The English cricket team are cohering, rather than chasing rivalries. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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The secret of England’s cricketers this summer is this: they have learned to be positive

Bad blood between teams may provide a short-term boost but it also brings with it a longer-term popular disengagement. Thankfully, the opposite is happening within English cricket.

Novak Djokovic’s Wimbledon triumph came at the expense of Roger Federer. But the nature of the victory was inspired by Federer. In a similar way, England’s victory over Australia in the first Ashes Test owed a substantial debt to New Zealand, their previous opponents, whose example helped Alastair Cook’s men to find their voice as a team.

Djokovic’s development from bad boy to ambassador shows how civilising forces work: he was elevated by the expectations of those around him. Market forces played a positive hand, too.

Bizarrely, Djokovic has found himself attacked for being bland. In her book Love Game, the cultural critic Elizabeth Wilson used a Marxist intellectual framework to dismiss him as “the perfect player of corporate tennis: a tennis without controversy, predictable, repeatable, quantitative, metronome tennis”.

This is perfectly back-to-front. Corporate tennis has indeed influenced Djokovic but overwhelmingly for the good. As a player, the young Djokovic often allowed his volcanic temperament to get the better of him. He was considered physically and psychologically flaky and never won over fans’ hearts in the way that his rivals did. Now Djokovic is tennis’s iron man and one of the most likeable athletes in the world. Those two developments are not unconnected.

It has been moving to watch him apply his fearsome strength of character towards ironing out every last chink in his game. His second serve, once his greatest weakness, provided a crucial advantage against Federer. That is typical of Djokovic. Any old fool can beat his chest and shout at the crowd. Smoothing away the minute flaws – physical, mental, technical – is frighteningly difficult.

Djokovic initially found himself slightly frozen out at the top. It was no secret that Federer, in particular, disapproved of his occasionally disrespectful antics. The two are said not to be friends, even now. Federer, however, would be the first to point out that Djokovic’s on-court behaviour has become close to immaculate. Just as the Swiss master raised the bar in the evolution of tennis, he did the same for its sportsmanship. As a result, the culture of modern tennis pushed Djokovic to new levels, on and off the court. The Serb discovered, perhaps to his surprise, that he had many unused gears.

It is possible to imagine Djokovic settling, in a less demanding era, for an easier persona – smashing rackets, swearing at the umpire, blaming the world, the self-indulgent anti-hero, the unreliable chancer. Instead, he was driven by the example of his peers to beat them at their own game – a total victory powered by a mixture of competitiveness and self-control.

What has this to do with market forces? There is understandable curiosity at the top of men’s tennis about why Federer has remained the most marketable and widely loved athlete. Federer is usually the crowd’s favourite, wherever he plays. At times, his opponents must feel that they are playing against the game itself. Unsurprisingly, his status has been richly rewarding, in every sense of the term.

Much of that appeal, especially Federer’s balletic ferocity, is impossible to emulate. Yet some of his trademarks – courtesy with the media, respect towards opponents, graciousness in victory – can be copied. Djokovic’s total performance in the Wimbledon final, in terms of both his game and his behaviour, showed how far he has travelled.

And this may well land him more sponsorship deals. Should we not be thankful to the sponsors? It is easy to complain about the ways in which money compromises sport. (I often do.) So, it is important to identify how the market can also improve behaviour. Djokovic has learned a lot from the man he beat on 12 July – and not just about tennis.

This is relevant to cricket, and especially to the current Ashes series. It is a common assumption (especially in the media) that when players resort to personal abuse and boorishness, it enhances the appeal and commercial value of the product. A whole lexicon of excuses and euphemisms – “spice”, “banter”, “intensity” and, worst of all, “That’s how much they care” – props up the theory.

I’m not so sure, however. Bad blood between teams may provide a short-term boost but it also brings with it a longer-term popular disengagement. Thankfully, the opposite is happening within English cricket at the moment. The team is not just winning matches, it is inspiring admiration and affection. That was missing from England’s Ashes success in the 2013 home series. There was something dour about the whole experience. England won but never shook off the shackles.

This summer, it feels different. The sparkling first Test at Cardiff was played in a fine spirit. Credit is due to both teams but also to the international side that set the tone for this summer’s engaging cricket: New Zealand. It was surely Brendon McCullum’s men whose example and attacking style prompted England into a positive mindset, in demeanour and deeds.

In game theory, “the prisoner’s dilemma” shows how a narrowly self-interested strategy may benefit one party over a rival but to the detriment of the whole. A co-operative strategy, in contrast, would benefit both sides more than a negative strategy would. So it is in sport. Athletes, by definition, are in explicit opposition. But they are simultaneously accomplices, part of a wider culture that supports their careers and reputations. Just ask Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

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 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution