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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OK, let's do this: who REALLY won Legs-It? An exclusive investigation

Look, some of you just aren't treating this question with the seriousness it deserves. 

This morning, the Daily Mail front page dared to look past the minutiae of Brexit - can my EU partner still live here? Why is my holiday so expensive? Should we be worried that David Davis looks like a man who's ended up a minister because he lost a bet? - to ask the really big question. 

Yes, indeed. Who is Top of the Tibia? Who shines in the shin department? Which of these impressive, powerful women has lower limbs which best conform to our arbitrary beauty standards? 

In the accompanying article, Sarah Vine (herself the owner of not one, but TWO lower limbs) wrote that the women put on a show of unity with "two sets of hands clasped calmly on the arms of their respective chairs", disdaining the usual diplomatic practice of accompanying discussions about Article 50 with a solemn, silent re-enactment of the Macarena.

Vine adds: "But what stands out here are the legs – and the vast expanse on show. There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed." That's right, people: Theresa May has been unafraid to wear a skirt, rather than a pair of trousers with one leg rolled up like LL Cool J. A departure for Mrs May, to be sure, but these are uncertain times and showing off just one calf might see the stock markets plunge.

The prime minister has come to the bold decision that her legs are the "finest weapons in her physical armoury", when others might argue it's the sharp, retractable venom-filled spurs on her fore-limbs. (Oh wait, my mistake. That's the duck-billed platypus.)

As ever, the bien-pensant left is squawking about sexism and avoiding the real issue: who really won Legs-it? Well, there will be no handwringing over how this is a belittling way to treat two female politicians here, thank you very much. We shall not dwell on the fact that wearing a skirt while doing politics is not really remarkable enough to merit a front page, oh no. Instead, we shall bravely attempt to answer that Very Important Question. 

Who really won Legs-it? 

1. David Cameron

We might not know who won Legs-It, but let's be honest - we all know who lost. David Cameron here has clearly concluded that, much like Andrew Cooper's pre-referendum polling results, his legs are best hidden away while everyone politely pretends they don't exist. 

Legs-It Rating: 2/10

2. Michael Gove

Fun fact: Michael Gove's upper thighs are equipped with sharp, retractable claws, which aid him in knifing political rivals in the back.

Legs-It Rating: 8/10

3. David Davis

Mr Davis's unusually wide stance here suggests that one leg doesn't know what the other is doing. His expression says: this walking business is more difficult than anyone let on, but I mustn't let it show. Bad legs are better than no legs.  

Legs-It Rating: 6/10

4. Boris Johnson

Real talk: these legs don't really support Boris Johnson, they're just pretending they do to advance their career. 

Legs-It Rating: 6/10

5. George Osborne

Take in these long, cool pins. These are just two out of George Osborne's six legs. 

Legs-It Rating: 9/10

6. Liam Fox

In the past, Liam Fox has faced criticism for the way his left leg follows his right leg around on taxpayer-funded foreign trips. But those days are behind him now.

Legs-It Rating: 10/10

7. Nigel Farage

So great are the demands on the former Ukip leader's time these days, that his crotch now has a thriving media career of its own, independent from his trunk and calves. Catch it on Question Time from Huddersfield next month. 

Legs-It Rating: 7/10

Conclusion

After fearlessly looking at nine billion photos of legs in navy trousers, we can emphatically conclude that THEY ARE ALL BASICALLY THE SAME LEG. Life is great as a male politician, isn't it?

I'm a mole, innit.