Mark Cosgrove (pictured above) has the talent to be a great Australian cricketer, but he can’t get in the side because he refuses to lose weight. But are we missing the upsides of being a fat sportsman, asks Jon Hotten…
One of the marks of cricket’s ineffable genius is its scale. The distance of 22 yards, the size of bat and ball, are somehow perfect; they have survived for almost the whole history of the game and they allow a bowler the size of Steve Finn (6 ft 7in) to compete against a batsman the size of Sachin Tendulkar (5 ft 5 in) on equal terms. Unlike golf, where courses have been lengthened, or tennis, where the balls have been made slower, or team sports that have resulted in generally homogenised physiques, it is unaltered since W G Grace’s day – and Grace of course was a giant of a man by Victorian measures.
Cricket has a grand tradition of girth. Some of the greats have been well upholstered and none the worse for it. Men of appetite are attracted to it, and not just because there are two square meals on offer during the day’s endeavours.
All things change, and the post T20 era offers little mercy to the less than perfect, almost entirely because of requirements in the field (ah fielding, that dreary pursuit, that necessary penance…). More than that, there is a vaguely fascistic undertone that a ‘fat’ player is lazy, is less motivated, more blase than his team-mates, uncommitted to the endless round of bleep tests, BMI measurements and broiled chicken.
Mark Cosgrove (above) has begun the Aussie season with runs, enough of them to encourage the odd long-shot twitter punt that he might have been under the eye of selectors who currently have David Warner, Ed Cowan and Shane ‘two hundreds’ Watson as their top three – a not entirely convincing confection. Cosgrove was a non-starter, unless he put Bradman-style numbers on the board, yet his talent is undeniable and extravagantly expressed. With the frizz of hair and flash of teeth, he’s a fat, left-handed Barry Richards, not quite in Bad Baz’s class (who is?) but surely of his type.
The general view of Cosgrove is one of waste. A prodigy, he made a first-class debut at 18, was the Bradman Young Cricketer Of The Year, a player of innings so unequivocal and shot-packed they outshone illustrious champions. Then three ODIs in 2006, then the slide, the promise turned sour, the move from South Australia to Tasmania, some time at Glamorgan while others edged past him, and all the while the whisper that all would be different if he’d only, you know… lose some weight.
Yet what’s fascinating about Cosgrove, what drives at some of the deeper psychology of the game, is why he didn’t, why he won’t. What are the upsides of being fat*? Well, none that relate to fatness per se, but plenty that come with the comfort of being yourself.
The golfer Colin Montgomerie once said that his rapid weight loss had negatively affected his swing, and anyone who has seen that swing up close would know that it was a thing of beauty even if Monty wasn’t. Like the golf swing, the physical act of batting is governed by repeatable muscle memory and fine motor skills, and it doesn’t always pay to mess with them when they’ve been happening a particular way for a lifetime.
The mental act of batting has even more complexity. Within the context of teams sports, it is one of the great expressions of individuality. All batsmen ultimately do what they do alone. The inner life is key, and crucial to that expression. In choosing not to join the club and shed the pounds, a player like Mark Cosgrove may not be lazy or unmotivated; in fact it’s almost trite to think that he is.
More likely is that Cosgrove has a contrary streak a mile wide, as many great batsmen have. It can be a crucial part of the psychic armoury, and it’s the same mentality that made players like Barry Richards, King Viv, and Ian Botham walk their own path, choose their own battles. It comes from the id, not the ego, and can express itself in many ways. It can’t always be reasoned with, but its value cannot be weighed against a few pounds of body fat, either. In a perverse way, it’s about personal pride and being true to yourself, and the mental equilibrium that brings.
Cricket in the new age is on a constant search for the smallest advantage. Poor fielding has been its major battleground, and it has had its casualties. Carrying timber has been seen as a weakness rather than a difference. In the case of Cosgrove, rather like that of Samit Patel, maybe the scale should tip back the other way. After all, England aren’t worrying so much about his waistline while Samit’s showing the super-fit how to play spin bowling on sub-continental wickets…
Ultimately, skill in batting has nothing to do with size, as everyone from Grace to Inzamam and Sehwag have shown. It’s about the mental as well as the physical, about what is on the inside as well as the out. There may be many reasons to discount Mark Cosgrove, but his weight ain’t one of them.
* That’s fat in sporting terms, not in Jerry Springercoming round to cut the side of your house off terms.