It comes down to one question. Should they play or should they stay? Either way, the answer is short but immensely complicated. Yes, the England team who flew home from India last night should return there later this week to play two Test matches – as they intend to do – because the terrorist attacks on Mumbai should notbe allowed to impinge on normal activity and life must go on. No, they should stay in England, because the threat from terrorism is blatantly clear and there would be such an artificial aspect to the games as to render them meaningless. Both those arguments have their supporters, and neither is easily dismissed.
England have agreed to return, a promise extracted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India but also willingly given in reciprocation for allowing them to abandon the tour without resistance.
While the players also doubtless insisted on the departure, it also exhibited decisive, all but unprecedented action by the England and Wales Cricket Board. Their managing director, Hugh Morris, was collecting many plaudits.
The immediate future putatively depends on security reports. If these decree that India, Mumbai apart for now, poses no danger to the players or the matches, then the team will go back sometime on Thursday and the Tests will take place. The ECB and the Professional Cricketers' Association seem to be at one on this.
It would suit everybody – asit would have done during the Zimbabwean imbroglio at the 2003 World Cup – if the security experts declared that the tour should not proceed on safety grounds. The Foreign Office advice will be taken into account, but England have access to much more detailed briefings.
In any case it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that England's advice, being largely prepared by their experienced freelance expert, Reg Dickason, will differ from India's report. There was some ribaldry caused by Dickason's presence in New Zealand earlier this year – as if danger stalked the streets of Napier – but he is earning his money now.
There is a natural inclination to refuse to bow the knee to terrorism. Many, including India, will point out that after the bombings on the London Underground in 2005, Australia considered leaving but stayed. Five days after the attacks they played a one-day international at The Oval. The tour went on precisely as planned.
It is crucial that there is not one view applied to terrorism in England and another applied to that in India, suggesting that somehow ours is safer than theirs. But the parallel is hardly exact, because what the events in Mumbai have done is to bring into much sharper focus the previous outrages in India this year.
Since May, nearly 450 people have now been killed in eight different terrorist attacks in seven different cities. One of them was in Ahmedabad, where the First Test is still due to start on 11 December. Simply looking at the bald facts as enumerated on the Foreign Office website and reading the statement "There is a high threat of terrorism throughout India" is to reach a conclusion. Is India safe? Of course it is not bloody safe. Not everywhere, not all the time.
But cricket and cricketers have never been targeted. If the tour resumes, the members of both sides will be affordeda level of security before, during and after matches that would make a presidential parade look like a soft target. They will be discouraged from any independent travel, and for two weeks all they will see is hotel room, hotel restaurant, dressing room and pitch, as well as dozens of armed motorcycleoutriders to and from stadiums.
The likelihood is that in Ahmedabad they will be largely unwatched, and the same may go for Chennai, because there will have been so little time to organise tickets and publicityfor a match that was supposed totake place in Mumbai. But it will have been deemed to be worth it, because normal lifeis proceeding.
This alone may be important, but there are elements at play, some of them mercenary, beyond these two Test matches.Should the security advice be that India, by and large, is still safe, at least for the playing of cricket, after the shocking incidents of this week, then that presumably also makes Pakistan safe.
It will be remembered that the Champions Trophy was due to be played there in September but was called off. It was partly because the advice, certainly from the UK Foreign Office, had been unequivocal ("We believe there is a heightened threat to westerners" and "Authorities are concerned about the threat to foreigners of kidnapping"), partly because players from many countries would simply have refused to go. Slap bang in the middle of when the competition would have taken place, the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was blown up, killing 50.
But westerners have now been targeted at hotels in India, in the very heart of their most cosmopolitan city. That, in many minds, will put India alongside Pakistan in safety terms. Yet if India and Pakistan are both not fit for the purpose of playing cricket, where can cricket be played? In England, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Barbados? Watching cricket in this country has long since ceased to be an entirely pleasurable experience. The endless searches of pockets and bags, all in the name of security and peace of mind, have ensured that.
But India want the Test series with England to proceed for another reason. They might just be able to get away with calling off a couple of Test matches about which so few of their cricket-watching public are genuinelyconcerned, but they have to consider the repercussions it would have for other imminent events. Cancellation might easily affect the Twenty20 Champions League, involving clubs from five countries, including Middlesex, and rescheduled from next week to January. But, more particularly, the lucrative Indian Premier League has to be guarded.
Were the two Tests not played, doubt would immediately surround the IPL – which actually survived a bomb in Jaipur last year. The BCCI and their influential vice-president, Lalit Modi, will see it as vital to ensure that England return. Equally, if the series does not go ahead because of the players' reluctance, those players involved could not then demand to take part in the IPL next spring. They cannotinvoke worries over safety one day and their right to make a living the next.
There is the possibility of another stand-off between the countries, though England insist the safety and security of their players is the single most important factor in their thinking, the only one that really matters.
Relations at present appear to have warmed, the parties brought closer because of the grotesque sight of what has been happening in Mumbai. Modi, ever the pragmatist, said yesterday in reflecting on India staging international cricket: "It is something that we need to think about seriously, because becoming sidelined like Pakistan due to security threats is something that is logical. We have to ensureour security measures are the best. We shouldn't allow such attacks to disrupt our determination."
There is a simple human element, however, which neither the BCCI nor the ECB can control. Modi recognised that the horrific events at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai would have particular resonance for the players because they had stayed there only a fortnight earlier and had left some of their kit in storage. He tried to eliminate these doubts by saying: "Again the memories of the Taj for an English cricketer can make them sentimental, but let's keep sentimental issues aside here."
Sentiment was bound to intrude as the players arrived home last night, and in the next few days it will be ever- present. Five of England's squad have young children, two have wives who are expecting their first child. It is Christmas time, with all that entails for young families.
Does anybody of rational thought suppose for a second that any wife of any England cricketer, no matter how much money they earn, will give their blessing to them walking out of the door on Thursday that they only entered last night? They have come home because of attacks, and whateverthe findings of security experts they will not alter perceptions. These men, it will be pointed out, are not soldiers.
Perhaps there is scope for some breathing space. Perhaps the tour should not proceed as planned. The desperation to play for reasons of cocking a snook at madmen (for whom cricket is probably not a priority) and to protect other commercial interests can both be accommodated by the simple expedient of a longer postponement. It might mean the reshuffling of some future schedules, it would demand goodwill from countries besides England and India.
But as governing bodies rightly keep saying, these are extraordinary times and they demand extraordinary solutions. Of course cricketing ties between England and India must be restored and soon, otherwise we may as well all stay forever cooped up in hotel rooms and demand 24-hour security. But that restoration does not have to be next week.
A small period of grace is in order. This is an occasion for reflection, for affirming that sport is important, nay essential, to the way we run our lives but that there are times when there is simply no point in playing it because it will have precisely the opposite effect to that intended.
If England return to India this week, it will be a joyless affair, they will be going because they think they must. Therefore they should stay at home.