Why is this New Zealand cricket team so thrilling and uplifting to watch? Because they are naive, gloriously and successfully naive. Not tactically naive (far from it) but psychologically naive. And they work at it. They nurture their innocence, recognising its creative power. In sport, naivety is usually framed as a failing. Over the long term, however, naivety trumps worldliness.
A Kiwi cricketing friend told me about a conversation he’d had with Brendon McCullum at the start of the tour. The Kiwi captain explained how he was trying to recreate in elite sport the feeling cricketers had as kids when they strapped on their pads before the long-awaited Saturday match, the nerves and excitement, the freshness and exuberance. McCullum wanted his players to retain a link with their inner child. It is wonderful advice for anyone who aspires to creativity, whatever the field. If you are unnecessarily jaded, you aren’t doing your job properly. Discipline, properly understood, is bound up with psychological freshness. Losing touch with naivety, paradoxically, is a failure of self-control.
Far from empty nostalgia for childhood innocence, McCullum’s philosophy has a hard and practical edge. Yes, you need detachment and skill, too. But technique is for a bad day, when your soul is not present in the occasion. Increasing the number of good days is more important than reducing the downside of the bad. If you take sustained excellence seriously, there is a duty to work at naivety as well as proficiency.
Here sport (and business) intersect with the arts. I’ve spent the morning trying to find these lines, drawn from Anita Brookner’s lecture on the painter Jacques-Louis David. Brookner reflects on Stendhal’s concept of “the happy few”, the dedicatees of the French writer’s work:
The happy few . . . are those who remain emotionally alive, who never compromise, who never succumb to cynicism or the routine of the second-hand . . . The happy few possess what Baudelaire calls “impeccable naïveté”, the ability to see the world always afresh, either in its tragedy or its hope.
It sounds like a big jump from Brendon McCullum, the tattooed and swashbuckling cricketer, to the 19th-century French poet. But that sentiment, I think, is the essence of McCullum’s pitch to his players.
Such innocence becomes vastly more difficult, of course, after hundreds of long-distance flights and press conferences, defeats and disappointments. So experience, though unavoidable, has to be channelled carefully and astutely managed. It mustn’t trip into weariness and cynicism.
My hypothesis is that creative people – whether they are sportsmen, entrepreneurs or artists – are able to use their experience more effectively. Instead of allowing it to overwhelm their naivety, they somehow curate their relationship with their own past. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s adage about alcohol, they take more out of experience than experience takes out of them.
Successful experience is as dangerous as failure, though the scars are different. Aged 30, already the most serial winner in tennis history, Roger Federer put it like this: “The problem with experience is that you become too content with playing it safe. I have to push myself to stay dangerous, like a junior – to play free tennis.”
Aged 33, Federer, who will be at Wimbledon this coming week, is still “playing free”, still number two in the world. Understanding his own temperament has been central to that longevity. Much as he admires Rafael Nadal – “the mental toughness of playing each point the same is amazing” – it wouldn’t have worked for him. “I need change, I need a different point every time.”
So there is a distinction between awareness (an ally) and cleverness (an enemy). In Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Christopher Ricks quotes the singer’s attempts to resist the influence of his analytical intelligence: “As you get older, you get smarter and that can hinder you because you try to gain control over the creative impulse . . . If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You’ve got to programme your brain not to think too much.”
Ricks adds that artists both do and do not know what they are doing. I would say the same about great sportsmen. They hold a balance between control and openness, intuitively moving from one state to the other, often without knowing it, let alone directing the transition.
Dylan is a good example of age existing in youth and vice versa. Martin Scorsese’s 2005 film No Direction Home depicts Dylan in his twenties. He seems old before his years. Yet now, aged 74, Dylan still retains a splash of childlike innocence and wonder. Creativity ages in a different way, and at a different rate, from the conventional strands of personality. It is stubbornly naive.
English cricket – which had seemed so jaded and bedraggled – will eventually recognise the debt it owes to McCullum and his players. It is not just that New Zealand have entertained and enthralled us. It goes beyond the fact that they don’t “sledge” the opposition, and have magnificently debunked the theory that competitiveness must be accompanied by boorishness.
Beyond even those achievements, their innocence and expressiveness have proved infectious. England have matched them. Sport, though framed as competition, is partly a conversation. Even while fiercely trying to win the argument, it is still possible to elevate the debate.
I am in the middle of conducting a series of video interviews with the England squad. It is their new-found naivety, above all, that makes me so optimistic about their future.