Ooh-aah: Eric Cantona in 2013. Photo: Getty
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Maverick or phoney: why Balotelli has nothing in common with Cantona

Ed Smith’s weekly column, Left Field. 

The scientist and inventor James Lovelock likens the act of discovery to catching a cricket ball. Understanding the process is neither possible nor desirable; it relies on intuition and instinct. The inventor is like “the catcher whose brain estimates the trajectory of a fast-moving ball and programmes the movement of their whole body so their hand can intercept the ball’s path”. The mind must be trained by practice but: “The act of catching is never done rationally or consciously; our conscious minds are too slow.”

On the evidence of his provocative new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, Lovelock’s mind is still moving swiftly, even halfway through his tenth decade. Lovelock originated Gaia theory – the notion that Planet Earth is a self-correcting or self-healing system – and invented the electron capture detector, critical to the detection of CFCs and their impact on the ozone layer.

His achievements, though great, may prove less instructive than his temperament. Lovelock is a pre-eminent example of a maverick who made a real and lasting contribution. He now fears that his kind of career is becoming impossible in today’s highly professionalised world. I found the story strangely familiar: Lovelock has witnessed the maverick being squeezed out of science, just as I am watching the maverick being sidelined by professionalism in sport.

When Lovelock began practising science some six decades ago, there was an established tradition of the lone, disinterested scientist. “Now they are as rare as ectoplasm,” he laments. Journals would not publish papers sent from a home address and chemical and radioactive suppliers would not sell to individuals. So Lovelock formed a commercial business, taking on commissions from Nasa and Shell.

He saw the life of a scientist-inventor as being like that of an artist or composer. Aspiring to a state of “autarky”, Lovelock funded his private research by accepting work from four or five providers. He would rather bang out “potboilers” than take one all-consuming job. “To work for a single provider,” he concluded, “is merely to become again a bought man . . . and this is not independence.”

Reading Lovelock’s book reminded me of another autonomous scholar, Michael Ventris, who deciphered Linear B, the oldest comprehensible European writing system. Lovelock was born in 1919 and Ventris in 1922 (he died in a car crash in 1956). Ventris was an architect by training, never went to university and treated Linear B as a kind of hobby. Where his rivals were secretive, Ventris would send them his notes to keep them posted on his progress. Breadth not only helped him to decipher Linear B, it also reinforced his generosity of spirit.

The decline of the independent thinker applies equally to sport. Coaching, like science, has been turned into a strict professional system. It has become suspicious of mavericks, especially autonomous ones who do not need the “system”. Just as science is dominated by the “serious scientist” who masters the bureaucratic apparatus to engineer government grants, sport has allowed the tracksuited official coach to bully the local enthusiast into extinction. Being good is less important than being familiar.

Yet truly outstanding coaches are often not formally trained – their curiosity leads them to proceed by empirical observation. John Inverarity, the former Australian cricketer, enjoyed remarkable success as the coach of Kent and Warwickshire, then more recently as Australia’s chairman of selectors. But his career was in education, as a headmaster. His cricketing posts were usually sabbaticals and he spent much of his time pretending he was “doing little or nothing”. It was a trick to reinforce players’ self-reliance and avoid a dependency culture towards coaches.

Like Lovelock, Inverarity hated the assumption that a professional ought to look and behave in a certain way. Where Lovelock preferred woolly jumpers to lab coats, Inverarity refused to wear a tracksuit. He would wander out for the pre-match “warm-up” in his chinos.

In golf, Jimmy Ballard has arguably helped more major winners than any other coach. But he has, in effect, been hounded out of the professional game. His crime is trying to make golf simple, where many earn a living from making it complicated. Where swing coaches with inferior track records have become celebrities, Ballard remains on the periphery.

Lovelock’s point about the decline of the maverick is that it has been largely an unfortunate accident, not a deliberate purge. In science, the process of peer review and the funding of science by grant agencies prejudice against outsiders. The committees try to be fair but they are inevitably drawn from corporate science. Lovelock does not think all scientists should be like him, just that his type should not be made extinct. He wants curiosity to survive the American trend of turning science into a “team sport played for prizes and recognition”. Ironically, the same process has also depleted actual team sports.

I would add one qualification. In celebrating genuine mavericks, we should be vigilant about phoney ones. The litmus test of a genuine maverick is whether his eccentricity is incidental. The genuine eccentric does not consider himself eccentric; he thinks the rest of the world odd for persevering with its irrationalities. The true maverick feels the overwhelming need to do his work, enjoying moments of recognition along the way. The pseudo-maverick craves constant adulation, resenting the way work interrupts.

As James Lovelock’s book reminded me, Mario Balotelli has nothing in common with Eric Cantona. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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