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Success is all about timing: and sometimes, the harder task is not making a decision

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

“Move your feet!” I’ve been ordered to do that thousands of times. Breathing hard, bat in hand, pads on, short of runs, mind anxious, just about to be cross-examined out on the pitch – and a voice comes from the back of the dressing room: “Move your feet!” It is awful advice. Thinking about footwork instead of watching the ball, instead of trusting yourself, is the surest way of failing to hit the ball with the middle of the bat. In your rush to move your feet, you miss out on several invaluable milliseconds – time that could be spent subconsciously assessing the trajectory, speed and movement of the ball. Decisive footwork is a symptom of good batting, not the cause. The magic ingredient, in reality, is delay.

The paradox of batting is that what looks like quickness is born of patience and trust. Every player in form says the same thing: “I had more time.” A batsman in form extends the period of time (even though the entire experience lasts only half a second) in which he assesses information, reducing the risks that come with guesswork. Rush part one, observation and preparation, and you mess up part two, execution.

Batting, in its purest form, is about not making a decision for as long as possible. The procrastination creates an illusion of decisiveness. The greatest players are masters of adjustment; that is why they make fewer errors. When I spent spring training with the New York Mets in 2001, their batting coach told me the baseball maxim: “Wait-waitwait, quick-quick-quick.” Guess and you rely on being lucky. A batter who has his hands “out in front” has no way of making an adjustment if he has misread the pitch.

I recently spent two weeks in Melbourne at the Australian Open tennis tournament. The final brought together the world’s two finest returners of the serve, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. I spent much of the match studying the returner. They have different styles. Djokovic makes tiny skips forward, minute adjustments intended to leave him perfectly balanced and ready to move in either direction. Murray’s preliminary movement – his “split-step” – is more marked, a longer bound forward. Djokovic has the flexibility and agility of a dancer, Murray the power of a sprint hurdler. Yet the outcome is the same. It is balance and delay that allow Murray and Djokovic to be such brutal returners. Because they retain more options than their rivals, because they guess less often, they are able to adjust and punish almost every weak serve. The art of returning is the application of pressure, telling the server: “Make a mistake and you will lose the point.” When sportsmen feel they are forced to play perfectly, imperfections follow involuntarily.

Think of time in football. How can Cesc Fàbregas, formerly of Arsenal and now of Barcelona, even in the midst of a scrambled penalty area, make the game stand still, foot on the ball, almost hands on hips? Why don’t opponents tackle him? It is not because Fàbregas is fast (he is relatively slow in stopwatch terms). It is because the little Catalan’s balance and poise allow him to make decisions much later than most players. Later decisions invariably are better decisions. Defenders, sensing his range of options, fatally back off.

Coaching, too, is about not lunging in. It is much easier to ruin a player than to help him. Yet many coaches make the mistake of passing judgement before they know their players.

My hypothesis, as a batsman-turnedwriter, is that the same principle – the correlation between longer delay and better execution – applies to many spheres beyond the boundary. The hard thing is summoning the courage to take your time, to fight against feeling rushed by expectations. I’ll never forget, at a university debate, hearing the former Liberal MP Clement Freud master an audience of usually restless students. Where the other speakers had huffed and puffed boisterously, Freud spoke quietly and languidly. We craned forward to hear his every word, anticipating each punchline. The excitement grew as we waited.

The saying “Comedy is all about timing” is true but incomplete. The optimal pause varies with each performance because the atmosphere in the audience is never the same on two different occasions. So as he delays the joke, the comedian is gauging the state of readiness in the crowd, while making tiny adjustments to the calibration of the final line.

Leadership is assumed to be all about boldness, having the guts to make the early call. Yet it takes deep confidence not to rush to leave your mark, to wait. Rod Eddington told me that he spent most of his first two years as chief executive at British Airways just listening, talking to people at every level, from engineers to the staff at the check-in desk. He extended his period of assessment rather than relentlessly fast-tracking his own ideas no matter how strong the resistance.

My suspicion, sadly, is that it is becoming harder to pursue the pragmatic art of delay. This is the age of the managerial class. The phrase “I am paid to make decisions” has become a mantra of professionalism. And professionalism can lead to a dangerous commitment to interventionism. It is much easier to impress the boss by saying, “Here is a list of the things that I’ve done for you,” rather than: “These are the things I’ve avoided for you.”

The best coach I ever had sometimes used to encourage me to practise without any footwork at all. Stand and hit: keep it simple. It demanded that the batsman engaged his sense of trust and re-established his timing. “Don’t move your feet,” he would say. “Stand still for as long as you can; trust your instinct to react quickly when you have to.”

Festina lente – make haste slowly. But who has the nerve to take that recommendation to the board?

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 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.