New Zealand's Martin Guptill catches out England's Joe Root. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
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The Kiwi cricket team thrilled us because they tried to recapture the naivety of childhood games

Ed Smith celebrates the free spirit of the New Zealand cricket team.

Why is this New Zealand cricket team so thrilling and uplifting to watch? Because they are naive, gloriously and successfully naive. Not tactically naive (far from it) but psychologically naive. And they work at it. They nurture their innocence, recognising its creative power. In sport, naivety is usually framed as a failing. Over the long term, however, naivety trumps worldliness.

A Kiwi cricketing friend told me about a conversation he’d had with Brendon McCullum at the start of the tour. The Kiwi captain explained how he was trying to re­create in elite sport the feeling cricketers had as kids when they strapped on their pads before the long-awaited Saturday match, the nerves and excitement, the freshness and exuberance. McCullum wanted his players to retain a link with their inner child. It is wonderful advice for anyone who aspires to creativity, whatever the field. If you are unnecessarily jaded, you aren’t doing your job properly. Discipline, properly understood, is bound up with psychological freshness. Losing touch with naivety, paradoxically, is a failure of self-control.

Far from empty nostalgia for childhood innocence, McCullum’s philosophy has a hard and practical edge. Yes, you need detachment and skill, too. But technique is for a bad day, when your soul is not present in the occasion. Increasing the number of good days is more important than reducing the downside of the bad. If you take sustained excellence seriously, there is a duty to work at naivety as well as proficiency.

Here sport (and business) intersect with the arts. I’ve spent the morning trying to find these lines, drawn from Anita Brookner’s lecture on the painter Jacques-Louis David. Brookner reflects on Stendhal’s concept of “the happy few”, the dedicatees of the French writer’s work:

The happy few . . . are those who remain emotionally alive, who never compromise, who never succumb to cynicism or the routine of the second-hand . . . The happy few possess what Baudelaire calls “impeccable naïveté”, the ability to see the world always afresh, either in its tragedy or its hope.

It sounds like a big jump from Brendon McCullum, the tattooed and swashbuckling cricketer, to the 19th-century French poet. But that sentiment, I think, is the essence of McCullum’s pitch to his players.

Such innocence becomes vastly more difficult, of course, after hundreds of long-distance flights and press conferences, defeats and disappointments. So experience, though unavoidable, has to be channelled carefully and astutely managed. It mustn’t trip into weariness and cynicism.

My hypothesis is that creative people – whether they are sportsmen, entrepreneurs or artists – are able to use their experience more effectively. Instead of allowing it to overwhelm their naivety, they somehow curate their relationship with their own past. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s adage about alcohol, they take more out of experience than experience takes out of them.

Successful experience is as dangerous as failure, though the scars are different. Aged 30, already the most serial winner in tennis history, Roger Federer put it like this: “The problem with experience is that you become too content with playing it safe. I have to push myself to stay dangerous, like a junior – to play free tennis.”

Aged 33, Federer, who will be at Wimbledon this coming week, is still “playing free”, still number two in the world. Understanding his own temperament has been central to that longevity. Much as he admires Rafael Nadal – “the mental toughness of playing each point the same is amazing” – it wouldn’t have worked for him. “I need change, I need a different point every time.”

So there is a distinction between awareness (an ally) and cleverness (an enemy). In Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Christopher Ricks quotes the singer’s attempts to resist the influence of his analytical intelligence: “As you get older, you get smarter and that can hinder you because you try to gain control over the creative impulse . . . If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You’ve got to programme your brain not to think too much.”

Ricks adds that artists both do and do not know what they are doing. I would say the same about great sportsmen. They hold a balance between control and openness, intuitively moving from one state to the other, often without knowing it, let alone directing the transition.

Dylan is a good example of age existing in youth and vice versa. Martin Scorsese’s 2005 film No Direction Home depicts Dylan in his twenties. He seems old before his years. Yet now, aged 74, Dylan still retains a splash of childlike innocence and wonder. Creativity ages in a different way, and at a different rate, from the conventional strands of personality. It is stubbornly naive.

English cricket – which had seemed so jaded and bedraggled – will eventually recognise the debt it owes to McCullum and his players. It is not just that New Zealand have entertained and enthralled us. It goes beyond the fact that they don’t “sledge” the opposition, and have magnificently debunked the theory that competitiveness must be accompanied by boorishness.

Beyond even those achievements, their innocence and expressiveness have proved infectious. England have matched them. Sport, though framed as competition, is partly a conversation. Even while fiercely trying to win the argument, it is still possible to elevate the debate.

I am in the middle of conducting a series of video interviews with the England squad. It is their new-found naivety, above all, that makes me so optimistic about their future.

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 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.