Sporting life: The new England
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Wednesday 15th June at 7.30am, overheard in the sauna at Parliament Hill Lido, north London, man speaking to friend: “I don’t like cricket. I hate cricket. But that match yesterday, Jonny Bairstow, I loved it. Watching the highlights, I even missed Midsomer Murders!”
A new game, a new attitude, indeed. But the man continued: “Just like Botham at Headingley in 1981!”
Botham was a unique talent, a man who was a frontline bowler as well as a fine hitter, who could take a game by the scruff of its neck and turn it round. But most of that innings was played when it was plain that we had nothing to lose—the game was already in all likelihood lost. Trent Bridge, in 2022, was by contrast an indication of a broader metamorphosis—a game-long, series-long, whole-team reorientation. The new approach is, I believe, an overall shift in philosophy.
New coach Brendon McCullum and new captain Ben Stokes, producers of modern sporting hardware and software. Bomber Bairstow. If England had had to get 409 in 63 overs as opposed to 309, they might still have gone for it. And might well have got there.
I think the new mission statement has many elements. One is: enjoy yourselves, don’t lose touch with the love of the game that led you to play it as a child. Another is: think of how things may go well rather than being preoccupied with what might go wrong. Third, if you are positive with the bat, the bowlers may lose it (as New Zealand did, when England scored 66 off five overs after tea). Then there’s “don’t overthink,” or rather, “don’t think too negatively.” “Baz” McCullum urges players to “avoid negative chat” and “praise small contributions.”
I guess it was this set of values, expressed in words and demeanour, that transformed Alex Lees from an ungainly, erratic, gawky player in the first innings of the Lord’s Test to a batter who stood tall, eyes level, head still, transferring his weight onto the front foot to get maximum impact from semi-defensive shots, and playing the shorter ball with the solidity of a Stokes. I even had images of him becoming a Bob Barber, another tall, strong left-handed opener who radically changed his style from anxious defensiveness to forthright confidence and a determination to dominate whenever possible.
I shared the feeling of the man in the sauna; this was a fantastic performance. Relieved of the onus of being both the main run-scorer (by a mile) and captain of a struggling side, Joe Root has played more freely than before. I was delighted with the England batting, with their chutzpah and bravery, their dash and enthusiasm. The bowlers too have been prepared to risk a few runs in the search for wickets.
But I also felt a tinge of depression after Trent Bridge. I think I wish that, when I played, we had been more positive, a little more in the McCullum/Stokes mode. As captain, I shared most of McCullum’s beliefs. But when we’d fought a test match over four days, our attitude tended to be “let’s make sure we don’t lose after all this effort.” Only if, when and while we felt safe from defeat would we go flat-out for a win. I wished I’d had more bravura. As captain in the field, I believe I was often willing to attack when we could. At Middlesex AGMs I promised positive cricket. But similar to Geoffrey Boycott, I might say to the team (or convey without saying), “Think what the position will be if we add two wickets to our current score.” And the voice of self-doubt made me tense.
New attitudes won’t, will never, guarantee success and accolades. On the very day that Bairstow put New Zealand to the sword, spectators were booing Gareth Southgate during England’s 0–4 football defeat by Hungary, despite all that he has done to lift the England team. Memories are short. People turn.
And sometimes we have to question our rashness. When Derek Randall excused himself for getting out for consecutive ducks playing the hook shot on the grounds that it was his “nature” to play that way, our manager Doug Insole told him: “If that’s the case, you’d better think about your nature.” Over the past few years, cricket pundits as knowledgeable as Ted Dexter (who sadly died last year) have bemoaned the lack of solid defensive techniques in England’s batters (except for Root).
The underlying truths in many areas of life, including playing cricket, involve finding a balance that works between caution and risk, between sobriety and exhilaration, between depression and mania.
England teams of the 1970s and 1980s were, like the present England team, products of their time. Societal and cricketing values, though slowly changing, were not fundamentally different from those of Len Hutton’s a generation before. Our generation was less readily bored than the present one. We had not been brought up under the influence of advertising slogans like “take the waiting out of wanting.” Nor was our attitude much different from that of most opposition teams, apart perhaps from the West Indies. We had no conception of the possibilities of scoring created by the shortest forms of the game. There were fewer Test matches, and much less international cricket, so perhaps each test had more significance in those days.
Yet some of the most fascinating passages of play in recent Test cricket occurred when India’s Virat Kohli was trying not to play at Jimmy Anderson, concerned only with seeing him off. These were sustained periods during which the balance between the sides pivoted.
One needs to be cautious, defensive at times. Test cricket will always need and reward the obdurate batter. But overall, a little bit more freedom and relaxation, a little more of the current optimism would have been a breath of fresh air. After all, a test match was and is only a game. And even then, it is vital for leaders to beware of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A gloomy litany of criticism and restriction does nothing to motivate the players.
Whatever happens, let’s all of us, players, ex-players and supporters, enjoy the moment.
I give the last word to Bairstow: “It’s not the finished article… Everyone is still learning. But there isn’t anything we can’t do.”
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