Thursday, 9 June 2011

What Has Happened To English Cricket?

Something has happened to English cricket. I'm not sure when it happened, but something has definitely changed. Nobody warned me that this was going to happen and I'm simply not prepared. I don't know how to deal with this new version of being an England cricket supporter.

Perhaps if I were more than a casual supporter of cricket I would have recognised the signs that things were changing. However, I am not a serious supporter and I have developed a coping mechanism for supporting England. This coping mechanism has served me well for nearly thirty years of offering my casual, armchair support. The process was very simple. I got excited about the start of a new test series, I started watching that test series, I watched as hope turned into disappointment, I convinced myself that it was only cricket and that it didn't really matter and then I switched off. Life resumed as normal and the cricket armchair was vacated - replaced by a quick visit to Ceefax later in the day to see just how bad the disappointment was. It worked!

There were of course occasional blips of success that threatened this model of support but they were few and far between. It never took long for normal business to resume and life to fit the parameters that I expected. Current events appear to be more than a blip though, and it is challenging my whole approach to my armchair support.

The development of my trusted coping mechanism can almost certainly be traced back to my cricketing education. In the dim and distant past, like many other armchair fans, my cricketing education took place on the school cricket pitch. I batted number five for the school team (the passage of time allows me not to mention that it was the school B team) and my memories of school cricket are fond ones. I remember being someone who could bat a bit and who enjoyed helping his team gain success. Flashing boundaries and glorious sixes live long in the memory.

The reality, of course, was far removed from the rose-tinted view of nostalgia. Cricket was a game of fear. Fielding involved standing on the boundary hoping that the ball never came anywhere near me. I didn't want to show off my inability to throw a ball. When the ball did head in my general direction I became very religious. I would pray that the ball would bounce before reaching me - my throwing was better than my catching! Fielding was a tortuous affair that couldn't end soon enough. Batting was little better. Far from wanting to help the team achieve success, I spent the beginning of every innings sat in the pavilion hoping for wickets. I didn't care about the score. I just wanted to bat. Nothing was worse than a victory achieved with only two wickets down. When I did bat it was of the 'hit and hope' style of batting. A defensive shot was what you called a mis-hit to protect your dignity. The flashing boundaries may have looked good but I wouldn't know - I had my eyes closed for most of them! Those were the days.

As awful as those cricket experiences were, they were the perfect training for following England. I learned that cricket was a game of fear. I learned that the score was nowhere near as important as protecting dignity and avoiding embarrassment. I also learned that all you really needed was the occasional moment of success to hold onto while conveniently avoiding the less enjoyable reality of a situation. So my coping mechanism was born.

It is very difficult to get upset over defeat when you are mentally prepared to lose. No matter what the score of any given test, my mentality was always one of 'we'll still lose this.' Very often we did. England had a very good track record of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Yes, we did have some great players, but they never seemed to have that winning mentality. They would have fitted in very well into my school cricket team in terms of their approach to the game. They never quite developed that Australian refusal to lose or the West Indies ability to strike fear into the opposition - no matter how good their individual players were.

Then, in July 2009, something happened in Cardiff. In a game where defeat was a certainty England refused to lose. It may not have been a victory, but no cricket fan will ever forget the doggedness of Collingwood or the tenth wicket stand of Anderson and Panesar. What is more, England went on to build on that achievement by winning the Ashes. It may not have been perfect, and it may not yet have established itself as more than one of those blips of success, but I noticed a change in my mentality. Instead of thinking 'we will still lose' my attitude had changed to one of 'we could still lose.' A subtle change perhaps, but a change nontheless.

The events of the past seven months have gone even further. Outstanding performances and victory down under have been followed up by another memorable final day in Cardiff against Sri Lanka. England are developing a winning habit. The blip is turning into a trend. I noticed the effect that this had on me during the second test against Sri Lanka at Lords. In a game that seemed to be a certain draw I found myself thinking 'we could still win this.' That the game finally ended in that inevitable draw didn't matter. The change had taken place. Optimism had replaced pessimism and I'm not sure how to deal with it. Optimism opens the door to disappointment and pain. I'm on a far more dangerous path now.

Luckily for me, it seems that the change in my attitude stems from a change in attitude of the team itself. There is no doubt that this England team believes in its own abilities. While it may be a little unfair on previous teams, players and captains to suggest that this is a new phenomenon, the results speak for themselves. England ae developing a ruthlessness that I have not witnessed in the thirty odd years that I have been following them. Ability - which was often there - is now being augmented with a desire and belief that is sweeping aside the opposition. Andrew Strauss and the England hierarchy are shaping a team that refuses to lose on the test arena. England didn't just win in Australia because they were better. They won because they wanted to win more than Australia did. A very un-English trait.

England have made no secret of he fact that their aim is to become the number one test side in the world. Their refusal to lose is certainly a big step in that direction. They have created hope amongst their supporters. The next step will be for them to become a team that the opposition is fearful of facing. We wait to see if they make that next step. The 'we can still win this' mentality may be a dangerous one, but expect it to be an exciting one too in the coming years.

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