I’m one of the least neurotic blokes I know but I do have concerns. Amongst them – somewhere between transforming the diet of the working classes and saving the narwhal – is the question looming most threateningly towards relevance as a certain iconic sporting contest approaches.
To sledge… or not to sledge.
That may be the question. Or one of them. Or it may be the symbol around which bigger, broader issues kerr-plunk. For if the Aussies and Engerland come over all noisy and unsporting on us, we could surely find ourselves re-pitched into conversations about that Spirit of Cricket thing? And I’d need to be ready for that one. And I don’t think I am.
After the series we’ve just seen, between the aforementioned (and radically re-booted) Engerland and the somehow inappropriately and mildly underwhelmingly named Black Caps of New Zealand, this becomes, I think, more likely. McCullum has been breasting magnificently towards demi-goddery for some time but the last month or two his entire posse have strode or swanned or peacocked stylishly in behind, feathers fanning. Rarely has a team that’s allegedly lost won so many friends. Rarely has that swell of esteem been so deservedly won.
Williamson to Southee; the whole soul brotherhood were practically lapped up by the Great British Unwashed, who roared and fawned over their brilliance and the brilliance of their understanding of what sport is.
The Daily Mail readership sent them rubies and Turkish Delight. They were waved off (back to the Commonwealth) with bouquets and without being chained to the poop deck. We gave them spare wives and maize and stuff. It was the kind of love we reserve for National Treasures.
Fast forward to today and Australia in town, rehearsing their cricket-as-testosterone with County-level victims. Am I the only one fearing a tectonic hoohaa – or rather the possibility of unseemly (and critically now) incongruous controversy following poor sportsmanship come Ashes time? Could the Aussie boors, with their fascinatingly needy brand of ‘aggressive cricket’ be so-o insensitive as to try to out-muscle and out-nasty England? After the love-in the spite-fest? I do slightly fear that.
New Zealand have, in truth, been fine-tuning their culture of invincible fabulousness for a year or two but 2015, England represents a kind of peak. So compelling was their positivism that the fella temping as England Gaffer became enraptured to such an extent that he capitulated and followed suit. (I know this. I read in the Daily Mail that ‘the cherub Farbrace shared man-hugs and twenty-six Heinekens with Brendan McCullum before signing a Mutual Slashing Pact’). Something – lots of things – transformed. Players lived rather simply and beautifully up to their billing… as players.
If there was a moment of discourtesy or cynicism we all missed it. If the Black Caps were in any way diminished by their cruel ‘defeats’ we missed that too. Instead we remember a charged excitement that somehow blended the machismo around national resurgence with appreciation of such a pure kind I wonder that it lacked a habit – habit as in Monk’s. There really was something cleansing and uplifting about both the change in psyche from England and – at least as importantly for the quality of the spectacle – the generosity, the freedom unleashed into the contest from New Zealand. All of us from geek to pundit to part-time supporter understood this as great sport. And how gratifying to see how obviously invigorating and enriching it was to the players too.
Enriching? Well, yes. If this implies a moral quality to the affair I can kinda live with that. It did feel like something significant and if not life-affirming then certainly sport-affirming had been flagged up – planted on some previously barren pole. And this is why I have concerns.
Australia may yet win back the Ashes with the most commanding and emphatic and gentlemanly displays for twenty years. They may. But that would be out of character for their group. They actively seek to express superior toughness as well as superior skills. They are tremendously matey and blokey and chirrupy and in your face. They look to test you and some of this is contingent upon the sheer intimidating pace of their fast bowlers. They can get bodies in around the bat. They can have a word. They will feed off any fear. (Imagine how it might be for Stuart Broad, striding in at number 10 of an evening, Mitchell Johnson snorting?) It’s a test.
It is a test and one in which the Aussies are entitled to play hard, a) because that’s likely to work for them and b) because all the insinuations I may have made above mean eff all, mate if they stay within the laws of the game. (I should say here, that England may opt to either instigate conflict or (more likely?) take no backward step should handbags break out. The likes of Anderson and Broad have serially offended against good taste and the allegedly lovable Root likes a word or two, I think.)
What would be unfortunate is if moments of controversy or plain cheating undermined the event. Or if it was even soured by verbals. We all know sledging will occur – it can even be part of the entertainment. But there is drama and there are duels enough without yaknow, using Dum-dums.
Anyway the Black Caps came, saw, got beat but conquered. In the process the game was so absurdly liberated as to be practically re-invented. This was part Farbrace-inspired (and maybe, to be fair, Strauss?) and part Eoin Morgan/New Engerland’s new understanding. See ball, hit ball. Free yourself. Belieeeeeeeve.
The revolution may possibly have been coming whoever the opposition might have been… but I doubt it. The delightful but skilled abandon with which the Black Caps committed to the sport was a revelation which made possible the event, which in turn made possible New England. That’s why we Brits loved the Black Caps and thank them – for pointing us to the treasure.
The pressures and the prize itself will be of another dimension against the Australians. I hope that in chasing that next level of achievement the level of sport can be maintained.