Empty again, that was Newlands, but this time even the cricketers were missing. The famous ground, 131 years into cricket business now, was bathed in sunshine – the clean pale blue of the African sky framing Table Mountain with spectacular clarity – but the Covid bell had tolled on the scheduled one-day match between South Africa and England. Sport lifts the spirit like little else, but it was denied the chance to make its magic yesterday.
In waiting, conversation turned to England’s impressive T20 play over the previous week, year and more. How have they become so good?
There is the IPL theory, a tournament once spurned by English arrogance but now embraced like an old friend, so valuable is it to England’s representatives. Kevin Pietersen was first on the plane to India in 2008, finding it too appealing for the liking of most of his colleagues. And not just his colleagues. The headline “Dumbslog Millionaire” appeared in the Times of London when Pietersen, on 97 after a flurry of boundaries, played an ugly mow across the line to the West Indian left-arm spinner Sulieman Benn in a Test match in Jamaica. It cost him his wicket and, moreover, a great deal of embarrassment given he had just been bought at auction for US$1.55 million to play for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. Truth is, KP had read the tea leaves. The IPL was where it was at, and still is.
Now, a raft of England’s best head to India – or the UAE – each spring (or autumn) to pit themselves against the best in the world. Most come up smiling because the money compensates nicely for mixed results: think Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Tom Curran at the Rajasthan Royals; Eoin Morgan and Tom Banton at the Kolkata Knight Riders; Jonny Bairstow with the Sunrisers Hyderabad; Chris Jordan at the Kings XI Punjab; Moeen Ali at RCB; and Sam Curran, with MS Dhoni at the Chennai Super Kings. Curran’s debut season was a qualified success. It’s a chunky cheque for a chap not long out of the classroom but the real benefit came in the experience and exposure. Rarely does Curran fall short of expectation and never of ambition or courage. Stephen Fleming, the Super Kings coach, sees the youngest of the three brothers as an integral part of the team’s makeover and as a long-term investment.
Then there is money, lots of it from the television-rights deals that pay for central contracts and support staff, which, in turn, allow the ECB to direct the course of a player’s career. The board caught on with the appointment of Andrew Strauss as director of cricket. He prioritised one-day and T20 cricket and the result has been a glittering success.
There is the captain, Morgan, whose calculating leadership has ensured a team with core values, unwavering belief, and above all, a free spirit. This is not to say discipline is compromised – far from it. These guys don’t mess with Morgan – in fact, those that do pay a price – but they trust him right down to the last ball of the last Super Over. He is smart tactically, open to original thinking, and fiercely loyal. Perhaps best of all, there is a ruthlessness in him that appeals to the key lieutenants, and so it is that they follow him to the wire.
Morgan would say he is blessed with a group of brilliant players. He might also point out that he has shaped them. The professional game in England has become attractive to outsiders – witness Archer, Jordan and Morgan himself. Many of England’s best short-form players began their lives elsewhere but the old country has always opened her arms. It is remarkable to think that the debate about Archer’s place in the World Cup party was taking place only 20 months ago. It says something for both Morgan and Archer that the Bajan-born was entrusted with the Super Over.
Finally, there is the free spirit mentioned above. Sport is littered with the fear of failure; the fact that its audience feels this too hugely increases the likelihood of players falling foul of it. (And that may explain why the cricket in the recent IPL and the Premier League football has been played with such expression: no live crowd to put the fear of god into the players.)
England’s Dawid Malan says that being the highest ranked T20 batsman in the world is no guarantee of runs
English cricket has, inherently, put defence before attack. Those that have not are outliers and, unsurprisingly, mostly brilliant. A negative mindset that was long prevalent in county cricket where the better players looked after No. 1 and the fringe players hung on for dear life. Morgan blew all that nonsense out to sea. He encouraged expression, demanded invention and applauded risk. In no time, he moved a team from the ignominy of defeat by Bangladesh, and failure to qualify for the quarter-finals at the 2015 World Cup, to the final of the T20 World Cup in Kolkata a year later. The rest, as they say, is history. Deep down, the England cricketers might well fear failure but in their performance the guns blaze away with a previously unimagined sense of adventure. It’s great way to play – like it doesn’t matter, because in the end it doesn’t really matter.
Talking to Gary Kirsten, he asked about Dawid Malan. Kirsten was surprised to see Malan at the top of the ICC T20 rankings. So was Malan. Did we know he was that good, asked Kirsten? No, but he did make an excellent hundred against Australia in an Ashes Test at the WACA. That impresses anybody. It is quite a thing that his ranking points are higher than those of any batsman ever in the format. That impresses everybody.
He has been around the England set-up for a while without ever nailing it. The advantage of this is that he is unlikely to let the days of his life slip away. He has improved his technique, principally by keeping his hands higher and creating a greater arc for the swing of his bat. He is the most delicious timer of the ball, tending to caress rather than muscle. One shot at Newlands the other night, a drive over extra cover that seemed almost in slow-motion at the point of contact was so perfect as to draw the breath of those who bore witness. He loves to play off the back foot, pulling the ball while balanced and with power. In short, he has a lot of game.
That he keeps Joe Root out of the team is all we need know. Malan is a serious cricketer, whose journey has been anything but easy. He is off to the Big Bash in Australia, where, again, he will surprise people. Actually, he should still be here, in England’s one-day outfit, putting South Africa to the sword. It is inconceivable that he is not good enough. But such are Morgan’s riches.