Sooner or later, and in one form or another, cricket in Pakistan gets intestinal. Now that it has happened in Multan, England are required to gut it out in Faisalabad and Lahore in a way that proved more than a little beyond them yesterday. Suddenly, the boys of that epic Ashes summer are a long way from a festive Oval, not to mention Trafalgar Square and the Prime Minister's back garden.
At least as they nurse their wounds they may understand a little better now the favourite mantra of one of the most successful English sportsmen ever to step beyond these islands.
"Getting to the top of the world," says Nick Faldo, "is not easy. But the really hard thing is staying there. If you forget that for a moment, you just don't do it."
No one is saying a fair measure of celebration wasn't in order after the triumph over Australia, but a certain reality kicked England into the dust as they slipped one Test behind in the three-match series that is supposed to confirm their status as putative world champions.
After coupling that ambition, and a run of success which sent them rocketing up the world league table, with England's various slides from positions of overwhelming strength in their latest challenge, it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask at least one question.
Did the high jinks go on a little too long? Was there one too many book launch parties? One too many visits to the lights of the television studio? When the great Freddie Flintoff was seizing the moment commercially, and performing gigs like the tinselled television awards ceremony, would he have been better off atuning himself to the next leg of his world conquest - one that you didn't win prizes for guessing would be every bit as demanding as defeating Ricky Ponting's Aussies on home soil?
No, maybe it is not time to return to the sackcloth. England were not turned over by an inconsequential team. Danish Kaneria bowled with engaging flair and great application, producing a googly of genuine wizardry in the last push to the 22-run victory; Shoaib Akhtar snuffed out the defiance of the summer hero Ashley Giles with a yorker from hell; there had been batting of character and brilliance by young Salman Butt; and even Inzamam-ul-Haq dredged up enough passion to produce some shot-making as brilliant as his handling of the Pakistan attack in the climactic moments. Even more amazingly, the captain became so involved in affairs he mustered something that passed for more than a half-smile at the moment of triumph.
But if not sackcloth, what? Certainly a degree of reflection on the meaning of a defeat that came right out of that ramshackle epoch before England, toughened under Michael Vaughan's leadership, scored 16 victories in 23 Tests. In Multan, Marcus Trescothick replaced the injured Vaughan with admirable zeal, but when the final shots were being fired he found himself in charge of irresolute troops.
The problem was most apparent in the self-destructive shots of the lions of the summer, Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. In the circumstances they found themselves in, as the Pakistanis had their first serious scent of blood, the call could not have been more explicit. It was for the play of seasoned world-beaters. What England were given at a time of peril was a little more of the hubris which came with the sound of "Jerusalem" at the Oval.
England went from 64 for 1 to all out for 176 and however you dress that up it is hard to exclude the word surrender.
Trescothick was candid enough in his disappointment. The runs, he said, were there for the taking. All it required was a little concentration, a willingness to occupy the crease with an element of graft.
Flintoff and Pietersen probably didn't need machetes to hack their way to the truth. In a time of need, they had come up short, and sharply so. Coach Duncan Fletcher's expression would have cast extra gloom over a public execution. He too thought the runs should have been gleaned without too much difficulty.
The lesson was plain enough. World champions-elect see the job through. It was a truth that haunted Vaughan back in the Prime Minister's garden. He said the priority was to keep the team honest, to remember that what happened in the English summer should not be the end of something but the start.
England set out yesterday morning 1-7 favourites to win the Test. Now they are 9-2 for the series, with Pakistan 1-2. The odds are eloquent enough about England's need for the gut check. They are also a reminder that it's easier to cure a hangover than a state of mind.Reuse content