How much motivation can statistical targets provide?
Spring has officially sprung - at least according to Facebook, which greeted me a couple of days ago with the following message: "Today's vernal equinox means longer and brighter days are on their way. We hope you enjoy the season ahead". Why, thank you, cute cartoon birds, I shall.
Glorious, glorious spring, when Mother Nature rubs a couple of vigorous knuckles in her eyes and takes a quick shower before turning to tend to those club cricketers emerging from rigorous winter training ready for the summer ahead. Essentially this means batsmen confident they can check-drive balls through extra cover off pretty much any length, while even the most pacelessly ham-thighed and heavy-footed trundler still capable of an effort ball has been convinced by three months' bowling off 19 yards with a cheap, small, new ball that the four-bumpers-an-over tactic could be their default mode. Spring: a time for cricketers' delusions to be indulged. And why not? The horizons shall bring you great bounty.
Below Facebook's well-wishing doves came photos of the hallowed square's first trim, this image immediately provoking a steady swell of anticipation as the approaching season's enticingly blank canvas is painted in by fantasy's finest strokes - at least, that's what used to happen, on the long, light-footed skip up towards one's peak, before reality's unrelenting proof of one's limitations became terminal. Of course, ambitions can always be scaled back in line with those withering talents but that seems an affront to fantasy itself, which if it exists for anything is precisely to get the better of reality every now and again. On the other hand, a fantasy lacking even the slightest connection to reality is known as a delusion.
Anyway, it's spring and in the minds of the young, seasons of epic dimensions are about to unfold, one gilded step after another, bringing the thrill of surfing those rarely convergent powers (body, mind, nature, umpiring goodwill), the buzz of purple patches smudged out into streaks: red-inkers in bossed chases, crucial counterattacking 40s on minefields, dogged 70s on slow turners, third-gear centuries to anchor big totals. Yes, the optimists say, that's going to be my season: contribution after chunky contribution.
For the less quixotic "post-peak batsman" (a euphemism my self-esteem demands), there's no real daydreaming anymore. Or rather, no commitment to trying to make the daydreams actually happen. As an oldster, your stories - your glories - are almost entirely behind you. Instead, the post-peaker's flights of fancy tend to be collective, even pastoral in content. Since un-retiring three years ago, my principal mission (in the non-religious, spy agency sense) has been to make teenagers battle-hardened and streetwise; so, personal investment in my individual performance has been negligible.
Perhaps for the young, too, dreams of the new season revolve around goals, although the need to make a mark, both within the club and on the wider circles of the cricketing firmament, often leads to this healthy, generalised striving being given a precise numerical target.
Success, quantified. Is this a good idea? Should the upcoming summer's blank canvas be filled with figures so crudely concrete and representational? If we're talking Pollocks, shouldn't Jackson's abstractions be our guide?
It's all too easy for precise targets to become oppressive, and it's not something best advised of a youngster. Nor is it anything I was bothered with, even when highly motivated and nourishing all sorts of personal desires and dreaming all sorts of impossible dreams.
Not that I didn't love a stat, as indeed do most cricketers. Each April would provide the secret bureaucratic delight of drawing out a season's batting chart, with neatly ruled columns for opponent, venue, result, points, my score, mode of dismissal, bowler who dismissed me (asterisk for a pro), balls faced, fours and sixes, but never the cumulative run total (although I probably knew the ballpark figure at most junctures, and anyway these days the internet and banter mean you can't really avoid it). Several former internationals I've interviewed have email addresses predictably featuring their career bests!
The issue is simply that when the time comes to run through your cricket-memory show reel, it won't revolve around hitting targets - "Oh look, there's me walking off having finished the season with a personal best 822 runs, which no one else was even aware of!" - but how you got them. It is impact, context, meaning. We have all played games lost by selfish 80s, games salvaged by brilliant 30s.
Leave your horizons open, young Jedi. Are targets really needed to drive you on? What happens if you get there early? What happens if, all too early, you know you're never going to get there?
For instance, you start the season aiming for 800 runs - a reasonable target, one that will stretch you, which has to be good, right? - but the first game is washed out, the next you are run out in single figures, and the next is a DNB as you bowl the opposition out for 53. The following weeks bring a really ropey lbw decision from an umpire you have long suspected dislikes you, a careless shot off a long hop, another abandonment, a jaffa on a sticky dog. Suddenly it's the middle of June and you have 37 league runs to your name. The anxiety and self-doubt grow, especially as you fail to back up that slightly cheap 65 not out in the cup against those fourth-tier mediocrities. If you have a modicum of the perfectionist about you - and the fact that you have set an 800-run target suggests you are a demanding sort, keen to "put yourself under pressure" - this is all torture.
It so happens that in cricket - unlike, say, neoliberal economics - self-interest often aligns with the needs of the collective, although Geoffrey Boycott once discovered that scoring 246 against India wasn't quite enough to keep his place in the England side. Likewise, "pole-hunting" bowlers - perhaps because they're on cash bonuses per wicket, or because they have a self-imposed target, or even because they're glory-addicts - have regularly been known to cede the initiative. Targets corrupt and disrupt. Tail starts to wag dog, just as it does in the wider world, where the imposition of "performance targets" on a school's academic grades or a hospital's waiting times starts to feed back into and disturb the processes leading to those desired outcomes.
Processes, not outcomes - such is the mantra of sports psychologists of every hue. However, should the evocative aroma of that pre-season turf and your own compulsive striving oblige you to set specific targets, then think about impact, not gross numbers. Think about decisively affecting, say, five league games. These are the thermals on which your fantasies should take flight. And it's here that, for a veteran batsman with one foot perpetually out of cricket's door, a crucial 17 not out from No. 9, plus another half-dozen thigh-padded to fine leg might permit him to blow the froth off one final - or perhaps even penultimate - pint of Old Semi-Satisfied. Cheers!
Scott Oliver tweets here