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

Photo: Getty Images
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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.