The element of luck in sports

Former England cricketer Geoffrey Boycott was famous in his playing days for insisting that luck had nothing to do with success. He believed it was ability.

The former England batsman, and then selector, Ed Smith has written a whole book on the question of luck. A talented cricketer, he played just three Tests, getting a poor decision in the final one which he would have been able to overturn had the DRS existed then. He broke an ankle, was wrongly diagnosed and quit the game at 31, ending a career that initially seemed fated to take him to England’s captaincy.   -  Getty Images

Yes, talent is important. Practice is crucial. Temperament makes a difference. But what about luck? Coaches like to believe that success follows hard work. Then there is the pop psychology of writers like Malcolm Gladwell and the 10,000 hours you must devote to your speciality.

Geoffrey Boycott was famous in his playing days for insisting that luck had nothing to do with success. Once, when wished “good luck” by his opening partner Dennis Amiss, he told him, “Its not luck that counts, but ability.” Even books on the philosophy of sport seldom mention the word “luck”, as if admitting to its existence is somehow demeaning. And never mind if Napoleon famously said, “I’d rather have lucky generals than merely good ones.”

Many sportsmen see luck as something that comes with hard work. The golfer Gary Player once said, “It’s funny, but the more I practise, the luckier I become.” “I am not a believer in luck,” said the English footballer Alan Ball, “but I do believe you need it.”

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It is tempting, even macho, to assume that we control our own destinies.

The former England batsman, and then selector, Ed Smith has written a whole book on the question of luck. A talented cricketer, he played just three Tests, getting a poor decision in the final one which he would have been able to overturn had the DRS existed then. He broke an ankle, was wrongly diagnosed and quit the game at 31, ending a career that initially seemed fated to take him to England’s captaincy. Bad luck.

“I am the least likely person to be writing a book about luck. For most of my life, I haven’t believed in it at all,” he says, and then takes us on a delightful ride through the by-lanes of fortune involving a range of human activity. He admits that luck “is the most important idea I’d ever confronted”.

It is not difficult to imagine the accident of birth and environment, availability of opportunities and access to training as being crucial to the development of a sportsman. How many of these do we have control over?

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Smith tells the story of two car accidents in 1931: Winston Churchill was run over by a mechanic in New York, and Adolf Hitler hit by an Englishman’s car in Munich. Both survived.

It is pointless to dismiss luck in sport, since it is the bedrock of our very existence. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has written that the chances of a fertile union of sperm and egg outnumbers the sand grains of Arabia. The lottery starts before we are conceived. Our parents had to meet; the conception of each as improbable as our own, he says.

Every one of our ancestors reproduced. So the chances of you being born, someone has calculated, is about one in 10 to the power of 2,685,000, or 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeroes. And yet, here we are. How can we argue that luck is not important?

Many sportsmen see luck as something that comes with hard work.

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