Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Individual Team Sports

Thorpster is back with a bang...

Team sports come in all shapes, sizes and types. Some of my ex team mates would say so did the women whose attention I attracted in my younger days! As someone who has played many sports to a varying degree of success, but not been a particularly competitive individual, the dynamic of teams has been something that has held a certain level of fascination for me. In fact almost as much fascination as Billie Faiers' pictures in the recent issue of Nuts, a favourite publication of the boys from The Middle Stump. A duo of Graf Zeppelins suddenly springs to mind.

Miss Faiers

Anyway, enough of my mid life fantasies and back to the subject at hand. In my youth as an all-round sports lover I enjoyed a bit of Formula One, with Didier Pironi (no not the lager), Jacques Laffite, Rene Arnoux and Alan Jones battling for supremacy and defying death on a regular basis. Sometime after, as the races became more about the engineering and more in terms of excitement like watching the Charity Shield than Last Tango in Paris, I switched off from the thrill of F1.

So it is unusual for an F1 story to catch my attention, as the much publicised spat between Seb Vettel and Mark Webber did, following the shenanigans regarding Red Bull team orders at the Malaysian GP in Sepang. Webber, although he did well to retain some veneer of dignity, clearly had the raging Ivana at his team mate. The Australian clearly IWR (incandescent with rage) with his Austrian team mate, made some barbed comments and his frustration was clearly stoked up by years of being the perennial bridesmaid to the triple world champions... Liz Taylor, or in modern day terms, Katie Price.

Contradiction in terms as it may be, motor racing as a team sport is also very much an individual one. Although less so than F1, cricket can also be thought of in the same way. As all of us who have played the game at any type of competitive level know, as a cricketer your mood is usually dictated to a greater extent by your personal level of success at any particular time than the fortunes of your team. I certainly remember games now in the dim and distant where my side had chased down a huge total to win a crunch league or cup victory but having been out for zip and maybe shelled a catch or two (a regular occurrence), the zest I put into the post match celebrations (obviously before the beer set in), was somewhat reduced. As an example I think back to the short and unfortunately regrettable reign of the gaffer, Alec Stewart. At the age of 35 Stewart had succeeded his long term contemporary Michael Atherton at the helm. I always thought there was an undercurrent of resentment between the two vastly contrasting characters a bit like Vettel and Webber. Nonetheless after years in the doldrums at test level, the gaffer led his side to a 2-1 victory over South Africa to much fanfare. In the deciding test a young and in those days rather chubby Lancastrian lad by the name of Flintoff made one of his early appearances. He ended up bagging a pair and I remember him putting on a brave face and 'enjoying' the celebrations as he was expected to. Fast forward six years to the historic 2005 Ashes triumph and as one of the star performers and teams leaders, I think it is fair to say he enjoyed the celebrations a little bit more! Incidentally Flintoff must have been pissed off at least three times during his test career as he is one of 14 players to have bagged pairs on three occasions.

Celebrations in full flow

In more physically intense, shorter in duration and purely team orientated sports such as football and both codes of rugby, I think it is far easier to enjoy yourself during a victory, even if you've had the sort of nightmare currently being endured by former cabinet minister Chris Huhne. Like a wet track during early season the now disgraced politician ended up in bedraggled state as an indirect result of spending too much time under the covers. However unlike a club level opening batsman during an inclement April and May his new partner was renowned for spending long periods at the crease. Like one particular opening batsman I know well the former statesman turned convicted criminal did enjoy speeding around the M25 on a regular basis!

Cricket teams are funny looking and behaving creatures. Some would throw the same accusation at Huhne's ex Mrs. Playing in a side over a season you spend a huge amount of time together and personalities can often grate against each other. That is why I think England suffered more in a strictly playing sense, with the loss of the affable Swanny in New Zealand. His bonhomie and tomfoolery has no doubt over the years served to oil the wheels of the England dressing room. By comparison look at the furore and drama that has surrounded the dumb slog millionaire during his time in the England fold over the last eight years. In fact maybe his most famous outburst came after scoring a century against his native South Africa at Headingley last summer. When interviewed post match following the second most famous score of 149 at the Yorkshire venue, KP exclaimed “its tough being me in that dressing room” and went on to say that the following test at Lords may be his last.

I remember dressing rooms after glorious victories when some were jumping for joy and others sat head in hands. I also remember silent dressing rooms after numerous collapses and annihilations. As someone who, if not quite valued, but enjoyed team successes rather more than merely individual ones, I would try to raise spirits. Others, even if they had performed poorly themselves, would sometimes seize on the opportunity to (in my opinion) make themselves look bigger by making their team mates look smaller. Looking back however I think I appreciate far more now that this was probably because I was never as competitive as many team mates and for the same reason was never as successful individually as they were. In more individually orientated team sports such as cricket, batsman in particular often score more highly if they are more selfish in their pursuit of personal glory, sometime at the expense of team goals.

Boycs gets another red inker
There are many famous anecdotes regarding this subject. In the 2nd test at Christchurch in 1978, England narrowly failed to make New Zealand follow on. England decided to go out on day four, throw the bat and try and get 350 ahead leaving a day to bowl their hosts out. Geoffrey Boycott opened up was about 10 not out after 20 overs. In strides his team mate Mr Botham who gets him halfway down and stops leading to Boycs being run out by a country (crying about his average) mile and Beefy sniggering behind the umpire. At club level I have seen many a batsman defying team orders to boost their seasons average with a not out, whilst the blokes down the other end chuck their wickets away in pursuit of the winning runs. The club level Boycott of course opens himself up to chants of “boom, boom, boom, protecting my average” and “recount my average, not out is my only desire” in the bar post match, but has the last laugh when the end of season stats are published.

When you strip it down to the basic level, your mate stealing the glory can be as unpalatable as when back in 1993 you wasted your evening buying a bird drinks in a nightclub all evening, your pissed up drinking partner stumbled over and at 1.55am and half an hour later she was on his way back to her place, whilst you consoled yourself with a Kebab or getting stuck in to something resembling Chris Huhne's 'man'.

In the fallout of the Vettel v Webber affair, many of the old quotes have been chucked out such as “show me a good loser and I will show you a loser” etc. They say every time a friend or colleague does something you wanted to do: part of you dies, which in a way takes us back my 1993 nightclub story. But I think my conclusion is that at the elite level of sport, filled with those stacked with adrenaline and relentless will to win, the desire for individual success will sometimes outweigh the search for team goals, leaving team orders conveniently misunderstood or outright ignored.