“I am here because I worked harder than anyone else.”
Perhaps it’s because I never quite reached the top. Perhaps I’m just cynical. Perhaps I’m wrong. Whatever the reason, this expression, of unequivocally attributing one’s success to unparalleled hard work, has always been a bête noire.
There is no doubting that it requires large amounts of sustained effort and sacrifice to reach the top in any professional sport; some will work harder than others and achieve more than a person of equal talent who doesn’t. What is frustrating, however, is the disregard for that innate talent – in all instances a huge contributing factor. Anyone who worked hard to achieve something first acted on their talent – symbiosis, in effect.
When a sporting talent is born, their path is laid out before them. Either the individual makes the most of this path, hard work included, or they don’t. Those that do channel that work ethic and skill into one outcome and one outcome alone – optimum on-field performance. If they hadn’t been so tunnel-visioned, they likely wouldn’t have reached the heady heights that they have.
The rugby player Jonny Wilkinson, that nemesis of Australia past, once lamented of the selfishness of elite sport, and the reality of having to focus all one’s energy on oneself in order to succeed. True, he talked about this philosophical approach shortly after converting to Buddhism, but the point holds. Professional sportsmen and women, especially those that reach the top, are by their definition self-centred individuals, with little time to be wasted on superfluous activities.
Activities, in some instances, like making friends and being civil to fellow human beings.
Don Bradman, dare I burst his revered bubble, is whispered to have been a bit of a nasty piece of work by some. Do we care? No. Should we? Why? He was the greatest batsman of all time and everything that he sought to achieve he did, and we will forever venerate him for it.
When one, therefore, reads of the reignited feud between Michael Clarke and Simon Katich, or indeed the renewed fisticuffs between Warne and Waugh not so long ago, one can’t help but be amused.
It makes for compelling reading, and great tabloid fodder, but other than that it should not be of great concern. Headlines scream of the “warped culture inside Australia’s cricket team”, forgetting that the period of time to which they refer encompassed some memorable achievements for Australian cricket, an Ashes whitewash and World Cup win included.
In response to the recent twist in the Clarke-Katich merry-go-round, Brett Geeves, the former Tasmanian and briefly Australian international cricketer, wrote candidly and compellingly about the toxic atmosphere within the Australian cricket team under Clarke’s leadership.
By all accounts his appears an accurate reflection, but it’s telling that it comes from the mouth of one who never quite made it. Those that did make it simply got on with their on-field pursuits; there’s nothing to suggest that any off-field animosity can not, in fact, be a contributing factor in enhancing performance.
It’s not fun trying to perform in an environment in which you feel you don’t belong. It’s uncomfortable, and challenging, and at times it can become impossible for an individual to succeed. Yet I do not believe that Geeves failed to make headway in the Australian team due to an acrimonious environment.
These conditions are arguably integral to professional sport. This profession requires a unique environment in which normal rules don’t apply. It’s why we have sporting gods (literally, in the case of one Gary Ablett Sr.) so revered it takes decades, if ever, to realise that some of these on-field powerhouses are incapable of functioning in other aspects of human life.
In most professional sports today – men’s cricket, AFL, rugby union, rugby league – these athletes will not have grown up in normal life. Think that certain athletes may have skipped a stage in development? They probably have. Theirs was no transition from school, to university, to working life. No, it was a catapult into the limelight, often with substantial financial reward to go with it, and a few missed stages of growing up.
These athletes’ off-field maturity, or conduct, is not what they get paid for. Good things don’t always come to the best people. Some of the best sportsmen and women are the most obnoxious, arrogant and often selfish of the lot. But that’s often what got them there. Note, at this point, that there are exceptions, of course – some elite athletes are the epitome of good grace and conduct.
Nevertheless, lament the tiffs at your leisure, but life is unfair. Australian cricket in the late 90s, noughties and into Clarke’s reign built up a reputation for preying on the weak, ruthlessly slaughtering the opposition and offering no mercy. They did this on the pitch, so why are we so surprised that it happened off it too?
Clarke, with his many faults, captained Australia for years. He was the most qualified for the job and not a bad job it was either, looking at the stats.
Not a great bloke? Almost irrelevant. Not a people person? Probably part of his success. Had a spat with Katich? Sells the papers.
Sport isn’t the fairytale we all think it is, and the sooner we realise that, the better.
Isabelle Westbury is a freelance broadcast and print journalist with a focus on politics and sport, especially cricket. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and ESPN Cricinfo. She is also a broadcast journalist for the BBC, calling on both men’s and women’s domestic and international cricket matches. She studied at Oxford University, and is now Middlesex CCC women’s cricket captain. She barracks for Essendon, mainly due to the legal intrigue the club provides. Isabelle tweets from @izzywestbury and can also be found on her website – isabellewestbury.com
• A version of this article was originally published in The Roar on 20 November 2015. To access the original, please click here.