A sunset in Barbados, where Ed Smith stayed over the election campaign. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
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The Pietersen poll delusion, reading the election, and a tour of Tony Cozier’s Barbados

I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean.

Final proof of the abject failings of Britain’s polling industry: the Kevin Pietersen affair. A survey conducted in March by YouGov “demonstrated” that England fans were split 43 per cent to 43 per cent on whether he should be picked for England. Hmm. Meanwhile, the best two pundits on the election, Matthew Parris and Peter Wilby, mostly ­ignored the polls. They sensed a deeper current in the electorate.

Here is my attempt to gauge the cricketing mood, polls notwithstanding: most real fans are sick of the whole issue. They would refuse to talk to a pollster, vote on a website or join a Twitter storm. They are the silent majority. A good number would love to see KP play for England again. Yet most feel not anti-Pietersen but weary of Pietersen. In the long run, he may realise that he is indeed a victim – not of “the establishment” but of exploitative, attention-seeking “friends”.

On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast programme the other day, I did something that I had never done before on air. I lost my temper. The presenter asked me a routine question about English cricket being “split down the middle”. I cut her off with a version of the argument above. Then, as if to prove the division, she read out a text message from a listener. It suggested that Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss (England’s captain and the director of cricket, respectively) were pathetic failures, cowardly nobodies and losers, men of no achievements. (Between them, they have scored 47 centuries and won 37 Tests as England captains.)

We all know the convention when confronted with a vox pop buffoon: “I absolutely hear what you’re saying and you have a total right to think that. I want an open and frank debate that gets to the core of your legitimate and deeply held concerns,” and so on. Instead, I heard myself saying, “That text was written by an idiot.” There was a gasp. Propping up the delusion that every issue can be solved by an online referendum, pandering to the mob and pretending that it represents everyone, is to delude ourselves that there is always a popular and easy solution. If we in the media don’t challenge that methodology, we are accomplices in infantilisation on a massive scale.

 

****

I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean (I was commentating on cricket) when it began and returned to vote on 7 May. I did not consume any British TV or radio, nor pick up a single newspaper or magazine. I returned feeling sprightly, looking forward to the story, in contrast to friends wearied by political overdose.

Hold your opprobrium. I still read a lot about the election while I was away. But that was the only medium: the written word. I downloaded newspapers and periodicals on my Kindle. Unlike the iPad, my Kindle can’t really handle graphics. I absorbed all my news through words. I read the articles from beginning to end. I was not led by cleverly chosen photos; I did not prejudge the writing by decoding images; I did not track the daily news cycle without bothering to confirm first what had happened.

The aesthetic dimension of editing is, without question, central. Yet there is a danger that we impatient readers cede too much power to the people who frame the page and lead our eyes. I relished the Luddite e-reader. How ironic it is that the most analogue-feeling reading experience comes not from the printed newspaper page but from a grainy digital screen.

 

****

I love hot weather and especially humidity. The trick to enjoying the tropics is to use dawn and dusk. I would wake at 6am and take sleepy walks on the beach, prolonging the creative torpor of half-sleep, half-wakefulness. Then I’d jump into the sea before heading for the espresso machine. What a delicious juxtaposition: the thick weight of tropical humidity set against the black, treacly fuel of espresso. The comforting froth of milk is for temperate weather.

On days off, I’d write in bed. There is a simplicity to living in hot weather. Clothes are a waste of time and appointments a ­terrible hassle. A writer’s dream: an empty hotel room and a pared-down life.

 

****

In my hotel room in Barbados, a note is waiting at the door, insisting that I call a local number. The voice is unmistakable to all cricket fans: warm, amused and beating to a subtle calypso rhythm. It belongs to Tony Cozier, now 74, who has commentated on West Indies cricket for more than 50 years.

“Edward, you need to see Barbados’s east coast. I’ll pick you up at your hotel at 2pm.” Cozier’s life has mirrored the story of West Indies cricket, its rise and gradual decline. He was already a journalist when Frank Worrell became the first black cricketer to be appointed captain of the West Indies for a series in 1960. Now that Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Richie Benaud are no longer with us, Tony’s mellow tone on the airwaves belongs to a fading tradition.

Accompanied by the ex-England spinner Graeme Swann, we set off. There, the Atlantic Ocean; here, a gorgeously isolated club ground; back there, Tony’s former beach house. Every vantage point – by extraordinary good fortune – was opposite a rum shack. The rum and the stories flowed. Tony described an era when players and journalists were friends and (generally) trusted each other, when the game was defined by a sense of adventure as well as professional advancement. What a contrast with the trench warfare of the Pietersen debacle.

As the sun set, I realised that I had been on a tour of Tony’s life, not just of Barbados. As much as I relish travel, what thrills me most is discovering new places through people – and vice versa.

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 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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