Zoom.

So hang on – it all happened in a surreal blur – did we win two series? Having lost those Silent Tests? If so, was all that dramatic, exotic and occasionally eerie stuff going off in ‘The Desert’ a rip-roaring success? I guess it was. Or it felt that way at the end.

Now faaaar be it from me to de-mystify the Pakistan-England triple-series thing to the extent that the boomtastic power or – more seriously – the romance of it is lost, but if we dust it down (sorr-rree) and try to engage proper growed-up reflection mode, how does it all look? Where are England at? What have we learned about the magnificent and bewildering flux that the game itself is in?

First thing that springs to mind – before even offering genuine congratulations to the England Group, which I do – is that the fabulous, explosive diversity between the three codes (T20/50 over/Test) is splintering things.

This may not be bad. There are implications and opportunities for all of us, for one thing. Fans have every right to be excited at the surge of energy pulsing through our ‘typically sedate’ pastime. Scribes and pundits have a renewed supply of high horses to git on up upon. Change is begetting change and whilst this may be challenging it does appear to be heaving us all forward. In the flux, admittedly.

Meanwhile, in the wunnerful postmodern matrix that is probably the game itself, England played away to Pakistan in (for example) Dubai! Appropriately, it turns out another extraordinary series – and why wouldn’t it? Firstly we are lulled into a 3-match Test Bit that asks familiar questions about technique against spin, or absence of spinners… and then it comes over all noisy and color-full and barnstormingly new again. Like the world. Like the kit. Like that red or white or pink or whatever thing – the ball.

Happily, through this full-on sensory assault, it’s clear that England have dumped their Short Format Dunces caps. And therefore any review of the tour may have to include the profoundly encouraging conclusion that ‘we’ve definitely got talent’.

We can and must chalk this up as progress whilst we smile our crazy-innocent smiles, imagining how the players feel. Surely the Barmiest England fan could never have predicted the journey from humiliation (World Cup – all that) to the narcotic worldiedom (epitomised by Buttler in that 100-in-an-instant innings) might be achieved with such startling speed. We’ve gone from not mentioning the cricket to rolling around the floor scattering goodies from the box.

Look at the players. See into their faces, lit up with pre-Nintendo joy! All of them! Go through the list of those with reasons to be closer to ecstatic than cheerful. On the less obvious side that may include Topley, Woakes, Willey and arguably Parry. In and around Roy or Buttler’s wantonness they all shared in preciously groovy stuff with real, notable contributions – important for them, important for us. Given the finale, with Jordan’s absurdly successful Super Over capping off a third consecutive T20 win and we’re all buzzing, all wallowing in the team-bath of their confidence.

Deep breath and zoom out again. Factor in the acceleration away from what used to be commonly assumed (four or five or six an over, consistent line and length) and this fecund-new environment offers players the hopefully energising prospect of reimagining the scope or direction of their careers. Because if we are at the point where any self-respecting international side needs to equip itself with three teams for increasingly(?) diverse formats of cricket, where today’s norms are smashed into history week by week, the stumpy goalposts have been smash ‘n grabbed – never mind moved.

This is that most unlikely of phenomena the cricket revolution and it continues to spin out the challenges. It has both an undeniable centrifugal force and fascinating implications for coaching and for execution of skills. It’s gonna be a boon to both the Specialist Coach industry and to Bullshitters Ubiquitous. (We’ll all need more experts, allegedly.)

I recall hearing England Coach Trevor Bayliss say something recently about great players being able to perform across codes but great players (by definition) account for a small minority even amongst international exponents of the game. Going forward we can only imagine selection is going to be as much about format as talent, because we move (do we not) increasingly into extremes? Athleticism will of course be ever more non-negotiable in a sexed-up game but players will likely be ultra-groomed for specific roles: Death Bowler; Attack Dog; Infuriating Nurdler. All this as well as international-class core skills.

I don’t see it as a problem that in the case of England only Root springs to mind as a very likely starter in all formats; I see that as a developing consequence of changes in the elite game. Haverfordwest CC may not have to concern themselves too deeply with this uber-horses for uber-courses thing but international coaches will. And their players will then make judgements about what they target; what role(s).

Where this multi-faceted thing leaves Test or longer-form Cricket everywhere is a question. It could be that a not insignificant bi-product of the contemporary urge for positivity on the park is dynamism off it – leading to tough calls over restructuring domestic competition or ‘providing space’ for ‘acclimatisation’/prep/performance of traditional cricket around blocks of white-ball action.

My ole mucker John Lydon railed about anger being an energy; it may be ironic or just plain weird that T20’s and now even 50-over’s punkiness reminds me now of his brilliant subversions. For me, cricket – comfortable or not – does need to feed on this current Youffy Explosion.

Zoom in again, to waaaaay back when, at the beginning of this particular (Pakistan) tour. Note that England got beat in two out of three of the Tests, meaning Farbrace and Bayliss – who clearly return with tremendous credit, generally – have things to think about. Christmas is coming… and so is Boxing Day.

The squad these two sagacious gentlemen picked for the upcoming South Africa tour felt a top seamer and a top spin bowler short, amongst other things; some felt it ‘unbalanced’ and yeh, I got that. The widely discussed Hales Gamble and the selection of Ballance also prompted a degree of malcontentment. There is consensus, at least, that this next venture for England Cricket – to face Steyn and Morkel etc – may tell us a whole lot more about the real strength of Bayliss’s group than the Pakistan games, in all their richnesses, could ever do.

Us Brits may be rejuvenated by Ashes memories and now Action Movie action via the desert. We approach South Africa as Jos Buttler might – with a lump in the throat but a store of confidence we hope to tap into. Huge ask but if England can continue to let their instincts flood through, whilst playing the match situation, who knows what further drama they may unleash?

Skilled work.

On coaches and crowds…

The Rugby World Cup has been/is a triumph for sport, yes? Not just for rugby but for sport. Superbly dramatic and almost entirely free from ‘simulation’ or disrespect between players or teams. Genuinely uplifting, in fact, in terms of the world showing us that brother/sisterhood thing we might be fearing subsumed in the age of diving and conniving footballers, £6 Cornish pasties and an intimidating multitude of *revealing* camera angles.

Folks have loved other folks’ teams – Japan-lurv being the most obvious example. So, shedding the baggage of our postmodernist awarenesses, we can simply agree (can’t we?) that it’s been bloody great?

But what can we learn?

In sport atmosphere is BIG. Athletes feed off energies from the crowd (and clearly vice-versa) in a way that really can inspire brilliant execution. It may be that truly elite-level athletes get to be that way because they harness, or are comfortable with or yes, inspired by the heat or hoopla of the big, big challenge. Magic players, far from being undermined by the pressures of the environment (noise/distraction/nerves?) blossom, find their truest finest selves in those moments – hence the overuse of the word ‘expression’. Almost without exception, from Brighton to Geordieland, #RWCup2015 crowds were buzzing… and the players got busy expressing.

Cast your mind back a week or two and something very different was occurring; the first Test Match in Abu Dhabi.

Here England and Pakistan ultimately served up some proper drama, after wading through a weirdly debilitating silence for four days. The players in fact emerged with an almost surreal level of credit but for an age a good deal of what happened felt emasculated, or short of sport. Cook flourished and important *statements* may have been made but with nobody there the event of it felt more like a drawn corpse than a live contest. What fascinates me – or rather one of the many things that fascinated me about this test – was what effect if any the utter lack of atmosphere had on what went on.

Let me swiftly add the rider that I speak as an advocate of Test Match cricket who (whilst getting the current impatience with it) would defend the capacity of the sport to bear the occasional slow burner ‘midst the contemporary carve-tastic norm. Consequently I was almost as unflustered as the England skipper when every pundit and former player in the universe was wailing on about dullness.

This daft thing in the desert was a small percentage part of the dynamically evolving Test Universe; it was entitled to its loopy-scratchy, defiantly anti-dynamic dawdle.

Like the Big Lebowski I chilled – abided – watching and waiting, wondering what might happen if an almighty clamour were to accompany a key wicket or a lush spell of bowling. Wondering how demotivating that yawning quiet might be – how seductive, how soporific to the fast-twitch fibres. The minor revelation came that things might have been different.

As I write #TMS is on again, for the second test; apparently (if my ears are to be believed) there is again no crowd. A challenge for bowlers – maybe particularly seam bowlers? – to get on a roll, on a flat pitch, in the sun, with no crowd.

The atmosphere(s) when Japan beat the Boks or when Ireland turned the Millenium green were both remarkable and essential to the sport occurring on that day. It could be that Japan might never have beaten South Africa in a near-empty stadium. Their fabulous momentum was predicated on quick ball and some irresistible spirit mexican-waving its way round the stands and from the stands into the bloodstream of the game. It was of course wonderful – dare I say it? – literally wonderful.

Crowds, then – mere gatherings of bystanders – play their part in the sporting cowabunga. Let’s note that… and if we happen to have some influence over where Big Games are actually played… remember. As we remember (alongside our friends from Bayern) the cost factor, eh?

Something else about the Rugby World Cup has really registered with the media (who’ve been all over it) and with those of us who either coach or bawl from the touchlines; the Skills Divide.

The domination of the tournament by southern hemisphere sides has been accompanied by significant rumination from the northern press – as though there’s been some uniformly powerful lightbulb moment. It’s clearly dawned that the key difference is in skills, by which I think folks mean the freedom and excellence of successful execution.  Most of us will imagine what we might call expressive skills; stuff we called natural ability until that became an area overloaded with difficulties.

Everyone from Brian Moore to Paul Hayward to well, everyone has been banging on about the skills that get you tries or opportunities (even) when things are tight. Skills that separate. Skills which may range from soft, intuitive hands to mind-blowing composure and decision-making.

It may be kinda funny that in the Everything Accounted For age, with typically more coaches and trainers and ‘support staff’ in place than can possibly be justified, we have such a universally recognised DOH!! How did we miss that one?!? moment.

Everybody’s leapt upon the essential ‘truth’ of it; Wales were great but couldn’t finish, Ireland were outclassed by The Pumas(!), Scotland have transformed and may have been robbed, England and France were embarrassing. But mostly, The North lacked brilliance.

Somebody soon enough will make a counter-argument to the current rash of theories aligned around Northern Bash undone by Southern Flash. In fact, because it’s plainly a tad simplistic I may even do it myself. But if we accept that there is a case to answer, here – i.e that we in the North are producing less gifted or less ingenious/expressive rugby players – why would that be? Does this transfer across into other team sports? How come our talent is less talented (or less able to perform) than (say) Kiwi talent?

The theses are already underway, right?

I can speak of but not for the ECB Coaching set-up on the ideas around the facilitation of talent. Here there is an acceptance that diverse opportunities for sport and broad development – towards being a better human, actually – fit with the pathway towards brilliance. Coaching is (or aims to be) more generous than previously; less prescriptive. Core Principles are offered to players as a support, through which those same players should find a way that works – that feels like them. This counts for a pretty radical shift when compared to decades of technical models and acutely fine-tuned ‘demonstration’.

Plenty of coaches are concerned that the growth of a globalised, t’internetted Sports Development Corporation necessarily means things get genericised, flawed by soundbites, or compromised as we all seek to do the Right Thing. We all finish up saying the same thing in order to sound credible – or we all seek to sound ‘left-field’ enough to stand out. We’re all too painfully aware.

I have seen enough to acknowledge both shortcomings in what the ECB call their ‘player-centred’ approach and in the creep towards multiskills BUT have no doubt that this loosening of the technical shackles is helpful in terms of unleashing or freeing talent. Of course this talent might be guided by what we might call technical specialists but let them not clutter up the mind of the athlete. Let them offer up their gift.

It may be foolish to meander between sports but I make no apology. I remain alive to the possibility of wonder through daft stuff like rugby and cricket, as well as through cerebral revelation via culture. I make no qualitative distinctions between them. They both still make me smile – as does the following wee notion.

Graham Henry (who has written so outstandingly on #RugbyWorldCup2015 and matters beyond, recently) has coached at the elitest of elite levels, yes? Known for his intelligence, thoroughness, experience, success(!) etc etc. Whilst All Blacks coach he was approached by key players, after a significant disappointment, as he no doubt planned his next Churchillian, team-gathering riposte. They asked him who the speechifying was for – them or him? They asked him – Graham Henry, aged 50-odd, at the height of his powers – if maybe he should say a bit less and trust a bit more. Graham Henry now doesn’t do team talks. He builds teams… from individuals.