‘My priority,’ said Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazil’s World Cup winning coach in 2002, ‘is to ensure that the players feel more amateur than professional. Thirty to forty years ago the effort was the other way. Now there is so much professionalism we have to revert to urging players to like the game, to love it, to do it with joy.’
Scolari’s wise words came to mind when watching Nick Compton during the final rain-soaked morning of England’s Test match at Headingley. Whilst the groundstaff were doing their professional jobs, prodded into action by a frustrated Andy Flower, the bowlers were going through their professional routines, and the slip catchers theirs, Compton spent large chunks of time between his own fielding drills, talking to Graham Gooch, England’s most professional cricketer of the 1980s and early 1990s.
It was not hard to imagine the conversation. Gooch, a superb batsman and now a much-loved coach, was talking to Compton in animated fashion. Gooch’s philosophy is not to talk technique during the match, as he prefers rightly to leave that to periods when you can have a real rather than imagined impact, but Compton’s match as a batsman was done, and things had reached crisis point. Gooch stood, bat in hand, and from a distance the talk was of head positioning, footwork, balance and movement, all the things that batsmen routinely think about during their professional hours.
If I had one piece of advice for Compton, as he ponders the next few weeks of uncertainty, before England’s selectors announce their team for the first Ashes Test in Nottingham, it is to forget about technique and to find his inner schoolboy, his inner amateur, to attempt to free himself up and rediscover the simple joy of hitting the ball in the middle of the bat and the sensation that brings. It is, of course, the hardest thing in the world to do and how you go about doing that, I’ve no idea.
Sportsmen routinely play mind games with themselves and my problem was that I found myself at the other end of the spectrum from Compton. Throughout my career, I knew deep down that what I was doing was trivial and unimportant. I never found trouble laughing at myself or the absurdities of the game. For the most part, that knowledge helped me succeed in international cricket. I never felt much different walking out to bat for England than I did for my school team or my village club side. A little more nervous, for sure, but I was the same person, paying the same game, with just a few more people watching.
The result was that, occasionally, I lacked the requisite emotion and passion that you have to have to be the best. So when those lethargic feelings took over, I somehow had to convince myself that what I was doing was the most important thing in the world- that if I failed all manner of plague and pestilence would descend. Allan Border, the former Australian captain, once said that he occasionally picked a fight with a fielder or bowler deliberately to spice up a situation he found too flat for his liking. He even said, once, that he let a bouncer hit him so that the pain would stir him into action.
Compton, though, is from the Mark Ramprakash-school of batting. Ramprakash was a beautiful batsman, full of elegance, authority and flair and lacking nothing except the ability to play like a beautiful batsman in Test cricket for England. After years of trying, occasionally succeeding but more often failing, he became tense, awkward and introverted at the crease. He became everything he was not as a schoolboy batsman. He wanted to do well, too badly. This is how he put it, shortly after his England career ended: ‘When I was 18, cricket was still a game. I used to go and try and hit Malcolm Marshall over the top. Then it became a job. Everyone is worried about the left elbow- is it in the right place?’
Ramprakash eventually found some freedom in front of the cameras on the television show, Strictly Come Dancing. He found that experience helped him as a cricketer, saying afterwards that ‘I’ve been determined to enjoy the game more.’ Many have felt that if Ramprakash could have had that experience before his England career it would have helped him, but that is a Rumsfeldian unknowable: by the time he put on his sequins, his career as an England cricketer was effectively done and the great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
Compton does not have Ramprakash’s natural gifts for batting, but nor is he the excruciating batsman we saw gripped by the fear of failure during the second innings at Leeds. It would have been far better for his Ashes prospects had he edged the first ball he faced. Instead, for an hour and fifteen minutes, we watched tension-induced rust work its way through every part of the batting mechanism-hands, forearms, shoulders, feet- so that in the end it simply stopped working. It was painful and rather sad to watch.
The trouble is that these are life-changing opportunities, more so than when I started playing. The discrepancy now, in money, adulation, recognition, between an England cricketer and a county Joe is far greater than it was. Luckily for me, I wasn’t much interested in those things anyway when I was playing. I played for the intense feelings of competition that top-class cricket gave me. Compton, if he can, needs to find the essence of the game, too, the bits that truly matter to him, and find a way of enjoying them again, of relishing them.
It is a hard thing to convince yourself that it doesn’t really matter, when it is the thing you covet above all, but somehow that is what Compton has to do. There are enough examples out there: the greatest footballer of the moment, Lionel Messi, said last year: ‘Football is a game. I’m trying to have fun on the pitch, always just to play. That’s why I do it. The day I stop having fun is the day I retire, I never what to lose that spark.’
Messi has found the essence of sport for him, and that was apparent to Jurgen Klopp, the Borussia Dortmund coach, who recently said he showed his team videos, not of Barcelona playing at their best, but of their goal celebrations: ‘It’s the perfect thing to show my team, it’s like the first time they’ve ever scored. You see them celebrate goal number 5868 like they’ve never scored before. That’s what you should always feel- until you die!’
These are easy things to say from the side-lines; it is an easy column to write. It is the hardest thing in the world to do. Go on, Nick, remember what it was like hitting the ball on the beach in Durban, growing up. Find your inner Compton.