sport


ball-tampering

Bowler Cameron Bancroft and captain Stevie Smith at their news conference in Cape Town.

It took but a moment. During the lunch break, several senior players hatched a plan. The fall guy was their new fast bowler, Cameron Bancroft. They persuaded him to smuggle a piece of sticky tape onto the pitch and apply it to one side of the ball so that it would pick up dirt and make it swing more in the air. The problem was that the sticky tape was bright yellow and his actions were witnessed on screens all round the world via a host of television cameras. According to the rules of cricket, a player is not allowed to tamper with the ball to gain an unfair advantage. This includes abrading one side with a fingernail or dirt in the pocket or rubbing it on the ground, through strangely spitting on the ball to dampen one side and buffing up the the other side of the ball on the trousers is allowed. It all seems a bit arbitrary. But in cricket as in life, players must play by the rules.

Cricket Australia reacted swiftly. With one test match left to play in South Africa, they recalled Smith, the captain, Warner, the vice captain, and the bowler, Cameron Bancroft.  It was only after they returned that they realised the enormity of their crime. Smith broke down in tears in front of the world’s media; he had let himself, his father and everybody else down. Australia lost the last match by 322 runs.

Bill Shankly, the manager of Liverpool FC during their glory days, once said, ‘Football is not life and death; it’s more important than that’. He was right. The identity of thousands of fans are invested in their team and its players, but for Australia, cricket carries the identity of the whole nation. Cricket is the national game. More respect is afforded to the players than to the Prime Minister and members of his government. We all know that politicians can cheat and lie; it is part of the job, but cricket is an honourable pursuit. Even the poms can criticise the Australian government, but heaven help them if they slag off the Australian cricket team. Australians are very proud of their team; not just because they are such dedicated and skilful players, but because the Australian team, unlike other nations, are thought to play the game fairly according to the rules.

So, by cheating, the players have not only shamed themselves, they have shamed a whole nation. Australia is no longer that pure, uncorrupted, sunlit island in the southern hemisphere; they are cheats, like everybody else. No wonder there has been such a storm of anger in the Australian media.

Sport is a metaphor for society. And society has to be run according to rules. If those are flouted, then the society collapses into meaningless anarchy. Although cricket is ‘only a game’, it means so much to so many people that the players have to play fair. If they don’t, what is the point of playing? Not only Australian Cricket, but the whole game worldwide becomes meaningless. Millions of fans who believe in the integrity of cricket no longer have any anchorage of identity. Yes, indeed, cricket is more important than life or death, it is about meaning and identity.

The psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, wrote that at about the age of 2 or 3, children reach what she called ‘the depressive position’, when they first realise they are not the centre of their own universe; there are others to consider and they can’t do just what they want. This might also be called ‘the stage of disillusion’. She added that we may continue to encounter the depressive position many times throughout life, especially when we are encouraged by our achievements and the admiration of others to feel that sense of hubris or false pride. But pride always comes before a fall.

Australia’s cricketers are folk heroes with almost god like status. Worshipped by a whole nation, they may come to believe they can do no wrong, as long as they keep on winning. No doubt Smith and Warner felt that with a crucial test series against South Africa in the balance, winning was so important that the risk of cheating was worth taking. Maybe their hubris was such that they thought they were beyond reproach. How wrong they were. The higher our heroes climb, the harder they fall. Smith and Warner have gone from hero to zero in less than a day and only Bancroft may be excused because he was younger and in thrall of his seniors.

Is this just a sign of the time? Are we living in a time of such scepticism, when a reality television host and self confessed sexual opportunist can become President of the United States, while here in the UK, we read every day about the incompetence of our leaders, the corruptness of the police and judiciary, the mistakes of the health service, the irrelevance of the royal family, and only a minority of people believe in God.

There is more outrage over the latest incident of ball tampering than there was in 1994 when that icon of the game, the English captain, Michael Atherton, was observed to be rubbing dirt from his pocket on one side of the ball. He was fined £2000 but was allowed to continue as captain. I am not sure Smith will be as fortunate. Perhaps we need our heroes too much these days. If they cheat, then it means that we no longer trust the integrity of the players and will have to rely increasingly on technology. Freed from the obligations of honour, players will be forced to find ever more inventive ways to break the rules. And that my friends, will not be cricket.

Donald-Crowhurst-on-board-001

In 1968, Donald Crowhurst, an electronic engineer and inventor in his mid thirties, living in Teignmouth with his wife and young family, decided to take part in the Daily Mail Golden Globe challenge: to sail round the world single handed without stopping. He had even mortgaged his house and business up as security on a loan to pursue his dream and collect the prize. The problem was that Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, had only ever sailed as far as Falmouth before. Nevertheless, he managed to convince his sponsors that his trimaran design would be faster than other boats. Moreover his bid would publicise his inventions: The Navicator, a hand held navigation device, and a unique buoyancy aid for trimarans consisting of a self inflating balloon fitted at the top of the mast that uprighted the boat if it capsized.

Starting nearly three months after the other eight competitors, Crowhurst had decided to finish off the refitting of his boat while at sea. Just a week out, he encountered a fierce Atlantic storm and realised that he and his vessel, the Teignmouth Electron would never survive the seas he would encounter in the southern ocean. The gaskets leaked and the hulls were filling with water, the buoyancy device had come apart and the plywood construction could not withstand the buffeting of the waves. But with the hopes of the people of Teignmouth, not to mention the support of his sponsors and the enormous publicity he had attracted as a plucky amateur, he carried on down the Atlantic through the horse latitudes, much too slowly to have any chance of winning.

50 years ago, we didn’t have global positioning satellites; the only way people knew the speed and position of The Teignmouth Electron were the reports he sent back by radio telephone. At some stage, Crowhurst must have decided that, in order to maintain the interest of the public and potential sponsorship, he would need to fabricate his position, making out that he had speeded up, even breaking the record for the greatest number of miles sailed by a single handed yacht during a single day. But somewhere in the South Atlantic, he punctured one of the hulls and had to put into the coast of South America for repairs. He could not face the reality of failure, so he went out of radio contact, leaving others to assume he was now in the southern ocean, but in fact he was drifting around somewhere off Argentina. Seven weeks later, about the time a fast boat would have made it round Cape Horn and back into the Atlantic, he came back in radio contact. There was great excitement. There were only two other yachts in the race. Robin Knox Johnston was already home and claimed the prize for the first back. There seemed a good chance Crowhurst would overhaul Nigel Tetley and win the prize for the fastest circumnavigation, but that would mean his records would be inspected and found to be false, so he mooched along slowly in the Sargasso Sea waiting for Tetley to get back. Coming in a plucky third after eight months by himself at sea would still mean he would get a lot of publicity. Then disaster struck: 1000 miles from home, Tetley pushed his boat so hard to stay ahead of Crowhurst that his boat broke up and sank and he had to be rescued. Crowhurst just had to return to win the prize, but if he did that, his deception would have been discovered and he would be branded a cheat.

He went out of radio contact again for the last time. The Teignmouth Electron was discovered by the RMS Picardy drifting in mid Atlantic like the Marie Celeste. Crowhurst had gone; his body was never found. Had he committed suicide? Had he just fallen overboard? Or had he lost his mind because of the months of loneliness and intolerable stress? Examination of the boat showed that he had thrown his navigation gear and cut the trail line that he might have grabbed hold of if he went overboard. His log books revealed a confusion of philosophical ramblings on Einstein’s theory of Relativity, and a last enigmatic entry: ‘It is finished, it is finished; it is the mercy.’

His family were devastated and were only saved from total destitution by the winner and sole remaining competitor, Robin Knox Johnston, who donated his prize money to Crowhurst’s widow. Clare Crowhurst did not marry again and is still alive in her eighties. She has never believed that her husband had committed suicide.

So was Donald Crowhurst a fantasist, carried away by a dream of adventure and glory? Was he so lacking in self esteem that he needed to do something that he and his family could feel proud of? Did he feel stuck in the rut of his life? Probably all of those are correct, but his decisions were all about Donald; he never seemed to consider the impact of his actions on his young wife and family. He put his personal shame of concealment and loss of face above the devastation of his family. Yes, he was courageous to set out on such an adventure, but the braver thing to do would have been to admit he couldn’t do it after just surviving that first storm, or perhaps put the challenge off until the next year when he might have been ready, but that was clearly not an option. He was already in too deep water to pull out.

From a psychotherapist’s perspective, Crowhurst showed quite driven narcissistic behaviour; he put his own self aggrandisement and idealisation above any empathy for his family and friends and could not face up to the reality of his situation.  There are some indications from Donald’s early life that offer insight into possible mental instability. After he was born in India in 1932, his mother had so desperately wanted a girl that she dressed Donald in girl’s clothes for the first seven years of his life. Perhaps he never felt he could be loved for the boy he was. His father worked for the Indian railways, but when India gained independence, the family returned to England, leaving their savings invested in an Indian sporting goods factory, which burned down in the riots. Crowhurst’s father never settled back in England and died of a heart attack the following year. Donald was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. In 1953 he received a Royal Air Force commission as a pilot, but was asked to leave in 1954 for reasons that remain unclear. He was subsequently commissioned in to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1956. but he left the same year owing to a disciplinary incident. All of this suggests some confusion of identity when he was very young, and some degree of impulsive behaviour as a young man. So perhaps Donald always had a tendency to get into deep water, which might have contributed to feelings of inadequacy and an intense need to prove himself even if it meant taking extreme risks and hiding the truth.

A new film about Donald Crowhurst, ‘The Mercy’ starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, has just been released. I enjoyed it.

John McEnroe

But they were. It was like life and death to each of them. They were remarkably alike, both in history and temperament. Both were tennis prodigies. Bjorn Borg was just 15 when he played in Sweden’s Davis Cup team and beat the number 20 in the world. He was 19 when he won Wimbledon for the first time. John McEnroe was only two years older when they met on Centre Court. But how did they become so determined to be the best in the world? Was it all to do with their parents? While their mothers gave them the love and self belief, it was probably their strict fathers who forged that backbone of steel that meant that neither could ever give up. Confident of the stability of the family and the sole focus of their parents’ ambition, they had to be the best. It was unacceptable to be mediocre. Good enough was no good at all!  If they were not the best, they were nothing.

Tennis is a gladiatorial contest, in which you live or die by your own skill and will to succeed.  Perhaps it is only teenagers have that obsessional drive and dedication to satisfy the ambitious love of a demanding parent.

The young Bjorn Borg had a volatile temperament and could lose it when he was not winning and had unfair line call. He was trouble. It was only when his coach, Lennart Bergelin, who had also represented Sweden in the Davis Cup and ws once number 9 in the world,  told him to channel his fury into the next shot and not waste it by ranting at the umpire, that he began to change. He became the ice man, turning the air conditioning in his hotel room down to zero to keep himself totally cool, totally focussed. McEnroe called him the machine, but his psychological mechanism had a tightly coiled spring, that was only be released when he got on court. McEnroe probably had the same degree of aggression; his rants at the umpire released the pent up tension, allowing him to gather himself and stay in control.  The 1980 Wimbledon final was the perfect match: ‘the ice man’ versus ‘superbrat’.

McEnroe had the upper hand to begin with and won the first set. The commentators were already writing Borg off. But in second, Borg served an ace and announced his recovery with a vengeance. He won the third as well. McEnroe looked flustered and confused before the beginning of the fourth, but Borg said, ‘C’mon. It’s a great match’. That set was so evenly matched, it went to a tie break. Borg had six match points, but McEnroe came back each time, gaining two match points which Borg nullified. McEnroe eventually won the tie break by a phenomenal eighteen points to sixteen. They had to play a fifth, but that also went to a tie break, which Borg won. it was an amazing match, the like of which has never been bettered on Centre Court. McEnroe won the respect of the British crowd on that day and although he never stopped ranting, he was great entertainment and had many supporters.

Psychoanalysts might say that the McEnroe’s rants and Borgs tightly controlled narcissistic rage were Oedipal expressions of aggression at the harsh parent who had first call on their mother’s love. But if so, how did they grow out of it?

Borg played McEnroe the next year but lost and retired from tennis. He said at the time he didn’t mind losing. Something had changed. Perhaps he had nothing more to prove. He was persuaded to come back on the tour some years later but was never good enough. The fire had gone out. Perhaps getting married, living abroad and starting his own business distanced him from the influence of his parents. McEnroe is still playing tennis, competing in veterans tournaments and commentating on radio and television. For a time he tried to be a rock star, but it didn’t work. He has mellowed, become more thoughtful and developed an engaging, self deprecating humour. He doesn’t have to win any more. It is like they have both grown up. Tennis is no longer life and death. There is more to life. Their narcissism had been tempered by the realisation that they have to work with others to be at peace with themselves and successful in life. They have been socialised. Borg is a successful businessman with a big fashion company in Sweden. He is happily married and has three children. McEnroe, as far as we know, is also contentedly married with five children. Borg was his best man.

The Swedish biopic Borg/McEnroe has been released this and is in cinemas now ,