“It’s like a bloody morgue out there! Make some noise! Especially you youngsters!” All aspiring county cricketers, hoping to make an impact as they begin their journey in professional sport, will have pondered the meaning of this criticism, shouted by a captain or senior player at lunch, tea or stumps.
The assumptions behind it are revealing: that noise is synonymous with purpose, that words lead to deeds, that competitiveness is vocal, that youth is gregarious, that quietness betokens laziness. Put differently, the faith in noise on a cricket pitch is just one manifestation of sport’s – indeed society’s – love affair with extroversion. It remains the default template for professional sportsmen who play team games. And it is time for a reassessment.
The terms extrovert and introvert were developed by Carl Jung as tools to describe and explore personality types. Over time, their meaning has become coarsened and confused. And it is misleading to see them as mutually exclusive. Some who derive great pleasure from the outer world also crave and cherish the inner world (just as some have a less fulfilling relationship with both modes of experience). Introverts can have a talent for sociability, just as extroverts can have a gift for reflection. The defining issue, in psychological terms, is where people put their attention and gain their energy. Do they like to spend time in the outer world of people and objects (extroversion), or the inner world of ideas and images (introversion)?
On one level it is understandable that sport should naturally celebrate extroversion: it quite obviously takes place in the outer world. Yet it is also true that elite sport revolves around the ability to solve problems. The switch hit and the scoop shot did not just happen: they emerged from reflection and the willingness to look at old problems in new ways.
So sport, like any human activity, is necessarily a mixture of action and reflection. The most famous of all sporting slogans, Nike’s “Just do it”, should really have been subtitled: “Unless it’s time to stop doing it for a while, have a think about things, and come back with a better plan.” Perhaps that version didn’t sound quite so appealing to the advertising executives.
Questions arise. Is there an optimal balance between introverts and extroverts in the make-up of a cricket team? Is that balance something to which a coach or selector should give thought? And within the personality of a single leader, is there a blend that is innately suited to being captain?
The England team now use psychological profiling, the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, to assess their players, and tell them where they are on four axes – whether they are introverts or extroverts, prefer concrete facts or intuition, make decisions based on reason or emotion, and like planning ahead or living spontaneously.
Based on how players respond to an hour of questions, the MBTI will assign them four letters that make up their profile and their relationships with others. The letters derived now even shape how players are briefed before they take the field. Kate Green, head of the ECB’s personal development and welfare programme, has argued it is now a central plank of coaching, telling The Times: “The more we know about a player, the more support we can give. This includes constructive conflict. When under pressure, how are you going to react?”
During the First Test at Brisbane in November, Stuart Broad revealed, to no one’s astonishment, that the tests showed he would “thrive” on abuse from the crowd. Booed throughout the tour, he finished as England’s leading wicket-taker. There have, though, been some surprises. Kevin Pietersen has claimed that, contrary to his extravagant persona, he emerges from the tests as an introvert. That is not as odd as it first sounds. Many natural showmen, instinctively drawn to the stage, are less expressive in normal life. This discrepancy between persona and person is one reason why players who appear to relish the limelight are often misunderstood.
The balance in any dressing-room between introverts and extroverts is constantly in flux. With the retirement of Graeme Swann, England lost an authentic extrovert. That loss was balanced by the departure – however temporary – of Jonathan Trott, whose instincts are more introverted.
Green’s research suggests that cricket contains a higher proportion of introverts than the general population. Perhaps that is due to the isolation of an individual duel within a team context, or because, in the case of batsmen, even very good players must become used to failing more often than they succeed.
And yet it seems to be the case that when teams do address the introvert– extrovert balance, they are more likely to seek to boost the number of extroverts. This in itself probably derives from an imbalance: introverts recognise, and perhaps admire, the qualities of extroverts more than vice versa. Indeed, sport generally overestimates the loudest voice at the bar, and underestimates the thinkers at ease in their own company.
None of the teams I represented used MBTI-type analysis. However, at the risk of generalising from memory alone, it seemed to me that introverts were more likely to play their own game, independent of the team’s momentum and form. As extroverts draw more energy from the social world, they tend to be more affected by the mood of the team. In my experience, highly extroverted players were more likely to be up when the team were up, and down when the team were down. And while an extrovert might express a team’s good form with memorable extravagance, introverts were more likely to turn the tide.
The logic follows, from a strategic perspective, that while there may be no such thing as a perfect proportion of extroverts to introverts, some kind of balance helps teams to respond to all situations.
Yet many psychological presumptions about players and temperament can be wide of the mark. A classic example came during the lead-up to England’s nomination of captain for the 2006-07 Ashes. The cartoon headlines wrote themselves, presenting a choice between the academic Andrew Strauss and the charismatic Andrew Flintoff. But this missed the truth that on-field persona is not analogous with the man revealed in the dressing-room.
Flintoff, by his own candid admission, oscillated throughout his career between peaks of exuberant self-belief and lows of chronic self-doubt, during which he often retreated into his shell. One of Strauss’s great strengths was his steadiness and social versatility: he is assured in most company and not irritated by what introverts might consider to be social impositions.
That can also be said of his predecessor, Michael Vaughan, a natural extrovert. He was England captain in 2003, when I played my three Tests. I sensed he was trying to move his players towards more adventurous, expressive cricket, while nudging the dressing-room towards a more fun-loving mood. He used his own outgoing personality as one of the tools to mould a new team.
What of the other captains I played under in first-class cricket? My first two at Kent were both extroverts, but entirely different kinds. Steve Marsh, our keeper, was an alpha male, always at the centre of the team’s collective identity – driving us forward, urging us on. On the field, he put greater faith in competitive juices than reflective analysis. Off it, even in his late thirties, he retained a sociable, playful aura.
Marsh was followed by Matthew Fleming, an aristocratic ex-army officer who had served in Northern Ireland. Fleming was ebulliently extroverted, always leaving his mark on any social occasion. But his extroversion was accompanied by exceptional social self-discipline: he rarely, if ever, let his guard down. Indeed, that sense of invulnerability was both a strength and a weakness. You never worried about him, because he seemed so secure and confident. I greatly admired that self-reliance. But he might have got more out of some players if he had been more prepared to let them in, even if it meant feigning an insecurity or a problem in order to do so.
So far, all extroverts. But the most feted modern captain was an introvert. Mike Brearley, who became a practising psychoanalyst, was aware of the blend of introverts and extroverts within a team – and within a leader. He had retired long before I joined Middlesex, but having spoken to many who played under him, and having got to know him personally, I am confident that Brearley was highly unusual in managing and adapting his own personality to suit the demands of captaincy and the team dynamic.
Many Middlesex players have told me about Brearley’s occasional outbursts of genuine anger. They do so with affection, almost reverence, as though it marked Brearley out as flawed and natural, a human being with a breaking point, just like them. His apparent readiness to lose control, paradoxically, was one of the devices Brearley used to neutralise the knee-jerk criticism that he was overly academic and introspective. This seeming loss of control became an agent of control.
The most famous captain I played alongside, though not when he was captain, was also an instinctive introvert: Steve Waugh. Though he didn’t relish it, Waugh accepted that being studied and scrutinised, and living at the centre of attention, were bound up with the role. If he wanted to be a great captain of Australia, Waugh had to reach an accommodation with the public demands of the job. He succeeded.
Waugh’s example is in stark contrast to another captain I observed at close quarters. He was rightly admired for his intelligence, savvy and tactical nous. Indeed, as a player in the ranks, he routinely criticised other captains for what he regarded as elementary tactical mistakes. As captain, however, the effort of having to manage his introversion weighed heavily on him. In difficult moments on the pitch, his body language conveyed an awkward truth, as if he wanted to shout to the whole ground: “Why don’t you all just stop looking at me?” Sadly, that is one privilege a captain is never afforded.
There is now a growing awareness, long overdue, that introverts can suffer from misleading assumptions about effective leadership. Susan Cain’s persuasive book Quiet is a case in point. Cain ridicules what she terms the “extreme sport” of socialising at Harvard Business School, arguing that these supposed signs of natural leadership are in fact carefully packaged examples of politicking and networking.
But the deck remains more stacked against introverts than ever before. Business has developed an obsession with ultra-sociability: witness the trend for open-plan offices. Politics, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, has evolved a growing reliance on extroversion. Indeed, the burgeoning influence of the media – in changing the experience of day-to-day leadership, and also in framing the theoretical ideal of a good leader – pushes leaders towards extroversion, whether they like it or not. Whenever I hear Alastair Cook criticised for failing to give a good press conference or on-field interview, I wonder whether the distraction of trying to excel at such things – itself a slippery concept – is worth the psychological energy.
A risk facing all leaders is sacrificing authenticity in pursuit of voguish acceptability. Overarching sentences that begin “Good leaders are always…” are, in fact, nearly always wrong. But one, perhaps, may have some validity. Good leaders are prepared to be themselves. Yes, even the introverts.
This article appeared in the 2014 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2014. You can buy it here.