Monday, 27 January 2014

Down, under

[I apologise to readers in non-cricket playing countries, or those who have no interest in cricket: this post will be largely incomprehensible to you. And apologies to all for the strangely large gaps between paragraphs, which for some reason I just cannot reduce].


So the England cricket team have been defeated in the Ashes. Well, not just defeated but humiliatingly eviscerated, despite having been the favourites to win at the start of the series. It was not just that they lost, it was that they scarcely even competed. I used to be a passionate follower of English cricket. Sitting literally at my father’s knee in the 1960s and 70s I learned the game from the BBC TV coverage, and subsequently played quite a bit, albeit not very well (and, more than any other sport I think, cricket is hard to appreciate fully if you haven’t played it). It’s difficult to recreate those days. We had a black and white television and so although my father must have known that cricket was played on green grass, in white flannels, with coloured caps (not, in those days, helmets), I had no such knowledge, and it was quite a revelation when our first colour television arrived in 1975. But even without colour pictures I was enthralled as we watched together; him explaining first the cruder, then the finer, points; to be supplemented by our playing sessions in the back garden.


And how I remember the first test match – the first cricket match for that matter – I ever saw in person, again with my father, in the long, hot summer of 1976 when the West Indies thrashed England. It was the series that began with Tony Greig, the white South African-born England captain, declaring that he would make the tourists ‘grovel’. That word, from someone of his background during the Apartheid era, spoken about a black team, had a horrible political resonance (although that is not to say that this was Greig’s intention). So too did the power of the West Indies side for its substantial Afro-Caribbean fan base in post-colonial Britain, as documented in the 2010 film Fire in Babylon. It was cricket, but it was politics in a big way.


The match we saw was the final test at The Oval, the day that in scorching sunlight Viv Richards scored most of his magisterial 291, but that was a culmination of a summer that had marked a kind of shift from old to new cricket. The old cricket was represented by the – literally old – English batsmen facing the West Indian pace attack. John Edrich, 39, and Brian Close, an unbelievable 45, being peppered by Michael ‘whispering death’ Holding’s bouncers in the Old Trafford test being the symbolic example. It was like seeing the changing of an age. At the end of the Oval test, West Indies took the series 3-0 but that scoreline flattered England who had been comprehensively destroyed by a far superior side. In another symbolic moment, Tony Greig went on hands and knees and ‘grovelled’ in front of the Oval crowd.


It’s hard now to remember how amateurish English cricket was in the 1970s. I suppose that one minor index is the way that each Sunday during the season the team would be announced for the next test. We – my father and I – would see it during the tea interval of the John Player League tournament on the BBC. Even that is archaic – sport sponsored by a tobacco firm; county cricket matches on the BBC for hours on end. But, anyway, the team was in no way predictable. There were in those days no central contracts; a likely lad would receive the summons on Sunday and play for England in the test match on the following Thursday (in those days, test matches always started on a Thursday, running for five days to the end of Tuesday because Sunday was a ‘rest day’). This was often a moment of excitement for me because my particular heroes – Graham Roope and Pat Pocock come to mind – were never regular picks, but from time to time got the call up. So it was fun, but although in those days there was less of a gap between county and international standards, it didn’t begin to meet the exigencies of what cricket had become.


Post-1976 things began to change, especially after the development of Kerry Packer’s rebel World Series Cricket in 1977 (in which Tony Greig was a pivotal figure), although I must admit that at the time I adhered to my father’s considerable disapproval of this rupture in the traditional order. At all events, through the 1980s and 1990s England had some real, albeit fluctuating, success, ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in 1981 being a particularly memorable landmark. Even so, reading David Gower’s recent autobiography it is striking how haphazard and unprofessional the organization of the team was in that period. This continued to be the case at least until the creation of the English Cricket Board in 1997and the MacLaurin reforms which introduced, amongst other things, central contracts. The benefits were soon felt and the turning point was symbolised by England’s series victory over the by now much weaker West Indies side in 2000, secured at The Oval test, which I myself attended, 24 years after the 1976 rout and 31 years since England had recorded a series win over West Indies.


Since then, England have been a competitive and often very successful side, at times the best in the world. Perhaps the great high point was the extraordinary, heart-stopping, chest-heaving, Ashes series win in 2005 when I, along with, it seemed, the whole country was riveted (we will not dwell on the re-match in the Australian season). How sadly ironic that, with national success and interest at its height, this was the moment that the free-to-air TV rights were sold off, never to return. Since then, I have never watched a test match on television and ceased to follow it closely. There will be far fewer English children from now on who have the experience that I had, watching and learning with my father.


What is the organizational significance of this walk down cricketing memory lane? Apart from simple self-indulgence it is that much that I have recounted in this very brief history pertains to the organization of cricket in general and the England team in particular. And the withering defeat that England have just suffered is largely being discussed in organizational terms. That is, it is not that the players have suddenly ceased to be technically competent but that issues such as leadership, or the complacency bred by success affecting motivation, or even the protection offered by central contracts are being held responsible. As one influential commentator has noted, the problem is 'over-professionalism'. 


I certainly do not think that a return to the ‘amateurish’ days before central contracts will serve us well. But it does seem to me that in recent years English cricket has been gripped by a kind of soulless managerialism. When players, captain or manager are interviewed, they will couch their comments in stilted, bloodless terms: putting the ball in the right areas, executing our game plan, winning the percentages and so on. What seems to be missing is a sense that these are not ends in themselves, but means towards playing good or even great cricket. God forbid that we should adopt the debased argot of reality TV shows, with ubiquitous statements of how ‘passionate’ we are. But the difference between Australia and England in the latest Ashes does seem to show how the Australians were fired by something more than the mechanics of team management. I have no idea how to create or harness such a feeling and perhaps that is the point: the most important things in cricket may be precisely those things that cannot be controlled or managed. If so, there is also a wider lesson for, as all cricket fans know, cricket is not just a game but a microcosm of life itself.

1 comment:

  1. As a follow up to this, it's interesting to see how England have now dumped their star batsman, Kevin Pietersen, not least for the terms of the debate about it. The rationale is that getting rid of KP (a notoriously difficult individual) will enable a better team ethic. The counter-argument is that it should be possible to 'manage mavericks'. In other words, the issue of how to respond to the Ashes defeat is configured in organizational terms, not in terms of cricketing ability.

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