Football: Can there have been a more embarrassing sight than the England team paying tribute to the ludicrous Barmy Army?

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In keeping with the customary response to such occasions, reports of England's Test match victory in Christchurch this week prompted thoughts of church bells, factory whistles, up-flung hats and torn-up paper floating down from office windows.

Success after five years without winning a series abroad permits some excitement, but the wonder is that none of our popular prints was inspired enough by Michael Atherton's marathon effort of concentration to put him up for a knighthood.

All because England, thanks mainly to the captain's "up yours" resurgence, overcame a team from what can be conveniently described as the relegation zone of world cricket.

As I remember it, matches between the two countries once took place in New Zealand at the fag end of an Ashes series and were thought to be largely academic. Such is the present state of English cricket that any success anywhere is seen to be a reason for wild celebration.

What this does, of course, and it applies equally in football, is to again raise expectations out of all proportion to ability and development. Instead of getting high on England's prospects against Australia next summer, it should be enough that they are no longer in dufferdom.

A personal point of view, one nobody is required to share, is that England were never as bad as some of their results implied.

Doubtless, the criticism England came under explains the biliousness with which they looked out on the world. However, it did not justify the triumphalism they indulged in after John Crawley and Dominic Cork ensured victory by dealing sensibly with threat of New Zealand's 18-year-old, gangling, bespectacled spinner, Daniel Vettori, who could pass easily for a fourth-form pest in gleeful possession of a noxious substance.

Can there have been a more embarrassing sight in sport recently than the England team paying tribute to the quite ludicrous Barmy Army, throwing them peeled-off shirts, behaving tediously in the manner of winners on a television game show?

Some daft statements have been made by management on this tour, none more ridiculous to my mind than by the England and Wales Cricket Board chairman, Ian MacLaurin, who announced that the future rests with players prepared to die for their country.

Even allowing for looseness in analogy, to put sport even remotely in the context of mortal combat is nonsense.

The attitude to cricket of Australia's great all-rounder, Keith Miller, a terrific fast bowler and a batsman of exhilarating purpose, unquestionably a winner, was shaped by experiences in British skies as a fighter pilot during World War II. "When I thought about guys who didn't come back, it was never difficult to have a balanced view of the game," he once said in conversation.

Similar experiences, it is said, explained why one of the most successful hitters in American baseball, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, whose marvellous career was twice interrupted by service as a fighter pilot during World War II and the Korean conflict, paid little account to applause. "Williams knows about the reality of life," somebody wrote of him.

Men like that usually work for success with more natural determination than most others, and there is something in the concealed earnestness of their approach that is in itself pleasing.

What we have now is sport bordering on show business. A short while ago this column addressed the issue of dignity in games, or to be more precise what led to its passing.

There was nothing dignified in the celebrations mounted by England's cricketers in Christchurch, nor in their pandering to a group of supporters whose only apparent merit is that they took the trouble and time to be present.

Younger brethren in this trade keep telling me that times have changed and that new philosophies have to be accommodated. Does this mean there is now a case for allowing nationalism to become rampant? For his enlightenment, MacLaurin might like to consider an opinion expressed by a German journalist, Ulrich Kaiser, before the 1966 World Cup final. "If we win," he said, "eleven German footballers will have won a cup and I will be glad to see it. But I am not saying I have beaten anybody."

This week England won a Test match against opposition so moderate that defeat would have brought down a great deal of derision. As for Atherton's future as captain, it seems important that the job should stay with a gutsy guy who even in troubled times appears to keep cricket in perspective.