If you’re a cricket fan you’ll know that England have just lost the Second Test in Australia, and that their batsmen have – once again – failed to overcome a disciplined Australian pace attack.
Like any sporting series, this one is accompanied by a cacophony of media comment. The Australian press, which feels that it is owed some glee, is wallowing. The rattled English press – as usual, disproportionately outspoken and influential – is beginning to show irritation. The situation, from an English perspective, is dire. “It’s in their minds” says former England captain Michael Vaughan “… unless they twist the mentality round, it’s going to be 5-0.”
Listen to the post match review (‘England defeated by 218 runs, 09 Dec 13’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/ashes) between the BBC commentators Jonathan Agnew and Geoffrey Boycott (like Vaughan, a former England opening batsman)and you will get a good idea of the gloomy state of England’s affairs. You will also feel like you are getting to the nub of why England has performed so badly, because Boycott’s analysis is clear and refreshingly jargon free.
Boycott also believes the problem is in England’s mentality. A good run of success against a struggling Australia has bred complacency and hidden England’s weaknesses … now we are up against it, and missing our normally solid number 3, our batsmen are playing carelessly and getting themselves out; there is a sense of entitlement and with it the beginnings of the idea that this team’s best days are behind it.
Boycott, a plain-talking Yorkshireman who left school at 17 to pursue a cricketing career which was famously single-minded, may yet be proved wrong. But it’s the way he says it that stuck with me: simple language, ordinary psychology, analogies rooted in common sense and carefully repeated. The result was to have a situation clearly illuminated, its hidden wiring exposed. Boycott is doing his job, talking to his audience in a language that we can understand and share.
This is too rare. So many ‘experts’ choose to explain their perspective in language which maximises the complexity of what they are describing, and flatters their personal authority. Indeed, the professional groups and industries these experts belong to knit their own secret codes and protocols, and communicate with one another in a patois which excludes outsiders, and wraps normal, often banal activity in mystery. As a result doctors, bankers, lawyers and academics receive more deference than they deserve, and are harder than they should be to hold to account. The irony is that by building high walls around themselves, and managing to avoid scrutiny and interaction, institutions and vital communities make themselves more vulnerable to failure. The financial crisis shows us how a small number of over-educated individuals crashed their industry by complicating it beyond human understanding. A very different example is the UK’s world leading international development industry – a fine programme of humanitarian engagement run by people so smart and so earnestly embattled that it talks to and of itself in an impenetrable corporate lingo invented by management consultants and has thus denied itself the solidarity and engagement of British citizens who fund it and who should be its proudest cheerleaders.
Elites everywhere are highly fallible. A sophisticated education may bring money and power, but it does not guarantee wisdom. Give a group some authority and they tend to want to hold onto it, they will over-estimate their ability to solve problems, they will generate a sense of entitlement, they will start to play carelessly … Elites need to be protected from themselves, and we need to protect ourselves against elites. That things should be kept as simple as possible, so they are as widely understood as possible, strikes me as a sensible principle as we journey further into an era shaped by technological change, restless innovation and information overload. The Boycott perspective – free of grand theory, rooted in practical experience, with the ability to open up a problem and let us all in – is going to be worth having.