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The question of motivation: Why be a cricketer?

by Tim de Lisle 12 minute read

In the 2019 Wisden Almanack, Tim de Lisle explained the various types of motivation that cricketers encounter during their careers.

An up-and-coming player, representing England but not yet established, goes to the World Cup for the first time. This is it: the big stage, the chance to make a name. It goes pretty well – a good fifty, top score in a narrow defeat, followed by a first international hundred, which turns a classic England collapse into a cakewalk. For the team, things go less well. “I’d done OK,” says the player, many years later. “I’d cemented my position, but we didn’t even make the semi.” The experience prompts some hard thinking. “I watched the World Cup final, and I was convinced that I wanted to be the best batsman in the world. I came home and made that statement to my coach and myself.”

So that was Claire Taylor’s motivation, for years, after the 2000 World Cup: to be No. 1. “In 2005, in South Africa, I was going to prove it. England were going to lift the World Cup, everyone was going to be a hero. I had an OK tournament, but we got a semi-final at Potch, spicy pitch, we were three down in the first few overs, I got nicked off by Fitzpatrick.” For a duck. “That properly burst my bubble.”

She had given up the day job, taken an 80 per cent pay cut and moved back in with her mother. “I went back to my old coach and my old technique, and I started trying to be better motivated by what I could do for the team. Instead of trying to dominate, I tried to anchor.” In case she forgot this, she would write “anchor” on the inside of her forearm. “My motivation changed markedly: it became much more intrinsic. With hindsight – and this is all a narrative that we create around our careers – by focusing on what the team needed, I was taking care of myself.” When the ICC launched women’s ODI rankings in 2008, she was No.1. A year later, she became the first woman to be picked as one of Wisden’s Five.

Motivation is a slippery thing, whether you’re in sport or not. It’s there under our noses all the time, which means, as Orwell observed, that we struggle to see it. In fact, there may be as many types of motivation as there are members of a team, and more than one may be exerting a force on the same player – who may or may not be aware of them.

1. The will to win

The novelist Philip Pullman, who used to be a teacher, has said that in any class there are archetypal roles that have to be filled, whether it’s the kingpin or the clown. Teams have those roles too – the joker, the talisman, the sergeant major. One of them is the type who just has to win, who can’t bear not to have the last word.

England’s No. 1 anchor: Claire Taylor in 2008

Graeme Fowler, who opened the batting for England in the mid-1980s, has confessed to being so competitive as a young man that he couldn’t enjoy his cricket. “When I look back,” he says now, “I didn’t really enjoy anything. It was not about enjoyment, it was about winning.” So that was his motivation. “Yes, but I didn’t know it. I was just compelled to do it, it was just part of me. I understood that it didn’t enamour me to my friends – this is when I was 11, 12, 13 – but I thought if you couldn’t keep up, it wasn’t my fault.”

Not all cricketers are driven by their competitive natures, but look at how they relax – by playing golf, or on the Xbox. Their idea of taking a breather from the relentless competition of the day job is to do more competing.

2. Making the best of what you’ve got

Nasser Hussain is in Antigua, fronting the women’s World T20 for Sky Sports. He’s in a hotel, slightly distracted as he waits for his luggage to catch up with him. But when he’s asked about his motivation in his playing days, it is clear, even in his voice, that those gimlet eyes are narrowing. “My motivation was probably – definitely – to make sure that I ended my career not saying ‘what if’. ‘What if I’d practised a bit harder, what if I’d trained a bit harder?’ So that, when I finished, I would know I got the most out of my ability. I played 96 Tests, which was way above what I thought I would play. At no stage now do I think: ‘Crikey, I could have done better.’”

He’s aware this answer wouldn’t be everybody’s. “You could argue that if I’d relaxed a bit more, I might have been a better cricketer. But it was the cricketer I was, and the person I was.”

3. Fear of failure

After making his Test debut at 21, Hussain took more than six years to establish himself. Alastair Cook, by contrast, was an automatic pick at 21, a man who never discovered how it felt to be dropped (except from the one-day side). Always playing the same few shots, barely breaking sweat, he batted as if he resented the fact that only bowlers were labelled as metronomes. When he retired, Cook did two things that seemed out of character. He signed up to become a pundit, with Sky and The Sunday Times; and, in his first column, he said something revealing.

“Can I make the next tour? That was what drove me, the fear of failure,” he told his ghostwriter. “It drove me more than others because I wasn’t the most talented cricketer. I genuinely enjoyed the fight, not to prove others wrong, but to prove to myself that I could survive for as long as I chose to.” He did prove it, just: the lean spells lengthened as time went on, but Cook left on his own terms after having much the longest Test career, in terms of matches, in England’s history.

4. Money

“Some players were motivated by money, even back then, when it was very little,” says Graeme Fowler of the 1980s. “I remember a semi-final with Lancashire, and the last thing anyone said before we left the dressing room was: ‘Come on, fellas, we’re playing for a month’s mortgage.’ That upset me, not at the time, but when I thought about it afterwards.”

In 2018, Mike Atherton wrote: “Most [players] of my acquaintance, would have gladly performed for nothing.” But some are at least partly motivated by money, even if this is the drive that dare not speak its name. In Fowler’s time, three England captains, former or future – Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting and John Emburey (twice) – signed up for rebel tours of apartheid South Africa, a move that could only be justified by wanting security for their families. Today, some young players target Twenty20, where the big bucks are; some older ones stick around because they have alimony to pay, or a benefit on the horizon. And few sportsmen of any age turn down the easy money that comes from endorsements, whether for motorbikes in India or hair-loss treatment in England.

5. Fame

When today’s children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, they often say “famous”. One of the few cricketers who have said it is Sanjay Manjrekar, the pundit and former India batsman. “I loved it,” he told ESPNcricinfo in January 2019 about playing cricket as a boy, “and I wanted to be famous and well-known.”

With other players, a thirst for fame shows up in their actions. Most long to be on the honours board. Some, like Ben Stokes, play more intensely at big moments, which may spring from a desire to dominate or to make their mark. Others, like Ian Botham when he flirted with Hollywood, ask for second helpings of fame. Some retire and head straight for “Strictly Come Dancing”, where they are seen by about nine million more of their countrymen than they ever were in an Ashes Test.

6. Loyalty

If you had asked an international cricketer of the 1950s about motivation, he might have been surprised by the question – self-consciousness was foreign to him – and given a simple answer. “To represent your country, that’s the highest honour.” These days, it’s not simple at all.

Brendon McCullum in action for Brisbane Heat at the BBL

There’s an entry in every player’s ESPNcricinfo profile that has become more and more telling. It’s the fourth line, and the first morsel of information that wouldn’t be in the player’s passport: “Major teams”. For Alec Stewart, who retired 16 years ago, it says “England, Surrey”. For Brendon McCullum, another international wicketkeeper-batsman-captain, still playing, it says “New Zealand, Brisbane Heat, Canterbury, Chennai Super Kings, Glamorgan,Gujarat Lions, Kochi Tuskers Kerala, Kolkata Knight Riders, Lahore Qalandars, New South Wales, Otago, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Sussex, Trinbago Knight Riders, Warwickshire”. Not surprisingly, they missed a few: Kandahar Kings, Middlesex, New South Wales and Rangpur Riders.

Stewart was a one-club man. Whether playing for Queen or county, he took the field with his roots showing. McCullum is an 18-club man. This is not to doubt the commitment of someone who has done as much for New Zealand cricket as anyone. It is just to point out that deep-seated loyalty is slipping into the mists of time. Today’s globe-trotting cricketer, who may only be with a team for a month or two, is not really playing for the badge.

7. Grievance

It was a peculiar sight: a Test hundred not being celebrated. Belatedly restored after injury to England’s red-ball team in Colombo last November, Jonny Bairstow batted at No.3 for the first time. But when he reached three figures, the usual joy was replaced by anger. He seemed to have been seething with indignation that his place had ever been questioned. The fact that it barely had been was neither here nor there: Bairstow had turned his fury into fuel.

Pumped up: Jonny Bairstow gives vent on reaching a hundred at Colombo in November 2018

Two months later, Geoffrey Boycott called West Indies’ Test team “very ordinary, average cricketers”. They proceeded to hand out the heaviest defeat England had suffered in the Caribbean. Perhaps Boycott had forgotten what happened when Tony Greig flagged up his intention to make West Indies grovel. Being written off is always grist to a sportsman’s mill, but Boycott and Greig were both, no doubt inadvertently, tapping into a deeper, darker, sadder seam – the vicious injustice visited, for centuries, by white people on black, in the form of slavery. “Whenever we come here,” Jimmy Anderson had said a day or two before Boycott’s blast, “you get the feeling West Indies really want to beat England. It’s something that has been ingrained in them. You can see it in the players’ eyes.” The “mother” country, the former slave masters: that’s motivation all right.

Revenge doesn’t have to be a dish eaten quite so cold. England have managed to win four home Ashes series in the past 30 years (2005, 2009, 2013 and 2015) – and three have prompted Australian revenge missions that have turned into routs (5–0, 5–0, 4–0). Hell hath no fury like an Aussie scorned.

8. Sheer dislike

Curtley Ambrose was at his ruthless best in the home Test series against England in 1993/94

Revenge can even be served piping hot. When England were touring the West Indies in 1993/94, Curtly Ambrose developed what he, or his ghost, later called “an irrational dislike” of Andy Caddick. “I would probably say it was because he had an action quite similar to Sir Richard Hadlee’s,” Ambrose writes in his memoirs. “I always admired Hadlee as a truly great bowler and I figured, ‘Man, you shouldn’t be trying to bowl like Richard Hadlee, you’re not in the same class.’” In the third Test at Port-of-Spain, with West Indies only 171 ahead in the third innings, Ambrose had a big heave at Caddick and was bowled, presenting him with his first five-for in Tests. Back in the dressing-room, Ambrose received what was surely a rare dressing-down. So he was now angry with Caddick, angry with himself, and either angry with his team-mates or guilty about letting them down. The rest is history: England 46 all out, Ambrose six for 24.

9. Pleasing yourself

Graeme Fowler is talking about his early days as a player – which were not easy. A year before his Test debut, Botham’s Ashes were unfolding, and Fowler was playing for Lancashire Seconds. Motivation, though, was never a problem. “It wasn’t a word that existed in my vocabulary.

All my mates would have 18th-birthday parties, 21sts, and I’d miss them. I’d say ‘I have a game’, they’d say ‘it’s only a club game’, I’d say ‘you don’t understand’. When in fact I didn’t understand. I was so driven. Selfish – no, self-centred is the word: so engrossed in my own little world.”

When did he move beyond it? “I can tell you – 2, 3, 4 August 1994.” He was 37. “My last season at Durham, second team, first game ever at the Riverside, I was captain. Katherine Elizabeth was born early in the morning, at twenty to four or something. I remember driving at six to my parents, who had brought their caravan up. I was driving towards the caravan park and thinking: ‘Thank fuck, my life’s not about me any more. I’m not Graeme Fowler, I am Kate Fowler’s dad. Everything’s not about me any more.’ And that was such a relief.”

Nasser Hussain makes a similar point in a different way. “When you have a young family, your motivation changes. To keep your focus is very difficult. Having a family helped – it did give me a sense of perspective. You’ve stuck ’em in at Brisbane, you’re changing nappies at bedtime and this littl’un doesn’t give a toss. Have something away from the game – Ath [Mike Atherton] used to read the Racing Post. It’s a cliché, but you can want it too much.”

10. Pleasing others

To reach the top in a sport, you have to please a lot of people, from the coach of the Under-9s to the selectors of the national team. And the first person most of us ever wanted to please was a parent. Joe Hussain, Nasser’s dad, was also a coach, which may have doubled his impact. “Probably through my dad, every single game I played mattered to me, whether it was a benefit or a Test match,” Nasser says. “With my family and me, it’s about a little bit more than a game – it’s being the best you can be. If I got 20, I could have got 30; if I got 40, I could have got 50. As a batsman you can never have enough, you’re never completely satisfied. Even when Philip Tufnell bowled me round my legs for 9, you’d spend the next five days thinking about the one run you didn’t get, not the 99 you did.”

The grown man or woman, standing at the non-striker’s end, lost in their own thoughts, may not be thinking about a parent (though more and more players seem to have mum and dad there, as at a school game). If they’re trying to please anyone, it may be their team-mates. Often, when they reach a hundred, the first jab of the bat goes towards the players’ balcony. It’s said that soldiers in war are seldom thinking of the principles that were cited by the politicians sending them there: they’re risking their lives for their mates.

There’s another group players may be trying to please: the supporters, especially in away matches. Travelling fans, radiating commitment themselves, tend to inspire it in sportsmen. For some cricketers, there is a section of the crowd they feel particularly beholden to. “We’ve got big support, especially in the Asian community, whether it’s Bradford, Birmingham or Pakistan,” Adil Rashid said in October 2018. “In your younger days, you play for yourself, but as you represent England you go all around the world and realise it’s a bit bigger than that. People look up to you, and it’s about setting a good example, so when they’re coming through, they see that and know it’s achievable.”

11. Fun

Many great cricketers have appeared in the Under-19 World Cup, but none have done what an Australian leg-spinner with long red hair did in January 2018. Playing against England, Lloyd Pope took eight wickets in 9.4 overs, six with his wrong’un. After England had subsided from 47 for none to 96 all out, Pope came out with a statement you don’t often hear at a press conference: “I’ve always played cricket for fun.” Keith Miller would have approved.

Fun is the simplest motivation, the most childlike; but it also chimes with academic thinking on the subject. Claire Taylor, who now gives talks about getting the best out of yourself, mentions Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American professor of psychology whose theme is that motivation should come from within. “He’s written about the zone and flow,” Taylor says. “The aim is to get into a flow-like state – you don’t become nervous, and you lose yourself in the performance. He’s for intrinsic motivation: the outcome is less important than the process.” In other words, come on fellas, forget about the mortgage, let’s have some fun.

Tim de Lisle, a former editor of Wisden, is the author of How to Write Well.

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