England cricketers. Photo: Getty
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England have been a poor one-day side in cricket for years – now they're abject

If this kind of performance is what you get after six months of dedicated planning, then less planning sounds good to me.

This was a salutary defeat. This, surely, is the end for psychobabble and over-professionalism, a full stop to mark the end of overcoaching and joylessly prescriptive planning. It is time for England’s cricketers to put bat to ball, to react to the situation and not genuflect to the tactics manual. It is time to play once again. If this is what you get after six months of dedicated planning, then less planning sounds good to me.

Here is one possible summary of this disastrous World Cup: “They found ever more stones to upturn, each less relevant than the last. Lauded for their professionalism, they snuffed out the last glimpses of play (from a game, let’s remember) . . . The resulting atmosphere: anxious, dutiful, earnest, fearful and highly professional. Too little in evidence: fun, naturalness, mischief, adventure, lightness, wit and maverick independence.”

Only it was written in prospect, not retrospect – by me, in this very space, 13 months ago. Since then, the same script has played out in full. Now, please, for the change.

New errors have been added, it is true. When England sacked Alastair Cook as one-day captain at the eleventh hour, it was almost universally praised as the right decision. I disagreed. There is a time when you’ve thrown your lot in with someone, and for this World Cup England had done that with Cook.

In seeking to avoid one problem – Cook’s batting form – they ended up creating two problems. The discarded Cook, back at home, is deeply hurt. Eoin Morgan, adrift in totally uncharted waters as captain, may end up feeling he has been used. The adjectives “streetwise” and “positive” were hopeful to the point of neglectful naivety. If opting for Morgan was a sop to media pressure, it was disgraceful.

Selection was a shambles. On the eve of the opening game, they abandoned one of the few things that was working – the form of James Taylor at number three. Instead, Gary Ballance was plucked from the subs’ bench. He is now needlessly scarred by having played in an ill-fated World Cup for which he had little preparation.

It is impossible not to feel sorry for Morgan, especially as his native Ireland have played much better than England at the World Cup. Morgan, like Ed Joyce before him, pursued a career as an England player because Ireland are held back by a lack of fixtures and opportunities. Watching a revitalised Joyce – now back in Irish green – chalk up elegant runs for his home team, it’s obvious how deeply he cares about the cricketing culture that produced him. You now wonder how Morgan, who may be tempted by the life of a roving Twenty20 specialist, will react to this bruising World Cup experience.

Having invented T20, England have engineered a situation where they squandered the advantages of being the pioneer. The best T20 leagues are the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash League. It is simply impossible to produce cricket at that level in a league of 18 counties – the talent is diluted too weakly. Everyone knows this is a fact. When we shared a dressing room at Middlesex in 2008, I saw Morgan shake his head in disbelief at the ECB’s refusal to set a franchise-based T20 league. He was right.

There is a brain drain in English cricket. The better thinkers rarely return to the game, whether as coaches or as administrators. After the defeat, viewers watched Andrew Strauss, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain, three thoughtful former England captains, dissect the performance. Forgive my hypocrisy, but it seems a shame that the media are almost universally considered far more attractive than the coalface.

The pull of television is compounded by the push of the county grind. Top Australian ex-players such as Justin Langer, Stuart Law and Darren Lehmann have all recently coached at state level in Australia. It is much rarer for people of such distinction to enter coaching in county cricket. The prospect of a never-ending road trip around 18 counties works against recruiting top talent. When Peter Moores was reappointed as England coach a year ago, the striking feature was the unspectacular quality of the shortlist. Moores is a decent, hard-working enthusiast, probably the best of his type. It remains very unclear that his type is good enough.

There is a saying in the military that generals are helplessly conditioned to fight the previous war. In the same way, English cricket is dangerously obsessed with the Ashes. That is because between 1986 and 2005 we never won an Ashes series. Disappointment produced myopia. The Ashes remains a money-spinner and a crowd-pleaser, but it cannot prop up our whole game for ever. One-day cricket is treated like an inferior side issue. The Ashes, like all great brands, will mask the underlying cultural decline for a long time but it can’t bail out the whole English game indefinitely.

To some extent, coaches and captains, tactics and selection, are all beside the point. England have been a poor one-day team for years. They have remained poor. All that has happened is, the rest of the cricketing world has evolved, becoming more creative, expressive, exuberant and attacking. Plodding England used to be able to hang around, never leading at one-day cricket but just about within reach. No longer. The question is not how we can compete with Australia and New Zealand (out of sight) but how we might learn from Bangladesh. It is a galling fact that the fastest and most exciting bowler on Monday was Bangladeshi.

Cricket’s place in the wider sporting culture is under grave threat. There is no cricket on free-to-air television; there is a leadership deficit, too many tracksuited clichés, a lack of critical thinking and independent thought. England are still, thanks to satellite television, cash-rich. By every other measure, they are looking bankrupt. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser