Practice makes perfect...usually

Finding the key to sporting excellence has been testing the intellects of scientists and psychoanalysts for generations. How much is down to natural talent? Is being lucky the secret? Or is it just a matter of sheer hard work?

Journalist Matthew Syed joins the debate in a new book, Bounce : How Champions are Made. The Times writer has carried out an exhaustive study, examining the careers of Tiger Wood, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Greg Norman, Lance Armstrong and Michael Jordan among others, looking for clues as to how they achieve consistent success.

He looks at the role of temperament -- why some players choke and others do not when the pressure mounts -- but tends to come down in favour of the hard graft element, citing the 10,000 hours of practice Tiger Woods had clocked up by his mid-teens, mentioning also that Mozart’s musical achievements must have owed something to putting in 3,500 hours at the piano before he was six years old.

His conclusions essentially support the observation once made by the golfer, Arnold Palmer (borrowed later by Gary Player), that ‘the more I practise, the luckier I get’.

It makes you wonder what such analysis would make of Dirk Nannes, the Australian cricketer, to whom I was introduced the other day ahead of Nottinghamshire‘s challenge for the Friends Provident Twenty20 competition.

Nannes is the world’s leading bowler in T20 cricket, needing only two more wickets to reach 100, yet he barely practised at all when he was growing up. By his own admission, he was not a particularly good player and had no ambition to play cricket in adulthood.  He would much rather have been a saxophone player and when that dream did not materialise he turned instead to his next love, skiing.

He turned back to cricket only much later, having spent several years in competitive skiing on the World Cup circuit in Europe and elsewhere.  He was in his mid-twenties before he began playing more than occasionally in club cricket and was almost 30 when his ability to bowl fast -- always a precious commodity in cricket -- earned him a contract with Victoria.

Even now, though, he devotes little time to practising his skills. He remains heavily involved with skiing -- he and his wife, Erin, own a ski lodge in Japan and organise skiing holidays -- and his belated success in cricket has happened almost without any input from himself, other than turning up to play when selected.

“I like to bowl a couple of times a week,” he said.  “I do need that to keep the radar tuned.  But I don’t tend to bowl eight overs in the nets and I never bowl the day before a game unless I get told I have to.  I think in the Twenty20 World Cup I didn’t bowl a ball in the nets during the whole tournament.

“I don’t think about the game much when I’m away from the ground, because I always have a lot of other things going on. When I finish a game I just forget about it.”

And living as he does in a ski resort -- high in the Australian Alps on Mount Buller, 129 miles north of Melbourne -- he does not have too things around him to remind him of his other job.

“That can be a good thing and a bad thing,” he said.  “Because I don’t think about it, I don’t know a lot about cricket.  But I’m not sitting around stewing on a result. When I walk into my house and see my kids it doesn’t matter whether we won or lost, I’m still the same.  And maybe that means I feel under less pressure.”

Despite this lack of attention, however, Nannes has been successful almost everywhere he has played Twenty20.  He has won two Australian titles with Victoria, an English one with Middlesex in 2008, played in an Indian Premier League semi-final with Delhi Daredevils, helped Holland stun England in the 2009 World Twenty20 (before Australia finally recognised his talents) and, most recently, reached the 2010 final with Australia, losing to England but finishing as the tournament’s leading wicket-taker with 14.

Maybe he is just the exception that proves the rule.

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