This week columnist Ed Warner looks at risk in sport and how sometimes, such as in Bazball in cricket, it can be the smartest choice.
A team of sub-10 second sprinters can be beaten to 4x100m relay gold by a quartet who have never broken that magic barrier. The trick is risk management in the pursuit of maximal performance from your available athletic resources. Cue spectacular failures and occasional successes. The England cricket team’s approach to the Ashes can be viewed in that light, and lessons learned by an over-wealthy and arguably over-conservative Lawn Tennis Association.
Watching Britain’s relay teams was the most repeatedly harrowing experience of my time at UK Athletics. A decade of baton mishaps and disqualifications concluded, however, with gold and silver for the men’s and women’s teams on effectively my last day in post at the London 2017 World Championships. Years of being berated by the media for funds supposedly squandered on relay preparation dropped away in the space of a half hour on the penultimate day of competition. This wasn’t luck but a payoff for calculated risks taken.
The speed of the baton is the key to a successful relay. You need your outgoing runner at each changeover to be as close as possible to their maximum speed at the point he or she receives the baton. Ideally only just inside the permitted zone on the track and deep into their acceleration. This means they need to take off earlier than naturally faster runners as their incoming teammate arrives.
This all of course also maximises the risk of cock-ups. A team with four faster athletes than the competition can afford to play things a bit safe. Not so Team GB when up against the USA and Jamaica.
Stacked in sport talent
Those two nations, both stacked with sprint talent, have themselves been prone to disqualifications, but most likely because of lack of practice rather than ability – a very different challenge to GB’s. Just look at Japan’s regular relay outperformance of its individual athletes’ capabilities for evidence of what can be achieved. They won bronze in those 2017 Worlds.
GB’s men were at it again at the weekend, DQ’d for a lane violation at the European Team Championships – thankfully an event that doesn’t matter and in a near-empty stadium. The Worlds in Budapest in August are what count. Keep stretching those check marks, gents.
Much has been made of Ben Stokes’ aggressive leadership of the England Test team, including his punchy declaration on the first day of the Ashes. For all his profession of a desire to entertain, the captain’s tactics probably should be viewed in the context of the challenge before him. Australia are the world champions, England must win the five-match contest outright to regain the Ashes, and the bowlers at Stokes’s disposal have been limited by injury, are under-prepared and comparatively old.
Playing safe looks both an unrewarding as well as unentertaining option in these circumstances, much like entering a casino and conservatively playing those games which contain the slimmest house margin – blackjack using a rigid set of guidelines, or betting small sums repeatedly on red or black in roulette. You might maximise your hours in the glamorous surroundings, but likely still lose money and certainly never win big.
Draws aren’t good enough for Stokes, and not just because he so evidently doesn’t value them. Taking risks using the talent at his disposal may provide the odd bone for critics to gnaw on when an apparent gamble doesn’t pay off, but creating the opportunity to win is critical. Just as there is little point (certainly little ambition) in a slow relay quartet playing it safe and hoping for mistakes from faster opponents.
The Championships at Wimbledon begin on Monday. A year ago I suggested that the LTA might have more money than is good for tennis in Britain. That column drew a feisty response from Scott Lloyd, the governing body’s CEO. You can read it here and my follow-up here.
Holds good in sport today
Some of last year’s arguments hold good today. The LTA’s reserves stood at a stonking £155m at the end of 2022, the organisation having posted an operating loss in spite of a £43m dividend received from Wimbledon. On the other hand, Sport England’s latest survey data showed a commendably sharp jump in adults playing grassroots tennis, reversing a multi-year decline.
In the LTA’s annual report, its chair Mervyn Davies trumpeted GB professionals winning “201 unique titles, up from 141 in 2021.” From one perspective, a fair return on the governing body’s £14.7m investment in high performance. But world rankings tell a dimmer story, and it’s fair to say that casual fans will only really notice if a Brit makes a final in an overseas Grand Slam or enjoys a run deep into the second week at Wimbledon. Just Cameron Norrie’s semi-final in SW19 cleared this net in 2022.
The current elite system pursued by the LTA may work in time but, with the very best global players having being hot-housed from primary school age, we are unlikely to find out for some time. Schools tennis is clearly never going to be the answer in Britain, and so the LTA must rely on being able to identify a big enough pool of very young talent within a sprawling network of clubs of understandably variable standards – and then fitting them into a system that will have necessarily high levels of wastage.
All of this has to happen, and is being pursued. But how about carving off a slice of the LTA’s manifest riches for a parallel initiative to back the quirky and the maverick? Consider it the equivalent of stacking chips on specific numbers on the baize of the roulette table. Mentally write the money off as soon as spent. Let it pursue its own course with minimal interference. Perhaps even put dissident-in-chief Dan Evans in charge.
For Bazball, read Danball. If the investment pays off, it might just bridge the public’s expectation gap between the Murray era and whatever transpires from the LTA’s conventional system. Perhaps it doesn’t have too much money, but just needs to risk more of it.
Just try it
On the subject of winning and winners, quite the strutting commercial from the US women’s football team for Fox Sports ahead of the World Cup next month. It ends with the claim that “the entire world is going to do whatever it takes to stop the US” and a player’s feisty response: “good luck with that!”.
Good luck indeed. You can marvel at their [confidence/arrogance – delete as to taste] here.
A lot to absorb in the massive report on racism in English cricket from the ICEC published this week.
I’m no expert on population profiling, but the creation of the report’s Type K label has already been picked up in the media and looks likely to become a new short-hand in discussion about discrimination in sport and society more widely. Here’s hoping stereotyping doesn’t cloud the debate.
“To measure intersectional advantage and discrimination, we created ‘personas’ or ‘types’ that combine different attributes,” the report says. “The first persona, Type K, is intended to capture intersectional advantage or privilege due to the absence of barriers against equal experiences.
“It includes the responses of White men, educated in private schools, who are straight and cisgender, and did not report a disability. Because cricket has a significant number of people with this profile, especially in leadership positions, it is important to understand their views and perceptions, as these disproportionately impact on the opportunities and lived experiences of others within the game.”
For what it’s worth, I’m Type N in the ICEC’s lexicon. More on the report next week when I’ve had the chance to digest it. Off to Lord’s first, but definitely not in an egg and bacon tie.
They flew not floo
A great piece in Saturday’s Guardian from Matthew Engel in celebration of last weekend’s pair of Major League Baseball games in London.
Channelling Harry Potter, he puts his finger on why we won’t see an MLB franchise outside the US any time soon. The season is just too crowded.
“Pay and conditions are damn good but there is a suspicion that, behind the obligatory smiles and bonhomie, this is a long weekend some players could have done without… The chances of a British Major League team remain zero until floo powder comes on the market.”
Not sure we will ever see an NFL franchise here either, but at least a far smaller American football schedule would make it logistically feasible.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes his sport column at sportinc.substack.com