Allan Massie: Graeme Smith a top contender for ‘Gamesman of the Year’
“GAMESMANSHIP” was defined by the word’s inventor, Stephen Potter, as “the art of winning games without actually cheating”. The South African captain, Graeme Smith, gave an example on Thursday that would have delighted Potter.
Observing that Steven Finn, the young England fast bowler just recalled to the Test side, had dislodged the bails at the bowler’s end three times in his first over, Smith called up his opening partner, Alviro Peterson, to tell umpire Steve Davis that they were being “distracted” by this.
Perhaps they were, though it seems unlikely; the batsman watches the bowler’s hand, not the stumps at the other end, and Finn’s hand at the moment of delivery is about ten feet up in the air. Moreover, Smith is mentally hard as teak and his power of concentration is famous. It’s more likely that he thought that raising a complaint would distract Finn from his task.
Be that as it may, it worked for the South African captain. He was caught at slip in the next over, but Finn had knocked against the stumps again and the umpire had called “Dead Ball”. Well, as all bowlers will tell you, the laws and their interpretation are always loaded in the batsman’s favour.
It was small consolation that on two subsequent occasions when Finn again performed his party trick, the thoroughly distracted Smith clobbered him to the boundary but was deprived of his runs because the ball was adjudged “dead”. Small consolation, though the smile on Andrew Strauss’s face was as broad as the Cheshire Cat’s. All the same, I reckon Smith is in the running for the “Gamesman of the Year” award.
One shouldn’t be too harsh on him. It’s important to remember the last words of Potter’s definition: “without actually cheating”. A bit of gamesmanship is practised in all sports. Cricket, perhaps because of its rhythm – the interval between balls – is particularly suited to ploys intended to distract or disturb an opponent. The habit of “sledging” has no other purpose. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Words may not even be necessary. The great Vivian Richards used to intimidate bowlers just by fixing them with an icy stare. I don’t know if his habit of batting in a cap long after all other Test batsmen were wearing helmets may be classed as “gamesmanship”, but it was certainly an example of “One-Upmanship” – the title Potter gave to his third book. (The second one was “Lifesmanship”.) Richards was in effect telling the opposition’s fast bowlers, among them his great chum Ian Botham, that they couldn’t scare him and he was their master. More often than not he was.
Gamesmanship and One-Upmanship may blend into each other. Which was the American golfer Walter Hagen practising when he arrived at a tournament and said “Who’s gonna be second?”? Or when, found playing poker well after midnight before the final of the American PGA, then a match-play event, he was told that his opponent had been in bed for hours, and replied, “yeah, but not sleeping”? I have no doubt he expected that some kind friend would relay the remark to his intended victim. Nobody was a greater master of the Potter arts than Hagen, not at least until Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali came on the scene, Ali’s masterclass in One-Upmanship was the Rumble in the Jungle against the fearsome George Foreman when he lay back on the ropes absorbing punishment, only to remark “is that all you’ve got, George?”
Golf, and especially match-play, is , as Potter knew, an ideal Gamesman’s game. For instance, you give your opponent a couple of two-foot putts (when you’ve already putted out) and then refuse him an 18-inch one when it really matters. More often than not, he’ll miss it. You certainly haven’t cheated, but when you gave him the earlier putts, you said genially, “you’re bound to hole that”. Not giving him the shorter one is intended to instil doubt in his mind.
The Olympics have seen another twist given to Gamesmanship, with these badminton players trying to lose without actually cheating. Unfortunately for them they did it too blatantly, without sufficient subtlety, and were disqualified. They should have had a word with a few old boxers. In the days when the Mob controlled boxing in New York, knowing how to throw a fight without making it obvious was an essential skill for any boxer who wanted to keep working.
Mind you, umpires too can indulge in their own bit of Gamesmanship, Lifesmanship or One-Upmanship. Aged 14, I was purveying my cunning left-arm spin when, after my second over, the umpire said in a bored voice: “Do you ever take a wicket?” Since he was also my Latin master and I was rather in awe of him, I had no reply. Someone like Brian Close would have responded with a hat-trick. My captain , fielding at mid-off and hearing the umpire’s opinion, promptly took me off. It still rankles more than half a century later.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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