Feathers.

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.

Which cricket?

The brilliant tumult that was the recent Cricket World Cup underlined the distance traveled by this most extraordinary and arguably most traditional of games. The cricket Down Under and in New Zealand epitomised the almost alarming dynamism of a particular strand in the sport, clattering expectations, redefining (as they say) The Possible.

Fifty overs used to mean an ‘opening’ period where watchfulness and caution, even, were bywords for batters. It used to centre more on cunning than clout or blast. But as the brutal swordsmanship of the Warners/Maxwells/McCullums demonstrated, a new era of glorious carving has superceded that which has gone before.

And I do mean gone. My sense is that given the revolutionary essence of this new genre – the fact that in particular the bowling was characteristically met with a new breed of irresistible violence – we can barely identify pre- (let’s say) 2014 short-format cricket as the same animal. Cricket World Cup 2015 stamped upon our consciousness the separation – the lurch away, the blast-off – from the familiar/the proper/the old. (Delete according to prejudice.)

Though we knew it was coming, this was the moment the dirt was wistfully then swiftly dribbled in over the coffin of yaknow… Richard Hadlee; Ian Botham; the Chappells – cricketing icons that played a patently different game. The gaudy, incremental hikes through T20 Blasts and IPL Extravagorgies seem done; now the World Cup is carnage of a uniquely modern or post-modern sort. It’s official; things have changed.

Relax. This isn’t I think the preamble to some reactionary exposition on the authentic or the true. Truth is I can barely unscramble the various repercussions or likelihoods following Aus/NZ but I am sure enough I don’t simply and categorically oppose this dramatic new beast. It was too… riveting. It was, despite the shocking newness, recognisably sporting drama – elite sporting drama. For all the doubts, that makes it undeniable.

Plus… the argument that cricket cannot afford to suppress in any way that which might be its saviour (economically if not spiritually) does hold some weight. Even those of us love or work in the game have to concede that the demographic/driver wotsits that the office folks concern themselves with point to a shrill and urgent need to engage with those maybe forty years younger than yer average Lords Member. (Apologies if I slander here but you get my drift?) In the no-brainer age it’s a no-brainer that the ‘see ball hit ball’ core of all this gets a heavy shot of chilli.

Rightly or wrongly the bulk of the Youff of Today are turned off by stillness and quiet seduction (Alistair Cook v Any Spinner) but MFI when it comes to orgasmic adrenalin-showers. They love – they are bred, they are pressured, they are educated to love – the whiff of death, the full-length dive, the cliff-edge climax. So who wouldn’t be drawn to the expectation of a denouement featuring twenty runs an over or an explosion of stumps?

Whilst nobody is suggesting that 13-30 year-olds are sole heirs to anything, they are, of course key to TV and stadium audiences and (more crucially?) to the player base itself. And they want… this. Something that is fascinatingly post-Pietersen. Something really pumped.

My own club has set up an Under 19 team who will wear bright blue clobber and play other young dudes of an evening whilst ‘sounds’ form a backdrop to the ‘scenes’. It will probably be epic… and… or but… we need it. I think it’s great.

But despite the multifarious wonders of the game, zillions of teenagers – boys and girls – do drop out of playing and lose interest or fail to develop their interest in cricket. The very existence of short-format is a response, in no small part, to this issue. (Fair comment that the over-riding and marginally less wholesome urge to make pots of moolah also contributes to the emergence of the IPL and various T20 tournaments around the globe but that need to grow or prop up the game somehow means the greater authorities as well as men of independent means support, in their various ways, the boomathons.)

I’m both stirred and disturbed by the prospect of sorting out or gathering in this game – cricket – that seems to be expanding apart like a floppy-hatted cosmos.

The idea that this vital, ungovernable sprawl could somehow be controlled makes me smile. Not sure I’m optimistic, mind. Even if it were clearly desirable to collect in the various competing elements to some co-operative or sustainable whole I’m not sure the models of authority for the game are there. Blissfully, currently, that’s someone else’s problem.

On a local/national level the environment I work in has shifted to one where targets for growth within the amateur game (in Wales) have had to be scaled back… because growth is not realistic. This may not matter; for one thing it may simply be impossible for a team sport to expand its share of the ‘market’ against the increasingly diverse and often individually-centred competition – be that computer-based or kosher game-based. (Incidentally, I heard recently, in a gathering of sports professionals, that the only sports to be succeeding in terms of numbers gained are cycling and running; both essentially individual pursuits.)

Even an amateur shuftie at the philosophy of all this gets interesting. Start by considering the following; that growth may be inessential to the health of a sport. Why can’t a game that is loved and which retains its support and balances numbers of retiring players with new players be sustainable – be wonderful, even? And if growth is abandoned as a luxury beyond contemplation does that perhaps increase the possibility for retaining cherished essences (sorry, that word again) which may otherwise be subsumed beneath the charge for popularity/exposure/gold?!?

Again I’m being more agent provocateur here than campaigning against the new. However the confluence of challenges around how cricket is demands our attention; the presence of apparent antitheses – tradition/revolution Test/Blast etc etc – are either a recipe for remarkable diversity, diabolical conflict, or something hopefully intelligently poised between. Could we accept that some of the energy which goes into the abstract – this concept, growth – might be better expended into the corporeal – physical support, actual support – for the cricket experience?

The very fact that short-format cricket is either packaged or lumbered with circus imagery or post-POP-ART kerpoww-dom speaks volumes. About what it is and of the increasing gulf between 50 or 20 over action and the Test Match. In our dizzying new world the issue of whether it can be possible to accommodate, never mind grow cricket feels a less appropriate question, suddenly than… which cricket?