James Lawton: 'Fainthearts' find courage as Tests offer redemption

Whatever lies behind England's decision to return to India, it is the right choice and restores respect
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The Independent Online

Sometimes it doesn't matter so much why you are doing it, or to what degree you have been persuaded. The important thing is to do the right thing, however many private fears, even terrors, you have had to face in the process.

In the cases of Freddie Flintoff and Steve Harmison those terrors at times must have been especially intense because for a week they have carried, without any attempt to shift any of it, the weight of the nation's knowledge that they were the most reluctant of the England party to return to the embattled India from where they all retreated in some disarray a week ago. Harmison, who over the years has many times had his resolve to play at the highest level the game to which he brings so much natural talent questioned deeply, was the most candid about his concerns by some distance. He has talked about a man at one shoulder urging him to "get in there" and do what he was born to do, play cricket – and the other whispering that a family man with four young children would be mad to willingly enter a war zone.

When he steps on the plane to India today the reason will have become irrelevant. Whether it was the feisty guy saying, "go on, do it," or, who knows, a money man pointing out that any other decision would almost certainly have ruled out his chances of recouping some of the money that trickled away in the Stanford fiasco when contracts are drawn up for the next outing of the Indian Premier League, is always going to be a matter of speculation.

What is real today is that Harmison and, for all his pratfalls and injuries, the enduringly popular Flintoff, have done in the end what all lovers of English cricket hoped they would do from the start. They have responded, at a difficult time, to the responsibilities that come along with fame and its various rewards. They have re-forged a link between their standing as greatly talented and feted professional sportsman and a regard and a respect that stretches beyond the ultimately trivial boundaries of a cricket field.

What we can only hope for now is that an episode which at times has been much less than uplifting – and indeed threatened at least a degree of national embarrassment – is not heralded as some magically restored triumph for iron will.

It surely isn't that. It is the regaining of a measure of pride that seemed to have been jettisoned on the retreat from India, despite a huge concentration of security around them, and a degree of courage that was plainly required if the worst of the fears entertained by Harmison and Flintoff were to be overcome.

For this the players, who were described as fainthearts on one famously august editorial page when they returned home for their week-long agonising about what to do, deserve a word of gratitude, if not garlands of flowers in streets of the troubled land they vacated so sharply.

The other hope, of course, is that the woeful lack of competitiveness displayed in the truncated 5-0 one-day series defeat, will not descend into new levels of disaster. The fighting talk of captain Kevin Pietersen and the presence of Flintoff and Harmison does something to work against the worst of those fears, but with the Indians in such rampant form after beating the Australians it has to be said that is not a lot.

However, losing another series against the Indians is a welcome alternative to the other prospect of silent cricket grounds and missing heroes.

Perfectly, rather than rushing home, England would have retrenched in India, where their security was one of the Indian government's highest priorities. They could have worked on desperately needed attuning to the conditions which had left them so ill at ease against some masterful opponents. They could have fulfilled Pietersen's somewhat delayed statements of an overwhelming desire to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Indian people. And they could have got themselves a little closer to the battle shape which no-can reasonably expects in the coming Test matches.

But then as England fly to India the 20/20 vision of hindsight is unlikely to be a productive companion. Better, surely, to dwell on the redemption that can come when men regain their nerve – and a sense of their place in the world.

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