How badly do you want it? That’s a question to be directed at an opponent in the form of a challenge, stated or implied. Does that challenge have an acceptable limit? In their different ways, and with very different responses, the Australian cricketer David Warner and the English footballer Troy Deeney both asked the question this week.
One answer came from a completely different quarter of the sporting universe. Anyone who watched the closing laps of last Sunday’s MotoGP race at Motegi in Japan saw the best kind of contest sport has to offer. Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez, close rivals for this year’s world championship, were fighting head to head for the race victory on a streaming wet track, inches apart at high speed, doing things with their two-wheeled machines that seemed to defy the principles of adhesion.
And the best of it was that, although the battle could not have been more meaningful or ferocious, the Italian and the Spaniard played by the rules. They passed and repassed each other continually, sometimes a hair’s breadth apart, without making the sort of contact that would send one of them sliding off the track.
How badly did they want it, this victory, with the season approaching its climax? As badly as you can imagine. But it was typical of the spirit of the occasion that Márquez, who finished up the loser by less than a quarter of a second, apologised to his conqueror for one move that was a fraction too aggressive. That’s how sport should be played: as hard as you like but with mutual respect.
Not with Ayrton Senna taking revenge for perceived injustices by deliberately driving into Alain Prost at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix, or with an attempt to break the figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s legs before the Winter Olympics, or with Mike Tyson biting chunks out of Evander Holyfield’s ears in a Las Vegas ring. Those are notorious events of the kind to which the words “war” and “hate”, summoned by Warner this week to describe his feelings about the coming Ashes series, were entirely appropriate.
“As soon as you step on that line, it’s war,” he said. “You try to get into a battle as quick as you can. I try to look into the opposition’s eyes and try and work out: ‘How I can dislike this player? How I can get on top of him? You have to delve and dig deep into yourself to actually get some sort of hatred about them to actually get up when you’re out there.”
From what we know of Warner, who is now 30 but seemingly thinks like an adolescent, he will not have to “delve and dig” too deep to find the emotions he seeks in order to fire up his competitive instinct. This is the oaf against whom the charges include punching Joe Root in a Birmingham bar during Australia’s 2013 tour of England and, later that year, accusing England’s players of having “scared eyes”.
At this point you have to wonder if the game – in this case a series with a history going back 135 years – is worth the candle. The same question was asked in the winter of 1932-33, when the controversy over Douglas Jardine’s Bodyline tactics threatened diplomatic relations. It was asked again by Keith Miller, one of the greatest of all Australian cricketers, in a newspaper column criticising his compatriot Bill Lawry for the defensive strategy employed during the 1968 tour to England, when a 1-1 draw allowed Australia to retain the trophy.
Today, there are plenty of people who relish a contest involving the tactics of mental disintegration, a term apparently first uttered by the fast bowler Carl Rackemann, a member of the Australia squad on the 1989 tour to England. Enthusiastically adopted by his captain, Allan Border, it was turned into a fully fledged method by Steve Waugh, who led Australia to a record 16 consecutive Test victories during his tenure as skipper between 1999 and 2004. Soon after taking over as Waugh’s successor, Ricky Ponting could claim: “That’s what our whole cricket theme, if you like, is based on.”
The great cricket writer Gideon Haigh traces the doctrine back to the first decade of the 20th century, when Warwick Armstrong’s abrasive nature set the tone for Australia and successfully irritated England’s Jack Hobbs, among others. Observing that cricketers have always competed within certain bounds of propriety and taste, Haigh adds: “Australia, traditionally, has set those bounds a little wider than England, understanding intuitively that they need to be only a little wider to represent a considerable advantage.”
Cricket is, and always was, a game incorporating a degree of physical aggression that is carefully controlled by the laws, but Warner’s trash-talking represented a crude attempt at a pre-emptive strike on England’s morale. It will have pleased only those who measure the success of an Ashes series in headlines, ticket sales and TV ratings, or who want it to turn into a form of flannelled cage fighting.
How badly do you want it? The question was on Deeney’s mind when he came on as a substitute for Watford at Vicarage Road last Saturday, with his team a goal down against Arsenal. He scored the equalising penalty and played a part in the late winner and in his subsequent TV interviews the striker spoke of how he had set out to assess his opponents’ resolve.
“Whenever I play Arsenal,” he said, “I’ll go up and think: ‘Let me whack the first one and see who wants it.’ I’m not a great football player in terms of what they’ve got, in terms of quality. I’m physical and rough and ugly and I do all the stuff that they don’t like. When I come on, that’s the first thing I want to do, is see who wants it. I want to see who’s up for the challenge. And I felt today that none of them were.”
That approach, too, won’t have pleased everybody. But there was a kind of satisfaction to be derived from seeing Deeney apply such a straightforward and old-school attitude to a game now largely defined by coach-driven tactical complexities. His way of giving Arsenal a mental and physical examination pushed at the bounds of legitimate aggression but reminded us that a contrast of styles can produce the most satisfying contests.
Deeney used his football ability to ask how much Arsenal wanted it, and got the answer he wanted. Warner’s tiresome verbal provocation may yet get the answer it deserves.