SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024



Bazball? This is just not Ashes cricket

The camera roamed across the crowd at Lord’s for the second Ashes Test, talent spotting. Look, there’s the MCC President Stephen Fry, glass in hand, deep in avuncular conversation.

And wait, who’s that? The hair that was prematurely greying at the time of his greatest triumph is now snow white. But it’s him, all right. Mike Brearley, perhaps the finest of all England captains.

Brearley is a cerebral chap who treated his 31 Tests as England skipper like chess matches, aiming always to be three moves ahead of his opponent, especially if he was Australian.

So I would love to know what he made of the match.

What unfolded was a reality check for those who relish the Bazball approach of the England team. This is the relentless attacking mindset they have adopted under their new leaders, coach Brendon McCullum and skipper Ben Stokes.

It worked at first. The good ship England, encouraged to be fearless and go for their shots, won 10 of their first 12 matches with this pair as Master and Commander. They scored at an impressive 4.76 runs an over.

Then came the Ashes. Even in the Test arena, these are special matches. It’s Australia. They want to win. So do we. Desperately.

Buoyed by their previous successes, England went out to bat with a smile on their faces. What’s the worst that could happen?

Well, we’re 2-0 down with three to play. That’s what.

Brearley, pictured, now 81 and still working three days a week as a psychoanalyst, believes that Bazball came about because of depression. Stokes was afflicted after the stress of a court case (he was cleared of affray) and the death of his father, whom he idolised.

McCullum took on the captaincy of New Zealand and found that it sucked all the joy from the game.

“So I think this attitude now [Bazball] is partly a reaction to that depression,” Brearley said in an interview with The Times’s senior sports writer Matt Dickinson.

Professional sport is a tough way to earn a living, although if you can do it the rewards are enormous. But it is relentless and only the steeliest of minds can cope with the expectation.

Think of Tiger Woods. Was anyone ever more driven to succeed? And yet his life descended into a pit of despair, assuaged only by cocaine and extramarital sex.

Cricket, particularly at Test level, is a cruelly intense sport. You are part of a team but, at the moment you bowl the ball, or play the delivery or set yourself for the catch, you are on your own; nothing but you standing between adulation and abject failure.

It is too much for some. I recall Jonathan Trott, who played 52 Tests for England with a very respectable batting average of 44, being so overcome by anxiety – dread, he later called it – that he was almost paralysed and spent ages scratching his guard into the wicket before he could bear to face the next delivery.

England opener Marcus Trescothick, who racked up 5,825 runs in 76 Tests, says he would feel the anxiety kick in at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and he could not shake it off all day. Sometimes he would cry.

Trescothick, now England’s batting coach under McCullum, suffered a breakdown on tour in India and had to be sent home. It overwhelmed him again during the Ashes series in Australia in 2006-7 and once more he was forced to return home.

Those who cope best seem to be the ones with another passion in their lives other than cricket. Phil Edmonds, the Middlesex and England spin bowler, used to buy and sell shares from the dressing room as he awaited his turn to bat.

He eventually earned millions from a mining venture in Central Africa. (His formidable wife Frances once wrote that he had a reputation for being “awkward and arrogant, mainly because he is awkward and arrogant.”)

I applaud Stokes’s England team for embracing the possibility of defeat as they go hunting for victory. But I am not convinced all of the team have understood the philosophy of Bazball. Some see it as a licence to thrill, whatever the state of the match; others as a kind of get out of jail card – don’t blame me, I’m just playing Bazball.

Brearley says that what impresses him about Stokes and McCullum is that they are three-dimensional and not just cavalier. They can balance the risks.

“And they are less scared of losing than we were. But sometimes it doesn’t work out and you can get people on your back.”

People such as former England star Kevin Pietersen. He ranted that England’s performance was shambolic and added: “This is not Ashes cricket.”

And he is right.


Why is Sarah Bentley not in jail? Okay, that’s slightly facetious. But only slightly.

The greed and incompetence at Thames Water, where she was CEO, was criminal. The company has £14 billion of debt. I’ll spell that out. Fourteen BILLION pounds.

Much of that debt is index-linked and so, even as you read this, it is growing. What’s more, each time the Bank of England bumps up the interest rate to quell inflation, that debt becomes even more impossible to service.

On top of that, the UK’s biggest water company was regularly discharging raw sewage into rivers and its pipes were leaking 630 million litres of water a day.

In fairness, much of the debt was built up by the previous owners, Australian bank Macquarie, who, even as they borrowed, took billions in shareholder dividends and paid their executives small fortunes.

The company has a monopoly, serving 15 million households in London and the Thames Valley, all of whom need water and their sewage to be safely disposed of. But to Thames Water, we are just an ever-open wallet.

Bentley had to step down, undone not by the Everest of debt threatening to crush the company so much as a backlash to the vile and reckless damage Thames Water was doing to the environment.

I dare say she will get by. She was on £1.5 million a year, plus bonus, which this year she had to forgo. And she got a £3.1 million “golden hello” when she joined the company in 2020.

Shareholders weren’t doing too badly either. They were paid dividends of £1.8 billion between 2010 and 2019.

And what did we, the customers, get? Hosepipe bans, sewage dumps, water leaks and not nearly enough improvement to the ageing infrastructure.

Other water companies are in trouble too, among them Yorkshire and Southern. The fear is that if Thames Water goes bust and has to be taken over by the Government, more will follow in a domino effect.

Meanwhile what was the regulator Ofwat doing? Just standing there with their finger in the dyke, it seems.

But in a reminder of how sickeningly incestuous are the formerly state-owned utilities industries, Bentley’s place is being taken for the moment by Cathryn Ross, director of strategy and internal affairs at Thames… and former chief executive of Ofwat.

MPs have summoned Thames executives, including Bentley, and Ofwat chiefs to explain the crisis. But don’t expect too many heads to tumble into the basket.

It’s a shitshow, in more ways than one.

What’s certain is that you and I will pay for it, probably with a 40 per cent rise in our water bills.

And someone will slip away with the cash. While Ofwat isn’t looking.


That narcissistic nincompoop Matt Hancock tells us in his cameo at the Covid inquiry that any future pandemic should be met with a lockdown that is “wider, earlier, more stringent than seems comfortable at the time”.

Fortunately for us, little Matty won’t be around to enforce it, due to his fumble in the office with his aide and former Oxford University chum Gina Coladangelo, which was caught on a security camera and leaked to The Sun.

But does anyone seriously think British people would tolerate lockdown again? It tanked the economy, doomed cancer patients to a long and potentially fatal wait for treatment, denied children their rightful education and triggered a huge mental health crisis.

And all the while, Boris was necking Chardonnay in the Downing Street garden and little Matty was getting it on with Gina, in flagrant contravention of the rules they themselves set.

Tory MP and former Cabinet Minister David Davis says lockdown was “ill-conceived” and based on “scientific guesswork” and media organisations such as the Daily Telegraph and Talk Radio have endorsed that view.

No, they’re not catching us like that again. I’ll take my chances with the virus. So should you.

4th July, 2023