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Ed Smith

Reading the Game

It’s often said that the greatest sports stars have more time than the rest. But what does this mean, exactly? 

Ed Smith | March/April 2015

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There is no higher compliment in sport than “having time”. It is an appropriate gold standard. Sport is governed by time. For teams and individuals, it is always running out: the clock, the season, the whole career. For fans, sport concentrates time by containing it. For players, having time is about moving fast, and yet also about slowing the drama to a manageable pace. Speed and stillness are always intertwined, and, occasionally, reconciled.

In one respect, having time is a trick. Sometimes it is simply about moving faster so as to be in position earlier. Pelé had time, to an eerie degree. But in the old footage, the thing that stands out is his explosive speed. When you know you’ve got the legs on someone, you can pick the right moment—a second of imbalance or hesitation—to exploit their inferiority.

Having time rests on balance. A body moving with perfect balance can change direction more sharply and decisively. This is the quality that allowed Barry John, the Welsh rugby fly-half, to glide past tacklers. In his famous try against England in 1969, John seems not to be running flat out. Why don’t they tackle him? With his head balanced and the ball in both hands, his body position changes subtly, almost imperceptibly, altering the arc of his run and the shape of the space ahead. Like a fox throwing off the hounds, he has tricks hidden within the foot race.

Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal’s great striker, called his memoirs “Stillness and Speed”. Poise within movement creates the illusion of stillness—and hence having time. Roger Federer is no longer the fastest tennis player, and even Novak Djokovic may not be as fast as Kei Nishikori, the rising star who is already the greatest player in Japan’s history. But Federer has kept pace with faster men through economy of movement. At 33, with millions of unwasted steps in the bank, he moves beautifully by moving less. Economy, by giving necessity the illusion of freedom, takes on the appearance of style.

Some players will always have time, however slowly they end up moving. Cesc Fàbregas, the Spain and now Chelsea midfielder, has never been a sprinter. It is his mind that moves fast—or perhaps it is just clearer. As I write, Fàbregas again leads the Premier League table for assists. He seems to have the position of every player logged on an iPhone hidden up his sleeve. He will be making those killer passes aged 37 just as he is at 27.

Running out of time can bring out the best in an athlete. There is no longer time to waste—either for showing off or for self-indulgent soul-searching. There is a parallel with artists here. As Edward Said argued in his “Thoughts on Late Style”: “Age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works.”

Zinedine Zidane, in his late period, focused on eliminating unnecessary movement, even unnecessary thought. Like Andrea Pirlo of Italy today, he wanted to see the whole picture before changing its shape. Stephen Frears, the director, once told me his job had something in common with creativity in football. When he was “getting it right, before the fog descends again”, he felt the sense of “standing above it and seeing it clearly, like Zidane”.

Zidane’s interventions felt pared-down but essential, like the work of an ageing sculptor who can no longer see the point in fleshing out the details. Making less go further requires mastery of form. Apologising for writing a long letter, Pascal said, “I would have been briefer if I’d had more time.”

Captaincy is the art of slowing time—or not allowing it to speed up. An anxious captain feels rushed. His mind is too crowded to home in on the thing that matters: making good decisions. M.S. Dhoni of India, now defending the World Cup, is the master of this in short-form cricket. Other captains may be bluffing; not Dhoni. The past has gone, his body language says, the future is unknowable. That leaves only the present. Living in the moment can be a ghastly aspirational cliché, but to some champions, it is the only way.

By narrowing his focus, by eliminating unnecessary thought, Dhoni is noticeably unhurried. Some see this as mystical. To Dhoni, I suspect it just feels natural. It is a remarkable gift, at a tangent to orthodox intelligence, with its rational calculations and predictions: closer to wisdom than cleverness.

Slowing time is linked to a state of flow, or being in the zone. Playing cricket for Kent one July morning in 2003, I made 149 runs in about three hours. I scored faster than ever before, but felt in no hurry to get anywhere, even to a hundred. I felt the rhythm of the ball in sync with the downswing of the bat. My mind revved at the same pace as the game. There was no sense of rush (the ball arriving too soon) or impatience (wanting it sooner). There was a suspension of ambition that was rare for me. The innings didn’t feel like a stepping-stone, even though it turned out to be, but an end in itself. I felt very clearly, that high summer’s day, that my job was not to get in the way—to be the conduit rather than the agent.

The match was not rushing forwards, opportunities were not slipping by, and I understood, just that one time, a line from Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”: “Though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.”
 

Cricket World Cup Australia & New Zealand, Feb 14th to Mar 29th

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