Hiding behind closed doors

Derek Pringle looks at the paranoia afflicting England's reluctant tourists; While Atherton explores the sights and sounds of Pakistan his players lock themselves away in their hotel rooms
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The Independent Online
FOR many of the England squad, the greatest enemy of this World Cup will not be Australia, Pakistan or India, or even the bubonic plague, but how to spend their time between the business of playing matches. There is nothing particularly new about this. England cricket tours to the subcontinent have long been seen as tests of character rather than cricket, where players stick together unaware that the constant off-field companionship can be every bit as wearing as the cricket on it.

But while some believe this siege mentality forges a tight team spirit in places like India and Pakistan, others reckon that by creating a fortress, doubts and fears become just as contagious as tummy upsets, quickly infecting those prone to home- sickness and paranoia.

There is no other sport played that demands more time in the company of team-mates than Test cricket, particularly abroad, where hotel rooms and airport lounges take on the familiarity of a second home. So when the odd window of opportunity to get away from the cricket presents itself - as has happened frequently during this World Cup - the players would surely jump at the chance.

Sadly most don't, forgoing the possibilities of adding to their store of knowledge and experience. By turning their backs, usually through a combination of lack of interest and intimidation, they are squandering the opportunity to deepen the unquestioning and self-regarding personality so often possessed by professional sportsmen.

However, not everyone is guilty of passing up the privilege of sampling the sights, sounds and food. Between novels by VS Naipaul and Pat Barker, Michael Atherton, a voracious reader, has been to see the Badshahi Mosque, in Lahore, although the only person sufficiently interested to accompany him was the tour manager, John Barclay.

The same duo were also the only members of the party to sample the Afghani cuisine of the Khan Club in the back streets of Peshawar, where diners reclined on cushions. The other players have been relying for sustenance almost entirely on tinned supplies, or burgers from the American club.

There appears to be an irrational fear over losing control of one's bowels, and something almost heretical about paying the ensuing homage to the porcelain gods. Perhaps it is that sense of losing control - something all sportsmen fear - that produces the near-laboratory conditions this England team live and eat in. With a squad of only 14, caution is understandable, and players are taking anti-malarial tablets, combined with an antibiotic to prevent small infections taking hold.

Far more important, though, is the need to wash one's hands constantly, dirt being a far greater source of bacteria than the local food, which, apart from being deliciously spiced, is more likely to be cooked correctly than either spaghetti or pizza - the culprits suspected of causing the recent stomach upsets in both the Dutch and English camps.

Some, however take caution to ridiculous lengths. Like his father, Mickey - who only ever ate omelettes when touring this part of the world - Alec Stewart is a careful eater. So far his range of dining implements has extended as far as tin-opener and fork, a combination only marginally more limited than the fare, which has consisted mainly of baked beans, tuna and bully beef. Such an unchanging routine is mirrored in the joyless sterility that has now begun to surface in his cricket.

Jack Russell is a finicky eater too, a cussed soul, who prefers soggy weetabix and bananas to almost anything but a cup of tea. It is a diet that speaks of reclusion and yet in spite of having to work hard at both batting and keeping, Russell has been one of the few to take advantage of the spare time. He has constantly been seen heading off with oil paints and canvas under his arm in a bid to capture the gaudy colours and frenzied activity of the teeming bazaars.

Such exotica is all around the observer here, and to anyone prepared to remove both their dark sunglasses and their prejudices there are rich rewards. Something Peter Martin, the other artist in the team, has done, photographing both the country and its people with a gusto rare in the present England set-up.

The trouble is that cricketers, like university students or anyone else cloistered by an institution, are cosseted from the perpetual effort required of life in these parts, where the sheer energy levels on the streets and the rampant displays of poverty can overload and intimidate all but the most open of minds.

As a result, the easy option is to opt out and spend one's leisure time back at the hotel. There, the choice of either lying on a poolside lounger or in your hotel room bed, watching videos or listening to music, are about as challenging as it gets.

Such a sedentary approach has its drawbacks. Perhaps if Darren Gough had ventured down the thronging Qissa Khawani in Peshawar on the last shopping day before Eid, he might have learnt how to interact with the Pathan male and avoid being used for target practice during the Holland match.

The players will claim they are here for the cricket, to win the World Cup. If they do, plaudits and fanfares will abound. But for those who bothered to glance about them and took the trouble to delve deeper, it will be the other memories that endure. Not the winning of another one- day match, however important that may be to others.