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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear