Since I began this column I have occasionally been asked why I never write about cricket, given the theme and the illustration on the page.
I have to say that these trappings were very much the editor’s doing. He is a bit of an obsessive – rumoured to have the complete set of Wisden at home, and obscure cricketing statistics websites on his list of favourites. The word ‘anorak’ comes to mind.
In terms of content I was asked to roam around a wide range of subjects, with no obligation as such to refer to chaps in white flitting ’cross the greensward ’neath a setting summer sun, but to try to include something of relevance to the world of work (in truth, I haven’t kept faithfully to that requirement, but consider my knuckles gently rapped).
I’ve nothing against our noble summer game, but when it comes to sport I’ve never fixed on a particular one. I’ve always been more inspired by particular individuals and contests than any one sport.
Curiously, and I’m not entirely sure why, my childhood heroes tended to be black (I’m not, by the way). Now I could, of course, pretend that this was all to do with being inspired by the civil rights movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s and the achievements of black people in the one arena where equal competition was possible. There must be a term for projecting adult concepts and thought patterns onto one’s younger self.
But I should resist the temptation. It was probably more to do with adoration of the Brazilian World Cup team of 1970. I received quite a roasting from my brother and his friends for not supporting England at the Mexico finals. As far as I was concerned, Brazil had Pele and Jairzinho. End of story.
I love Ali, of course. And then in the 1970s cricket threw up perhaps the greatest sporting character of all.
Sir Viv Richards, the captain of the West Indies, was known for his arrogant gait, puffed-out chest and intimidating achievements. His mere presence was tangible. In cricket, batsmen are supposed to be scared of fast bowlers. When Sir Viv batted, it was the other way around.
Two incidents come to mind. In one, against Australia, the fast bowlers were deliberately hurling the ball at his head, rather than the stumps. The umpires decided to issue an official warning for intimidatory play, but Viv himself intervened and asked them not to. The faster the ball came at his head, the easier it was to see and to hit, he explained. He only ever wore a cloth cap, never a protective helmet.
Then, in the 1979 World Cup final, he hit a drive back towards the bowler Mike Hendrick at such ferocious pace that the bowler corrected his impulse to reach out a hand to stop it and opted instead to dive out of the way. Rather than chide the bowler, the commentator, Richie Benaud, drily observed: ‘Wise. Very wise.’ From that moment on, you knew England were going to lose.
Many people said Sir Viv was great because he was super-confident. This is to misunderstand the matter; and here there is a lesson that spills over into the world of work. Sir Viv was confident because he was good. There is far too much nonsense talked in sport and in work about the importance of psychology. We search for that elusive quality ‘self-confidence’ as if it were something that we can attain through breathing exercises or thinking about life in a different way or going on outward bound training courses.
What really matters is expertise. The causal effect works the other way around. The proof of this lies in the fact that confidence bears absolutely no relation to physical risk, as Sir Viv showed with the fast bowlers. A gifted and experienced rock climber will be far more nervous being interviewed in a television studio than climbing a sheer face without ropes.
Confidence stems from the knowledge that: ‘I can do this.’ But you have to know it deep down. Expertise cannot be faked.
This does raise questions around the career development of certain specialists – say, aircraft designers or computer programmers – who may lack inter-personal skills. The conventional approach of sending them on assertiveness courses has its role. But what if their confidence and ability to express themselves would be more enhanced by the freedom to achieve expert status in their chosen discipline? Counter-intuitive, maybe, but worth a thought.
Returning to Sir Viv, it was a shock to see him lose the swagger as his fitness faltered shortly before retirement. Indeed, it was a surprise to note even that he was vulnerable to the mortal afflictions that one assumed only affected the rest of us. As his reflexes dimmed, the intimidating self-assuredness faltered also.
The career of a sportsman is piquant because it is so short; and that of a great sporting individual the more so because the descent can be so steep. Sir Viv has done well to carve out a coaching career, and avoid the distressing collapse of fellow-swaggerers Paul Gascoigne and Diego Maradona.
All of them remind us that human skill is precious, fragile and key to how we feel about ourselves.