Gideon Haigh analyses the modern phenomenon of pushing players towards the status of automata, and wonders if all of it is taking the ‘enjoyment’ quotient away.
Recently I sat down with an Australian cricketer and caught sight on his phone of the Cricket Australia app — his two-way communication with the organisation’s team performance department. I had seen these before, but when I expressed interest, he offered, with a tone of good-humoured chagrin, to take me through its various functions.
The app, developed by Microsoft, serves as a diary for every player in CA’s elite system — conveying details of games, training, travel et al. In the whirl of the ceaseless Australian cricket season, all but a tiny well-organised minority would be lost without it. Its other purpose is as a real-time monitoring system, collecting data on the players’ physical and mental states for synthesising at Brisbane’s National Cricket Centre. In the jargon, it goes to the cricketer’s IPP (Individual Player Profile) of the AMS (Athlete Management System).
The app’s dashboard presents eight options accented to playing and training workloads, calibrated to a fine degree. If a player has batted on a certain day, for example, they must account for the elapsed time and balls faced, and whether the activity was ‘very easy’, ‘easy’, ‘moderate’, ‘moderately hard’, ‘very hard’, ‘very, very hard’, ‘extremely hard’, ‘sub maximal’ or ‘maximal’.
A wellness section solicits information about sleep, soreness, stress and fatigue. ‘How do you rate your fatigue?’ the app asks with quiet insistence: are you ‘always tired’, ‘more tired than normal’, ‘normal’, ‘fresh’ or ‘very fresh’? Other pages surveyed ‘reflections’, on training and on games. Did the player have a ‘Clear Plan’? Did the player ‘Stick to the Plan’? How had they gone ‘Creating a Contest’? Did they achieve ‘Focus’ and ‘Execute Skills’? I was struck by one tiny box on this screen: ‘Enjoyment’. “Remember that?” I asked. “Not really,” he laughed. Underneath was an instruction: ‘Submit’. The choice of word could hardly have been more appropriate.
We were talking cricket, so it wasn’t quite the moment to chew on French philosophy, but I reckoned Michel Foucault could have mined that app for tens of thousands of words. Foucault’s famous study of the prison, Discipline and Punish, originated the concepts of surveillance and panopticism by exploring Jeremy Bentham’s scheme for a circular penitentiary, designed in such a way that the inmates could never be sure whether they were being observed from a central tower. Foucault saw this as prefiguring modes of surveillance in modern society so internalised that every man became effectively his own overseer, policing himself for fear of punishment.
“Whenever I would open my phone, there were people tagging me on social media posts or sending me stuff. I was very disheartened.”https://t.co/gXqal5PDv4
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) July 21, 2020
The concept is almost a bit hoary now in a world of social media’s mass voluntary data collection and personalised content creation. Incessant scrutiny, of course, is what keeps cricket’s economy afloat — from the everyday business of putting big cricket to air to the minute interest in every moment of Virat Kohli’s day. Cricketers have locked themselves in a gilded jail, consenting to supervision by a staggering profusion of technologies, from pitch microphones to infra-red cameras; CCTV even pursues them into stairwells, as David Warner and Quinton de Kock learned in Durban.
But there is expanding an unseen realm of control that presents itself benignly, in the guise of greater efficiency and improved welfare. It is not yet fearfully efficient; it is data being collected mainly because it can be, and not yet that meaningful because there is so little to compare it to. But it is a phenomenon that in cricket is not to be removed, only expanded and refined, edging cricketers along the road to the status of automata, regulated and perhaps even one day selected by machine-learning algorithms. For a generation of cricketers is emerging whose life has been altogether pervaded by technology, who show off their digital ankle bracelets as jewellery, to whom the word ‘submit’ has no unsavoury connotations.
The CA app also has two self-reporting features related to psychic wellness: players must regularly update their EPQ (Eysenck Personality Questionnaire), an inventory of character traits, and K10 (Kessler Psychological Distress Scale), an index of depression and anxiety. Interested, I asked around other players to see how they related to this. Shoulders were shrugged: one basically filled in whatever it was felt would keep CA off one’s back. To them, the exercise felt tokenistic. I was told the story of a female player who failed to fill in her EPQ and K10 for a couple of weeks because she was depressed. All she received was a call admonishing her for delinquency. So she resumed, reporting low levels of mental wellness for the next fortnight. Nobody contacted her. What mattered, clearly, was ticking her boxes.
Early days yet too, I dare say. But what does it prelude? Players as individuals confiding in a distant database rather than their peers? Players turning aside from one another on the assumption that the system will palliate all suffering? Resourceful and resilient teams have always picked up and carried along their vulnerable members. But what is a ‘team’ in this schema? Simply a temporary vehicle for self-expression, remotely tended by all-seeing, all-knowing superintendents?
As one bonded with cricket a lifetime, I often feel incomparably blessed, spoiled for choice, stimulated by the game’s growth, excited by my watching opportunities. But what I’m watching also feels less free, less spontaneous, more contrived and constricted. There are giants who rise above it, and in some ways, they are magnified more than ever; the rewards for the mass, too, have happily never been greater. Yet I cannot help a feeling that these developments have come at a cost to the cricketer’s dignity, independence and pleasure. They are all just passing one another by, units of production, never at rest.
The cricketer with whom I was chatting was nearer the end of his career than the beginning, but did not regret it. “Cricket’s changed so much even in the last five years,” he said. “I know it’s always changed, but there’s become something about it that’s so…” As he reached for a suitable sentiment, I interpolated: “Joyless?” He nodded. “That’s the word,” he said, looking down at his phone. “Joyless.”
Gideon Haigh is an Australian sports writer and prolific author whose latest is the true crime work, A Scandal in Bohemia.