In his acclaimed book “What Sport Tells Us About Life” the former England and Middlesex opener Ed Smith discusses the nature of talent and sporting success. The point of Smith’s article is that occasionally failure, and how you deal with failure, can be as important to sporting success as talent.
He wrote: “Formative defeats are usually a central strand in any successful sportsman’s story – because failure, for almost every athlete, is written into the script. The important question is not whether you will fail, but when, and, above all, what happens next”.
The notion is relatively simple, yet also, potentially powerful – writing off talent on the basis of failure is foolish, providing it with a platform to be nurtured and thrive is arguably the key. The notion itself is hardly revolutionary, Billy Beane’s Moneyball is a powerful example of it in practice, but remains a hard thing to pull off consistently.
Watching England play this week though was to see the benefits of such an approach in practice, as their success has been helped by the performances of two men whose careers have thrived following their own second chances, Matt Prior and Monty Panesar.
Prior, lest we forget, was once a cursed man for England. His batting unravelled quickly as his keeping made him a liability, just ask Ryan Sidebottom. He was so bad he was dropped for Tim Ambrose (!), and returned to Sussex with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to think about. Four years on, and you’d be hard pressed to get him out of your all-time England XI.
Panesar was dropped by England when people worked him out. He needed help, but Northamptonshire couldn’t help him. He went a season where he couldn’t get anyone out, found himself below Swann and James Tredwell (!) in the England pecking order. Two years on, one move to Sussex and plenty of first class wickets later and a more confident, assured Monty has emerged.
While both their stories are about two men who find answers to some tough questions, it is also about those who kept asking the question time-and-time-again so they can find the answers. For that Mark Robinson and his Sussex staff deserve huge credit for helping both players along the way.
It’s a recurring theme with Robinson and Sussex, the redemptive “second chance” story. Take a look at their signings this summer – Rory Hamilton-Brown and Chris Jordan – two men with abundant talent, but needing answers to some questions about how to harness it properly.
Hamilton-Brown has had a troubled time since the tragic death of Tom Maynard, which has understandably affected him given their closeness. His game at Surrey when he returned appeared to be falling apart, and he desperately needed a change. Sussex will provide him with that change, and hopefully put his game back together. He remains, in this writers view, a probably one day opener for England in a year or two, given his ability to strike the ball cleanly and his excellent ability against spin. It’s a potent package, it just needs putting back together.
Chris Jordan is a different tale. His talent is clear, as are his attributes, but his struggles with fitness and form have made him infuriatingly inconsistent. He should be a dream for a coach or captain, how many players in English cricket can hit sixes and bowl 90mph? But at times he looks more like a nightmare. He has all the talent in the world, but has yet to show he knows how to harness it. At the time of his release from Surrey, he looked like another bright young thing consigned to the scrap heap. Sussex though, realise the potential, and given their track record know how to cultivate it, so that Jordan’s career could yet hit the heights once envisioned in his youth.
They are in good company in this team. Ed Joyce appeared to be stagnating at Middlesex having been burned by England; he joined Sussex and became one of the most dangerous one day batsmen in England again. James Anyon was a bright young thing gone wrong at Warwickshire but joined Sussex and has become the true heir to James Kirtley as their pace bowling spearhead. Joe Gatting was convinced to pack in a floundering football career for another one as a middle order nurdler.
In a county circuit which, through tightened finances and increased domestic regulation, is finding its player pool getting smaller by the year, unearthing bargain buys from other’s castoffs is a tough business. But Sussex is developing a healthy reputation as the club which thrives on second chances.