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.