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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.