Writers get caught out by a real story

Given the failings of sports journalism, I wonder if we shall ever know the full details of the Oval

In football, rows are in the open. Referees wave red cards, players crowd round in snarling fury, managers perform ballets on the touchline. In cricket, players and umpires look as if they are having a mild disagreement about where to go for dinner. Everything else happens behind closed doors, from which self-important men in suits occasionally emerge, incredulous at the idea that anyone should tell paying customers what's going on.

Sports journalists are rarely equal to this challenge. They are good at describing events on the pitch; otherwise, most sports writing is an extension of fandom, comprising fantasy, emotion and idle speculation.

The London Evening Standard announces that Steven Gerrard is to be England's football captain; when, hours later, John Terry is appointed, nobody really cares. These faults - which aren't usually faults because real fans have no particular interest in facts - are magnified among the former players who try to pass themselves off as journalists and pundits.

So it was with the great ball-tampering row that brought the England-Pakistan Test at the Oval to a premature end. From their murmurings on Sky TV about which England players might make the winter tour to Australia, former cricket stars-turned-commentators - Ian Botham, David Gower, Michael Atherton, Michael Holding, David Lloyd, Ramiz Raja - were thrust into covering a crisis. They made the proverbial rabbit in headlights look alert and confident. They seemed no better informed about what was happening than the Oval bar staff.

They kept replaying the moment when the umpires replaced the damaged ball, and repeating that it was all amazing and unprecedented. Yet Atherton himself, as England captain, was once accused of tampering with the ball by using dirt in his trouser pocket. Nobody mentioned that. Botham was involved in a libel case that began with ball-tampering allegations. Nobody mentioned that either. Holding wrote in his autobiography that ball tampering was "common practice for as long as I played"; Lloyd confessed in 1992 that, as a player, he had "picked the seam", another form of ball tampering; Raja, as a former Pakistan captain and director of its cricket board, must have inside knowledge of the ball-tampering charges that have plagued Pakistan teams. None elaborated at the Oval.

Even suspension of play after a stand-off between umpires and players wasn't new. During a tour of Pakistan, the England captain Mike Gatting swore at an umpire who accused him of cheating. Play stopped for a day until Gatting apologised. After the late-night announcement that the Oval Test was definitely finished, Gatting was interviewed on Sky News. Again, the past went unmentioned.

Sky, having bought the rights to televise live Tests until 2009, wants to put the best complexion on the game. It therefore evaded the truth: that race is never far beneath the surface in cricket. This is largely because five Test-playing countries are black or brown, three are predominantly white, and the others are South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Muslim commitment of the present Pakistan team - one player thanks Allah by prostrating himself whenever he scores a century - adds a further dimension.

Perhaps because England now field two players of Asian origin, and Pakistan have a white English manager, the tensions are less evident than they were. But the umpire who led the ball-tampering accusations, Darrell Hair, is a white Australian of patrician manner. Though he has provoked players of most cricketing nations, Asian countries believe he picks on them in particular and it is popularly believed in Pakistan (probably wrongly) that he once described the national team as "appealing like monkeys".

This background was illuminated by the posher morning papers. The Independent and Times, however, gave excessive space to their "chief sports writers", James Lawton and Simon Barnes, who specialise in overwrought prose and rarely know enough about any single sport to get to grips with a big story. Lawton thought all sport "in its present form and morality" was threatened. Barnes drew laboured comparisons with calling a woman a whore. The Daily Telegraph had the best coverage. Mihir Bose - a genuine reporter who happens to know a lot about sport - explained why the Pakistan captain would be more upset by what looked like a slur on the team rather than on an individual. Martin Johnson, another proper journalist, outlined the essential history in a few hundred words. He also compared Umpire Hair to a traffic warden, a slur against another minority, but that's the Telegraph for you.

Two days after the Oval débâcle, the papers began to sniff out details about the role of the England coach and players, and whether they had prompted Hair's allegations. But given the failings of sports journalism, I wonder if we shall ever know the full story.