The Revolution According to Anya Shrubsole.

There will be some words but not, let’s be honest, that many. (Wonder why that is?)

After 14 years, Anya Shrubsole, MBE, is hanging up those clodhoppers – at international level, anyway. She has left rather magnificently, with characteristic intelligence and healthy self-awareness. Her career in the game will continue, and I have no doubt she will continue to be a significant threat to batters, quite possibly for some years. But there is a rare-ish consensus that despite being just 30, this was the time. Why would that be?

I’ve been more outspoken (some would say brutal) about Shrubsole’s fitness, than most. I’ve tried to judge her as an international athlete as opposed to a woman and *in that context* been clear that her conditioning has been unacceptable for some time. (Get that some think I’m just another misogynist; politely disagree). Now plenty of folks seem to be gently agreeing, or perhaps more exactly accepting that with the fabulous development of the game now including/demanding significantly higher standards of movement, agility and (obviously) fielding, generally, Anya has become exposed.

In her farewell statement, she says

To have been involved in women’s cricket at a time of such growth has been an honour but it has become clear to me that it is moving forward faster than I can keep up with, so it is time for me to step away.

She’s right. Her bowling – even without being quick – is still often outstanding, and uniquely bananalicious. (Shrubsole has swung the ball better and further than almost any bowler on the planet, for a decade). In-swingers. Beauties. Australia may have made her look eminently or reasonably playable, over the last few months but the sheer voluptuousness of that arc through the air has been simply too much for many international opponents, for aeons.

Right now it maybe that things have crept against her even on this – although I am clear that it is fundamentally the conditioning thing that has nudged her aside. Because all standards are going dizzily skyward, the sense that she is *relatively* one-dimensional, bowling-wise, has been developing. She of course can and does vary pace and mixes up deliveries a little but that killer inswing has always been the weapon. Of late, the likes of Healy, Lanning and Mooney looked like they could read it.

It will be fascinating to see if Shrubsole can remain a force in the formats she continues to grace. Will more bats more confidently swing through? Dunno… but openly hope Anya doesn’t get entirely found out – she’s too good and her contribution’s been too magnificent for that.

I first saw Anya Shrubsole live at Glamorgan CC, for a double-header against Australia. This was 2015, I think: (go check, there’s a blog pretty much dedicated to her performance). The women’s *scene* had begun to reveal its potential to me and I knew a little… but WOW. Sitting directly behind her as she ran in, possibly on my first visit to the Glam Media Centre, was deliciously memorable. The amount of swing Shrubsole got that day was a bloody revelation (to me). She struggled to contain it but got a three-for, again from memory, including some of those Ozzy Superstars.

I know I wrote that she was the best or most exciting bowler on the day (when the blokes played too, right?) It really could be that the Ole Partnership of Brunty and Shrubbers grabbed a hold of me right there and then: I’ve been attending England Women internationals ever since.

So – despite being critical – I’m gonna miss this woman. For her very English doughtiness and rather moody, schoolmistress-like air, in the field. For her late-order batting grit. But mainly for the world-beating, sometimes thrillingly late-looping bowling. For that, Shrubsole will always be special; will always be a leader, in fact, of The Revolution.

Different Level.

Let’s start with a minute’s applause, for an Australian side we freely acknowledge to be a worldie – even those of still somewhat trapped by that feeble, generational tribalism-thing, that puts an anchor on pro-Aus warblature. They are different level; they’ve proved it; it’s a triumph for all of them. Their seemingly impregnable mentality is a powerful, impressive, undeniable bloc, that even us Poms have to defer to and respect.

So where’s it come from? From Mott’s shrewd leadership – and Lanning’s. Via deep, committed investment, both financial and in terms of planning, to make the execution possible. From a spectacular group of talented and resilient players. From things strategised, then ‘allowed to happen’, or nurtured, rather than directed or coached, entirely – because, maybe, they can’t be coached. Plenty of this is supra-sport, beyond measurement, ownership or even explanation. How fabulous is that?

Australia are all of those juggernaut-tastic things the media and the fans are calling them. It’s great that a truly ground-breaking squad has demonstrated their brilliance so emphatically… and gone and won the bloody thing. This is what Sporting Justice ought to look like: the best winning, fair and square (and ideally with some style). All. Boxes. Ticked.

But where does this leave England? In credit, firstly, in the sense that they have fought back from some degree of humiliation (never mind disappointment) in the early rounds of this tournament. They were distressingly poor, particularly in the field, for a nerve-jangling and near-‘fatal’ period. A way back (and forward, obvs) was found.

Interesting to note Ecclestone’s lurv-note to her skipper, in this regard. Sophie notably keen to big up ‘Trevor’ for guiding/chivvying/leading the group back into contention. For England to win a series of sudden-death matches and then stay ahead of the Australian run-rate for thirty-odd overs, chasing a ridicu-total in the World Cup Final is no mean feat. To smash South Africa in the semi is no mean feat. Ecclestone publicly lumped a lot of the credit for the honourable resurgence at her captain’s feet.

There are rumours around the obvious potential retirees – Brunt and Shrubsole. The latter was tearful both before and after the game: no wonder. Shrubsole had a goodish semi and final but her conditioning and the feeling that more teams will find her out more easily as time and skill-levels fly on and up, work against her keenly now. Yes she is still taking wickets but a wee slackening in pace is inevitable. That together with raised expectations and the urgent need to enact the succession planning we can only imagine has been at the forefront of the coaching groups’ minds for some time point to an international retirement soon. It’s time.

Brunt is older but a different animal. Fitter and more adversarial than Shrubsole – generally in a good way – the long-time Pack Leader may still have the energy and the skills to compete for a place. (Whether this is either the right thing, or helpful to either party is something those of us the outside would be foolish to judge upon). My daft guess is that both opening bowlers may retire – possibly from all cricket – with Shrubsole moving into a coaching role, maybe within a shortish time-frame. (She just strikes me as a thoughtful one, and someone who might impart valuable stuff with some dexterity. Brunt is allegedly a lovely, ‘soft’, warm human away from the battle but somehow I don’t see her settling back into stuff, away and without direct involvement in that mortal combat).

The World Cup Final, perhaps inevitably, laid bare some of the concerns, for England. What happens when early wickets don’t tumble, for the bowling unit? What happens if Sciver, striding out to bat, can’t find her Superwoman suit? How can Brunt be batting 7? What level *really*, are Dean and Cross working at, ball-in-hand?

We cannot address any of these issues without re-stating the specialness of Australia; without revisiting the clear yellow water between Oz and everybody else. But let’s assume – as England will – that they are the standard to which they aspire. Simply no point in aiming towards Indian or South African ‘ceilings’: how well Ecclestone – to take the extreme and uppermost example – goes against that second tier, is irrelevant to progress. England must address the towering spinner’s relative failure to impact the fixtures against Australia. (Go look at the stats. Interesting).

Watching Ecclestone go for 70-odd in her ten overs (again) was no real surprise – Australia, we know, are *that good* – but Keightley and co (as well as the bowler) must look at the specifics around that, as well as the general impregnability of the Australian line-up. All of us with an opinion to hurl were saying, before the game, that England must find a way to knock over seven or eight Aussie wickets to stand any chance. It didn’t happen. Three toughish chances were dropped and by the time wickets fell, a platform the size of a South Sea island had been built.

It may have been that Lanning, Mooney and Perry didn’t need that incredi-base to free them up – such is their confidence and skill. But having a mighty lump of runs behind you does *change things*. I might have gone in there and fearlessly biffed a few, in those last ten overs. Australia, without me, struck 120 runs off the last 60 balls(!) Strewth. No wonder the record books were exploding.

Final thought on the Australian batting. Perry. This may be sentimental but how wonderful to see her just do enough, in her limited time at the crease, to offer a wee sense of her choiceness, her flow. Unwise words both but she remains a goddess of the game, a natural – as demonstrated by her exhibition in the field, where she gathered and threw splendidly.

To England, and particulars of their game. Wyatt could not maintain her own, superlative form, of the semi and, despite being England’s best fielder, she dropped a sharpish chance, at point. (That, in hindsight seems a little symbolic… and despite the Independence of All Things, it felt a little like that precipitated further drops from Sciver and Beaumont). Opening-up, as always, Beaumont fell earlyish, too, again playing across – something she may need to re-address. Early-doors, England stayed ahead of the run-rate, but a killer partnership never seemed likely: compare and contrast(?)

Knight could not resist: England’s platform was therefore creditable but wobbly. Jones, joining Sciver, found a few shots but fell off again. Dunkley, in at 6, felt like the last significant protagonist… with a zillion runs still to make. When she was bowled, rather unsatisfactorily, behind here legs, Sciver, going mightily once more, looked stranded – or likely to be so.(As she approached her hundred, this tingled, uncomfortably).

Ultimately, Sciver nailed an extraordinary second century against This Australia, in the tournament: defiance, and then some.

Brunt went, Dean offered meaningful but sadly un-sustainable support and Cross and Shrubsole went cheaply. In short justice was done, and by about the right margin. Another Australian Team For the Ages had powered home, with Healy playing the kind of knock that even Poms like me might raise a glass to.

On a spectacular day, the team in blinding yellow had re-invented the possibles again. Thrillingly.

Universe podcast, : #CWC22, five dangerous themes.

Get that Twitter doesn’t do irony, so expect to be in trouble again, creditibility-wise, as I tear into Media Coverage by erm, ranting unrehearsed. (Do like a bitta mischief. 🤓)

However, there is the occasional worthwhile obsevation, in here, I venture. So have a listen?

Point 1 is about the very mixed coverage – so mainly pointing at Sky… but not just them. Clearly there are some brilliant broadcasters out there but it pisses me off we don’t see too much of them (for women’s coverage).

Do I need to add that clearly there are some brilliant women broadcasters… but that as per the blokes, some are either shockingly bland, air-headed or dull? And we deserve better. So hang the producers. This is not about the sex of the people; it’s about their quality… or the quality of some of them. Loads of viewers reach straight for the mute button: that ain’t right.

Points 2-5 are probably less contentious. I talk about cricket. But yeh, go see. Or listen.

Footnote: should have mentioned Kate Cross, in here. Good athlete, good, consistent bowler and great Team Member. Her nibbly wee fifth-stumpers may well contribute, should England prosper. (Have a slight fear Aus may target her, precisely because of that consistency but really hope she goes well).

Knight is due.

That same England that we fans were cursing found a higher-astral-plane cruising-mode to render everything a nonsense, earlier. Of course they did. Because a) everything IS a nonsense, b) this was a semi and c) THEY ALWAYS WERE #thebestteamintheworldthatisntAustralia.

Yes. They were. Even when Shrubsole and Brunt looked painfully out of sorts, the coach looked weirdly like a mildly disinterested knitting champion and Wyatt, Jones and everybody but Sciver and Dunkley looked like toast-in-the-waiting. In short, even when England were ’embarrassing’, those of us who have been paying attention (over days/weeks/years) knew that they had ‘performances in them’. That they really were better than India/WIndies/South Africa – that they were, in fact, the only meaningful challengers to the Aussie juggernaut.

Does this mean I/we take back our vitriol, from the last month? (Even the frankly unkind stuff about Shrubsole’s condition?) No. ‘Fraid not. Despite the thrilling excellence of Anya’s opening burst – despite, even, the fine, diving grab for the Wolvaardt wicket, Shrubsole is not absolved. She like every other International Professional Athlete should be ticking the I.P.A box in terms of fitness and agility. Likewise Jones and Wyatt (etc, etc) should be ticking the Avoid The Ludicrous Lazy Gift box, when wielding the willow of Ingerland. This stuff matters: there are responsibilities in play, yes?

But ‘end of’. Look at the scoreboard; look at the table; look at the history books. They already say ‘Holders, England are through to another final’. I’m bloody delighted to see that. What’s more, I think they have a chance of raising the trophy at the end of all of this: they can’t be favourites but they have a chance because England have come through, ultimately, in real, important, creditable style… but yeh, they were crap for toooo long, in this event.

Wyatt seized the day. She swished and cut and drove compelling (but not flawlessly) to a hundred and more, piercing the field with that characteristically lithe power, but also teasing them with the occasional near-fatal miscue. (Bottom line, she should have been on her way but for some poor efforts to snaffle an admittedly wind and/or spin-affected ball. Even the god-like (goddess-like?) and god-loving Kapp was guilty of a strangely discordant fluff. Wyatt swatted on).

Seasoned watchers will know that despite some evidence to the contrary, in #CWC22, it is England’s fielding that sets them apart and above the ‘minor players’ in the hierarchy of the world game. They are generally at a higher professional level: perhaps they should be, given the relative investments – the ‘resources’. However the keys to this semi-final were fundamental, not general. Wyatt and the now convincingly prolific Dunkley batted best; Ecclestone’s bowling was just too good.

Beaumont biffed the very first ball from Ismail to the boundary but was then in a pickle. Knight, though understandably fixated on batting long, got utterly stuck, failing to hit anything for an age, lest she offer a chance, then falling plumb for a disconcerting and potentially demoralising single run scored. Sciver smashed a stunning pull shot, nuttily, beautifully, then was cramped to another short one from Kapp, and merely spooned it to the ring. Jones, for the umpteenth time, threatened to unleash some quality but managed instead to ‘fail’ and fall, in another gift-wrapped, despairing moment.

In the middle of the night I had posted my own target before a tactical (3 hour, work-necessary) retreat: on this pitch, England must get 260 or 70. The pitch was obviously true-ish. Somebody was obviously going to go biggish. I hoped – but then daren’t hope – for more, from the women in blue.

When I re-emerged at 6 am, coincidentally bang on the start on the South Africa reply, I was wondering if Wolvaardt might ‘do a Wyatt’ and make 120-something. She felt like a threat. Shrubsole’s completely predictable but nevertheless thrillingly challenging inswing soon undid that storyline. A further early wicket – that of Lee, caught Sciver, at short midwicket – put England in command, particularly as the batting team felt light, or lighter than England, beyond that opening pair.

None of Luus, Goodall, du Preez or Kapp failed; they all got into their twenties or a little beyond. But in the early-middle overs Cross and Dean, despite the latter being mixed, made key inroads before the Ecclestone Parade came to town.

The young woman is a phenomena. Firing in those arcing or spearing mace poles. Relentlessly and somehow joyously. At you – at your toes! Irresistible. That speed, that parting of the curtains, pre-delivery. Mind-scramblingly good.

From about the sixth over it felt a little like the Ecclestone Moment might come, might sort this. (Knight, perhaps teasing out the the drama, kept us waiting). Whether this was some sublime instinct or (more likely) simply and prosaically A Plan, we will never know. In the event, it worked.

The last knockings of the South African innings became – either traumatically or deliciously – a rout. Six wickets for the Tall Girl from the North. A ‘shush’ to send off the (presumably previously lary?) Ismail. Theatre. With all this pressure on her, the ‘Best Bowler In The World’ unfussily performs. It becomes a right thrashing. England are there.

Australia are the best side in the world: England next best. It’s good that they meet. Haynes, Healy, Lanning, Mooney and Perry out-gun their English equivalents – certainly in terms of consistency. And Brunt and Shrubsole and even Ecclestone are less likely to repeatedly dent that winning machine. But this now is a final. And there will be nerves. And there may be sublime inspiration. I’m hoping it comes from England.

Knight *is due*.

Changes.

Unwise, to write whilst disappointed to the point of anger. (Unwise, actually, to get angry about sport, eh?) But I suspect that the three consecutive defeats in this #CWC22 have left those of us that are bothered about Eng Women* starting the Working Week in a right mood.

(*Nobody was watching, live, in the ground. Media coverage, though growing, will be miniscule compared to male equivalents. So yeh I’m bit cheesed orff; ’bout everything).

Lets draw up a swift Mitigating Circumstances column. To draw some of the venom. England have been pretty bad because:

Demoralised by a higher level Australian side, in a concerningly one-sided Ashes tour.

Bubbles/travel/boredom/homesickness.

Erm… something else?

These appear to be reasonably meaningful factors but do they account for manifestly below-par performances against West Indies and South Africa and that undeniable sense that England are in something of a mess? It’s right to acknowledge improvements elsewhere – ‘smaller nations’ catching up – but should that equate to or account for a steepish decline in performance levels for Heather Knight’s side?

The answer to that latter question is ‘maybe’; or, ‘it could’. Because pressure. Pressure from the rails, from under your collar, from inside the mind. England *suddenly feeling* vulnerable when they should still feel better, more solid, empowered. Because England are the second best side in the world. Meaning the answer to that question is also ‘no’.

South Africa have just beaten England in a tense but not exceptional match – certainly not, quality-wise. Player of the Match Marizanne Kapp may have thanked “her saviour” immediately after the game but she might have thanked any one a series of England fielders who again either spurned catches/stumpings or dived over balls that might have been stopped. Sour grapes? (Possibly: I’m soured, but I’m not sure anyone beyond Ecclestone can be satisfied with their contribution in the field. Given this is where England have stayed ahead of those developing sides – through what we might broadly call professional intensity and execution – the persistently shoddy work from England has felt genuinely galling).

Read the specifics of the match elsewhere. South Africa won it and deserved to win it but England’s batting was timid and one-dimensional and their fielding was badly off. Beaumont dropped an easy catch and was again, like her team-mates, ‘mixed’ – prone to dive over or past the ball. Jones, behind the sticks, was alarmingly in and out, Brunt and Shrubsole again relatively impotent.

The latter is somehow shielded from criticism (and there may be reasons for this) but it feels entirely reasonable to note that as a full-time professional athlete, in a universe where expectations have dramatically changed for the better, she is two stones too heavy… and this patently affects her fielding… and maybe to a lesser extent her bowling.

I have always been a huge fan – have gone on the record many times, to that effect. But it is not acceptable, any longer, that prime, professional athletes are so badly out of condition. This is one reason why Shrubsole should retire (and I expect her to) after this tournament; whatever happens over the remaining games. Anya Shrubsole has been a glorious intoxicant in the game, for a decade and more – arguably the best swing bowler in the world for much of that period. Now she should go.

Given that Shrubsole’s long, long-term partner is in a similar ‘twilight phase’, there’s a really fascinating link between the men and women’s international sides in respect of their opening bowlers. But I’m not going there. Katherine Brunt is (I repeat, like her colleague) one of the greats. Powerful, punchy but also loaded to the gills with a rare guilefulness, Brunt has had a low-key tournament. Could be powers fading. Could be tiredness.

There has been, quite rightly, talk of a double replacement or retirement, here. The Pretenders – notably Bell and Wong – have been drawing support concomitant to the criticism of the coach, in the absence of opportunity or ‘succession planning’. Brunt remains better and certainly more consistent than both… but sure, that proverbial clock is ticking.

All of which brings me back to the coach, Lisa Keightley. She’s done her work quietly, in the background: despite being drawn to more obviously charismatic characters, I have no issue with that. (Clearly, you don’t have to be an extrovert to be somebody people or players will follow). And yet I think she should go. The team energy has been somewhere between frail and limp, too often. There are simply too many errors going on. It feels – whatever that means – like the team lacks character. All of that is the coach’s responsibility: they are charged with making the environment.

We all have our own ideas about selection – that’s part of the joy of this, yes? My own admittedly left-field opinion, following a night in Hove where she did that thing where something ver-ry special gets announced, is that Mady Villiers had to be a fixture in this side. Maybe for that stunning, invigorating brilliance in the field alone. And Shrubsole should have been rotated in and out, or possibly simply de-selected, to bring on the newbees and recognise the modern realities re athletic non-negotiables. And, somehow, the likes of Beaumont and Jones and even Brunt should have been challenged more directly to perform or buck up, with the bat.

The squad’s felt too cosy; too willowy, even. Coach must not allow that to happen. Wyatt and Jones and Winfield-Hill endlessly gifting poor, premature dismissals to the opposition. Woeful catching becoming, or feeling predictable. Confidence paper-thin. For an age, Knight’s doughtiness, Beaumont’s application and Sciver’s power have carried the team – kept that chasing pack chasing. Now England look caught.

There is a chance that England could yet qualify. A slim one. If they do then they will be a threat, should they play to their maximum. So far, plainly, they have been devastatingly short of that aspiration. They will feel shrivelled and beaten in every sense…. and I guess I’m not helping here.

Pressure is real and not real. Keightley and Knight have to engineer the most astonishing of revivals. I hope they do it. If they don’t, then of course there must be changes.

Another field.

Just me, or did everything go foggy? Just not sure if I’m seeing straight, or walking straight. As though I’m foot-dragging, head-down – as though some impenetrable gloom is settling.

Could be the whole Ukraine shitshow, of course. Undoubtedly is. That’s monstrous and unsettling, even from this (my/our) safe distance. Cruel. But something else, something that’s going to sound on the one level insultingly melodramatic, set me off walking – quite literally – towards some light and some respite, yesterday. Deaths from another field.

My hands are up. I’m plainly one of the Poms that bridled when Marsh or Warne did their lary Australian thing: when they so mischievously and powerfully stoked our feeble, tribal Brit-dom. Couldn’t stand them, in the day. Too ‘in yer face’ – too Ozzy. Spent years if not decades fighting back the open vitriol against a painfully endless series of Australian Super-teams. Often it broke through and I’d be bawling at the telly like some inflamed, proto-Barmy Army clan-member, high on beer or anger or jealousy. Rod Marsh was a bull with gloves on; Warne a chopsy bamboozler. The bastards always beat us and generally smashed us. Because they were bloody sensational.

Warne is rightly being talked about in a different way. He was in a category of one. Dazzling, touched by something ver-ry special: a blonde ringmaster. Marsh was less extravagantly gifted but in terms of team humour and durability, equally a force. They were both macho men, with arses like rhinos and that toughened rhino-like skin: kings of fierce banter and apex-predator confidence. I went walking yesterday to mourn them… and to escape the crushing poignancy of our own family losses to cardiac arrest.

Then suddenly the cricket was back. Australia versus England – beautifully or cruelly(?)- in the Women’s World Cup, no less.

Earlier the fabulously dramatic (though mixed quality) New Zealand v West Indies match had cut through the seemingly universal melancholy. The White Ferns (hosts) had contrived to lose three wickets in the last over, needing only six runs to win; Deandra Dottin taking the whole “hold my beer” schemozzle to a different stratum, by returning to the match to twist the fates. Incredible, but (with all due respect) something of a warm-up act for the Ashes re-run.

In Hamilton, England chose to bowl and Brunt and Shrubsole executed, certainly with regard to control, without making the breakthroughs that were always likely to be necessary against the world’s best. Healy scored at a decent rate but was mis-timing, on a pitch that the distinctively discerning Nasser Hussain – how brilliant?!? – described, within a matter of overs as challengingly ‘tacky’. (He went on to relate just how Kate Cross’s modus operandum – length, in particular – might be central to proceedings. The fact that she didn’t quite prove him right does nothing to undermine the sparkling acuity of his observations). Haynes battled stodgily through, early on, Healy was out miscuing before Australia engaged Bat Long In Order To GO BIG mode- as they so often do.

Lanning made 86 and Haynes an increasingly dynamic 130 as the Southern Stars (are they still calling themselves that?) posted an intimidating 310 for 3. Tellingly, they had made 100 runs from the final 60 balls, with both Perry and Mooney contributing to the concluding burst. It was always likely to be too much.

England are good and were good, in that first knock. But not special. Ecclestone – a worldie of a bowler but an average, if improving fielder – might possibly have claimed two catches. Given that these were offered by Lanning and Haynes before they really opened up, this bloody hurt. Players of that quality really are going to cash in and build, if you gift them lives.

Not that England didn’t compete. Beaumont, Knight, Sciver and to a lesser extent Dunkley and Brunt can be pret-ty content with their contributions with the bat. But this is not the case – again – with Winfield-Hill, Jones and Wyatt, all of whom did that *slightly predictable* under-achievement thing.

Get that it’s hugely insulting to question anyone’s mettle… but this may be where we are with those individuals. Unquestionably players but too often(?) unable to demonstrate the toughness or resolve or whatever it is, to contribute under manifest pressure. (Unconvinced? I’ve watched them live, multiple times. You can feel it coming.).

Jones is fortunate in the sense that she is a relative fixture on account of her primacy as a ‘keeper. But she’s been infuriating, more often that not, with the bat. Can hit strikingly purely but so-o often swings without timing or sufficient confidence across the line – miscuing to the fielder. Winfield-Hill can be classical and doughty and sometimes stylishly expansive… but rarely gets past 30. Weirdly, it may be that she surrenders her place to the mercurial, popular and sometimes thrillingly positive Wyatt, who opened for an extended period before a drop in her form.

On paper England bat deep but in practice, against Real Contenders, there are questions arising. It’s true, I think that despite the development of historically less powerful (cricketing) nations, Keightley’s crew are still more professional and more accomplished than everyone else in this comp – hence the unwanted moniker as ‘The Best Side in the World That Isn’t Australia’. But there is a gap there that the Australian-born England coach will be, must be seeking to close. That gap feels more about temperament than quality, to me.

I don’t enjoy any implication that despite the presence and quality of Beaumont, Knight, Sciver and Brunt, England may lack character, but (despite posting a strong total against the world’s best side!) it sometimes registers like this. Meaning the mix needs a further shake; or particular individuals need to graft, force, grit their way back into some international form. Quite a task to do that, mid-competition.

We can’t finish on a negative, after England got within a handful of runs of a record target. Good game. Encouraging game. Next stop for the ‘Pommie Wimmin?’ Exhilarating, undeniable brilliance. Please.

On ‘Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket’, by Duncan Stone. A personal view.

Daft ‘formalities’: I’ve never met Duncan Stone but we are (how ridiculous does this sound… but how often am I saying it?) Twitter mates, or at least relate, on that venerable platform. So, knowing him as a co-‘leftie’, as a bloke with a strong social conscience, I come to this thing with a lump of sympathy. I am not, however, any kind of historian – not even of cricket. Indeed if this book was just a collection of events or historical *moments* detailing or sketching the chronological tribulations or otherwise of the game, I might personally be nodding out, here and there. It’s the actual game, that does it for me.

What this means is I had mixed expectations. And there were times when I drifted, a tad, amongst the fixing of the stories. Hang on, which league? What conference? How many teams, in which configuration? Who got excluded and which was the mob most dripping with imperialist supremacy? And who was it, again, who was right-on… and who self-righteous? Were they also implicitly or explicitly racist? And who was, yaknow, right about everything from the format to the Real Power Structures?

It’s my weakness, I suspect, not the book’s, that I felt ver-ry occasionally neck-deep in club/league detail I was never going to hold onto. I fully accept the author’s right and indeed motivation to put on the record, as he does, the Untold Story: there is a brilliance and thoroughness and drive about that meticulous intent which demands respect. Plus… Stone is right.

He is right to puncture the ludicrous pomp around ‘Gentlemen Amateurs’ and their greedy hold on the sport. From Grace the Giant (but hypocritical arse) to Graves the delusional inheritor; all these posh white gentlemen lauding it and inferring (or even proclaiming) their own specialness. As ‘amateurs’. As ‘gentlemen’. As guardians of the ‘spirit of cricket’. Stone firstly both champions and records the alternative history, of league cricket, ordinary cricket, cricket without pretensions, then he unpicks the collusions between toffs, media and governance that have always propped up the ‘traditional’ view of this game being superior. The author says “I see you” to all those through the ages who by accident or design have conflated (their own) comfortable, mono-cultural middle-classness with (their own), ‘authentic’, rather needy understanding of cricket as force for good-which-coincides-with English Greatness.

It’s political, then. Because of course the dominion – from Amateur Gentleman Player to Jerusalem-bawling (white, middle-class) Barmy Army activiste – remains. As it does in the political realm. The ECB remains. Poor visibility remains. Poor inclusion. The august BBC reporter (Agnew) is still saying that ‘cricket is a decent game, played decently’, without any sense of how loaded that statement is.

Cue the longish extract, from a blistering final chapter:

‘As much as the historical importance of the Ashes continues to prop up Test cricket in England and Australia, the global adoption of the “Spirit of Cricket” as recently as 2000 is, for anyone aware of the game’s long history of shamateurism, match-fixing, elitism and racism, little more than a corporate delusion. Domestically, the decision taken in 2003 to have the England team take to the field to Sir Edward Elgar’s version of “Jerusalem” is equally problematic. Now that the “resentful irony” of William Blake’s words are wilfully misinterpreted, this entirely contrived tradition (originally suggested by Ashes sponsor Npower) not only presents an anachronistic view of England, it reinforces the rigid monoculturalism at the heart of the Tebbit Test’.

If you don’t get that that Agnew’s (probably? Relatively?) innocent remark about decency, or the more extravagantly insensitive use of ‘Jerusalem’ by ECB/England Cricket project something unhelpful into the ether then this book will challenge you. (And that’s good). If you love cricket and history and finding stuff out, you will be riveted by ‘Different Class’ – hopefully irrespective of your political views. It does tell an untold story: that of a game “that has elevated those blessed with privilege while disenfranchising the majority who, as this book reveals, did the most to develop and sustain the game according to a very different culture.” (Page 287).

This brief review undersells the bulk of the material, which details, richly, the development of recreational cricket, previously utterly bypassed or even traduced by most historians. That disproportion of mine may be inevitable, given the noises around the game and around this book but I regret it and re-iterate my respect for the telling of that story. Mr Stone has thrown a ver-ry robust, very powerful and yes, controversial document into the mix. Read it and consider many things.

Hitting Against the Spin – & *re-thinking*.

None of us take all that much notice of cover-blurb, eh? No matter who writes it?

Oh. Okay, maybe we do – otherwise publishers wouldn’t be sticking it on there – but you know whattamean? Schmaltzy and patently untrue at worst, supportive half-truths more generally.

So when I saw ‘clever and original, but also wise’ (ED SMITH, in bold, red capitals) it barely registered. Now, I could save you all the bother of reading the following missive by just saying again that ‘Hitting Against the Spin’, by Nathan Leamon and Ben Jones, is clever and original but also wise… because it really is. Job done. Next?

Next is trying to say something more; something about reservations somewhat assuaged, ribs dug, minds re-opened, inclinations towards lurv, instinct, ‘humanity’ intelligently checked. This book is very skilled at lots of stuff but maybe particularly at making convincing arguments against assumptions. And not all of these arguments are slam-dunks of the Incontrovertible Fact variety. (As someone likely to remain on the David Byrne – “facts are useless in emergencies” – side of history, here, this feels important). One of the great strengths of this book is that it’s not adversarial. It’s too generous, as well as too clever, for that.

I am not an artsy clown but if the question is art or science then I go arts; every time. And as a coach I think of what I do (yup, even at my daft wee level) as driven more by reading the human than reading the trends/stats/’info’, or even, often, the manual for a specific skill. Appreciating what feels right (and saying something appropriate) can be every bit as key as factoring in a mountain of brilliant information. This of course doesn’t mean that I don’t completely accept that (especially at the elite end of the market) stats and analysis aren’t BIG. They are and I have no beef with them getting bigger, in the sense of providing coaches and players with important points of reference. But *in the moment*, confidence and relationships are and will remain AT LEAST AS BIG. And *the environment*, the Team Humour is BIG, too.

Leamon and Jones, whilst repeatedly skilfully shredding received wisdoms around many things, respect the space of the coach and the capacity of what I’m gonna call teaminess to influence, positively – or otherwise. They also deconstruct cuddly but deeply flawed assumptions around (for example) bowling full, whilst appreciating and indeed positing context – ie. venue/bowler/batter/conditions – into the statistical judgement. It is not, therefore, adversarial. It’s persuasive. It’s fair. Again, I congratulate these two gents on that. I, for one, being a softie and a sucker for the poetry in any game, might have been driven further towards romantic delusion should this book have chosen to shout certainties. Hitting Against the Spin is too wise for that.

So (even) I looked hard at the graphs and diagrams. Even I, with my ver-ry limited interest in the IPL and the BBL worked to pick up the inferences from games and leagues that honestly don’t matter much to me. Why? Because the book earns that kind of respect – because it’s good that my/our(?) well-meaning but maybe dumb tribalism be challenged and educated. Because obviously stuff that happens in India/Aus/Pakistan can be both bloody fascinating and revealing of wider themes: we don’t have to be personally invested to be interested, entertained, schooled. (Not unrelated note: the subtitle for this book is ‘How Cricket Really Works’. This is not hollow bluster; the authors’ worldly experience is compellingly instructive around a range of strategies, from short-format drafts, to bowling options).

Go read this book. Maybe particularly if you have concerns about ‘analysis’. Stats and the intuition or brilliance or understanding or generosity or soulfulness (goddammit) of real people are not mutually exclusive. Coaches can and will still change the universe by putting an arm round. Genius will still find a way to thrill and confound us, because though ‘the numbers are there’, events may gloriously subvert them. Data may indeed, as the book says, “democratise truth”, but life and sport will always be wonderfully, stirringly anarchic. Thank god.

Bairstow.

Some things, we know, go right past sport. Some of those things are hard to approach – reckless to approach, perhaps? Tough to get in there without offending. Tough and possibly quite wrong to speculate over things that course so deeply. So, no offence but…

Jonny Bairstow. Cricket *and everything* in the blood. Son of an England ‘keeper. Half-brother to Andrew, formerly of Derbyshire. First Winner of the Wisden Schools Young Cricketer of the Year, for walloping 600-plus runs for St Peter’s School, York, back in 2007. So does have Yorkshire Grit but of the relatively polished, or privileged variety. (Not that he can help that. And not that he ever strikes you as any sort of toff. His oeuvre, or let’s call it manner, despite a certain pomp, is closer to working-class hero than flouncy sophisticate ).

2016, scores 1470 Test runs, almost doubling Matt Prior’s existing record: compare with England’s current crop… and with his own tally of 391, for 2021 (if I’m reading cricinfo correctly). So numbers. But numbers don’t account for tragedy, or bloody-mindedness, or value to the team: not really. Bairstow’s value has always been about punchiness and spirit and undeniability. He’s the guy who does the bullocking, the sprinting, the (mostly) undemonstrative aggression. He’s fired-up, Proper Yorkshire, in fact – and Proper Red-head.

His role as a white-ball opener has been spectacularly successful. The Test batting less so – or it’s felt for three or four years like his place is under some threat. Prone to getting bowled, early-doors. Great counter-attacker but sometimes not equipped for a long, slowish knock. Is there also a sense that, being drawn to drama, Bairstow’s juices simply don’t always flow? That he responds to situations which demand heroics? Despite being plainly a mentally and physically tough guy, his contributions seem fickle – less reliable than his personality and grit and gifts would suggest. Plus that whole other thing about taking the gloves or not.

But hey. Before the furore-in-a-beer-glass over comments about his weight, I did tweet to query JB’s body-shape. Impolite and unnecessary, possibly, but all I meant was a) he looks like he’s put on a few pounds and b) therefore looked less like a battle-ready international sportsman. I think we’re entitled to ask that of our elite athletes but Jonny answered me in the way he and Stokesy answered the mouthy Australian fans – by scoring big runs and racing between the sticks faster than almost anybody on the planet; as per. So maybe my dumb observations were dumb observations. The thing is Bairstow defied: again.

This feels like the crux. Bairstow may be carrying impossible hurt – why wouldn’t he be? As well as the family catastrophe, or possibly entwined amongst unfathomable grief and anger and trauma, Bairstow somehow feels like the bloke who wants to wade in there carrying some flag. He’s proud, strong, hearty and the hurt flows near to the surface.

I reckon this might possibly make him hard to manage – but again, I may be speculating wrongly and quite inappropriately. How could he not be occasionally dour and moody, as well as inspiring and true, as a mate, colleague, comrade? How does the coach or selector appreciate or quantify that? When his often god-like or warrior-like brassiness and boldness is surely tailor-made for those moments when ‘the tough get going?’ Meaning you absolutely need some Bairstow in your squad.

Conversely, I get that judgements must be made about technical skills and the relative qualities of team members: the mix. But Jonny’s gift to the mix is emphatic in terms of energy and emotion.

Jonny Bairstow knows he is entitled to bugger all but he will still feel that he’s earned stuff. He has that fire and that Yorkie stubbornness. He is likely plenty perverse enough to be driven on by resentment, against slights from media, coaches, fans, fellow players. Because he’s a broad, bellowing, beautiful battler.

Ashes Churn.

So we’re all exasperated and hurt, then. And that hurt may be good. We may yet bawl or bundle People towards Progress. Maybe. In a tidal wave of New Year Resolutions, Harrison will confess whilst weeping pitifully, Private Schools will be abolished, the MCC Members will swap the daft yellow and red stuff for hair shirts and the Tory Party will disintegrate in shame. Because Things Can Only (and Must Only) Get Better, right? And This Means Everything.

The Brit Universe is g-nashing over the Ashes. We’re all Experts and we’re All Legitimate Fans and we All Attend County Champs Games, Regularly, Jeff. We all have The Right To The Loudest Opinion, Ever. (Me included). Our exclusive claim on Knowing is being Twittered and Vodcasted to the heavens. Our brilliance and their dumbness is Completely Obvious, Maureen, in a brutally sweeping, sexually-charged and capitalised kindofaway. Because this is righteously simple.

Except it’s not.

Coaching and Coaching Philosophy is/are not simple. Strategic planning and respectful scheduling are not simple. Mental Health is not simple. Daft, daft games are not simple.

Let’s start with coaching – coaching and captaincy and the art of deciding.

Interesting that the likes of Rob Key – medium-intelligent voice, close to the action – has been so-o clear that Silverwood is utterly ‘out of his depth’. Others make the argument that Giles, in gathering power in to the former England paceman/enforcer, has put his Head Coach in a suffocating head-lock: just too much to do, think about, organise, decide upon. Certainly most of us outsiders can find a favourite clanger for this series, whether it be that first Test selection or the return of Crawley, or the dropping of Burns. There is plenty scope for gleeful dismemberment of Silverwood’s more contentious calls.

Now I’m not a prevaricator by nature but I’m less sure than some of you that Silverwood has to go. And I’m less sure again that despite Root being an average captain rather than a brilliant one, he should join his gaffer on the Discarded on Merit pile.

Firstly, not been close to Silverwood, so not seen how his interactions with players are. Secondly, have disagreed with several of the decisions around selection/toss/strategy but that can happen with good coaches, too, right? (‘Game of opinions, Dave’). Forty-ninethly, although it plainly might be that he’s not up to it – and of course the woeful capitulation is traditionally laid essentially at the gaffer’s door, in elite sport – only Farbrace springs immediately to mind as a preferred candidate… and he… yaknow… was there before, pretty much. So in short I guess I’m thinking the summary execution of Silverwood and Root might feel righteous but achieve not so much.

(Sixty-twothly – and the absence of similar views make me fear that I may be missing something here – what about Thorpe? Has G Thorpe Esq not been batting coach for like, years? Why no grief in his direction? Even if he’s the Greatest Bloke Ever, or whatever, does he not hold a hoooge chunk of responsibility? Is he not the ultimate in You Had One Jobbery? Don’t geddit: how he seems to escape scrutiny. Good luck to him… but seems extraordinary).

But breeeeeeathe. Zooming out, there are cultural issues, from shamefully-distracted money-driven policy to exclusion by malice, stealth and/or by toff-dom. Privilege still waiving its todger at us, like some Eton-educated clown. In *that matrix*, bonuses get paid to *this ECB*: the universe really is that warped. But let’s get back to coaching – to batting – because despite what the needier, more distracted corners of Twitter are saying, it was England’s batting that decided the Ashes.

Understandably, there have been some pointed and intelligent reflections on both the technical specifics and wider framing of batting skills and/or the coaching thereof. It’s not just embittered former internationals who are saying the modern player lacks discipline and the modern coach is typically twiddling his/her way through a kind of woke manual. But even this preciously guarded, pleasingly heartfelt ‘debate’ needs to take care around over-simplification.

Yes, it is true that the ECB Coaching Pathway shifted away from instructive, demonstrative coaching towards ‘Core Principles’ and ‘player ownership’. The coach has been invited to be less of an auteur/maestro and more of a skilled inquisitor: the argument being that the traditional format of oldish blokes barking instructions at more or less intimidated ‘pupils’ was a crass way and an ineffective way for players to *actually learn*. (I have some sympathy with this view). But could be that this Generous Modern Way works great for Dynamos but less well for Dom Sibley. (In other words, maybe this is complex and maybe entitlements and protocols and levels of both enquiry and expectation are so bloo-dee different that it’s a nonsense to only approach from the one, holistically-nourishing angle, or imagine that things don’t change as you clamber up the performance ladder?)

It seems absolutely right for a cheery old sod like me to be inspiringly lovely and friendly and encouraging, as I trip out my rhetorical questions to Llanrhian Juniors. But it may be okay – not ideal, but okaaay – for an England coach to shout, swear and tear strips off players who don’t effing get it. Elite sport is, perhaps regrettably, tough. You are gonna have to be a robust individual: tough enough to bear the #bantz and the barrage of bouncers. Tough enough to ‘wear a few’, on and off the pitch. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to expect that amongst the essential support, camaraderie and joy, there will be challenge, discomfort even, on the road to (their) learning.

Top end cricket – especially Test Cricket, especially batting? – is surely about the ability to resist, to offer sustained and disciplined excellence. You hope, (I imagine) that you can break through into the peace of playing your game. But there may be a period – a cruel period – of mindful doggedness on the way there.

This tour – again – the England batters got nowhere near. Except Root. And sometimes Malan. The rest looked generally shot, or technically ill-equipped to compete. Rightly then, we are asking about what Test Batting needs to look like. Deliciously, once the rage subsides, we may need to consider whether levering-back towards particular ways is wise or possible – or what, precisely, we proscribe against. Just how orthodox is the fella Smith, for Aus, for example?

Against a good Aussie team, not a great one, neither England’s will nor skill seemed up to it. So we’re all angry, we’re all piling in on Silverwood, Harrison, Giles. Fair enough. But as we tear through issues around bat pathway and summer schedules and the dispiriting mean-ness of everything, let’s get our brainy heads on; before the Ashes Churn gets going again.