Oh] To tell it like it really is

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HONESTY may be all very well, but it's not always the best policy. This week Keith Fletcher had a virulent attack of it, having returned from South Africa where he was casting a crafty gnomic eye on the Indian tourists. He was, it emerged, far from impressed. 'I rate our chances highly,' he explained, throwing caution to the winds. 'I don't see much to worry about.' Anything else? Oh yes. 'Without being unkind, they (India) have looked rather average in this game . . . If we were playing them at home, I think we would annihilate them.'

Dangerous words, these, of a sort that few British sportspersons ever dare utter. You can just imagine what would happen if Graham Taylor said, 'I don't see much to worry about,' before England's game against San Marino (population 23, plus a poodle called Luigi), only to watch the plucky Sammarinesi humble the mighty Brits 2-1. He'd be cream of turnip soup before you could say 'Walter Winterbottom'.

But then talking up your chances is not the British way. Overseas, of course, they do it all the time, and they don't understand why it annoys us so much. If last summer's Pakistani tourists were unpopular for any reason, it was not because of their so-called 'cheating' (which we later discovered everybody else did anyway) but because they kept on telling us how utterly brilliant they were, and how useless we were. Unreasonably, perhaps, we took offence. We also remembered what happened to Tony Greig. In 1976 he said he'd make the West Indians 'grovel'; the West Indians won the series 3-0, Viv Richards scored 291 at the Oval, and now Greig is a mere multi-millionaire with a successful business career in Australia - a tragic end to a glorious career.

What worries me, though, is that Fletcher's sudden burst of candour was not an isolated incident. Last weekend, the boxer Chris Eubank showed similar symptoms. 'I will fight anyone that I know I can beat because I know my limitations,' he lisped. 'It is money that I want.' Could this be an altogether more serious condition than we thought? A viral infection, perhaps, that forces people to tell the unvarnished truth? The consequences scarcely bear thinking about. Indeed, such a plague of honesty could destroy sport as we know it.

Imagine Nigel Mansell standing up at a press conference and saying, 'OK, I admit it, anyone could have driven that Williams car and won the World Championship. But the reason I've left Formula One is that I'm a big sulky crybaby who wants far too much money. What's more, I've also got a silly moustache.' The world would cease to rotate.

But then what? Gary Lineker: 'I'm not really that nice, and unbeknownst to anyone, I eat babies for breakfast and regularly engage in carnal relations with endangered species.' David Campese: 'When I said I was retiring, I was being economical with the truth. See you in 1995.' Graham Gooch: 'We didn't pick Gower because we don't like his fluffy hair and his wry smile whenever he gets out for 0. We much prefer people who went to South Africa, especially John Emburey, who's an old mate of mine.' Jimmy Hill: 'God knows why the BBC still employ me after all these years for, let's face it, I haven't got a clue.' Riddick Bowe: 'Of course I don't want to fight Lennox Lewis - he'll beat me]' And, of course, Graham Taylor: 'You know, I don't really think I'm up to this job. It's just as well that no one seems to have noticed yet . . .'

Dangerous words indeed. Keith Fletcher, other than ensuring that India will beat us 4-0, can't know what he's started.