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Ed Smith

Reading the Game

Do as I say: why certainty is vital on the field, but fatal in the commentary box

Ed Smith | November/December 2015

By inviting great athletes to commentate on the sports they mastered, we expect them to develop an entirely new way of looking at the world. Playing sport demands conviction, clarity of purpose, even blind faith. In contrast, describing sport rests on detachment, impartiality and openness to being wrong.

Some great players can make the methodological switch. But it is a strange transition for a great player to recognise that his epic self-belief is no longer relevant to the match – events will play out entirely independent of his convictions. The champion player is an absolute monarch, the pundit is a theatre critic. Psychologically, there isn’t much natural overlap between those two careers.

As practitioners, great sportsmen often nurture a dual sense of infallibility. First, like children, they are convinced that if they want something enough it will come true. Secondly, like popes, they are conditioned to think that decisions take on an aura of certainty because they believe them to be true. Show me a rational and perfectly objective sportsman who fully grasps the limits of his own powers and I’ll show you an athlete on the brink of retirement. If they grow up too much, usually they can’t go on.

Playing sport is about taking risks – the surge up-field in search of the winning goal, the lofted six to win the cricket match, the passing-forehand winner at full stretch. But the best players don’t perceive these decisions to be risks in the way that ordinary people might. If one quality separates the best players from the merely good ones, it is their ability to commit totally to their decisions. They swing the weight of their whole personality behind the risk. After all, any sporting play that begins with the mindset, “It’s a long shot, but I might as well have a go” is very likely to fail.

In other words, sportsmen don’t just take risks – like the gambler placing his chips – but also act out those risks. Having decided to hit a six, the batsman must then actually hit it. So the sportsman’s two central gifts – his judgment and the ability to hold his nerve – are inherently intertwined. The psychology of a champion recasts risk as confidence. There is a transmutation of uncertain probability into faith.

I am often struck by the total confidence with which some champion ex-players often express their opinions as pundits. The resilience of that confidence is especially striking. Even after a sequence of several wrong calls, they deliver the next opinion with equal certainty.

How is this possible? The answer, I suspect, lies in the decades of pyschological conditioning when they were superb players. Take a position; commit to it totally; make sure it comes true. The difference, of course, is that in the commentary box, personal conviction no longer makes any difference to the on-field outcome.

Yet some great players undoubtedly become great pundits. Richie Benaud (pictured), the former Australian cricket captain who died this year aged 84, is hailed as cricket’s greatest television commentator. Benaud also belongs to an elite group of sports broadcasters who are interwoven with the whole atmosphere of the games they described. Benaud’s mellow tones – authoritative but lightly amused – became a nostalgic touchstone for cricket supporters of several generations. For millions of fans, Benaud’s voice connected and warmed their summer memories.

When Benaud died, fans and colleagues rightly praised his understatement, insight and wit. There was something else, however, that made Benaud unusual. He was, above all, sceptical – wary of glib answers, cautious about new tactical fads, reluctant to swim with the convenient opinions of the moment.

Benaud was quizzical. Beneath his layer of debonair common sense, he radiated scepticism. Even when he didn’t react to some of the over-confident or simplistic views surrounding him, his tone of voice suggested a wry smile or an upturned eyebrow. His famous pauses hinted at a mischievous question, rarely expressed but often implicit: “Really? Are you sure?”

Given that he had once been a truly great player, Benaud’s confidence took an unusually undogmatic form. He was unfailingly clear but not always certain. Indeed, he was often quite certain about his uncertainty. That was the way he looked at the game.

Philosophers call this position fallibilism. As defined by Kwame Anthony Appiah, fallibilism is the idea that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional and subject to revision in the face of new evidence: “Here’s what I know well enough to live by. But I could be wrong.” For all his renowned confidence as a captain and player, as a pundit and commentator Benaud was a great fallibilist – always on the look-out for ways to refine and revise his opinions.

One of cricket’s great ironies is that its best batsman, Don Bradman, used a technique that has been almost entirely ignored ever since. Bradman is the game’s colossus, yet his arching bat-swing never became part of coaching orthodoxy. We call him the greatest and then look elsewhere for role-models. Perhaps the same can be said for the game’s greatest television commentator. As his reputation is ever more secure, Benaud’s approach feels increasingly remote.

Benaud never spoke in headlines, seldom leapt to judgment, used pauses rather than punctuation marks to underline his point and, above all, exposed his opinions to constant revision and refinement. Far from serving one constituency or the other, his fallibilism benefited the whole game – and both players and viewers loved him.

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