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
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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