On Mike Marqusee: The Enduring Legacy of War Minus the Shooting

The death of Mike Marqusee earlier this week, after a long illness, has deprived the worlds of sport and politics – not so mutually exclusive, as we shall see – of one of their gadflies. Politically, Marqusee was always a campaigner, fighting for social justice. His sports writing, especially on cricket, contained the same search for what is right. But they also contained enthusiasm and passion. When cricket has reeled after the tragic death of Phillip Hughes, his timely essay reminded me of the humanity of sport, of its appeal to our love of narrative and drama, and “all-too-human” triumph and fragility.

Marqusee was well known for being one of the finest modern cricket writers, despite his atypical background as an American Marxist. He was best known for Anyone But England, his coruscating, enduringly relevant attack on the hypocrisy, prejudice and dysfunction at the heart of English cricket. However, equally fine is War Minus the Shooting, his account of travelling around South Asia during the 1996 World Cup. It is a perceptive and crucial work, notable now for its prescience. Themes it explores – manipulated crowds, globalised advertising, the simultaneous heightening and loosening of national affiliation – can be seen throughout the region. In a World Cup year, it is worthy reading, reminding ourselves of the social and economic forces that shape such tournaments as much as the onfield action. Gideon Haigh was reminded of it at India’s press conference to announce the launch of their World Cup kit: the commodification of cricketing space where “cricket populism was made to serve the interests of the elite”. Marqusee’s acute political senses were adept at detecting hypocrisy and exploitation; we should be thankful he chose cricket as one of his targets.

Part of the beauty of War Minus the Shooting is Marqusee’s ability to use cricket to explore the countries through which he is travelling. It works as travel literature as well as sports writing, providing notable insight into societies unsettled and liberated by the intersections of globalisation and nationalism. As the title suggests, much of the focus is on national rivalry. Marqusee’s enduring question is whether an India-Pakistan match would be worthwhile. Attempts to strip away meaning and enjoy the calibre of the eventual match, a quarter final, are impossible; both before and after the match, the media and politicians use the cricketing analogy for their own narratives and ends. Marqusee astutely notes that India and Pakistan’s cricketing rivalry was stoked by the advent of one-day cricket, the removal of the possibility of a draw doing much to remove the fear of failure that haunted a series of somnolent test matches. India’s victory leads to hubris; Pakistan is cast into doubt and soul-searching. But the mobilisation of populations in support of their team was crucial.

If the nation brought people to the game, then the corporation was the gleeful beneficiary. A tournament of nations was a carnival of globalisation. Pepsi and Coca-Cola fought for the lucrative benefits for capturing the imagination of the viewer, with campaigns that ranged from the bizarre – Dickie Bird as the “final arbiter of Cola Justice” – to the sinister – Pepsi lightened Vinod Kambli’s skin on their billboards. Marqusee argues that the nation and the national tournament are integral to questions of globalisation – the national tournament shares the globalised ideal of nations competing on a level playing field, whereas the nation experiences the tribulations of the experience, the questions of belonging that elevate nationalism. National aspiration is entrenched; “globalisation helped to make a fetish of national victory”. The modern cricketing world is one that has embraced this vision. The IPL may be a tournament that features multinational teams, sponsored by multinational corporations, but it is also the apogee of Indian cricketing dominance, triumphant and commodified.

The new is ever present in War Minus the Shooting, and not just with the spread of new economic models. Jonty Rhodes is the “hyper-modern” icon on the pitch, the vanguard of the fielding revolution, but the Asian World Cup itself creates new methods and norms. As an American, Marqusee saw cricket as an English game; his visit to South Asia convinces him that cricket there is something “new and vital” in world sports. Cricket is ubiquitous, and, as such, performs a remarkable number of social functions. This partly explains the ease to which it is yoked to national destiny, as well as the eagerness of corporations to co-op it for commercial ends. One pernicious abuse of cricketing culture is the change in the crowd, where it is stripped of any spontaneity, the fan becomes a consumer, and the live game becomes secondary and similar to the televised spectacle. The IPL seems to be the logical continuation of this – cricket as a vehicle for endorsements and part of the advertising spectacular.

Yet India appears as more than just a globalised, nationalist power. Marqusee remains intoxicated by the sport and the tournament, across the region. The cricket played in Pakistan now seems poignant; the political machinations darkly familiar. Sri Lanka, Marqusee’s romantic choice at the beginning of the tournament, emerge triumphant, surging on a radical approach to the game combined with English public school values and an utterly politicised administration. Sri Lanka seems to combine the best of the freshness of an Asian tournament and of cricket’s traditional values, free of the finance and chauvinism of India and Pakistan at their worst. Australia’s refusal to play in Sri Lanka on safety grounds is indicative of the First World distrust held many of the teams coming from outside Asia. Sri Lanka’s triumph over them in the final is as close as international sport gets to democratic internationalism.

It is impossible to capture the richness of War Minus the Shooting in a review. His description of Kenya beating the West Indies, his potted histories of Palwankar Baloo and Mahadev Sathasivam, or his investigations into the murky financing of the tournament all deserve discussion. War Minus the Shooting is worthy of continued attention, not just for its prescient analysis, but for its passion and insight. Marqusee reminds us why it is a bad thing that cricket is plagued by corruption and nationalism. Whilst sport can never just be sport, the game, in its allusive nuances of time and space, and its range of skill and strength, is so marvellous, so cherished, that it needs protecting from the rapacious and the chauvinistic. It will, whilst it is followed by so many, inevitably be used for ends beyond the control of the fan, but so much can be reclaimed by the supporter.

War Minus the Shooting captures the richness of the sport, on the pitch and beyond the boundary, and the intersections with society that benefit and bedevil the game. Many fine tributes have been paid to Mike Marqusee, from Dave Zirin, Andy Bull and Rob Steen, amongst others. But the best way to remember him would be to hold power to account, question those who run the game, and keep cricket evolving in the way people want to see it go. And read War Minus the Shooting. How else will you understand a tournament where, for TV, of course, they painted the outfield green in Faisalabad?

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The Accidental Radical: How Kevin Pietersen Challenged English Cricket’s Invented Traditions

Any good British political drama has a dodgy dossier, and the ongoing conflict between Kevin Pietersen and his erstwhile employers at the ECB is no different. There can be no doubt that it is political argument, revolving around representation, power and authority, and Pietersen bears a certain resemblance to another controversial figure linked to dubious documentation. Tony Blair had the same egomania and messianic sense of his own manifest destiny. Both men were capable of seeming simultaneously overly sincere and insincere. Both were able to jab the raw nerves of Middle England, purposefully or not.

Pietersen’s ambition was quashed more than Blair’s, his inability to express his perceived potential in the confines of a rigidly structured England dressing room leaving a toxic legacy. But to blame Andy Flower’s specific methods would be too limited an approach. Pietersen was up against English cricket as it constructs itself, and is constructed in the minds of the public and press. To be accepted, he would have had to have changed. A lesser player might have done; his refusal ended messily. But like Jonathan Trott, he is a victim of English cricket’s invented traditions. English cricket is wary of being too serious or demonstrative – the very best must be self-deprecating or jovial, and only the average can be hard-working. Trott was too obsessively focussed to be loved, suspiciously driven. Pietersen’s focus on fulfilling his conception of himself was similarly suspect, his brilliance calculating and his motives seemingly self-centred.

When combined, Pietersen’s ability and personality were destabilising. But perhaps his most damning trait was his iconoclasm: his insistence on the importance of the IPL, his views on coaches and colleagues, his demanding standards of others. English cricket’s founding myth is one of cordiality and gentle entertainment; Pietersen, mostly unwittingly, challenged the essence of it. It was not a calculating gesture. Pietersen is an accidental revolutionary, his demands for change to suit him and his talent were done in his interests, not those of English cricket. But it is his unconscious irreverence that has made him a polarising cause célèbre.

When the historian G.M. Trevelyan stated that “if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt”, he encapsulated the place of the sport in the English imagination. In this arcadia of “gentlemen and players”, cricket saved England from revolution. Sport guaranteed class harmony. In reality, it served as a rigid social control, perpetuating hierarchy. By idealising the status quo, it served to both legitimise and perpetuate a utopian vision that could be called upon if the structure was challenged. That is what the all-consuming focus of a Trott or Pietersen threatens, by professionalising an idyllic pastime. It isn’t real, and cricket no longer serves as a salve for social ruptures, but it has been imagined and institutionalised in the collective memory of a nation. Not even KP, switch-hitting all the way to Bangalore, could reconfigure the sport in the mind.

Another English perception of cricket was that of the public school, sport as training for leadership and life. Sport was there to inculcate values, not entertain or exhilarate. This image of the game overlaps with Trevelyan’s concept of order, cricket as a form of social management. Serving this purpose, no-one can be bigger than the game, and this ethos still lingers. Whilst cricket as empire-building may not seem cordial, it serves the same purpose as “gentlemen and players”’ matches. It is a frippery to an end, a sugar coating for a pill. Professionalism and intense focus on the sport in its own right is unfair on the other players, disrupting the ritual, competing in the ceremonial. In the most famous invocation of schoolboy cricket as imperial training, Henry Newbolt’s Vitaï Lampada, winning a match is not “…for the sake of a ribboned coat/ Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame”, but rather to “play up! and play the game!”. The action cuts from cricket square to infantry square, where “The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead/ And the regiment blind with dust and smoke” and the values introduced on the playing field come into their own.

At his best, Kevin Pietersen may have had an incredible destructive power – to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc on the reality of the Gatling gun, “Whatever happens, we have got/ Pietersen, and they have not” – but he was not a man, to use an apposite cliché, you’d want in the trenches with you. You’d rather have, to extend the military metaphor, Brigadier Block, as Paul Collingwood was nicknamed after two fine defensive performances in South Africa. That was what English cricket was about; together with Mike Atherton and Jack Russell’s Johannesburg resistance, it fitted into the English sporting imagination, configured as probably the finest resistance in South Africa since Rorke’s Drift. This colonial detritus was one barrier for Pietersen – he could never escape the Pietermaritzburg accent – but also continues to shape English conceptions of sport. Football grounds have Kop ends; Javed Miandad is described as a “wild man of the Khyber” in the press. It is trapped by the invented traditions, the narratives that give symbolic meaning to the Three Lions or the Long Room, but which cannot be easily reimagined to accept players who encapsulate the modern. The glory lies in the past, and will remain there until it can be transcended.

Andy Flower’s successful England side, with its ruthless professionalism, might not seem to fit this model of English teams as nostalgic relics, unable to innovate. But, in reality, one of the crucial reasons for its success was its reliance on performing the basics well, its cohesion, its acculturation of new players: a new form of cricket as manager and creator of values. Now that victory can be accepted as an end to itself, it has become the aim of the project. Team England trains its players for success, shaping them as cogs in a machine. The step is now from training group to test match, rather than colonial battlefield, but the mindset is still one of using cricket as a transformative force. The difference is that the sport itself has become the ultimate purpose, the space where the learned is performed.

One of Pietersen’s main criticisms of this environment is the alleged “bullying” that took place. Certainly England’s bowlers could be harsh on their fielders, and the environment was steeped in “banter”, the orthodox culture of the modern dressing room. Yet this does not contradict or preclude success; rather, it created the cohesion that allowed England’s cricket to prosper. If not quite hazing, it was a process under which new members were co-opted, or proved unsuitable. Pietersen had the ability to transcend the process, but was therefore never fully inculcated. These attitudes can be linked again to the national cricketing myth of cordiality – outward and on-field unity take priority over dressing room harmony and the acceptance of difference. Whilst James Anderson’s alleged altercation with Ravindra Jadeja this summer may not seem to fit with the ideal of amicability, in reality, it did little to challenge it. The England attitude is competitive but conservative – a truly subversive challenge to the national mythos would be to play alongside Jadeja in the IPL.

Pietersen’s uniqueness was his reluctance to conform. Fred Trueman, the epitome of a working class cricketer, was shabbily treated and long fought to prove he belonged at the heart of English cricket. But this was necessarily personal. He could not champion social change and find recognition. As his biographer Chris Waters puts it, “the battle he fought was for personal acceptance; he was never on a wider crusade for the common man”. To quote Trueman himself, “Communism, Marxism, Trotskyism – all that sort of thing frightens me to death”. But as much as the revolutionary, the enigmatic must be discouraged. England cannot produce a mystery spinner because deception is anathema to its conception of the purpose and spirit of cricket. It is no surprise that the handle of the parody Twitter account that so incensed Pietersen was @KPgenius. Genius is somehow suspicious and untrustworthy. The attitude seems to recall the anti-intellectualism of the public school, the use of sport to keep boys grounded.

On another level, it recalls the remark of the Labour MP Richard Crossman in his book on disillusioned communists, The God That Failed. British suspicion of communism and utopianism, for Crossman, comes from a “conscientious objection to infallibility”. At his very best, often only for a few overs, Pietersen could seem infallible, toying with even the best bowling. His post-lunch assault on Brett Lee at The Oval in 2005; his switch-hitting of Murali at Edgbaston the following year; his dismissive treatment of Dale Steyn at Headingley in 2012. Englishmen aren’t supposed to play like that, with calculating brutality. A Botham or a Flintoff, having fun, hanging on by the skin of their teeth, is accepted as an entertainer; the rational destruction of a Pietersen is somehow unfair. In the ever Orientalist culture of the English cricketing imagination, such transcendental batsmanship is the preserve of the foreign, Asian players who are “meditative” like Tendulkar, ethereally focussed. Such dominance, especially when attached to an ego, becomes threatening from an Englishman, a potential rupture in the social order.

Such a schism can never be allowed to open. Cricket must be genteel, and it must be able to pass unnoticed, a secondary phenomenon, be it as light entertainment or social adhesive. Other nations maintain imagined cricketing traditions: in Pakistan, the national team is an explicit representation of the nation-state, whereas in Australia, it is “radical reactionary”. In England, it remains a narrative of harmony, enabling the perpetuation of idealised pasts and continuation of stable presents. One of Kevin Pietersen’s more infamous quotes is “it’s tough being me”. Some derided him as a prima donna, but he is right. He was never going to fit in. Gary Ballance, England’s latest Southern African import, may have been born in Harare, but he has come into the England team via Harrow School and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, two institutions that have formed dozens of England players. His youthful high jinks have been excused, seen as more Bullingdon than Bulawayo, and therefore unthreatening. Pietersen, however, has always been seen as an individual, on personal terms rather than as a product of a club with connotations, one for whom sheer weight of runs and innovation have served to advance his career. His drive towards perfection, genius, infallibility as an individual, has made him an accidental radical. By seeking to improve the structures he saw as restraining his potential, he has challenged English cricket’s myths. For Pietersen, runs were all that mattered. But he has discovered that when you are a cultural revolutionary, they matter least of all.

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Wounded Tiger: review

Cricket in Pakistan has always been that bit different. The brilliance, the madness, the controversy; all seemed to a foreign observer to be exaggerated, defining features of the nation’s cricketing style. Where else could have produced Shahid Afridi or Shoaib Akhtar, capable of days of staggering skill and inexplicable awfulness? Who else can harness the haal, so memorably described by Osman Samiuddun. Even the consistent greats, like Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram were controversial on and off the field, with their teammates and their opponents. Inzamam-ul-Haq, capable of playing brilliant innings with transcendent economy of movement, was provoked into attacking a fan with a bat during a game. The “aloo” story is well-known enough to have lost some of its shock value, but try to imagine it happening again. On a more prosaic level, Abdul Razzaq once missed a Test match because he was ill from eating too much spinach…

You might expect a conservative English journalist to perpetuate stereotypes about the exoticism and unreliability of Pakistan. Instead, in Wounded Tiger, Peter Oborne has produced an exhaustive and perceptive history of cricket in Pakistan, from its pre-partition roots to the modern age of Misbah and Ajmal. It is extensively researched and comprehensive in its coverage, especially of the first couple of decades of Pakistan’s existence, and balances the cricketing detail and trivia with a contextualising political and social history. This is the key to Wounded Tiger, and to a deeper understanding of Pakistani cricket: this is sport as a purposeful postcolonial, Islamic venture, interwoven with national identity. The Pakistan cricket team is an embodiment of national values, an extension of a project of the state.

This point is crucial to understanding many of the later problems that the sport and the nation have encountered. To complain about political interference is to miss the point – the results of the national team, especially in politically sensitive matches – must be either utilised or explained. Unlike India, where cricket was primarily introduced by traders, and then patronised by a feudal elite, the game came to (what is now) Pakistan with soldiers. It was a far more clearly imperial sport, and one that was mainly spread through the middle classes and establishment schools. India’s cricketing world was “collaborationist, divisive [and] celebrated the British Empire”, a denial of the independence movement and Swaraj. In Pakistan, cricket became a “sporting manifestation of Jinnah’s Pakistan movement”. It defined itself in opposition to both Britain and India; Oborne emphasis the popular nature of the sport, ending the book with a specific reference to the inclusivity of the sport in Pakistan, and comparing the white and green of a cricket match to the Pakistani flag. Cricket and popular identity triangulate with national image.

Only in the West Indies is cricket tied so closely to a narrative of decolonisation. Viv Richards and others proudly expressed their pride in dominating the world as black men; those West Indians who toured apartheid South Africa were shunned. But playing cricket as an island federation also only highlighted continued injustice. The West Indies dominated as a pan-Caribbean force whilst the individual islands failed to maintain meaningful political or economic union, sporting unity an example of what could have been. In Pakistan, the national cricket team remained far more closely united with the nation and its self-identity, for good and bad.

Much of this was introduced at the very start of Pakistan’s Test playing history by Abdul Hafeez Kardar, the first captain and both inheritor and founder of Pakistan’s cricketing spirit of resistance. He helped to establish a strong Pakistan team, helped by fine players like Fazal Mahmood, who was instrumental in their famous victory over England at The Oval in 1954. Kardar, despite his Oxford education, fostered an outsider mentality for Pakistan, ensuring players and supporters were aware of slights against his team. One of the most striking incidences was the kidnapping of Idris Baig, a prominent Pakistani umpire, by members of the English touring party in 1955-6. A number of England players decided that Baig was biased against them, and so seized him off the street and took him back to their hotel, where they soaked him with water. The tourists saw it as high jinks; the Pakistani board and establishment saw it as a national slander. It foreshadowed the later Mike Gatting-Shakoor Rana incident, and set the tone for decades of misunderstanding. Particularly against England, Pakistan felt they were singled out for criticism and suspicion. No attempt to was made to understand them; instead the English attitude, from press and players, on ball-tampering, chucking and other skulduggery was somewhere between mockery and vigilantism. Pakistan can’t be trusted, to an extent where it makes for comedy.

It was Pakistan’s stubbornness, combined with the entropy that leaked in from the political world, that made Pakistan exciting, but it also created many of the problems the players and the game faced. Teams were often factionalised and in matches against India, the fear of defeat was all-consuming. Even probably the best Pakistan team, in the mid-80s, struggled with divides. Despite, or perhaps because of, the two best players, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, both being fine leaders, their relationship was poor, with an effect on the rest of the team. The presentations of Javed and Imran in the English press was a classic example of their distorted view of Pakistan and its cricket: despite both men being well educated and middle class, Imran’s time at Oxford and grand air lead him to be depicted as a successor to the Indian maharajahs who patronised fin de siècle cricket, whilst Javed’s competitiveness led him to be depicted as a chippy urchin and a “wild man” who you might spot in an “ambush along the Khyber”.

It was the problems in Pakistani cricket that combined with social and economic climate to create many of the problems that have emerged in recent years. Corruption and poverty have contributed to match-fixing; Mohammad Amir’s case was the most tragic, considering his age and his background. Born into poverty, surviving disease, he was one of the most talented bowlers in the world at 17. Instead of having his talent nurtured and supported, he was betrayed and corrupted by teammates and hangers-on. The insurgency and militancy in parts of the country led to the tragic attack on the Sri Lanka team in 2009. Since the nadir of the 2010 spot-fixing, Misbah-ul-Haq done well to restore some pride to Pakistani cricket. He is the latest Great Man in Oborne’s eyes, joining the lineage of Kardar, Imran and others. In Saeed Ajmal, he has a wonderful spinner, whose relationship with Moeen Ali, the England all-rounder, has the potential to calm future series. The inflammatory tweeting of images of Ajmal’s action by Stuart Broad, among others, could do quite the opposite.

Pakistan can do little to control ignorant attitudes towards it, and should not seek to change for the sake of others. Oborne’s book is successful because it sympathetically presents the state of cricket in Pakistan, without withholding praise to support an argument. The national team is still a vehicle of statehood, and, as such, needs to be strong, now more than ever. India’s financial muscle has transformed the nature of cricket, with a post-colonial order being established. Pakistan’s geopolitics has ruled it out of profiting from the shift in power. Perhaps some hope lies in the rise of a strong Afghan team, which Pakistan has been eager to patronise. As a duumvirate, they stand a chance of taking their place on the world stage. Both with continue to produce wonderfully talented players; it is a case of getting their houses in order to support them.

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Field of Shadows: review

From Brazil to Qatar, via Sochi, what price – and there, perhaps, is the crux of the matter – sport free from political interference, corruption and general distastefulness? Sport than can be enjoyed without guilt felt over the lives lost, dissidents silenced and despots appeased seems increasingly rare, certainly at elite levels. But it would be wrong to see this as a purely modern phenomenon. From the Munich Olympics to rebel rugby and cricket tours of apartheid South Africa, interference from and complicity with the dark side of the “real world” has been inescapable.

Nazi Germany has become a universal acme of evil, and its relationship with the wider world of sport has come to be particularly symbolic, the regime with the cult of racial fitness and supremacy against the reality of genuine sporting triumph, personified by Jesse Owens’ success at the 1936 Olympics. The writer and journalist Dan Waddell has identified and described a less well-known and far less symbolically charged encounter, an English cricket tour to Germany in 1937. Rather like the rebel tours to South Africa in later decades, it was a private tour that came to stand for a lot more, cricketers far from international standard practising diplomacy by proxy through their sporting performance.

For the veterans of the First World War amongst the tourists, visiting Nazi Germany was not an act of complicity; rather, they sought to avoid inflicting the horrors of war on another generation by the means available to them. The MCC backers – hardly Bolshevik opponents of fascism – saw it as an opportunity to cool the hostility building between the nations, but still instructed the tourists to win. Losing to the Germans has clearly never been acceptable for English sports teams.

Waddell does an excellent job with this fascinating material, doing especially well not to stray into Escape to Victory territory, although occasionally the opportunities are too good to miss – the Nazi who punches fielders if they drop catches of his bowling for example! But the difficulties for home sportsmen, representing their abnormal societies, are equally real and well conveyed. For Felix Menzel, the passionate and endlessly enthusiastic promoter of cricket in Germany, his passion was met with suspicion and hostility. For Arthur Schmidt, probably Germany’s most gifted cricketer, his talent was worth nothing because of his descent. He is believed to have been Jewish, and a man fitting his description, name and all, died in Auschwitz.

Those cricketers more amenable to the regime fit neatly into modern stereotypes of violent, thuggish Nazis. But the Gentlemen of Worcestershire reflected their society no less. Robert Berkeley was a talented club batsman, but was better known for owning the oldest bed in Britain and for participating in the Berkeley Hunt, the pack which have entered the English language as choice Anglo-Saxon rhyming slang. Robin Whetherley, on the other hand, whilst being a fine ‘keeper at Oxford, also spoke German and arrived apart from the rest of the team. It is certainly possible that his trip has purposes beyond sporting success. English aristocrats and veterans may have had fewer qualms than some about reconciliation with Germany, but the threat Hitler posed was still being closely monitored.

For all the talk of establishing relations and developing German cricket, the Gentlemen were there to win. They were representing their country against a leading rival and the prospect of defeat was a humiliating one. Certain niceties were observed, including some reluctant saluting. Waddell excuses it, although regarding 1937 as a “comparatively benign” period of Nazi rule is perhaps overstating the case. There were standards to be upheld; perhaps it is best regarded as a necessary if unfortunate observance of ritual.

This desire to please is perhaps unsurprising. In many ways, it was a typical cricket tour – the beer halls of Berlin were certainly well frequented. But the underlying threat was always apparent. The city was tense, Nazi insignia was prominent, Jews were facing significant persecution. The unpleasantness of ordinary life under Nazi rule was becoming evident, and the great strength of Waddell’s work lies in revealing the contradictions and compromises involved. On all sides, key individuals were torn between resistance and collaboration, and their everyday lives, their passions and hobbies revealed the damage of these ruptures. Sport is not always an escape; it can be deeply revealing about its participants. For a group of Englishmen, free but aware in Nazi Berlin, cricket revealed much about themselves and their opponents.

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Trott and The Art of Fielding

The problem, like most problems in life, probably had to do with his footwork”                – Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding              

I’ve just finished reading Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, both an excellent campus novel and a perceptive insight into sporting excellence and failure. Its central plotline concerns Henry Skrimshander, an enormously gifted shortstop whisked off to an elite East Coast college on the basis of his baseball ability, immersed in the world of varsity, literature and male bonding. Henry’s autodidactic obsession, polished by his teammates and immersive training, seems to be leading him inexorably to a glittering career and national fame, until one stray throw leads him into a grim spiral of doubt, introspection and choking. He trains harder and harder, only to find it impossible to throw well when he needs to, with time to think in a crucial situation.

As a cricket fan, the sporting scenario presented by Harbach perhaps inevitably led me to think of Jonathan Trott’s recent troubles. Henry’s problems are technically quite different – the skills required of a shortstop are more like those of cricket’s backward point, but with the consistency and regularity of a wicketkeeper – and more comparable to the bowlers down the years who have found themselves afflicted by the yips. Moreover, Trott has, quite rightly, kept the exact details of his condition (if it is one) private, making comparison difficult. But, from a sporting perspective, one can see where Trott and Henry intersect: failure despite exceptionally high levels of precision and preparation. For those who have known little but success, failure can seem inexplicable.

The answer for some, such as Trott, if reports are to be believed, and Henry in the novel, is greater intensity of training. Success comes from working hard and incessantly; failure, therefore, must come from a lack of preparation and practice. Trott is well known for his tics at the crease. Keep working hard, and the flaws will resolve themselves. But if this fails, what next? Try to not try? As Harbach puts it, “you could only try so hard not to try too hard before you were right back round to trying too hard”. Guidance from the media, teammates, coaches is so often the same platitudes repeated ad infinitum, doing little to calm the churning mind. Other influences, such as the relentless international cricket calendar for Trott or the fear of leaving college for Henry, amplify the importance of the success that seems so distant.

Each case is obvious different, and the comparison between different sports, real and imagined, creates a barrier. But those who dismiss Jonathan Trott’s recent break as cowardly or weak would do well to read The Art of Fielding. The obsession that leads to sporting success sometimes needs to be tempered, breaking the vicious circle of “trying to not try too hard”. If a rest, time away from the game and his technique, is the best thing for Trott, not just as a cricketer but as a person, we should give him all the space he needs. Sometimes the footwork needs to be forgotten, not blamed.

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Before The First Ball

My entry for the Wisden Writing Competition, written mainly during the first session of the Ashes. It was about as good as it got…

Freeze.

High blue skies, streaked with scudding cloud. Antipodean heat and baked earth. Early summer. A new ground in the old country.

James Anderson cocked, focussing over a curled left arm, the classic action of Trueman and Lillee. Potential energy thrumming; bowler as Futurist cyclist. When he releases, right arm whipping through, the Ashes will begin. The cod psychology, the mind games, the mental disintegration. Another deposit of cricketing history, added to the coloured strata of more than a hundred years of matches. Anderson, the latest incarnation of the English bowler trope, facing Chris Rogers, the batsman’s Celtic freckles a reminder of the local origins of this trans-global clash. Rogers seems weathered by hours at the crease in the sunburnt country, his hair the red of outback sand. His opening partner, David Warner, perceived as little more than nasty, brutish and short by the English Fourth Estate, bristles, moustachioed and mercurial. The clash between his twenty-teens Twenty20 technique and his ‘seventies Lillian Thomson temperament has made a marketable miscreant. There is hardly a breathless hush in the Gabba – Stuart Broad draws the majority of profanities – but the richness of cricketing culture and history is palpable in the turbid Brisbane heat.

The first ball. Anderson will hope for a seemly arc back towards the batsman, the subtleties of invisible physics and the bowler’s art colluding for swing. Rogers will hope to feel the reassuring tangibility of a middled stroke, or the exhalation of a leave, the tactic Gideon Haigh called “Fabian batsmanship”. Warner’s ready to run. Careers could be made or lost, injuries could be sustained, reputations reinforced or shattered. The entrails have been examined, the omens augured. The pitch has been dissected, the forecast consulted. Portentous words will be spoken by those who ought to know better; predictions made and forgotten. Minor breakthroughs will be heralded and discarded; the flames of controversies fanned and left to burn out.

The first ball. The first note in the concerto of a test match. Extrapolate all you like. Even Steven Harmison’s greasy palmed opening salvo in 2006 was an aberration only compounded by England’s repeated mediocrity. But it lives in the memory as a distillation of the contest, the inevitable result of five tests condensed into imagery. A bad start can be expunged through good cricket – few remember Andrew Strauss’s first over dismissal in 2010. The opening delivery is merely an introduction, the first step of a journey. The trajectory of each delivery leaves an invisible path, the patina of thousands of balls interpreted into narrative, a sporting Songline for the new Australia. Millions of potential events lie between this Anderson delivery and the final delivery at the SCG. Millions of potential series exist. Which will occur? Why? Why are we watching? Why are they playing?! Maybe it’s best not to think too much, better to sit back and enjoy. After all, it’s only a game and it’s afoot. The fielders in the slips might not stand like greyhounds, but the two nations and their representatives on the baize of the outfield strain up on the start.

Play.

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The Sporting Spectacle: Out and About in the Imagined Community

In recent years, a curious media phenomenon has emerged in Scandinavia. Not the sepulchral greys of Nordic Noir, but slow television, as perfected by the Norwegian public broadcaster. The Oslo-Bergen railway journey; the Hurtigruten coastal cruise; the construction and lifecycle of a fire – large numbers of Norwegians have tuned into soothingly lengthy transmissions of the mundane. The foreign press picked up on it, another example of Scandinavian inscrutability and understated conformity. Those crazy continentals, the ennui of the rural and prosaic… One British journalist, however, made a salient point: the English had discovered Slow TV decades before. They had been televising test cricket for decades.

Cricket is the perfect background sport, a good picnic enhanced rather than a good walk spoiled. This is especially true when it comes to the more bucolic outposts of first class cricket, grounds like Arundel or Aigburth. Perhaps the apogee of unnoticed cricket is The Parks, the only free first class county ground in the country, set amongst the colleges and museums of Oxford. Few of those wandering past the match pay attention; few sporting events can have so many passing spectators in such close proximity to an event they are uninterested in. But the cricket, even unobserved, adds to the ambience. The sport belongs, like the strolling couples, procrastinating students and stately foliage. Cricket just works as a backing track, something to stumble across. Perhaps it’s the rhythm, pauses and stately rotation, or the aural stimulation, gentle exhortation, the crack of a well-timed stroke, the occasional hollered appeal. One can read, or eat, or chat, glancing up for each ball.

Even the finest of matches can recede into the background. The Lord’s Test may be a fiercely fought exhibition of international sport, but it is also a social occasion, a heady blend of red trousers, old school ties and bubbly. Allegedly the Test is always before the 12th August because that is the Glorious Twelfth, the first day of the grouse shooting season, and the MCC members were the sort of people with estates of Scotland to attend t Like a Tolstoyan ball, it is the place to be seen in order to maintain a certain social class. Decades ago, the most privileged attendees probably had connections to the England captain; nowadays, it is merely an entrenchment of privilege, set apart from the sport itself. The game is still a fine backdrop however, crisp whites on verdant outfield.

There has, however, been a shift in the type of spectator that sport, cricket included, is structured around. The viewer at home is now the target audience, setting schedules and sponsorship. Spidercam slides in front of spectators in the stands, the natural lulls between overs are stretched to accommodate advertising. The viewers at home or in the pub, vastly outnumbering those present, are now the people to please for those calling the shots. Moreover, this has led to the condensing of entertainment – if the game isn’t experienced as a day out, you haven’t got time to watch it in extended form. Hence the rise of Twenty20, the post work highlights turned into a match.  This is sport as an event, a focussed burst of competitive activity more akin to a football or rugby match. It demands attention, with density of occurrence built into its very nature. This is cricketing spectacle, gig rather than festival.

Yet intensity and focus does not displace the social. The collective is a crucial part of spectating at football and rugby matches, from “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, via the tifos of Europe’s ultras. Communal watching enhances the event, especially in competitions involving regional or national pride. In his seminal book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson describes the role of the newspaper in creating the “imagined community” of the nation, knowing that people across the country, who you have never met and never will, are reading the same words at the same time as you, creating a bond and sense of belonging to the same cultural unit. The same could be said of major sporting events, such as World Cup football matches, millions of strangers undertaking the same experience with similar feelings. The surge that hits the National Grid at half time in England’s World Cup matches, thousands of kettles clicking on in unison (for cups of tea, of course!), could serve as a fine example of Anderson’s thesis. This is a different kind of sporting social event, communal focus with strangers, rather than the immediacy of meeting friends at the test match, half an eye on the field.

In recent years, however, the Indian Premier League has developed into a strange hybrid of the two, a focussed sporting event where few pay full attention, a tournament of underdeveloped identities and social spectacle. It is a television event where the focus is on those who are meeting in the crowd as much as those on the pitch. Imagine MCC members in the Kop, hobnobbing rather than singing, attending to be seen, not to see. Being seen in the hospitality box at an IPL match – with Preity! Shilpa! SRK! – is confirmation of arrival amongst the elite of a new India, commercial and commodified. It is a place in a parade of parvenus, unlike the ingrained privilege of a Lord’s Test, society calcified over generation. The IPL is often described as tamasha, pure entertainment, but another perception is of it as a “society of the spectacle”.

In the 1967 text of that name, the French philosopher Guy Debord presciently describes the shift from authentic social experience to a representation of it, based on commodification, alienation and consumer culture. There is a shift from “being to having”, and then from “having to appearing”. Social relationships become maintained through images and commodities. The IPL is a perfect example: the crowd attend to be seen, behaviour is altered to present a representation of the self. The cricket is condensed – a six at The Parks would be applauded by the picnickers who would look up for this rare highlight, a small but skilful sporting triumph. In the IPL, the six becomes a “DLF Maximum”, devalued through regularity.

Moreover, the sporting achievement is hollowed out – it is commodified into an opportunity for advertising, not an achievement worthy of celebration within the context of the sporting contest. The trumpet sound that punctuates lulls in the match and ensures the crowd remains noisy is a similarly odd construction – demanding attention during the natural ebbs that occur at any sporting occasion, but not refocussing the crowd on the game at hand. Instead it seems to serve as a reminder for television viewers and advertisers that the crowd is present (honest!), that there is a spectacle, an event, and it is being consumed.

Sport has always had a difficult relationship with reality – its narratives and importance questionably overblown. But there is a new need to periodically reanimate the crowd at the IPL because the cricket, despite its frantic nature, occurs in the background, part of the show with the cheerleaders and the celebrities, despite its focussed nature. It is a commodified spectacle, scenery, but in a quite different way to a first class match. Here the cricket is not a backdrop that enhances an otherwise pleasant activity. It is a canvas, onto which the elements of the spectacle are projected. The crowds and personalities would not be there if it was not for the cricket; nor would the sponsors. The cricket is a necessary component, but it is reduced, an inauthentic representation of a sport that people can choose to care about or not, but one that, in less elaborate contexts, is more real for its lack of spectacle.

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The Almost Nearly Perfect People: review

I’ll start with the full disclosure: I have family from and living in Denmark, and living in Norway. I’ve travelled in Scandinavia, visiting wonderful places and having wonderful experiences. I’m a believer in their traditional social democratic dream. But Michael Booth, author of a new book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, must have done too. He’s married to a Dane and has lived in Copenhagen for a decade, as well as travelling across the Nordic region in the course of writing and researching the book. So why the negativity?

This is an important book. There is a need for nuance in discussing the region; appreciation and understanding is necessary. Too often it is reduced to clichés and panoramas, based on little real experience or evidence. Moreover, the recent fashion for Scandimania has hidden many of the flaws that undoubtedly exist. Booth has been brave in challenging these and drawing them to the surface. Yet too often he knocks down straw men, challenging media stereotypes rather than presenting a balanced picture. At times it feels like half a book, an interesting and informative travelogue with the praise redacted.

This is a real shame, because the book is fascinating. The pub quiz facts are fun – the majority of Icelanders believe in elves, high school graduates wear jaunty nautical hats – and the explanations of key Scandinavian concepts, such as hygge, sisu and duktig – are excellent. The economic analysis is interesting, as are the discussions with sociologists. For example, the suggestion that the seeds of the Icelandic banking crisis were sown with fishing quotas that developed into tradable fish futures is fascinating. Even if conclusions sometimes seem skewed – are shorter working hours really a sign of social decline? – there are genuine attempts to understand societies which, like all, are incredibly complex and seemingly contradictory. Booth’s style is flippant and amusing, making difficult subjects accessible and genuinely funny. It is reminiscent of Simon Winder’s Germania – a similar, if far more sympathetic, book.

Despite these positives, the book still seems based on a false premise. It is a challenge to a foreign media stereotype, not Scandinavian exceptionalism. Moreover, is our image of Scandinavia really so radiant? Surely with Nordic Noir, we now see the dark side of Scandinavian life, albeit fictionalised. The likes of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson have raised the same issues as Booth for years: the crumbling of the welfare state, the intolerance and rise of the far right, the long shadow of the war. The book is a missed opportunity, an excellent piece of work limited by its reluctance to re-emphasise the positive side of Scandinavia. The real advantages are as unknown to those outside Scandinavia as the negatives – Booth has furnished us with half the picture. His admiration for Scandinavia shines through in the conclusion, but he has missed an opportunity to define our image of the Nordic countries, not just challenge stereotypes. Booth’s book deserves to be read as an insight into Scandinavian life, but the reader should bear in mind the positives that fail to fully shine through.

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Ryszard Kapuściński: review

To tell the truth is very difficult, and young men are rarely capable of it. They were expecting an account of how he go all fired up, forgetting himself, how he flew like a storm at the square; how he cut his way into it hacking right and left; how his sabre tasted flesh, how he fell exhausted, and so on. And he told them all that.”                             ‒ Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.

What exists beyond the page? In a postmodern age, beyond authors and truths, we must ask ourselves what we can and should expect from the creator of prose. Do we expect flawless characters behind wonderful writing, or should the text be a contrast, the one area where our flawed heroes have control and life works out? For novelists and poets, the question is one of creativity and inspiration. For journalists, our expectations change. Our reliance on them, our investment in the truth of their reports, requires a level of trust. You don’t need to confidence in the validity of a brilliant poet. The best reporters illuminate and engage – and ask for the suspension of disbelief. There is a contract between reader and writer: I will inform you of the wonders and horrors of the world, and you must believe me. Can we establish that contact with a flawed individual, no matter the wonders they tell? Moreover, the pressures of accuracy weigh heavy. To be proved wrong, to be labelled a fantasist, is to be discredited, no matter the quality of your writing. Quality is balanced against truth, qualified by it.

Ryszard Kapuściński undoubted produced high quality journalism, some of the finest reportage of the twentieth century in any language. He was a connoisseur of corruption, a veteran of revolution, a consummate translation of the Other into common humanity. He was able to conjure an understanding of the Third World – in its accurate sense of the unaligned countries of the Cold War – for his readers in the towns of socialist Poland, and, later, for his new fans across a post-Soviet world. He had a gift for connecting with ordinary people, seeing their countries through the eyes of the soldier or the courtier, not the general or the king. Like his great inspiration Herodotus, Kapuściński saw himself as a crucial intermediary, introducing people to the foreign and the exotic so as to pre-empt hostility and prejudice born out of ignorance. He wanted people to understand each other to save themselves.

He was also a brave and talented journalist and writer, often alone in countries unwelcoming to Westerners or in the midst of revolutions and civil wars. He creates wonderfully memorable images and set pieces: Luanda’s city of crates, the sensory avalanche of an Indian train station, the hallucinatory visage of a shuddering television screen in the Arctic. He deciphers and suggests; this is analysis by analogy, anecdotes collating to create a universal image. His cultural analysis extends to his own as well, his understanding of revolution and its discontents born in post-war Poland, the heavy reek of corruption that he smells abroad as well. He comprehends revolution because he has believed and been let down. When he describes the power plays of the court of Haile Selassie, his Polish readers recognise what he is really talking about: the corruption of any court, including their own rulers.

Yet Kapuściński is more than a great writer and analyst. He is an enigmatic figure, one with ambiguities, foibles and agendas. His biographer, Artur Domosławski, has controversially sought to draw out the impurities and expose them to his readers. Domosławski was a friend and colleague of Kapuściński’s, but quite how the men related is not made clear – Domosławski is absent from the book in the way Kapuściński never was in his. His is a knowledgeable view, but his place in the tale is never fully clarified. Domosławski unearths questions about Kapuściński’s fidelity, accuracy and loyalties, his main challenge being to address Kapuściński’s relationship to the state and the Party. Quite how was he able to publish and travel widely in a country that restricted these rights for so many? Kapuściński certainly had friends in high places, and his analyses of Third World situations were useful for the government. Moreover, censorship was never much of an issue – Kapuściński was a loyal leftist. Throughout school and university, he was ideologically conformist, an ideal young Party member. But for Kapuściński the socialist, a dissonance developed between the revolutionary socialism of the Third World – liberation theology, Che and Allende – and the corrupt, lethargic Polish state. He found opposition to socialism in Poland odd whilst he was abroad, until he returned and realised that the socialism he admired abroad had more in common with the opposition than the Party that espoused it.

Despite this eventual opposition, Domosławski discusses Kapuściński’s willingness to collaborate and the weaknesses of so many that were revealed during the lustration of the 1990s. Like so many Poles living under Communism, Kapuściński had to make the small sacrifices of principle, the acceptance of a certain relaxing of moral strictures that allowed one a few comforts and a chance of normality. He seems to have been intelligence small fry, occasionally providing information on irrelevant Western figures he met through his work. No-one who has read Imperium, his book on the Soviet Union, especially the chapters where he explores the distant islands of the Gulag archipelago, can view Kapuściński as a Stalinist promoter of socialist dictatorship. Few with his experiences from the Third World could not have been in favour of revolutionary decolonisation and oppose interference. He learned about flawed societies growing up in Poland and took this knowledge to Africa and South America with him; when he returned, he applied his belief in radical social change to his mother country.

Moreover, Kapuściński saw himself as a necessary presenter of the other side. When the West German ambassador to Guatemala, Karl von Spreti, was murdered, Kapuściński attempted to understand the motivation of the revolutionary guerillas who executed him. He was criticized for justifying political murder; to him, it was an attempt to comprehend those normally dismissed as terrorists. Kapuściński saw the normal presentation of the Cold War – East versus West – as unhelpful. For him, the meaningful divide in the world was the North-South one. The interference of the USA and USSR in the self-determination processes of the global South was the major obstacle to peace and progress. Kapuściński’s instinctive sympathy for the revolutionary fighting corrupt institutions came from this, but he was a child in a war-torn country, a troubled member of a troubled society. The corruption of his own institutions permeated through idealism and faith.

Beyond the exotic and the new, the appeal of the Third World for Kapuściński lay in escapism – a way out of Poland’s malaise for a talented and enthusiastic young journalist. Inspired by Herodotus, he sought to explore and inform, demystifying the Other and interrogating the mechanisms of power. It was his methods in doing so that were both inspirational and questionable. As Domosławski explores, much of Kapuściński’s reportage worked as metaphor.  In The Emperor, for example, the court of Haile Selassie serves as a case study, an example for Kapuściński to build his analysis around. The effect is intoxicating, but infuriated many experts on the subject, who focussed on the author’s inaccuracies over his wider meaning. The question remains: is metaphor and allusion a betrayal of the reporter’s contract with the reader? Are Kapuściński’s wider points invalidated by his fantastical accounts of the court?

Historians who critique the details of Kapuściński’s account are perhaps missing the point. The immediacy of reporting, the personal refraction of what is seen, is quite different to a historian’s attempt to build up a multi-layered, nuanced image. Kapuściński could well be saying what he saw and heard, only to be disproved later. Reportage is like a photograph: it invokes a powerful sense of place, it is transportational, but it is static. The historian can collate an album, the reporter takes a snapshot. Moreover, Kapuściński’s grander intellectual aim, the humanisation of the Other, requires more than a staid, factual account of diplomacy and economic statistics. In Imperium, he captures the life of ordinary Russians in the most extreme Arctic conditions by recounting his meeting with a girl who follows the tunnels made by her friends walking to school through freezing fog. The mundane and the extraordinary combine to capture the essence of everyday life in a world totally unlike our own, populated by people just like us.

In this sense, Kapuściński belongs more to a tradition of interpreters, stretching from Herodotus to Chatwin. Like Chatwin, he creates places through his prose, the countries he describes mapped through language. Like Herodotus, he has an insatiable curiosity in the different and the seemingly indecipherable; it is in all our interests to understand it. Kapuściński is an intermediary, and therefore inherently and necessarily blurred. He is neither one thing nor the other, historian or journalist, insider or outsider. The liminal space he inhabits imposes compromise. Strict factual accuracy is sacrificed for understanding. Kapuściński and his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez saw fact and fiction as a false dichotomy – all that matters in understanding and illumination. The Anglo-Saxon tradition is more rigorous, seeing invention and blurring as undermining the legitimacy of reportage. But perhaps it is naïve to expect the truth, especially in the books of Kapuściński, which resemble travel literature more than journalism, as naïve as it is to expect moral purity.

What is more, Kapuściński saw strict neutrality as both impossible and unnecessary. He admired many of the figures he reported on – Guevara, Lumumba – and his sympathies for the revolutionary cause, the anti-imperialism of the people, came through in his writing. As an American journalism commented, how can one remain neutral watching civil rights protestors being beaten by police? Kapuściński ensured he explained what he believed, he translated his sympathies for his readers. Exaggeration and rhetoric were for intellectual and clarifying purposes. Kapuściński existed as a character in his writing, “Ryszard Kapuściński”, whose adventures in the Third World explored it for his readers, to create understanding, even as he disappeared into the mists between dreams and reality.

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“You’re Getting Sacked in the Morning”: Cricket Coaching’s Cultural Shift

You can always tell once the eyes go. As England’s middle order dissipated for the final time in Sydney, the Channel Nine cameras focused in on a harrowed looking man in England kit. Not a departed batsman or the captain, but Andy Flower, England’s “team director” – i.e. the coach. It was a shot familiar to fans of football, the lens trained on the man off the pitch impotently watching his charges fail. The next day, as Manchester United conceded a late goal at home to Swansea, David Moyes, their manager, wore the same hunted, harried expression as Flower. In cricket, it seems, a new man has become culpable for failure.

International cricket has seen the rise of the manager. No-one now would risk the Warne/Chappell approach – only having a coach to get to the ground in. After all, a group of senior players can’t study laptops, diet plans, security and the rest of the detritus of modern sport. The rise of the coach came in the 1990s, when teams began to employ an expert to add useful information that those busy focussing on their individual games might not sport, or to add moral fortitude, as Bobby Simpson tried to for Australia in the late ‘80s. Ray Illingworth’s alienating spell in charge of England was a shoddy attempt at the latter; Bob Woolmer’s innovation with Warwickshire and South Africa a revolutionary demonstration of the former. Woolmer actively improved the teams he was in charge of, not by improving individual players’ games, but by showing how valuable a coach could be in changing the culture and priorities of a team. John Buchanan had similar success with Steve Waugh’s Australian team (note, like Clive Lloyd’s West Indians, a great team categorised by the captain), but was a more divisive figure. Some felt he made little practical difference and was simply fortunate to coach a hyper-talented team; some saw him as a crucial factor in its dominance. For many, your personal tolerance for pseudo-intellectuals spouting Sun Tzu defined your opinion on Buchanan’s influence.

One thing had become clear by the 21st century: the age of cricket coaches only being for public schoolboys was over. Duncan Fletcher took many of the plaudits for England’s increased success. Buchanan’s reign of martial philosophy continued. Other leading international coaches began to emerge. A new issue began to arise – the relationship between coach and captain. The captain was aided by the coach’s tactical input, but his traditional primacy was undermined. Was the captain setting the field in the spur of the moment, or executing pre-prepared plans, like a quarterback calling plays or a rugby lineout? England under Andy Flower especially seemed robotic – ruthlessly efficient but undermined by unforeseen situations, such as Tino Best’s 95 or Ashton Agar’s 98. Notable duumvirates arose as well: Fletcher and Vaughan, Arthur and Smith, Inzamam and Woolmer, Flower and Strauss. In other cases, dual power blew up, most notably with Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores.

Moreover, a pool of recognised international coaches began to emerge – Gary Kirsten, Dav Whatmore, Mickey Arthur, Duncan Fletcher, John Dyson – as well as recently retired players and the roster of specialist batting, fast bowling, spin bowling and fielding coaches. The cartel of interchangeable coaches has come to resemble the situation in football, where a range of familiar faces swap between a number of jobs, scapegoated for poor form and sacked to provide the dead-cat bounce of a new manager. Despite this, international cricketers, increasingly contracted to their national team, serve their coaches, rather than coaches coming in to help a team. Regimes are now run by coaches, with captains as go-betweens for players and management. Captains can be left isolated and compromised, as Andrew Strauss was by Kevin Pietersen’s 2012 texting farrago.

However, a mutinous player has new options today. David Gower retired to the media when he fell out with Graham Gooch, his captain. If Kevin Pietersen was rejected as disruptive by Andy Flower, he could play in the IPL as a star player. The IPL has become resented by team managements, rather as club football managers dislike international football. Just as Alex Ferguson did his upmost to keep his players out of England squads, Flower is reluctant to allow players to play in the IPL. They would be under alternative jurisdiction in India; for players who are now serving a coach, this is intolerable. Interference, including from the players’ domestic teams, could compromise the plan.

The plan is another new feature. Like football managers such as Andre Villas Boas, Flower is an ideologue. He has a formula for winning matches, controlling percentiles, winning through accumulation and discipline. However, you don’t have to be a political scientist to know that ideology becomes a problem if it doesn’t work. Part of being a good coach is knowing how to recover from defeat; if you play with your plan and lose, you can’t change, because the plan is how you win. AVB was recently sacked by Spurs after a number of heavy defeats. Flower teeters after England’s recent Ashes thrashing. Flower’s plan has made it difficult for England to adapt. Furthermore, cricket fans, rather like football fans, are calling him to be sacked or resign. The inevitable result of making the players your own and making them play your way is you take the blame when they lose. The cricket coach has become like the football manager: helmsman, ideologue and scapegoat.

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