For a long time, I couldn’t understand why boxers would fall into each other’s arms at the end of a fight, their mutual respect drowning out the chaos at the bell, as quiet words were spoken and looks not far short of love exchanged. It wasn’t just the switch from violence to tenderness that bemused me, it was the forgiving of 12 rounds of sly headbutts, of sneaky eye gouges, of stubble ground into cuts, even forgiveness of the pre-fight badmouthing. But it suddenly clicked: all that stuff was okay, it was part of the deal, it was expected and accepted. No boxer spoke against it, no pressman moralised about it, no fans claimed it was ruining the sport. There are more problems in boxing than I will ever know, but maybe cricket, especially Ashes cricket, can take a lesson from it on acknowledging that their are norms of behaviour that players do accept – and that, close up, it’s not particularly edifying.
Ball Two – Journalism is not PR
Cricket produces some very fine journalism – and not just in the written Press. Some of Sky’s colour pieces and interviews, especially whenever the outstanding Ian Ward is involved, have been excellent, and its commentating full of insight and wit. But journalism is not PR. Too often (for understandable reasons) recently retired players on television and in the press, have appeared to hold back on stories, wary of breaking confidences, as the omerta of the dressing room holds fast. For fans, that’s frustrating, but what really grates is the feeling that the pundit considers himself to be a co-opted member of one of the parties to the battle, spinning for their team. Media outlets should not balance partisan views from one side with partisan views from the other side: they should rectify bad journalism with good journalism.
Ball Three – The Game is too big to be reduced to protocols and playing conditions
The officiating of the Tests kept coming back, like an ugly fat toad, to squat in front of us, blocking our view of the matches with its insistence on being “the story”. It’s nothing new, though its amplification through 24 hour media and Twitternoise has pumped it up so much that it threatened a Mr Creosote style bursting over the whole thing, splattering us with discussions of DRS, neutral umpires, bad light etc etc etc. Alas, this is the price we pay for The Game’s glorious complexity – it will not reduce to something that can be corralled by words or fettered by technology. It sits above us and, if our hubris is such that we think we have covered everything it can present to us and that our mortal answers suffice , it’ll find something new with which to torment us. We can only get closer to ideal officiating and not reach it – that is the context for debate, rather than lamenting officiating’s imperfections. It’s often said that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing soap operas – but I doubt it. He’d be writing about Test cricket.
Ball Four – Explaining The Ashes 2013 is not easy
The scramble to seize a narrative is confusing and, often, trite. Whether it’s coaches and captains taking away the positives or journalists looking to appeal to their readerships by getting an angle, the game has been done no favours in its showpiece series. At the heart of this problem is a contradiction. To understand who is “winning” in as strange a series as this one, requires an audience to have such a subtlety of language and depth of knowledge of the game, that they have worked it out already. (At the very least, these cricket tragics are luxuriating in the debate). The casual fan (like me in the case of rugby union) is left out of the debate or is fed lines that they know do not reflect the reality. Both audiences are left with a slightly empty feeling as there is no discourse that really works for them. The contrast with the clarity of 2005’s seesawing narrative is marked.
Ball Five – The State of the Nation (England)
For all the misfirings of England’s big guns, usually enough of them came good at key times to win the crucial sessions – and that is the mark of an experienced and confident team, well-led on and off the field. England will travel to Australia with a settled core of players who, fitness permitting, should be at their peaks: Cook, Trott, KP, Bell, Prior, Broad, Anderson and Swann. That is as formidable a group of players as England have sent overseas in my lifetime. Supporting them, Joe Root already has an Ashes century and Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett have the sprinkler photos of 2010-11 on the mantelpiece. Beyond that, the questions start to crop up – but if that’s your biggest problem, it’s not a bad problem to have.
Ball Six – The State of the Nation (Australia)
Has Shane Watson finally found a game that works? At the same age, Matthew Hayden, whose style Watson’s most resembles, had 53 Tests, 13 centuries and 15 fifties still before him. Will Chris Rogers be given five Tests if he fails in Brisbane? The clamour for the country boy with the youth and unorthodoxy which so appeals to Australia’s image of itself, will grow – and England will be delighted if Philip Hughes is restored as opener. Can Michael Clarke’s back continue (metaphorically and literally) to carry the burdens placed upon it? Will the seamers survive a five match series or will the musical chairs continue, due to injury and form? Is Brad Haddin the right man for the gloves in a home series? Will Nathan Lyon be paid the respect he deserves by selectors? Australia need to find answers to these questions pretty quickly – and even if they do, they still might not have enough.
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