Again, it was a thoughtful gift. Although I don’t tend to write about sport on here, I’ve always enjoyed watching cricket, and Vishy and I have talked about it quite a bit by email. The author of this book, Ed Smith, even batted for my county, Kent, so it was bound to go down well.
First of all, I should say that I think the cover does the book a disservice. With its lurid colours and headbutting image, it looks like the kind of book you see in the shops before Christmas, a lightweight, sensationalist cash-in for the sport-lover in your life.
The book is actually a lot more serious and thoughtful than its cover suggests. Ed Smith takes on a series of interesting subjects from sport, such as the role of chance, the true nature of cheating and the appeal of nostalgia, and examines what they tell us about sport and life.
There are 15 essays altogether, with some links between them but no overall thesis. Although Smith is an ex-cricketer, he draws on a variety of sports to illustrate his points. Cricket features heavily, but doesn’t dominate.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on amateurism vs. professionalism. The amateur spirit used to be admired and cherished, but now professionalism dominates, not just in sport but in other areas of life. ‘Amateur’ has come to mean bumbling and incompetent, while professionalism stands for efficiency.
Smith does a good job of showing the value of the amateur spirit, and why we would do well to preserve something of it in this professional age. Amateurs played for the love of the game, as the word’s etymology suggests. There was more room for creativity and inspiration, with players freed from the burden of too much coaching and analysis. There’s an excellent quote from Brazilian football manager Felipe Scolari:
It is a fact that the more important something gets, the harder it is to do it well. We can all walk along a kerbstone in safety: but if the drop were not six inches but six miles, how then would we walk?
This is a great observation, and one I relate to in my own life. When I’m writing for the love of writing, I’m at my best. When I’m thinking about the six-mile drop (bad reviews, rejections, humiliation, the need to make money), I lose my balance. I think the kerbstone analogy applies to many areas of life, don’t you?
Some of the essays are not so much what sport tells us about life, and more what sport tells us about sport. It was hard to see much wider significance to life, for example, in the discussion of legendary cricketer Don Bradman and why we’ll never see his like again. It was a fascinating essay, but more for its discussion of the sport itself than for exploring wider implications. The same goes for a few of the essays.
In general, though, this is an interesting, thoughtful book, with plenty of observations that have wider resonance beyond the field of play. You don’t have to be sport fan to enjoy it, but it would probably help.