Wednesday, 7 August 2019

First Test notes: England on the Edge (again); rethinking the last day

One evening during the Test, I saw The Edge, Barney Douglas' film about England's champion side of 2009-14. I've reviewed it for the next issue of WCM so I won't cover the same ground here, but soon after I'd sent the piece, I sat and watched England fold, and it was striking how the film's themes were being played out again in real time.

The Edge is structured around England's ambition to become the number one team in world cricket. It takes them two years to get there and another couple, give or take a few months, to fall apart. There is a core of players together for the whole span, others who drop in and out, but they all become part of something bigger, something that controls them as much as they control it.

After England beat India in 2011, Andrew Strauss is handed the ICC mace, a trophy so ridiculously grandiose it could only have been conjured by sports administrators. In his talking-head interview Strauss - and what a man he is - says, "I thought, is this it?"

That sense of anticlimax is not uncommon in sport. The golfer David Duval was so driven in the early part of his career that he briefly knocked a peak-era Tiger Woods from the top of the rankings, but when he won the Open Championship in 2001, it was his final victory on tour. Ten years later, when Woods had won 14 Majors to his one, Duval lost his tour card. His decline, which he likened to "a train wreck, and the train is loaded with toxic chemicals," had many causes, but one of them, as he admitted, was that same feeling as he held the claret jug: "is this it?"

It's a complex thought, but it must stem from the emotional release of achieving a long-held goal. What's missing is the goal itself, the meaning, the purpose, the journey. That's a wholly personal experience. Sometimes it comes back and sometimes it doesn't.

This England team, like Strauss', also had a four-year project, and it was also successful. This week, Jos Buttler spoke about the World Cup win. He'd kept England alive in the final, then batted in the super over, and then gathered Jason Roy's last, fateful throw during New Zealand's. A few days later, he moved house. "What was scaring me," he said, "was that if we lost, I didn't know how I'd play cricket again. This was such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a World Cup final at Lord's. It felt like destiny, and I was thinking, if it doesn't happen, I will have no motivation to pick up a cricket bat for a very long time."

For a pro sportsman, this is a wonderfully frank thing to say. It has an obvious flipside, too. Having won rather than lost, but having gone through the ringer either way, what motivation is there to pick up a bat again, anyhow? At least, not a week or so later.

Part of what The Edge is saying is that we get so close to sport, we disassociate the performers from real life, real feelings. They never move house. They are held to impossible standards, often by their own will, but by the collective will too. We've won the World Cup, but now we want the Ashes, after you've played a game against Ireland, because that will be the perfect summer, Boy's Own stuff. 

The teams of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook played Ashes series in 2009, 2010-11, 2013 and 2013-4. They'd won the T20 World Cup, and contested series against South Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, home and away, too. The film finishes, but the schedule goes on, a World Cup disaster, a Champions Trophy, another Ashes...

This summer has put the current team through the same thing. We're still throwing brickbats from the sidelines about Jos Buttler's only Test century, Jason Roy's mad charge, the 'declines' of Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, Joe Root not converting again... We look with great and rightful sympathy at the plights of Trescothick, Flintoff, Harmison, Trott, Finn, at the broken bodies of Prior, Swann, Tremlett and the rest. You may watch The Edge and find yourself re-evaluating Kevin Pietersen's "it's hard being me" moment, as I did.

And then you realise, it's happening again, and it's happening now, to a different group of people. It's happening because this is the modern game, but we're caught up in the moment and don't take a step back to see it. England looked shot at Edgbaston because they are shot. Who the hell can blame them, and who is going to do something about it?

Rethinking Day Five

In Duncan Hamilton's wonderful new book about Neville Cardus, The Great Romantic, he recalls the Melbourne Test of 1937, when Don Bradman outflanks Gubby Allen by reversing Australia's batting order in the Aussie second innings (Chuck Fleetwood-Smith asks why he has to open, and Bradman tells him that the only way to get out on this wicket is to hit the ball, and as Fleetwood-Smith never could do that... Chuck gets a duck anyway). Bradman made 270 from number seven and Australia won by a street.

If I was a proper journalist I'd try and find the stats of England batting out day five in the modern era. I'm not so I won't, but it doesn't happen very often. And yet every time, they do exactly the same thing. And they lose, and we all get annoyed about 'white ball techniques' and lack of sticks of rhubarb or whatever it is that causes them to be all out by 3pm.

What they never try is something different. Maybe not reversing the order (although if it's good enough for the Don...), but at least attempting to fit some tactics to the situation, rather than the meaningless "bat time" or "see where we are at lunch" (five down, usually).

Australia's pressure at Edgbaston was always going to come from Lyon bowling all day at one end and the seamers the other. As Jason Roy discovered, it was a risk trying to hit the GOAT out of the attack, but on a different day, or with a method agreed before play started, it would be no more risky than trying to block out. It's just less palatable, less easy. But sometimes audacity has its moment, too. 


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