The English cricket team are cohering, rather than chasing rivalries. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org