With the Ashes won in a fashion that Michael Crawford might recognise – three parts drama to two trauma – we’re maybe entitled to settle back and think. Think hard. Or perhaps, given that following England’s recent upward curves and voluptuous positives implies pleasures yet to come, think softish.
Thinking soft can be good. It might mean transitioning smoothly over data or cruising serenely past spent or failed plans; understanding enough of the detail but still oozing good-naturedly through. Sure there must be the (real and necessary) obsessing over individual form or technique but there are bigger essences too. In fact there are whorls if not worlds of issues that resist Venn diagrams and/or the clasp of the Stat Man. These range from human foibles to philosophical matters – issues of approach.
Suddenly the game of cricket went both ape-shit and plural. We know this. It’s now certifiable to consider or (ahem) approach Test Matches in the same way you think about One-Dayers or T20. They are increasingly massively different animals and right here, right now is where England need to show us all they get that, because painfully obviously, until about a couple of months ago, they didn’t.
This is e-nor-mous, a-morphous and bloody gooey stuff, right? Sorting your approach, your way in, your (hah!) ‘exit strategy’.
It’s also why we all have to summon the energy to recognise and/or execute the fag end of this Aussie tour to the max. England, in particular, have to cast off any jadedness and grab hold again. They are mid-revolution in a generally good way and must must must find the energy to validate themselves in the carve-up that is short format cricket.
The ‘Top Two or Three Inches’ become ever more crucial. Mind games. For the coach, the ability to cut through to the players, to stir them. (When the game is about instinct, stir the instincts). For the players, that confidence thing; to see ball, hit ball. Essential. Electrifyingly different, though, from Test Cricket.
Post any series is a good time for closing your eyes and trawling gently through notions around character, comfort, suitability; the aftermath (if that’s what it is) of an Ashes Series, with its unparalleled frisson, being surely the ripest of moments to go walkabout into the team psyche?
I’m hoping Messrs Bayliss and Farbrace have the clarity of purpose and the time to go meandering just now – sometimes you really do need to circulate freely before landing somewhere honest – somewhere rewarding. I picture them bolting through the airheads at some gathering, in the knowledge that somewhere (in the kitchen, maybe?) there’s a profound and rewarding conversation to be had.
Everything these days is said to be – or said to need to be – ‘holistic’. Do you get me when I say I wish the England gaffers space for exactly that holistic look at… everything? Because time and judgments are tight. There’s faaaar too much, in fact, going on. Pressures are acute. Progress needs to be evidenced. Hence, for balance and for sanity and (I would argue) for productivity, some need for anti-machismo, anti-drive, anti-measure; some need, in fact, for softness – understanding.
Let’s get back to the prosaic before I get carted away.
It’s likely that the further we drift beyond this extraordinary Ashes the more ordinary we will judge it to be; particularly in terms of quality. But my point here is certainly not to downgrade any achievement for England. In fact let’s re-state the brilliance of a win against opposition who strutted into their warm-up games confident of their own, world-beating status and seemingly on the brink of a more or less crushing re-assertion of Aus Power. Pre the Welsh opener, England fans (let’s be honest) had retreated into Please God No mode, having rehearsed disappointments ready for public consumption after a solid and possibly humiliating pasting.
‘Twas not to be. Instead Cardiff – a city that knows how to host sporting stuff – provided the extravagant launch-pad for a surprise.
So how to build on this? How to not only fine-tune the personnel but truly develop a squad, or squads? How to (or whether to?) fashion policy which both challenges and encourages players towards a) team goals and b) improvement. It will be fascinating to see how the England coaches do what all of us coaches are meant to do – facilitate the expression of talent, join the dots between, blend – in the coming weeks and months. Not least because there can be no pretence now that cricket is but a single game.
We’re rushing breathlessly towards a series of One-Day and T20 Ashes encounters that will again re-calibrate our senses around short format cricket. Massively exposed, hugely competitive, economically necessary. Games which may leave us all exhausted but significantly more clued in to just how far England have travelled from their immediately brain-dead past.
The Ashes were almost a triumph; they were certainly a win against the head. It feels almost cruel that Bayliss/Farbrace and some of our proud protagonists have such an important and ludicrously different challenge so immediately ahead… but they do.
The sense is that Bayliss was employed with one eye on his nous for short format cricket; indeed the multi-counterintuitive fact may be that the ECB have excelled themselves by appointing the (apparently) born-to-be-conservative Strauss and that unassuming Farbrace/Bayliss combo and in doing so quietly but efficiently delivered us into the throes of the contemporary game dynamic and well-equipped. (And whilst we’re back-slapping the Old Farts maybe we should note that – as previously described – ECB Coach Education itself has been transformed towards the dynamic new era in a similarly seminal way… but let’s not go there too. Enough praise for one day.)
England Cricket has shifted forwards in terms of this flawed positivity thing: forward ‘cos we just beat the Aussies. We have talent and importantly we have fellas supporters might or already do love. (Rooooot, most obviously – and Stokes.) Things are medium rosy. But, as always, there is a huge amount of sorting out to do.
Key may be the general understanding that the three major international formats have separated and that this needs thinking about. Intelligently. Simply daft to equate ‘backing yourself’ with being good cricket for every situation. ( I imagine the Australians thought that pushing hard and looking to counterattack whilst under the proverbial cosh was good cricket; that ‘making a statement’ would be ‘massive’. I fear they may not be alone in letting their testosterone flood their finer faculties on that one.)
No, England want appreciation as well as power, sense as well as toughness, cuteness as well as dynamism. Because this is about range now – diversity and choice.