Cricket: The culture of the poolside: Comprehensive defeat by India leaves a question mark hanging over the English method: It's not just that they lost. It's the way they responded. Richard Williams on the roots of the tourists' malaise

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IN THE old days they stayed with princes, took a day off to go pig-sticking, and - if they were lucky enough to be entertained by the cricket-mad Maharajah of Patiala, whose wives were so numerous that they occupied a pavilion of their own - had their pick of the dancing girls after the match. Nothing very admirable in that combination of privilege and mild barbarity. But in between they got enough centuries, took enough wickets and held enough catches to win matches. The members of the present England cricket team, by contrast, move from one international hotel to another, work on their tans, enjoy poolside conversations with Air France stewardesses on lay-over, and get stuffed out of sight. The one fellow who went on an improving excursion - to see the late Satyajit Ray's film studios in Calcutta - had a pretty terrible tour, too.

The difference, really, is not pig-sticking versus swimming pools, but whether they're winning or losing. If they'd been winning, we wouldn't have heard a peep about Essex man, his ghastly logo-embossed shell suits, his dietary foolishness and his supposed all-round cultural ignorance. Instead, the dismal results obtained in the three Test matches against India - defeats respectively by eight wickets, by an innings and 22 runs, and by an innings and 15 runs, with an aggregate of 1,563 runs for the loss of 60 wickets against India's 1,604 for 28, which could be interpreted to mean that India were more than twice as good - led last week to a heaping of the nation's scorn on the heads of the hapless English cricketers.

The nature of the scorn made it seem unfair. There is no shame, intrinsically, in a dislike of going abroad. Some people enjoying travelling for its own sake, while others find enough emotional sustenance at home. There may also be people who quite reasonably prefer, say, Italian cooking to Indian. These things are irrelevant to a talent for playing cricket, or should be. Nor, more importantly, was there any disgrace in losing a Test series 3-0 to a home team that took such evident delight in rediscovering - however temporarily - its collective identity. And there were perfectly good reasons for India's success. When you've seen children in rags, hardly more than babies, intently playing cricket in the gutter of a busy Bombay street with an old biscuit-tin lid (bat), a pebble (ball) and a couple of broken bricks (stumps), you've had a glimpse of the way cricket is woven into India's life.

This is a thread that unravelled itself long ago in the country where the game was invented. There are reasons for that, too, and none of them is the fault of the England team or its management. Our four-year-olds are no longer allowed, for safety's sake, to play unattended in the streets; our eight-year-olds bend their heads over their Game Boys, instead of bending their backs into an embryonic outswinger; many of them attend schools run by the state in which competitive sport is outlawed and no one is ever invited to pick a team. Really, it's a wonder that cricket still has any popularity at all as a participatory sport in England; it's certainly not surprising that we can't beat India on their own patch.

Nevertheless, watching the England squad go about the business of losing their five-day matches raised a few disturbing questions, the chief among which had to do with morale in the face of defeat, and the slide into a collective gloom that no amount of fitness training or quality pool-time could arrest.

The England set-up consists of a bunch of chaps in blazers, flitting around the fringes of the touring party; a semi-visible semi-toff; and the sponsored shell-suits. It is not an impressive crew. At the dinner table after the day's play, TCCB wallahs like Doug Insole and A C Smith look haunted. Ted Dexter, the chairman of selectors, makes absurd excuses from the safety of a neighbouring continent. Bob Bennett, the tour manager, and Keith Fletcher, the team manager, are decent fellows, and Fletcher is the epitome of the respected pro, but neither could do anything to halt the decline, perhaps because neither was able to convey the feeling that there might somehow be life beyond the journey from hotel to cricket ground and back.

Fletcher and Graham Gooch, his captain, handled press conferences with all the joy of a couple of undertakers in a slow year. Gooch, in particular, seemed morose, resentful, unwilling to communicate anything more than basic information. He wasn't well, it was affecting his form, and he couldn't rise above his own problems. On the evening of the Bombay defeat it was certainly refreshing to hear Fletcher say, without equivocation, that India had outplayed England 'in every department', but in general the impression was conveyed that malevolent fate had been been the author of all their misfortunes.

Fletcher's first misjudgement was to persuade a reluctant Gooch to undertake one more overseas tour. His second was to perpetuate the Micky Stewart legacy by installing Alec Stewart, son of the former team manager, as vice-captain. His third was to encourage the participation of Mike Gatting and John Emburey as senior pros. His fourth was to assist in the marginalisation of Michael Atherton, whose ultimate reaction to such shameful treatment was his stand-off with the younger Stewart in the great Bombay run- out incident. On both moral and technical grounds, Atherton should have been the one to take the long walk; the non-striker has an obligation to answer the striker's call, however dodgy, and in any case the television replay showed that Stewart had been the first of the two to ground his bat inside the crease at the bowler's end. But Atherton's body language was as unambiguous as a Hemingway sentence: it said he'd been messed about so much by the Fletcher-Gooch-Stewart regime that he was damned if he was going to take any more. Umpire Venkatraghavan decided in his favour, and the only pity was that he failed to go on to make a really significant score.

As an improvised cock-up of great tragi-comic qualities, this was pretty nearly the low point of the tour. But the really tricky moment had come a few days earlier, in the dressing room at Madras, when - in the wake of a brilliant century by the 19-year-old Sachin Tendulkar - Fletcher and Gooch were asked why India seemed to bring their international players through at a much younger age than England. Various theories were proposed, none of much substance. But don't worry, Fletcher said. Micky Stewart's in charge of coaching the under-19s back home now, so things should be looking up soon. Can't wait.

(Photograph omitted)