Certainly no place for Essex man: The Test humiliation is being blamed on batsmen who can't read spin. But Mihir Bose thinks it has more to do with Englishmen who can't read India

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The Independent Online
In the winter of 1926, the MCC sent its first representative team to India. India was still four years away from playing its first Test and the team, led by Arthur Gilligan, was sent to assess whether India was good enough to do so. Lord Harris, president of the MCC and a former governor of Bombay, went to Tilbury to see the team off and, after wishing them luck with the toss and the weather, said: 'Do not take off your topee when out in the field, and never eat oysters up-country.'

Gilligan followed this advice and had little or no problem with Delhi belly, but he still managed to be surprised by Indian cricket. One man in particular, a certain C K Nayudu, hit 11 sixes off the English bowling in an innings in Bombay, a world record that stood for almost 40 years.

Nearly 70 years on, English cricket continues to be surprised by India. If it was Nayudu in 1926, it was the spinners Kumble, Raju and Chauhan in 1993. Their exploits have helped Mohammad Azharuddin and his men inflict defeats on Graham Gooch's team in the best sequence of results India has had in its Test history. They reveal not merely a quite shattering English inability to read spin bowling, but to read India.

Gooch may say that he did not eat oysters up-country but prawns by the seaside. However, Indians find it hardly surprising that this English team, led by two of the most insular men in English cricket, Graham Gooch and Keith Fletcher, should have gone down to such terrible defeats.

The failures are two: one cricketing, one cultural. The cricketing failure may be shocking but is actually more easily explained. England have never found it easy to believe that Indians can play cricket. Before this tour, Fletcher went to watch the Indians play in South Africa, where admittedly they performed poorly, and he came back saying he had seen nothing to fear. Geoffrey Boycott described the Indian team as the worst in international cricket for 28 years, and Raymond Illingworth pilloried the selectors for choosing Neil Fairbrother and Graham Hick, who were, he said, sure to make runs in India but might not make them against Australia.

They forgot that cricketing teams in general, and India in particular, travel badly. India has only ever won four series abroad, two in England, but it rarely gets beaten at home - and then by bowlers of extreme pace like the West Indians. These comments also suggested that England saw this series only as a preparation for Australia and winning back the Ashes.

The mental make-up of English cricket still revolves round beating Australia. Other countries, particularly in the Subcontinent, are treated as staging posts. When these countries succeed, it is assumed that something underhand is going on.

Last summer, for example, it was claimed that Pakistan won by doctoring the ball. This time the Indians have been accused of every trick. But it takes a quite exceptionally disturbed mind to suggest that smog contributed to the English defeat in Calcutta, or that the Indian batsmen ruined the pitch in Madras by running on it with their spikes. Teams do not win three successive Tests by such margins because of such factors. If they did, how come England consistently lost to Australia in the Thirties and Forties, when smog was a factor in London?

Such excuses merely expose the greater cultural failure underlying the cricketing defeat. Why Englishmen who have known India for more than 300 years - and ruled it for almost 200 - should find the place so incomprehensible is one of the great mysteries of the Occident. It is tempting to say the fault lies with the present generation of cricketers, the products of council houses and comprehensives. But, with honourable exceptions, the English have always struggled to come to terms with India.

The Indian subcontinent is like no other place on earth. Although modern air travel has reduced distances, and you can find some of the world's best hotels there, India is still not part of the disco, fast- food, easy sex, sun-and-sand environment that is the norm, say, in Australia, South Africa or even the West Indies. And although there is plenty of booze and Indians can be hard drinkers, it is more often whisky than the Western cultural favourites, beer and wine. India is more like a Fifties England than a Nineties Australia; the cultural gap is immense.

The normal English reaction to this alien culture is to draw the wagons round. But there are Englishmen who have succeeded in India by discovering that if you give in a little to the Indian culture, it can repay you with great, almost touching, gratitude. Even English cricketers have had joy in India: Mike Brearley fell in love with the place; David Gower succeeded over a five-month series in 1984-85, and Tony Greig manipulated it brilliantly in 1976-77.

Greig worked the Indian crowds like a ringmaster in a circus. He realised that they come to cricket for tamasha, a lovely Indian word meaning fun, fiesta, magic and glamour. It could apply to cricket, to the circus, to film stars, to any performance. Entertain this crowd, treat the fruit it throws as natural exuberance, not malevolence, and you can be king. He was so successful that he made a packet advertising Indian products, including awful razor blades, and won the series 3-1. Then it was the Indians' turn to feel unhappy and even to complain that John Lever had taken wickets by doctoring the ball.

It was never likely that Keith Fletcher, the Essex gnome, could be such a showman. This was his fourth tour of India, but he always looked lost, overwhelmed by a country he could not understand. But then India would be the ultimate alien country for Essex man.

The writer is the author of 'A History of Indian Cricket' and in 1987 led his own team on one of the least successful tours of India ever.

(Photograph omitted)

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