A TV reporter commentates in the rain. Photo: Getty
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Ex-pros fill the pundits’ chairs – but giving a good game isn’t the same as talking a good game

A problem arises when it is assumed that professional playing experience is the sole source of authority.

A hot day leads me to take refuge in Tate Britain (galleries are best when we ask the least of them). In the cool of the basement, I found myself wandering around “Looking for Civilisation”, an exhibition celebrating the life and collection of Kenneth Clark. I spent longest in the room showing highlights of Civilisation, the tele­vision series for which he is best known. In one episode, describing 18th-century England as the “paradise of the amateur”, Clark talked in an especially personal tone. “There was a freshness and freedom of mind,” he argued about Wren, Vanbrugh and Burlington, “that is sometimes lost in the rigidly controlled classifications of the professional. And they were independent.”

Clark had inherited that tradition. He was an authority but only briefly a professional academic. His artistic education – he began collecting Japanese prints at 12 – was founded on leisure and love, not the pursuit of a career path. For all his achievements, he confessed he was born into the idle rich. “Many people were richer,” he explained of his family, “but few were idler.” Aged 30, he was appointed director of the National Gallery. What were his credentials at the time? The same amateur expertise that he identified in Vanbrugh and the Earl of Burlington.

In a very different context, we are now experiencing what happens when the tide turns against the non-professional. The television coverage of the World Cup has been criticised for its unenlightening punditry, almost exclusively provided by well-known former professional footballers. This has prompted a lament for a bygone era of broadcasting, with the drabness of today’s World Cup analysis contrasted with the articulateness and affection of a previous generation of sports broadcasters.

It is true that Peter O’Sullevan, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and John Arlott – all great voices, in every sense – had not been professional sportsmen. Their amateur spirit sustained the depth of their knowledge and love of their sports.

But the accusation that it is all the fault of the ex-pros needs serious qualification. (Full disclosure: I am an ex-pro who now commentates on cricket for the BBC.) The trend of using ex-pros extends far beyond football: every broadcaster does it, every­where. And they should, up to a point. Who would not want to hear the views of someone who has been on the same stage, perhaps playing against the same opponents? Eliminate ex-players and you lose a great tradition that runs from Peter Alliss and Richie Benaud through to Gary Neville and Roberto Martínez.

A problem only arises when it is assumed that professional playing experience is the sole source of authority. We know this is untrue because some superb managers, such as Arsène Wenger, never played at the top level. In the media, the mistake has two manifestations: undue reverence for the views of former stars, however formulaic, and a matey (and very English) suspicion of anyone who stands apart from the clubby level of debate.

The second issue can be dealt with easily enough. There are some brilliant football writers and analysts who never played the game professionally: invite them to join some of the television panels, ask them serious questions and respect their answers. There is a perception that the public won’t tolerate expert opinions coming from people who haven’t played at the highest level. I am unconvinced by this. In my experience, viewers and listeners are much more interested in the quality of the ideas than the “credentials” of the speaker.

The opinions of great players, meanwhile, should be judged on merit rather than confused with their reputations as sportsmen. Great players can certainly tell us things that only great players know. But in some respects the qualities that make a star performer are fundamentally different from the skills of an analyst.

Playing sport is about taking risks. Every attacking shot, each midfield run, every bold second serve: they all require a necessary element of risk. Having decided to take a risk, however, great players are able to behave as though it is not a risk, after all. Conviction – or blind faith – often marks out the true champions. If asked to identify one quality that separates the best players from the merely good ones, I would reply that it is their ability to commit wholeheartedly to their decisions. This quality influences their chances of ultimately being proved right. Hence the two central qualities in a sportsman (judgement and then executing those decisions) are intertwined.

Some players – Zinedine Zidane or Johan Cruyff – can sense the whole pitch and see how their actions shape the wider picture. Yet most of them focus on the task at hand with understandable tunnel vision. That is one reason why brilliant sportsmen often find other disciplines unexpectedly difficult. They continue to form judgements and continue to commit to them entirely and yet, off the pitch, they are baffled why their epic self-belief now has zero effect on the outcome. Someone else is now kicking the ball. It’s up to him. Their judgements, in effect, exist in a vacuum; conviction cannot help any longer.

The person you would select to play with total self-belief, even against steep odds (that is, a performer), is rarely the same person you would want to identify and accurately describe the state of probabilities and how they can be altered by tactics (a pundit).

Expecting every great player to become a great pundit is like expecting every great actor to become a fine director. He might take to it; some certainly do. However, given that there are now so many media slots to fill, it’s time to widen the talent pool.

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 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.