Book review – Luck: What it Means and Why it Matters


Former England batsman Ed Smith argues with erudition that the forces of randomness have much to do with a player's future paths in sport, or even life.

Gary Player once said: "The harder you work, the luckier you get." The young Ed Smith would have scoffed at such a suggestion. Even the now more mature, retired Ed Smith would not concur with it as a philosophy.

When he was a fledgling player for Kent, Smith felt that achievement was purely down to character, resilience and determination and that believing in luck was a sign of a weakness. Kent signed up to a code which banished any reference to luck in their quest to become an elite team.

The author's role model was Geoffrey Boycott, a man who was as self-centred in his application as Smith was in his absolute knowledge that he would play for England.

Smith did play three Tests for his country in 2003, but it was an international career cut short by a poor lbw decision at The Oval. Rather than being embittered by such low fortune at the highest level, the former Kent batsman is able to reflect on the enhancement of his life after breaking an ankle which ended his career abruptly.

He argues with erudition that the forces of randomness have much to do with your future paths in sport or even life.

There are some coaches who spend every waking hour studying videotapes, computer analysis or working out the opposition. Smith noted that former Brazilian football boss Luiz Felipe Scolari, who had just won the World Cup, told a press conference that his role was to tell his players to play like amateurs. Scolari wanted them to enjoy themselves.

Not every team can play like Brazil, of course, but for Smith this was preferable to the modern trend towards over-coaching. The Cambridge University graduate says he actually lost his identity as a player when he became too mechanical and less intuitive.

Smith argues convincingly that hard work may not necessarily harm your chances – a certain amount of work ethic is necessary, of course – but that even with optimum preparation, luck is inextricably linked to the course of careers let alone a rogue influence on match outcomes.

Andrew Strauss noted the enormous slice of fortune which contributed to his international debut on his home ground at Lord's, while even Kevin Pietersen said: "Luck? Yeah, there's gotta be. Luck has to be huge. That dropped catch. I mean, how huge was that?" Shane Warne needs no reminding of The Oval in 2005.

This element of control that modern players and coaches lust after will always be impaled to some degree on the wheel of fortune. Making your own luck or fortune favouring the brave are things that are readily repeated as if they are some kind of generic belief system but control-freak sportsmen must be disappointed to know that anything at any time can rock their boat.

Smith's use of historical context and human stories develops his theme. He argues that what often looks like a stream of excellence is sometimes just a lucky streak that is about to run out. In 1907, EJ Smith said: "I have never been in any accident. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster."

Five years later, he was the captain of the Titanic. Even so, the author still believes that the Roger Federers of this world, with their innate touch and timing, will prevail more than those who are merely good but work at their games 24/7.

If Luck proves one thing, it is that the interpretation of events, of the apparent randomness of things, is still something that has a significant say in the direction and rhythm of our lives.

<I>Luck: What it Means and Why it Matters by Ed Smith (Bloomsbury Publishing £16.99)</i>

<B>Tim Ellis</B>