the social strata of the society, and if we concentrate on a single sport where sportsmen come from different social backgrounds, the definition of ambition could be different, could vary according to their social conditions. So, how can a sportsman, depending on his or her social background, negate this issue of being ambitious or over-ambitious?
Ambition is a very interesting question, isn’t it? I think many people often dodge the question. Has their ambition been a good thing or a bad thing? Because, on one hand it is a motivating factor. On the other hand, it can sometimes push you to do things that you would have been better off without. Yeah, it’s a bit difficult. I think there isn’t an answer to that question…
It is never a definite answer?
People have different motivations. In case of boxing, earlier in the 20th Century, it was a way out for many. It was a way to escape, and to make a better life for yourself. Some take up sports as a means for self expression, or to attain a sense of self attainment. So, you know, it’s impossible to generalize about what motivates people.
When we are talking or writing about luck in sports, it brings to the fore a very human aspect of sports, a very error-prone aspect of sports. But now, say, with more and more technological and statistical innovations in sports, are we moving towards obliterating this human aspect?
Well, yes and no. I think, the use of technology in sports rests for the misconception that with its aid, we won’t make the mistakes we do. What we can do is, we can create increasingly precisely calibrated tools, which will still have a margin for error, but narrow down the chances. As we have seen with DRS in cricket, it doesn’t get rid of errors, it just creates a a new type of error. So one of the big mysteries of my book “Luck” is that, sure, as a practitioner, as someone who is in the game, you would like to be as error-free as possible, in any respect. But there is also the fact that human error is largely linked with the drama of sport. So, sport does not become a better spectacle, where there are never any mistakes. One of the points I make in the book is that football has a clunky scoring system, where one football goal is the biggest unit in the sport, as a currency. It actually makes a very interesting talking point because of say, one refereeing error, one offside not given, one penalty not given – all these things are incredibly important, in fact, much more important than one line call in tennis, where there are many more points. So in actual fact, the human error or the error of decision making or officiating errors bothers the practitioner, but are actually a pretty big part of the narrative of the sport.
True. And if we talk of the DRS, or if we come back to your previous book “What Sport Tells Us About Life”, I saw one of the chapters raises this question- ‘When is cheating really cheating?’ So, when a batsman nicks one, he knows it, and he yet doesn’t walk till the umpire has made his decision. Is he really cheating?
No, I don’t and most people who play the game do not consider that as cheating. However, from a logical point of view, as I argue in that book, it is hard to explain the difference to someone who is not a cricketer between catching a catch off the ground, which bounces in front of you, which is considered to be cheating, and having a fine edge caught by the wicketkeeper and not walking, which is not considered to be cheating. Let’s just take the example of convention, which is one of the arguments I make in “What Sport Tells Us About Life”, is that convention is usually more important in governing our senses of morality than law. So, in that example, most of us have driven above the speed limit, in England, in France, Germany, where the laws are less strict than in America. Nearly everyone I know, I’m sure, has driven significantly above the speed limit. It is not considered to be something that is particularly frowned upon. But drunk driving is considered to be extremely risky and immoral. But I don’t actually have the stats at hand either. I mean, it could be the case that driving significantly above the speed limit actually increases the risks of doing yourself harm with an exponential degree. But it’s just slipped into the culture that it’s something people do and can get away with. So in other ways, cultures don’t actually always have incredibly rational explanations for our wrong-doings. Things emerge, conventions emerge, and players live by them. And when you try and explain why it’s there, it gets quite difficult.
So does this entire idea of cheating play a huge role in scripting the narrative of the sport as well?
I think it’s always been a central talking point about sports and fair-play. The history of cheating is read with the history of fair-play, as soon as we have rules, rules are broken. And then there is argument about whether they’re literally broken or not. I think the concept of fair play is very central to the history of sport, particularly the British 19th century idea of sport which is tied up with gentility and gentlemanly code, tied up with the idea of taking British values around the world. So yeah, I think fair play and cheating have always been safely debated in sports.
What is your view of doping in professional sport? Are you in favour of the idea of legalizing doping, or do you see it as out and out cheating?
Absolutely not. I’m particularly against the idea of legalizing doping. However, given the idea that we’ve just been talking about, there is no doubt that in some professional sports, doping has become so widespread that it has become a part of a modern sporting culture, as we see in cycling. Like, there was an era in cycling, when so many cyclists were doping. So the pressure must have been huge to do that, particularly in order to compete at the highest level. It doesn’t follow that I would legalize doping, since there are huge health risks and moral risks involved. I would want to keep sport clean, but I do recognize that there have been moments in some sports when the pressure for doping has been overwhelming.
But, if we talk about this huge pressure on these athletes to perform, say, in the Tour de France – Lance Armstrong once said in an interview to Playboy that it’s impossible to run the entire course of the race without any medical enhancements.
And when we see the amount of money that is involved in these top level sports, and considering the poor backgrounds of many an athlete, doesn’t the entire scenario automatically work towards degenerating the human body?
No, not automatically. I think your question is slanted against capitalism. I think it’s possible to have professional athletes as well as amateur athletes who personally compete for honour, or for joy, or for self-expression. It doesn’t follow that people who make a lot of money from sport are inevitably going to cheat. I think that is rather assuming too much about people’s incentives when they own a lot of money. Some people actually make a lot of money from sports, behaving impeccably. If you look at the standard of behaviour of the top men’s tennis players- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray- all of them, the way they speak after losing, I think you will see that some cultures in sports have actually survived very well, in fact thrived.
In modern sports, you need to sell every aspect of the sport to the consumer in every way, how T20 has become the money making machine for cricket right now. In that scenario, in what light do you see the future of test cricket? Can it be sold, piece by piece?
Yes, I think test cricket can survive and can be very strong. I think the most important thing to focus on is that every test series has a sense of length and purpose, and the scheduling is very important there. And I think they’ve got to reduce the amount of ODIs and make test tours the central part of overseas trips.
So, are they afraid that test cricket won’t sell like the ODIs and T20s?
No, they know that test cricket won’t sell like the ODIs. I think it’s very important to schedule test matches, to make them have as much integrity and value as possible. I mean, for the value of respect for the game.
So, as a consumer or as a producer of the game, what is your ideal idea of the spectacle of cricket?
I think my ideal spectacle in cricket involves great skill, great test of character, a combination of subtlety and virtuosity. So, fast bowling, spin bowling, both challenging batsmen at the limit of their capacity, a balance between bat and bowl and above all- a sense of event. A match which matches up to the players and to the board officials.