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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Can the disciplined Democrats defeat Trump’s maelstrom of chaos?

The Democratic National Convention has been exquisitely stage-managed and disciplined. But is it enough to overcome Trump’s news-cycle grabbing interventions?

The Democratic National Convention did not begin auspiciously.

The DNC’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was unceremoniously launched as if by an ejector-seat from her job on the eve of the convention, after a Wikileaks dump of internal emails painted a picture of a party trying to keep the insurgent candidate, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, from blocking Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination.

One email, in which a staffer suggests using Sanders’ Jewish faith against him as a candidate in order to slow his insurgent campaign, was particularly damning in its optics and Schultz, who had tweeted with some hubris about her Republican opposite number Reince Priebus during last week’s Republican convention in Cleveland, had to fall on her sword.

Clinton’s pick of Tim Kaine as a running-mate – a solid, safe, and unexciting choice compared to a more vocal and radical campaigner like Elizabeth Warren – was also criticised, both by the media, with one commentator calling him “a mayonnaise sandwich on wholewheat bread”, and by the left of the party, who still held out hope that the Democratic ticket would have at least one name on it who shared the radical vision of America that Sanders had outlined.

On top of that, Kaine, who is a Catholic, also disappointed many as a vice-presidential pick because of his past personal history of opposition to abortion. Erin Matson, the co-director of the reproductive rights group ReproAction, tweeted that Kaine being added to the ticket was “tremendously disappointing”.

On the other side, Donald Trump had just received a poll bump following a terrifying speech which recalled Richard Nixon’s 1968 convention address. Both speeches appealed to fear, rather than hope; many are calling Trump’s keynote his “Midnight in America” speech. Just before the Democrats convened, analyst par excellence Nate Silver and his site, 538.com, forecast Trump’s chance of victory over Clinton in November at above 50 per cent for the first time.

On top of that, Bernie Sanders more vocal supporters arrived at the Democratic convention – in Philadelphia in the grip of a heatwave – in relative force. Protests have already been more intensive than they were at the RNC, despite all expectations to the contrary, and Sanders delegates disrupted proceedings on the first day by booing every mention of Hillary Clinton’s name.

But then, things appear to turn around.

The second day of the convention, which saw Hillary Clinton formally nominated as the first female presidential candidate in American history, was less marred by protest. Bernie Sanders addressed the convention and endorsed his erstwhile rival.

Trump’s inability to stop prodding the news cycle with bizarre non-sequiturs turned the focus of what would otherwise be a negative Democratic news cycle back onto him; an unforced error which led to widespread, if somewhat wild, speculation about his possible links with Putin in the wake of the news that Russia had been behind the email hack and lightened some of the pressure on the Democrats.

And then Michelle Obama took the stage, delivering an oration of astonishing power and grace (seriously, watch it – it’s a masterclass).

Compared with the RNC, the Democratic National Convention has so far been exquisitely stage-managed. Speakers were bookended with pithy, designed-for-virality videos. Speakers started on time; headliners played in primetime.

Both Trump and Clinton have now addressed their conventions before their headline speech remotely, via video link (Trump also engineered a bizarre early-convention pro-wrestling-style entrance), which put observers of both in mind of scenes from V for Vendetta.

But the imagery of Clinton’s face appearing on screen through a graphic of shattering glass (see what she did there?) will likely be one of the moments that sticks most in the memory of the electorate. It must kill the reality TV star to know this, but Clinton’s convention is getting better TV ratings so far than the RNC did.

Michelle Obama’s masterful speech in particular provided stark contrast with that of Melania Trump – an especially biting contrast considering that parts of the latter’s speech last week turned out to have been plagiarised from the former. 538’s forecast saw Clinton slide – barely – back into the lead.

A mayonnaise sandwich Tim Kaine might be, but he is nonetheless looking like a smart pick, too. A popular senator from a key swing state – Virginia – his role on the ticket is not to be a firebrand or an attack-dog, but to help the former secretary of state reach out to the moderate middle that Trump appears to be leaving entirely vacant, including moderate Republicans who may have voted for Mitt Romney but find Trump’s boorish bigotry and casual relationship with the truth offputting. And the electoral mathematics show that Trump’s journey to victory in the electoral college will be extremely difficult if Kaine swings Virginia for Clinton.

Ultimately, the comparison between the Democratic convention in Philadelphia so far and last week’s chaotic, slapdash and at times downright nutty effort in Cleveland provides a key insight into what this election campaign is going to be like: chaos and fear on one side, but tight discipline on the other.

We will find out in November if discipline is enough to stop the maelstrom.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.