“I’m a proud socialist. I’ve voted Labour all my life. So did my father. And his father. Wouldn’t dream of voting for anybody else.”
The man on the phone in one of those interminable vox pop pieces on the radio during the recent General Election set me thinking. The Labour voter had every right to think and vote as he saw fit. It wasn’t the name of the party that struck me – there is undoubtedly an equal number of dyed in the blue wool Tory voters out there – but the fact that he was so proud of his unyielding opinion. He saw it as a badge of honour. The fact that nothing, nothing, would or could change his mind is seen as an expression of commendable loyalty. He had conviction, you see, and a conviction voter, just as much as a conviction politician, is a person to be reckoned with. I remember listening to a fascinating talk given by Tony Benn at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. The old charmer was in fine fettle and had his audience soon eating out of his hand. He still spouted – eloquently – the same old guff about socialism but above all else, he sounded sincere. Furthermore, he had this to say about Margaret Thatcher. He thoroughly disagreed with her politics but he admired her for her resoluteness. “She was never one for turning and I admired her for that,” he said. The resounding applause indicated that yes, even a Cheltenham audience recognised true steadfastness when they saw it, of whatever political hue.
A world away from the Cheltenham Literary Festival, I attended an equally fascinating event hosted by Kevin Pietersen in aid of his KP24 Foundation which helps underprivileged children around the world to play cricket. It was a worthy cause and it was well supported but inevitably in a Q and A session he was asked about the reasons for his sacking from the England team after the disastrous Ashes tour of 2013-14. He did not duck the bouncers but defended his style of playing in the way that he only knows, with robust shots all round the wicket. That’s the way I bat, he contended. Sometimes it comes off and sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, I usually win the session, if not the match, for my side. When it doesn’t – and here he gave a theatrical shrug – there are 10 other batsmen in the side who also are meant to score runs. In other words, like the staunch Labour voter, he was not for turning, whatever the circumstances. Brave? Unwavering? Resolute? Or stubborn? Inflexible? Mulish? And in the end, unmanageable? The audience was split in its sympathy. What a surprise. KP tends to polarise opinion. David Gower was of the view that Pietersen had put his ego before the team. Graham Gooch observed that a great player plays the situation, not the occasion, and Pietersen had failed to do that in his innings in the Test matches. I play the way I play, countered KP, which is to try to get on top and dominate the bowling. I played 104 Tests, scored over 8,000 runs at an average of 47.28 with 23 centuries. Gower made 18 Test hundreds and Gooch 20, both with inferior averages. So I must have been doing something right! Just like the wily old fox of a politician, Tony Benn, he was damned if he was going to apologise for playing with conviction.
Now, to draw these two threads together…… England were defeated by Pakistan in the semi-final of the recent Champions Trophy in a game that they were largely expected to win. It was generally accepted that the Pakistanis had adapted better to the pitch, a low, slow, dusty surface bringing to mind those in the sub-continent rather than in England. It does beg the question why on earth a used pitch – for that is what it was – was provided for the semi-final of an international tournament of this stature, but that is another point altogether. My point is that it was the same pitch for both sides but that Pakistan reacted better to the conditions and beat England fair and square. Once again, doubts are raised about our national teams, cricket, football and rugby coming under the spotlight recently, and their ability to think for themselves on the hoof. Pakistan were less experienced, have an inferior domestic structure, fewer coaches, less cash, poorer facilities and came into the tournament as underdogs. They don’t even play their matches at home, for goodness sake, because of security reasons. Yet they carried all before them, pulverising the two favourites, England and India, on their way to glory. Why? Why did England, with all that money, all those facilities, all those coaches, all that medical, training and support staff, tank it?
All right, all teams can have an off day, though England always seem to have theirs at a most inopportune moment. However, I think it’s more than that; it’s too easy to shrug it off as simply a bad day at the office. Remember England losing to Wales in the 2015 Rugby World Cup by 25-28, having been 10 points ahead, before chaos took over and Wales secured a last-gasp triumph? That was the match in which England’s captain, Chis Robshaw, controversially turned down a penalty attempt in the dying seconds to draw the match and the subsequent mess at the ensuing line-out sealed their fate. Remember too England’s football team freezing against Iceland – Iceland! – in the 2016 Euros, losing 1-2 and giving every indication of 11 rabbits caught in the headlights. And England’s cricket team crashed spectacularly earlier in the summer in the 3rd one-day international against South Africa at Lord’s. They failed to adapt to a green, seaming wicket and collapsed to 20-6 after five overs, many of the dismissals resulting from unsuitable, hard wicket shots. What am I saying here? It is my contention that England players seem incapable, or unwilling, to think for themselves intuitively; when things go wrong, they appear unable to stop, to think, to take stock and to readjust.
Why? I have heard it argued that the English are a conservative lot, risk-averse, hesitant to change tactics, disinclined to think out of the box and loath to gamble. That is a compelling viewpoint; how many England teams in recent memory have preferred to play it safe and rely on guts rather than guile to extricate themselves from a tricky situation? However, I have another contention as far as England cricket teams are concerned. They are over-coached. All of them have been brought up through the ranks, the various county age groups, followed by national academies, training camps, central contracts and a vast army of support staff. Basically, they have been told what to do, and when, from their earliest teenage years. Some have flourished in this regime but I wonder whether the naturally gifted, like Joe Root and Ben Stokes, would have flourished anywhere, on the dusty maidans of Bombay or in the schools of Sri Lanka or the parched hills of Pakistan or even on the bumpy weather-beaten strips in war-torn Afghanistan. Others, at times, play like robots. Tactics have been decided and honed well before (it’s called game preparation), everybody knows his role and his place in the team and they carry out their plans (‘execute their skills’) drilled into them by hours and hours of practice. Where is the person who is going to stop and say, hang on a minute here, this isn’t working – we need to do this or try that? Who is going to grab the ball, like a Trueman or a Botham, and seize the moment, because all his instincts tell him that now is the time and he is the man to deliver? But no, says the captain, you’re not scheduled to bowl your spell until after tea. Er, excuse me, mate, but should you be going at the ball so hard? This is a slow turner, not a belter of a pitch. Did anyone saunter down the wicket to speak to his batting partner in such terms at Cardiff?
The Pakistanis, by contrast, seemed to have no plan. They nearly came off the rails and narrowly averted catching the early plane home. Then they threw caution to the winds, played with passion and brio, as only they can, staying true to their instincts, won some wonderful matches and carried off the Champions Trophy. Their leading wicket taker had only made his ODI debut last August. And they picked a debutant to open the batting, with dazzling results. I bet Hasan Ali and Fakhar Zaman, for those were their names, have not attended interminable boot camps, winter training and indoor nets on their way to the Pakistan national team.
Do not get me wrong. Coaching per se is not harmful. Of course it isn’t. There are times when it can be helpful. But if overdone, it can stifle individualism and unorthodoxy, both in technique and mental awareness. I read an article in the recent edition of The Cricketer in which Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid (both of Asian descent, it should be noted) called upon their coaches to “loosen the shackles” and to eschew their “too prescriptive” coaching mentality. “If I was to influence anything about coaching in England,” said Moeen, “I’d say we’re too orthodox.” Brave words. I hope their central contracts are not immediately cancelled. These are current England Test players let us not forget.
They’re not voting Labour, or Tory, because their coaches have told them to. They are, albeit hesitantly, starting to think for themselves. Anyone who can’t really ought not to be playing at the highest level.