The Ashes has got me falling in love with cricket again

When he retired from cricket, Ed Smith sought some distance from sport and in particular from cricket. But the first Ashes test of 2013 at Trent Bridge has brought him back to his first love - cricket.

Innocence and experience – that should be the subtitle of the near-perfect first Ashes Test match at Nottingham on 10-14 July. Innocence, appropriately, had the first word and left the abiding memories, but experience ultimately settled the issue.

I have long argued that professionalism is more dangerous than it looks. It can confuse instincts, dull enthusiasm, curtail joy, damp - en spirits and derail ability. Professionalism is the attempt to superimpose handed-down expertise on to talent. What about preserving innocence? Like most professional sports men, I was a better player at 19 than at 22. The system, with its clichés and worldweariness, interfered with what I’d always done instinctively. I spent my mid-twenties unlearning bad lessons, trying to restore the child at the centre of my game.

With the performance of Ashton Agar, the 19-year-old Australian who made his Ashes debut at Trent Bridge, I rest my case. For the first two days of the Test, both sides looked edgy and nervous, their performances lacking in spontaneity and play, as though the stage were too important to permit self-expression and naturalness.

By the time Agar walked to the wicket, Australia, trailing behind at 117-9, were almost finished. Agar did not chance his arm, as many tail-enders do. His exquisite 98, the highest-ever score by a No 11 in Test history, was a classical innings full of shots that would have made Brian Lara proud. Asked how he did it, Agar replied that he tries to emulate the way his younger brothers play in the back garden. Everything he did was natural and unburdened. Deprived by a great catch of what would have been the most remarkable debut 100 in history, Agar just smiled broadly and handsomely.

The Test match was too complete to allow innocence to steal the show without reply. Experience, too, played its hand. Australia’s hero on the last day was the 35-year-old wicket-keeper and batsman Brad Haddin, who nearly delivered an astonishing fourthinnings win. Haddin has a crew cut and chews gum. At first glance, the upturned corners of his mouth suggest a permanent smile; only on closer examination do you realise that it is more of a grimace. Just months ago, his international career seemed over. Recalled for his leadership and flinty competitiveness, Haddin provided a masterclass of measured counter-attacking, absorbing pressure from the main threats while ruthlessly exploiting opportunities to score against weak links. Last man out, 14 adrift, Haddin’s bitter disappointment revealed an emotion that cannot be soothed by friendly words: I hope there will be more opportunities to touch greatness; in reality, I suspect it has just slipped through my fingers.

For England, innocence and experience were jumbled together within the central protagonists. Ian Bell, whose 109 set up the win, has had an uneasy relationship with maturity. A child prodigy, Bell has suited precociousness. There is less pressure to perform if you have “potential”; when there is always tomorrow, the demands of today are less absolute. Bell has lurked in the slipstream of his potential, sliding away from responsibilities, always looking new to the stage, even though he has now played 89 Tests. You find yourself thinking, “God, he’ll be good when he grows up,” forgetting that 31-year-olds are fully grown. For much of his career, Bell has looked better than he has performed. In making a restrained, match-defining 109 at Trent Bridge, he performed better than he looked.

James Anderson, whose ten wickets decided the contest, once faced criticisms similar to those levelled at Bell. But Anderson’s trajectory has been more straightforwardly upward; if anything, his reputation has lagged behind reality. This Test cemented a change that happened years ago: the former pretty boy is now a hardened champion.

As a story, the Test match was almost perfect. “Did I care about it? And if I cared about it, what was the quality of my caring?” – that was Philip Larkin’s acid test for literature. The same applies to sport. Watching it is not just about taking sides. Wanting one side to win at all costs, no matter how victory is achieved, is like wanting a novel to end happily even if the protagonists behave out of character. Great sport transcends mere tribal belonging. You can be on both sides of the story at once. Superficially, you know the ending you want. However, at a deeper level, you share something of the opposition’s joy when its success is deserved. In the process, the experience begins to approach the arts. When you feel an openness to the truth of the tale, as well as deep affinity with one side, you know you are watching great sport.

A few years ago, I took part in a BBC Radio 3 debate called “Sport v the Arts”. With a foot in both camps, I intended to avoid predictable advocacy. I was dragged off the fence when the classical scholar Edith Hall said, “There are only two narratives in sport: win or lose. How boring.”

Compare this to how we felt after Trent Bridge. Elation, certainly, but leavened by relief. A hint of regret, too, that we got the ending we wanted at the expense of a story that would have been rarer and more memorable. Sympathy for the players, who can give so much and still end up “losers”, if that is the right term. Thankfulness for the depth of their investment in the occasion. Above all, anticipation, the prospect of the future adding to the intoxication of the present.

When I retired from cricket, I sought some distance from sport and in particular from cricket. Professionally, I joined the Times as a leader writer. As a pure fan, I experienced more wonder and emotion watching tennis.

But something in me changed at Trent Bridge. Perhaps enough time has passed for me to watch with the freedom of the disinterested observer, rather than the mixed feelings of a recent former player. Trent Bridge felt like a renewal – perhaps even like falling in love again.

Ashton Agar of Australia plays defensively during the second day of the first 2013 Ashes test. Photograph: Getty Images

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 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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What will Labour's new awkward squad do next?

What does the future hold for the party's once-rising-stars?

For years, Jeremy Corbyn was John McDonnell’s only friend in Parliament. Now, Corbyn is the twice-elected Labour leader, and McDonnell his shadow chancellor. The crushing leadership election victory has confirmed Corbyn-supporting MPs as the new Labour elite. It has also created a new awkward squad.   

Some MPs – including some vocal critics of Corbyn – are queuing up to get back in the shadow cabinet (one, Sarah Champion, returned during the leadership contest). Chi Onwurah, who spoke out on Corbyn’s management style, never left. But others, most notably the challenger Owen Smith, are resigning themselves to life on the back benches. 

So what is a once-rising-star MP to do? The most obvious choice is to throw yourself into the issue the Corbyn leadership doesn’t want to talk about – Brexit. The most obvious platform to do so on is a select committee. Chuka Umunna has founded Vote Leave Watch, a campaign group, and is running to replace Keith Vaz on the Home Affairs elect committee. Emma Reynolds, a former shadow Europe minister, is running alongside Hilary Benn to sit on the newly-created Brexit committee. 

Then there is the written word - so long as what you write is controversial enough. Rachel Reeves caused a stir when she described control on freedom of movement as “a red line” in Brexit negotiations. Keir Starmer is still planning to publish his long-scheduled immigration report. Alison McGovern embarked on a similar tour of the country

Other MPs have thrown themselves into campaigns, most notably refugee rights. Stella Creasy is working with Alf Dubs on his amendment to protect child refugees. Yvette Cooper chairs Labour's refugee taskforce.

The debate about whether Labour MPs should split altogether is ongoing, but the warnings of history aside, some Corbyn critics believe this is exactly what the leadership would like them to do. Richard Angell, deputy director of Progress, a centrist group, said: “Parts of the Labour project get very frustrated that good people Labour activists are staying in the party.”

One reason to stay in Labour is the promise of a return of shadow cabinet elections, a decision currently languishing with the National Executive Committee. 

But anti-Corbyn MPs may still yet find their ability to influence policies blocked. Even if the decision goes ahead, the Corbyn leadership is understood to be planning a root and branch reform of party institutions, to be announced in the late autumn. If it is consistent with his previous rhetoric, it will hand more power to the pro-Corbyn grassroots members. The members of Labour's new awkward squad have seized on elections as a way to legitimise their voices. But with Corbyn in charge, they might get more democracy than they bargained for.