Enough whingeing

Observations on cricket

Duncan Fletcher knows how to manage expectations. Anticipating a draw in the final Test against Pakistan, the coach of the England cricket team told the media halfway through the game that it was impossible for England to win the Test and level the series. A 1-0 defeat wouldn't be too embarrassing in the long run, he may have thought.

Inzamam-ul-Haq's Pakistanis had a better idea: they trounced the English by an innings and 100 runs, emphatically announcing their superiority over Michael Vaughan's team, which had looked, only three months ago after its Ashes triumph, like a world beater.

Predictably, English commentators began trotting out excuses (though Vaughan had the grace to admit that Pakistan played better) and it was Fletcher who set the tone, grumbling about mental fatigue, flat wickets, tough atmosphere and the oppressive experience of feeling imprisoned in a luxurious hotel. Besides, as TV commentators reminded us, there was culture shock - you can see donkey carts in the streets of Multan. Not to mention all those noisy, partisan fans.

And it's going to get worse for the poor England players, Geoffrey Boycott warned. Soon (horror!) they will be in India, where cows will greet them on the streets and the team will again be penned up in hotels. Commentators are already whining about a difficult itinerary.

This reluctance to admit that Pakistan simply outplayed England, and that India might well do the same, is as striking as it is familiar.

I remember watching a tired and morose Graham Gooch as the English team checked out of a Madras hotel back in 1993, after crashing to another defeat to India. A reporter asked him why the English were doing so badly and, rather than credit India's spinners, he complained that spicy food had given some of his team-mates runny tummies. Which prompted one Indian listener to wonder aloud: "How come our curries didn't bother them for the 200 years they ruled us?"

The image of cows in urban Indian streets - at least the kind of streets the cricketers will be driven through in their air-conditioned coaches - is now as outdated as a Routemaster bus in London. And in the five-star comfort in which Test cricketers live today, any sensible person can avoid "Delhi belly". Yet Boycott, the batsman who in his own day did everything possible to avoid India, is already resurrecting these images as a sort of insurance.

(Boycott finally went to India only when, with time running out, he needed a few hundred more runs to become the top run-getter in Test cricket. He did it, but it didn't take India's Sunil Gavaskar long to top his record.)

England know how to win in the subcontinent. In 40 years they may have won only two Tests in Pakistan, but their record in India is much better - ten wins against 12 losses in 46 Tests since 1933. Let them just get on with it, without the excuses.

After the Ashes this summer, many imagined England to be the best side in the world, but that victory was a flattering one: halfway through the series Australia began playing like an ageing team. England are formidable, but the gap between them and their rivals is measured in inches, not miles. And they aren't necessarily ahead.