Graham Stewart

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Ed Smith

Bloomsbury, pp. 244, £

When Ed Smith became a full-time professional cricketer for Kent in 1999 the county side was preparing for the new millennium by shedding anything that smacked of old-fashioned amateurism. Professionalism was to be a state of mind. Players were henceforth required to sign up to a new code of conduct.

This Core Covenant consisted mainly of a succession of abstract nouns, though it also proclaimed its faith in the transformative power of setting targets by requiring a ‘pledge’ from all players that they would take at least 50 extra catches during every practice session. What was more, it took personal responsibility to a higher level by abolishing bad luck as a valid excuse for anything that went wrong. Man — at least when he had donned his county cricket jumper — was at the mercy of no force greater than himself and those pitted against him.

This approach was not just the innocuous spiel of the sports psychologist. On Wall Street, the financial ‘Masters of the Universe’ had also concluded that luck was for wimps. Risk could be minimalised — even eliminated — through the adoption of the right investment formulae based upon superior predicative modelling. Two of the lofty minds that developed these tools for fool-proof derivatives trading were Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton. They shared the 1997 Nobel Prize for Economics and were principals at the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management. Initially, the approach seemed to work. But LTCM’s successes and sense of invulnerability emboldened it to borrow so heavily that when in 1998 the unexpected duly happened.

(Russia’s government bond default) LTCM’s overexposure was so serious that the Federal Reserve felt obliged to organise a $3.6 billion bailout.

The alternative would have been to let LTCM do to global finance what Lehman Brothers — headless of the warning — was left to do to it ten years later. As one perplexed Lehman quantitative risk expert lamented, ‘Events that models only predicted would happen once in 10,000 years happened every day for three days.’  

It was Winston Churchill who pointed out that, ‘without a measureless and perpetual uncertainty, the drama of human life would be destroyed.’ Besides playing cricket for Kent, Middlesex and England, Ed Smith took a double first in history at Cambridge and is now a leader writer at the Times. In Luck, he blends personal experience, sporting insight and a broad knowledge of history with the journalist’s talent for storytelling to fashion an original and thought-provoking book. Its celebration of the human drama of perpetual uncertainty is not only refreshing but uplifting.  

Critics of such an outlook range beyond motivational speakers, some derivatives traders and the Thomas Jefferson of Kent County Cricket Club’s Core Covenant. To the rational mind, Smith’s attitude may seem fatalistic. To the devout it is even blasphemous. If everything that happens in our world is ordained by God then luck is not a random event but the manifestation of divine will.  

New Age writers have refashioned this belief to the desires of a more needy audience, replacing the centrality of God with that of the self. Smith is splendidly dismissive about the tosh pumped out by one of the queens of the modern self-help industry, Rhoda Byrne. Her book The Secret (20 million sales and counting) assures its disciples that through the ‘law of attraction’ everything comes to those who are in the right state of mind. Ask, believe and you will receive. Luck has nothing to do with it.  

It may be suspected that the buyers of Byrne’s gospel are somewhat impressionable. Yet, those who believe meritocracy has been so perfected that their success is entirely attributable to their own qualities could be forgiven for imagining that the reverse is also true, and that the lowly have got their just desserts. Smith cites the smugness of the Economics Nobel laureate, Professor Robert E. Lucas, who stated that inequality didn’t bother him because the fruits of his own hard intellectual graft could be contrasted with the meagre harvest of life’s losers who ‘drop out of high school, take drugs and so on’. It took a philosophy professor to point out to Lucas that the reality of 44 million Americans living in poverty in 2009 raised ‘the question of whether there really was that much dope to go round’.

Smith makes a convincing case that while hard work, positive attitude and all the other attributes of personal responsibility and self-betterment can propel individuals forward, it is perfectly possible to have ability and application in abundance and still be dealt a cripplingly poor hand. As he shows through several telling historical case studies, the interplay of chance can be decisive. Referencing the effect of genes as well as educational opportunity, he also goes some way towards modifying the view that the pursuit of excellence is primarily achieved through hard graft rather than by other advantages.  

For all the breadth of his survey, it is in his autobiographical passages that Smith’s contention really finds its mark. His cricketing career was affected by — whatever the dictates of any Core Covenant — two instances of bad luck beyond his control. Though he makes little of it, the first came in 2003 when he was dropped from the England squad after being wrongly adjudged LBW in only his third test. The second resulted from a freak ankle injury in 2008 which hastened his retirement from the game.

With retrospect Smith concludes it was actually a lucky break, since it brought forward the right decision, one that he might otherwise have postponed. Most of all though, it is the succession of highly improbable circumstances that led him to be on a particular train and sitting in a carriage opposite a stranger with whom he decided to make small talk that best illustrates Smith’s argument. Lady Luck? Reader, he married her.