There’s a cricketing metaphor for every occasion.
“Get on the front foot”, “being on a sticky wicket”, “getting caught out” etc . They tend to translate badly outside a narrow group of cricketing nations but they describe so many situations so well.
One of my favourites is the “night-watchman”. A lower-order player sent in to bat towards the end of the day simply to avoid the loss of any more wickets before the close of play. They are not meant to score runs, but simply to stay there to protect the position of more recognised run-makers and prevent further decline.
That is the lowly expectation of their job. On rare occasions, such ordinariness converts into a spectacular innings when the night-watchman heroically scores a surprising number of runs.
In the current England team James Anderson, better known as a fast bowler, has performed this role well. But the most spectacular achievement in this position was fast bowler Alex Tudor who overperformed by scoring 99 runs to help England to a convincing win over Australia in 1999.
Get the picture?
Now this brings me to ask if Owen Smith is a night-watchman for the Labour Party? There he is, standing by to become its new Leader next month following the Party’s unprecedented decline and disunity since Jeremy Corbyn took over in 2015. If (a big if) the rather untested Smith wins, would he merely stabilise the situation or, unlike his opponent Corbyn, soar ahead with the public?
It is quite possible that he would simply hold the fort before a really big hitter comes along in a year or two to take on Theresa May’s Conservatives before the 2020 election. Anyway, she might call an election well before then to minimise the time for Labour to get its act together.
But if she doesn’t, and Smith is elected, he will need to rapidly overcome the impression he is a mere night-watchman and score some Tudoresque political runs. Otherwise he will be seen as an unremarkable stand-in for figures such as Rachel Reeves, Keir Starmer and Dan Jarvis – people tipped as a future Labour Leader.
So if he does not want to be their substitute, he will need to show he is an effective opponent to May and a credible Prime Minister in waiting. It’s a tall order. But being lacklustre is an asset he exploits well for now.
Whether he will get to exploit it to its full is another question and depends on Labour and Corbyn’s stunning ability to keep scoring own-goals.
But that is another story and another sporting metaphor altogether.