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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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear