Bigger than the Winning.

Winning is great. It’s gratifying and exciting and sometimes it replenishes us. Sometimes, too, it does that Stamp the Dirt Down thing where we relish the defeat of an old foe or maybe just the bunch of bastards who actually tried to start a fight, in our local league game, or wherever.

We may or may not allow ourselves to recognise the moral/ethical dimension(s) around that win: we may be too drunk, too thinly happy, or too desperate for the points to care. But mostly I think we do care about the quality of winning – the cut of the contest.

I don’t buy this stuff from footie pundits, for example, about fans ‘only caring’ about the table, or the silverware. Call me deluded but I reckon most of us are better than that. (I know there are dangers, here – chiefly the very real possibility that I’m going to sound pompous or judgemental or superior… but bugger it I can live with that. To strip out the aesthetic & emotive characteristics or attributes from sport is just pitifully stupid, surely?)

It’s true that I’m a certain age. It’s true that (despite that) I know naff all about philosophy and yet it feels absurd not to offer the observation that winning/losing/playing has inherently some qualitative richness that arises and transfers because of deepish appreciations – some of which are instinctive (arguably) – and yet also complex, profound and abstract.

Wow. What a game that was. Can hardly believe it. Danny was sensational, Sarah unbeleeeeeevable and what a joy to see the youngster do that! What was the score, again?

To strike the ball like that, to there, with that level of control; ridiculous. To fling yourself, like that – bloody ex-traor-dinary. To come back from there… fantastic.

Drama and heroics (true heroics!) and crazy-commitment and these zillion gifts to sport trump or kaleidoscopically locate mere victory. For me. Always have.

Call me old-fashioned – call me anything you like. Winning is great but to say it is everything makes Jeremy Kyles of all of us. It’s crass, it’s stupid and though it may be *popular*, it’s a simple travesty.

Why all this psycho-cobblers? Not sure. Other than I’ve been loving the cricket – the England v Pakistan One-Dayers. Went to Cardiff, listened to the others on the radio, chiefly. Happy to out myself as both a lover of 50 over cricket and of the Sound Of Things.

We might hear, we might accept that these matches have been ‘yet more proof’ that the game has turned boomtastically in the batters favour: debatable, perhaps and plainly dependent on ground and atmospheric conditions… but let’s move on. Other than that, they’ve felt roundly magnificent.

What’s not to like about the combination of fearlessness and sheer, finely-honed class of, well, most of the England line-up in this format? Buttler is an obvious, mercurial worldie-of-a-gem but Morgan and Root and Bairstow and Buttler are extraordinarily good, too, yes?

A really good Pakistan side, offering some real quality themselves with both bat and ball are being pret-ty serenely seen off. But the games have been contests. The level of entertainment has been fantastic. The level of skill – skill, not just blasting to the boundary – from Roy and the rest has been quite wonderful to watch. Pakistan have made a genuine contribution – one which I genuinely think has been appreciated by both sets of fans.

But England have won – and England have a real chance of winning the upcoming tourney. All this is fandabbydozy. But mainly, or especially, or significantly… because of the manner of all this. There’s something beautiful – yes, beautiful – about how this has been.

Okaaay there’s a smidge of partisanship in any statement of that sort but these games have been overwhelmingly fine; positive and richly enjoyable to the extent that any watcher or listener of any persuasion would surely have been captivated, captured by the quality of the action. And this could be bigger than the winning.

Pakistan are more than decent. It may be that their fielding has been too ropey and their batting a touch lacking in extravagance but these are relative: relative to a magnificently good team… who happen to be England. And that inevitable tribal-fixation-thing – supporting, being ‘of’ something – is only a part of a wonderful, winning whole.

 

 

#SophiaGardens #Cardiff. #Eng v #Pakistan.

Some reflections, morning after. Good competitive game, with both sides producing some nicely-tuned cricket, on a true but blandish pitch.

Feels like England won out because a) Pakistan were a tad too respectful (when batting) a tad too long. They needed a few more: were they hoping or expecting that England minus One Or Two Boomtastic Stars would be a significant notch down?

b) Morgan. And Root and Vince and actually Denly… were tremendously composed, even with 8/9/10 per over to shoot for.

c) Without actually having anyone Utterly On Fire with the ball in hand, England’s mix and experience shaded it. Jofra was a threat, Jordan was testing and Willey and Rashid provided very different challenges. (Having said that, Pakistan bowled well enough – the quicks nailing as many fine yorkers as Archer and Jordan did. This was a game… with not much in it).

I under-estimated Denly’s stoutness and clean-hitting pre- those final overs. And though I said nothing here below, I maybe needed a reminder of just how good Morgan is. There’s something quietly magnificent about his relentless belief; his refusal to compromise; his slapping it all over.

So the day was fine: Cardiff looked fine and the contest was sharply but agreeably joined. As so often the case, the guys and gals at Glamorgan Cricket did an excellent job – but with another relatively lukewarm response from the paying public. 

Here’s how the game *seemed*, live –

Cardiff is beautiful and bright… and then less so. Clouds. Coolish.

Noon to one-ish. The crowd ambles in, or begins to. Lowish numbers feel likely.

Two p.m. and the players at least are building, via their footie (England) and their bowling and fielding drills (Pakistan). Around the stadium, meanwhile, you can’t help but hope that the intensity of all this will rise, sharply, as the *scene* is top-quality but the *vibe* less so. Still the sun returns and Jofra is bouncy and smily in the outfield, so let’s hope.

Morgan is busy and committed under the high ball as the teams are announced. No Plunkett, for England. Duckett and Denly in, along with Jordan. Pakistan will bat – chose to bat. Salt unsprinkled.

As the moment nears the crowd approaches the ‘decent’ mark but the cloud increases as “Jerusalem” booms around; make of that what you will. Could be that Wales doesn’t do Imperialist Pomp – who knew?

Willey will open the bowling, running in towards the river. Morgan’s keks are flapping fairly violently as he discusses The Plan at the wicket.

Single steered straight off the first ball, which looked a loosener. Second called a wide; started out there and never shifted.

Some decent straightish stuff, from Willey, met with straightish bats, from Azam and Zaman. 6 from the over. Minor runout scare, fifth ball up. Over to Curry.

Each batsman collects a boundary off the Surrey man before the left-hander Zaman miscues to mid-off, where Morgan reaches high to catch. 16 for 1.

Then OOPS, pitch calamity. Willey runs in over what appears to be a drainage or watering point, and scuffs up about half of Glamorgan. In the finest tradition of Working Blokes The World Over, a crowd surround the mending operation: soon enough, the hole is filled/sorted/dealt with.

Apropos absolutely bugger all, Willey’s hair has to be a fine – if not outright exclusion from the squad. Tied and pulled back, like some Real Madrid wannabee. As if to reinforce that prejudice, Azam dismisses him to the boundary, past mid-off, for the game’s best moment so far.

Archer. In – scuttling in, rather, suggesting he’s not absolutely at full-tilt? – and/but bowling at 91.4 mph third ball.   He *inconveniences* Imam-Ul-Haq with that pace, mind, Foakes easily taking the looping catch. Good over from the new man; Pakistan are 31 for 2 off 5.

(My initial thought was that if Jofra really ran in… then WOW. And also – after a fairly duff dive out in the deep moments later – could it be that he isn’t that great an athlete? Surely not? Will be watching very closely).

Jordan, from the River End, hitting the pitch pret-ty hard. Then dropping 10 mph. Wily.

Rashid will bowl the 7th. Smooth, controlled, no dramas. 42 for 2.

Jordan again looks to be generating decent pace – all off a shortish wind-up. He is momentarily bowling a tad short; Sohail smashes him out to deep midwicket…. and it’s safe, before cutting skilfully over backward point. Pakistan still playing relatively within themselves. They reach 57 for 2 after 8 with another boundary – this time from Azam, who has 22.

First 6 hoisted off Rashid, to roars from the fans in green. Great strike, well into the crowd at long-on. Change of pace and change of venue for Archer, who will bowl the 10th from the River End.

He’s unlucky twice, maybe, conceding a streaky four through the vacant slip area, then Foakes arguably moves early to leg and denies himself a possible diving catch t’other way.

Archer’s movement is fine (doh! I’m belatedly concluding); he just has less knee-lift than some other tall guys. Better not crucify the lad for not being Michael Holding. Meanwhile Sohail and Azam are moving along nicely enough. After Rashid bowls the 11th, Pakistan are 90 for 2.

Denly comes on. Before he bowls even one, I wonder if they’ll target him. The first is an absolute pie, the second not much better: 10 to the score. Azam gets to 50. The England man does regain his composure somewhat but a statement has been made against him. 111 for 2 after 13.

Willey returns and again looks to be slapping it into the pitch. Highish risk? With only two down, the visitors can surely risk a few flailing heaves or uppish glides? A goodish score is on.

Two wides in the over – both outside off. Predictably, Curran replaces Denly, with Sohail on 49. The batsman does well to keep out a great yorker and move to his 50. Jordan saves two with a brilliant diving stop as that yorker becomes a tasty full-toss. Pakistan seem in some level of control, here – ominously, perhaps. 133 for 2 after 15, with Sohail on 50 and Azam on 64.

Archer back – and claiming an important wicket – that of Sohail. Again it could be that extra zap and bounce plays a part; slight top edge out to deep midwicket, caught comfortably enough by Willey.

Then another moment of quality from Archer – possibly an important one, with World Cup Questions in play. With the batsmen scrambling, he composes himself, utterly, sets his feet and throws down the wicket. Azam is gone for 65. Meaning two new batsmen at the crease.

Jordan will bowl the 17th from beneath us, in the Media Centre. Almost comically, he parries a return catch before realising Ali is hopelessly stranded, mid-strip. Jordan could draw on a ciggie, pick his nose and still run the fella out. Instead he nonchalantly flattens the stumps. See ya!

Archer again. What I’m really liking now, is that beautiful high hand – making an extended, powerful arc – and developing real pace. First ball is a peach of a yorker, barely dug out. 4 overs, 2 for 29, for Jofra, which may be a tad less than he’s deserved: been good.

Rashid will bowl the penultimate. He is swatted downtown for four second ball but it’s a tidy over. Pakistan will begin the last with 157 for 5 on the board. Jordan will bowl it.

Wasim smashes one back at him – and the bowler bravely sticks a mitt out for it. Uncatchable and bloody painful, you would think; saved a four. Then a yorker is dispatched, straightish. Feels fairish when Denly pouches a straightforward one in the covers – Jordan’s earned that.

He has no further luck, however, as a couple of streaky fours take the visitors to 173 for 6. Seems competitive (there’s been little in this for the bowlers) but much will depend on how Englands’ ‘returnees’, principally Duckett and Vince fare, you suspect.

Wasim (the local!) will bowl left-arm spin to Vince, to start. One. Then to Duckett. One. We proceed non-violently but a misfield allows a three to England and we reach 7 for 0, before pace in the form of Ashraf, for the second. Understandably, it’s ‘quietish’.

Not for long. Vince unleashes a short-arm on-drive thing, for six. More good running brings a further three for Duckett. 17 for 0 after 2. Shaheen Afridi – left-arm quick – will bowl the 3rd.

Duckett greets him with a lovely off-drive for four, before swishing rather, then slashing to extra-cover. Gone, lamely, for 9. Enter Root. Plenty of quality, then, for England. Guessing they might look to persist… and exploit that.

Hasnain’s half-tracker is eventually called wide, in the 4th. He over-compensates, and Root eases the ball out past extra-cover for his first boundary. Vince follows that with an elegant back-foot push for four more, taking England to 38 for 1 off 5. Vince has 23 in decent time. Root’s running is notably determined and swift.

There really doesn’t seem to be much help here for the bowlers – in the air or off the pitch. May suggest England can really launch through the ball later. If Root and Vince can take this deepish, I’m thinking a major boomathon is possible; if necessary.

Back to spin (and Wasim) for the 7th. Root deflecting, Vince calm.

Hasnain, Wasim and co are working at this, but there is very little to really trouble England, thus far. No-risk cricket is enough – for now.

*From nowhere*, Vince is given out, caught behind, off Wasim. Some of us in the Media Centre thinking that noise may have been bat on ground. Tough one, for Vince – gone for 36. Enter Morgan, with the sky brightening.

The skipper wastes no time, hoisting fearlessly to backward square leg for four. Game feels on at 75 for 2 off 9.

Ridicucute, from Root, who reverse-scoops Wasim for four over the keeper. Morgan, ever the counter-attacker, straight-hoists Faheem Ashraf for six, then hoiks him for four, then slashes-but-connects for another four over extra. Root may sit, then, whilst the left-hander blazes?

Hasnain is in for the 13th, his team-mates tapping and clapping their approval at a couple of precious dot-balls. Then a third. But Root comes back with another over-the-shoulder job; four, to fine-leg. England need 69 off 42.

Root changes his bat, then unleashes a beauty, straight, marginally to off, racing away. Not much in this but I make England favourites; only two down, conditions benign.

Class again from Root – and again deflecting rather than hitting. Glides Faheem effortlessly behind square for 4, first ball of the 15th. Good contest, mind, as the bowler absolutely nails a couple of yorkers, to limit the damage. 122 for 2, with 52 needed off the last 32.

Morgan goes big enough over square-leg. Six. Then Root, in seeking a tickle behind, gets too little and is caught, for 47. Pressure moment, for the incoming Denly. My hunch is maybe wrong bloke, but hope not.

Poor misfield gifts Morgan four. Sun rejoins us, 37 from 24 the ask. Shaheen is stretching for it but too hard – bowls a short wide. England seemingly still happy to wait… and pick the right ones.

Denly does just that, blasting a fabulous off-drive through for four. Middled. Huge, for confidence.

Morgan clubs one less elegantly over mid-off – just. The sun is at its strongest and it smiles on Denly, who French-cuts for a cruel four, leaving only 17 required from the remaining two overs.

Denly (waddooo I know?!?) delivers six of them, first up -Shaheen the unlucky bowler. Suddenly it’s 8 from 8.

Impressive, this, from England, impressive rather than gorgeous, or electrifying, or imperious – a well-executed strangle… assuming they get 7 from the last. So, Faheem Ashraf, wot you got?

Two, off the first, giving Morgan his 50: 51, in fact. Remarkably, the captain finishes it with a slightly mishit clonk, over long-off. Job done.

Good game, proper game, superbly judged by England. Entertaining and cool, with strong contributions from Archer and (I thought) Jordan in the field, before all of Vince, Root, Morgan and Denly turned up with the bat. An allegedly second-string side looking more than competent.  Now then, what’s next?

Same old.

We’re all talking about the same stuff: England’s dreaming. Both in the possessive sense and the *actual*. Plus with reference to a certain J Lydon Esquire, as he snarled at the diminishing future.

England sleepwalking, England, infuriatingly, prepped and cossetted and armed to the gills with i.n.f.o.r.m.a.t.i.o.n. but somehow languidly dopey; as if nothing’s registered. As if either exhausted by all this ‘coaching’, or simply not that arsed.

I’m pretty clear, in fact that both ends of the team (all members of the team, actually) are arsed – are committed. Think Cook and then Wood. Strike you as determined, honest, committed individuals? Course they do.

Cook is about as diligent and coolly determined a bloke as you are likely to find. Wood is ballsy, witty and sharply competitive. So yes they may, in this laughably, loafingly lily-livered era have waaaay too many things too easy but this is not the same as them not caring enough (about test cricket.)

However there is an issue. Clearly. Or some issues.

When Root wafts seemingly lazily outside off, to fatal effect, we all feel both disappointment and anger because we feel let down and because most of us reckon the dismissal is poor – unacceptably poor – given the state of the game. We wonder what the hell he was thinking.

It feels extraordinary, too, that Stoneman (for example) could be so easily befuddled and bowled, when top order batsmen should base their game around impenetrable defence of the sticks. Surely that’s a given: you only get bowled by an absolute pearler? It’s a matter of pride – it’s a kindof rule. Like being watchful and respectful is a rule; or possibly two.

(Ten minutes after I write this paragraph, Stoneman is bowled again).

So, how come we’re seeing so many simple errors? And how come England haven’t addressed what appear to be strikingly recurrent issues? Are they really in dreamland?

Check out all over. Read George Dobell or listen to Michael Vaughan; there’s what we might call an intelligent consensus emerging. George has been brilliantly unpicking both the strategic shortcomings and individual issues for aeons, whilst Vaughan has rather fascinatingly veered from bolshy positivist to Sage of the Old Disciplines more recently.

What’s widely shared, is the belief that white-ball-tastic ‘freedoms’ do not always successfully transplant into the longer form. (Like WOW, who knew?!?)

It may be almost insultingly obvious to some of us, but apparently the relentlessly ‘instinctive’ batting exemplified by Buttler and co may not always be the way to go in Test Cricket. Well – *adopts the voice of his father, from 1974* – bugger me!

I do not mean to slander Buttler – or even knock his inclusion at Lords. The fella’s remarkable, touched by genius, so please understand he is merely a symbol, here. The wider point is that most of us are clear that Test Cricket demands application as well as talent. And it’s mindcrushingly astonishing that this argument seems still to have bypassed Bayliss and England.

How to explain this, though? How could even reasonably dedicated professionals fail to address stuff that’s been so blindingly obvious to most supporters and commentators for so long? Test Cricket is tough, sometimes; you have to earn your right to compete. In England, earlyish, you have to be unsexily dull, to offer more grit than colour, bat long.

The precedence of white ball cricket is surely a factor. In terms of scheduling, there can be no doubt where the ECB see the priorities moving forward. Consequently, we might argue that the majority of England players are unready for Test Cricket (now).

Bayliss and Root are most responsible for selection and state of readiness. In short I expect Bayliss to be relieved of his Test role rather soon: Root in a way is more of a concern, it feeling entirely possible that his confidence and authority are threatened by both his own and the team’s lacklustre performances. He needs not only runs but the sense that he can galvanise his team, to return swiftly.

But back to the precise hows. How can England play such dumb cricket. Unclear leadership? Too much unintelligent positivity? Nerves? That lack of application thing. All of these things and more?

Can I just try to nail something? The idea that if you rail against ‘undisciplined cricket’ you are automatically old, boring and reactionary. That you don’t get and can’t somehow enjoy Kohli or De Villiers or Stokes or Buttler at their electrifying peak. Cobblers. I (many of us) love aggressive, expressive, expansive cricket but are perdy darn sure you can’t play that way whilst wickets are tumbling early, in a five day Test Match. (You may be able to play that way at some stage in a five day Test Match but mostly you grind things out, get comfortable, secure yourself, then ‘play’).

In the current inquisition we have to acknowledge Pakistan’s good work. As I write – lunch now, Saturday – they have comprehensively outplayed England (in May, at Lords, with cloud about) in every department of the game. Chapeau.

It’s churlish at best to note that this Pakistan side is not special, that’s it’s merely goodish, proficient – that it’s performing. But Mr Bayliss and his employers do need to factor this in, however ungenerous it may seem.

This inevitably leads to more questions; about how good our best players are, for example. Root seems to be at a tipping point. When he first jogged out as skipper his boyishness, likable funkiness and joie-de-vivre seemed somewhere between encouraging and inspirational. Not so now. Patently, most England players are not as good as Root.

The level of performance in the field – though plainly not all the captain’s fault – reflects poorly on Root. Not only were catches dropped but certain field placings seemed odd (as opposed to challenging, or funky) and the (over-coached, over-discussed?) eternally-vaunted Bowling Plans seemed to fizzle to nothing. England seemed disjointed and almost dispirited, at times.

Hard to know, really, how much enthusiasm players have for their captain or coach, or whether at a deeply subconscious level they see themselves reverse-sweeping Rashid Khan for six in some cauldron on the sub-continent rather than battling it out in The Smoke, for days on end. Body language can reveal a certain amount but hey… we’re guessing.

However, it’s the job of the coach to demand focus, fitness and absolute commitment to the cause: the skipper then polices that on the pitch.  England have work to do on this. Mostly though, they have to prove to most of us that they understand the nature of Test Cricket.

All of this, in particular the widespread disappointment amongst fans, is entangled with concerns or furies about maladministration or player-comfiness or the alleged general cultural malaise. We’re angry or outraged and we really don’t like idleness – what my dad or your dad (or Sir Geoffrey) might have called ‘lack of application’.

Would be great to separate all that stuff out and really consider what’s happening on the pitch. Not easy.

As I finish, Root is re-building.

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?

Culture of spin.

Immediately post the Third Test versus Pakistan and all the talk is of the dearth of quality spin bowlers. Or at least in the UK mini-subcontinent it is. Hour upon hour or page upon page of rumination around spin stuff, which in a way… is great. Great that this (arguably) least glamorous facet of the game is in the spotlight.

Whilst inevitably unpicking the issues arising from this (ahem) turn of events, I do wonder if we can turn this moment when both armchair authorities and Cricketing Authorities are acutely engaged… into a positive?

Let’s hear what some influential peeps or tweeps have said. Michael Vaughan has been relentlessly withering on the inconsistencies or raw inadequacies of England’s 3 spinners. Boycott has just described them – slightly absurdly, but as is often the case, we know what he means- as ‘non-existent,’ in a Telegraph article. Robert Croft – from the other angle – has tweeted that

We can’t expect our batsmen 2 be consistent against the turning ball. They never have to face it in this country as no turning pitches!

There’s a comparatively rare consensus around the facts that

a) our spinners (by definition, picked to spin the ball and either take wickets or tie up an end) were ordinary, given the help they received from prevailing conditions and

b) our batsmen were too easily undone by the Pakistani equivalents. There’s a further consensus around the notion that these two phenomena are umbilically linked… to the relative void (as opposed to the fecund womb!) where our spin culture should be.

In attempting to apply my own laser-like intellect to the spin bowling issue only – for now – I’m going to do what any self-respecting bloggerist might do, and reach for a coupla subtitles.

The Individuals.
There’s always context, right? Selection is always about what’s happened before, what’s expected and what impact or contribution a player might make. Remember that.

Moeen Ali.
I was in Cardiff for the Ashes and can confirm that folks were falling for Moeen, rather. He was actually loved, for his smooth, assured batting and his energy round the place. I’m not saying he was Ben Stokes exactly – Mo’s mojo is a whole lot less spikily, edgily brilliant – but he seemed so comfortable in the environment we hoped good things might happen whenever he was involved. Often they did.

That whole Mo batting at eight ruse also worked a treat, felt like a master stroke as he moved stylishly (and critically) to 77 in the first innings. That crowd-lurv, that confidence fed into a decent return from his bowling; in the first innings he winkled out Smith and Clarke and in the second Australian knock he claimed three wickets, including that of Warner. He took a super-sharp caught and bowled (that Clarke wicket) and somehow lifted the crowd with his easy enthusiasm. It may have been the prevalence of Mo masks around the Swalec crowd but something about his quiet presence suggested he may be destined to be the face of the summer.

In fact, whilst Ar Mo certainly contributed to a flawed but uplifting Ashes victory, there was early concern around the quality of his bowling. More than that; it was generally appreciated that the Mo-at-8 thing made sense precisely because he’s not a genuine international spinner… and yet he is more than a mere makeweight. He deserves a slot, he improves the balance of the side and shores up the batting/offers a match-winning threat even, down there. He is – despite the work-in-progress-that-may-not-progress enough-ness of his bowling – a real international.

Mostly, Moeen Ali looks every inch of that but, if you look at his bowling in isolation, he doesn’t.

Samit Patel.
Is viewed as either a proper throwback kindofa cricketer, or a man out of time. Defiantly unsexy, patrolling like some amiable neighbourhood copper dangerously close to the ‘likeably portly’ category. Simply does not have that sprint and dive thing in his locker; in fact looks like he has a ham and chutney bap and a bottle of Sam Smith’s in his locker.

Samit can clearly play – as can the other two spin candidates – but he has been judged to be short of fitness and that true elite-level threat with the ball.

So if Patel is generally and rightly regarded highly and warmly by plenty but few consider him the answer to England’s spin ‘woes’, why was he picked? With all due respect he doesn’t fit the bill as England’s Future. The brutal truth is that he was selected because of injuries around the squad, then geography/’conditions’ and because okaaaaay he mi-ight do a job with bat and ball. This he did. An average job – predictably. It may have been an average selection, given short and longer term considerations.

Rashid…(however…)
is the one.

If Moeen is effectively a batsman who can bowl spin and Patel a goodish alround spin bowler and batsman, Rashid is the one we might look to with the ball.

The fact of his leggie-dom may flesh out the notion he’s a Man More Likely To, in broad terms, than the other two labouring away alongside in Sharjah. He’s different; he’s A Prospect, a threat, a candidate for bona fide spin-king status in a way that Patel and Moeen maybe aren’t – certainly aren’t. Something says he’s more likely to tear through an innings than his compadres… and that he’s young enough to invest in… and we’re entitled to be hopeful and maybe even excited about that.

And yet he proved flawed. As in-out and generally disappointing as Patel and Moeen. As Sir Geoffrey said (of all of them)
they are not accurate or disciplined enough and there are too many easy balls to score off.

Simple but true enough. Rashid, whom we hoped (and still hope?) may bring that X-factor, that extra dimension to the side, underachieved.

General (Brief) Boring Theory thing.
I reckon most of us who have flung the cherry accept that bowling leg-spin is about as difficult as bowling gets: that’s part of its allure. The cocked wrist and the snap or flip of fingers as the ball is delivered from more or less the back of the hand works against easy repetitions.

Leggies tend to really work with their wrists and/or wind up revolutions by (in particular) ripping on the seam with their third finger. It’s (in my view) a whole lot more difficult to do this consistently and with control than it is to (for example) bowl a stock off-spinner, where the clockwise ‘turning the key’ movement of the first finger is a) more easily achieved and b) more easily repeated with the necessary accuracy. At every level it’s rare to find a leggie who is both turning the ball ‘big’ and able to plop it on the right spot time after time after time.

Conclusion thing.
Time to hone your spin-king skills is available, in (UK) domestic cricket – but arguably not enough of it, or not in conducive or even ‘fair’ scenarios.  ‘Special breed’ though they may be, spinners – like everyone else – have to earn the right to play, possibly more so now than in the years when there fewer non-negotiables – when you could be unfit or relatively uni-skilled.

Ideally though things remain unchangingly straightforward; you (the spin-king) just bowl magnificently and/or with monotonous skill; meaning all arguments simply fall away.

#TMS made the point earlier that Tuffers bowled around 800-900 overs a season for Middlesex: this compares to about 300-400 for spinners in the current era. No wonder then, we seem cruelly short of international-grade spinners when the opportunities in domestic cricket are both limited and frequently unrelated to or unhelpful towards producing Test Match bowlers.

Of course the changing nature of the game itself mitigates against the kind of consistency Boycott understandably demands. Especially in Blighty where spinners are used mainly in limited overs games where variation rather than consistency is often the key. Pitches and the surge towards yet more dynamic cricket significantly undermine any spin culture we may have. This is tough; it may even brand us as philistines – myopic no-hopers – but don’t expect too much in the way of revelation or revolution too soon.

The tremendous debate underway during this, the inaugural Spin Awareness Moment is valuable but may not, I fear, amount to much. Changes a-comin’ in the structure of English domestic cricket will not, I suspect, be driven by the need to find a new Graeme Swann – or better still, nurture a spin-friendly environment. More likely we will simply sit and wait for someone extravagantly gifted and stunningly reliable to come along, wheeling in glorious isolation, against the grain.

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.