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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