Nearing the end of my time at school, I would skip the odd lesson – some teachers must have been very tolerant – and slip away to the library, often with the intention of revising but ending up in the company of the New Statesman. I wasn’t sufficiently sophisticated to understand exactly where the NS stood politically, or to follow its historical positioning. All I knew was that the magazine was bracing and intellectually engaging. It challenged me.
Technically, I suppose I should have been in class. But that leads to a question about “education”: if something really interests you, you probably are learning. In the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, who has often popped up in this column, “We learned more from a three minute record than we ever did in school.”
When I did get distracted from the NS, my attention rarely settled on the textbook, but instead on to the cricket pitch nearby. Would I get runs on Saturday? How would I bat? Would we win? I was engaged by the world of argument and ideas, but I also wanted to get stuck into the practical and less intellectual world of getting stuff done.
It is very easy for a writer to superimpose a narrative on to his life that turns the jumble of experience into overly neat patterns. But those two views from the library – down on to the page, up and out on to the pitch – both excited me.
Nearly 20 years after I discovered the New Statesman as a reader, I met up with Jason Cowley, who had become the magazine’s editor a couple of years previously. We talked about a column, as editors and writers do, but this conversation was unusual. Jason didn’t have a template for the column, with the writer being shoehorned into a slot. Instead, we talked about finding your own voice and doing things differently. The terrain and tone of the column would emerge organically.
I think the phrase might have been my idea, but Jason wrote it down on a handsome NS note card – Left Field – and that was that. Now, after six years as a columnist, I have the sense that New Statesman readers know me a little, or even very well. Perhaps that is bound up with the fact neither Jason nor I knew how the column would develop. Instead of planning, there was an openness. I felt emboldened, but not hemmed in.
I’ve written a lot here about Arsène Wenger, frequently admiringly, but sometimes in frustration as well. All told, it has been a remarkable career. Wenger’s best Arsenal teams were both beautiful and effective, which sets the bar very high for success in sport. One of the interesting things about Wenger is that he wanted to be a manager in the first place. He could have pursued so many professional avenues, but football management was his vocation. Like a lot of great innovators, he both embodied and accelerated a wider shift. The role of manager was changing, or being changed, and Wenger helped to redefine the role. In the mid-1990s, football was entering a new period of hyper-globalisation, a process that has since radicalised even further. Wenger understood that knowledge and networks were one way to add value to the other aspects of a manager’s job – judgement, formation, tactics, and all the rest.
And then there is Wenger’s sheer resilience. The Pakistan cricket writer Saj Sadiq unearthed a remarkable statistic: during Wenger’s spell as Arsenal manager, 39 different players have captained Pakistan across the game’s three formats.
Football and cricket are not analogous, and the club-country dynamic is very different in the two sports. But I would draw one parallel. Cricket now, like football when Wenger came to England, is entering a new phase of globalisation. More than ever before, the world’s top players are playing alongside each other, sharing ideas and coming up with new approaches to what can be done on the cricket field.
None of us knows exactly how the Twenty20 era will change the game tactically or professionally. But we can be confident that there will be a period of rapid evolution and innovation. Though that brings new challenges, it is also one of the reasons why cricket’s future is so interestingly poised.
On the same day as Wenger’s news, the England and Wales Cricket Board appointed me as national selector for England cricket. I start the role in May, and I will step back from regular journalism and broadcasting, including appearing here fortnightly. I’d like to thank the staff and readers of the magazine for making writing this column such a great pleasure.
In some ways, becoming national selector is a departure from my previous roles that have given me so much fulfilment. But while I hadn’t planned on changing tack, the opportunity, when it came, felt both exciting and natural. Even though I’ve explored life beyond the game, cricket has shaped me very significantly – the challenges of batting and captaincy, thinking about the composition of teams and their approaches to winning, the great friendships forged along the way. My playing career ended in 2008. Now, ten years on, it feels like just the right time to take on a new and exciting practical challenge – a little less introspection, and a shift of attention towards others. Out of the study, into the world again.
I’ve always wanted to make a real contribution to English cricket, and I’m totally committed to doing the job as well as I possibly can. When the idea of the new role first came up, my focus began to shift – and if I’ve learned one thing, it is to follow the voice that says, yes, this is now what really interests me.
Ed Smith will continue to be a New Statesman contributing writer
This article appears in the 25 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum