Terence Blacker: Isn't it fun seeing cricketers out on a bender...

The English cricket team could learn a useful lesson from the dignified behaviour of our footballers
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The Independent Online

At a time of cheerful and general moral laxity, it can sometimes be difficult to summon up the energy required for disapproval. This week, though, has seen such a prolonged and public promotion of the joys and effects of binge drinking, at a time when we are all meant to be worrying about such things, that it would be tempting to contact the Prime Minister, were he not at the centre of it all.

An England team has been victorious at an important sporting event. What has followed, quite rightly, has been a jolly party enjoyed by the happy players. But just as, we are told, the country's regaining the Ashes was a triumph which transcended sport, so has the way in which it has been celebrated.

For this was a binge that was shared by the nation. The newspaper billboards have promised stories and pictures of our cricketing heroes' great 32-hour piss-up. And there, page after endless page, it was: one team member snogging a stranger at a club, another staggering about with a bottle in his hand. Two heroes, named as Pie-Eyed Pietersen and Googly-Eyed Giles, propped up against one another, slack-jawed and blotto, in the early hours of the morning.

England's new sporting legend Freddie Flintoff was photographed, semi-conscious, and written on his face the word "twat", contributed by a witty team-mate while in a stupor.

This, of course, is the way that victorious sportsmen should celebrate the successful end of a series. After their stupendous achievements, the players deserve every snog and every drop of champagne. But there is an extra element here which, in the current climate, is downright bizarre. The very politicians and commentators who over the past few months have huffed and puffed about yobbishness in the streets, respect and the terrible epidemic of binge-drinking afflicting our young people have been chucklingly indulgent when it comes to the tanked-up behaviour of our lads.

"Why haven't you got a drink?" was, according to Michael Vaughan, the first question that the Prime Minister asked him while they were on the Downing Street leg of the binge. Another player cheerfully complained that the boozing facilities at the Blair residence were rather disappointing. In one newspaper, someone worked out, in a spirit of open admiration, just how much drink the lads had downed during those 30 hours, and how much it had cost. The answer, apparently, was over £34,000. His face de-twatted, Flintoff explained how being given the freedom of Preston meant that he "could drink for free in no less than 64 pubs and get a lift home when inebriated - what more can you want?"

One paper's enthusiastic endorsement of binge-drinking was such that it seemed to be ascribing much of the England boys' success down to the team spirit which drinking together inspires. The first step on the way to the Ashes was taken in South Africa when, on his appointment as team coach, Duncan Fletcher - as of last week, proud possessor of a British passport - arranged a huge booze-up. "We almost got into trouble for that team dinner," Fletch told a reporter. "But I thought it was brilliant. It was what kicked off English cricket."

One of the dreariest clichés that have been trotted out over the past few days by assorted mini-toffs, led by Quentin Letts and Peter Oborne, is that football has much to learn from cricket when it comes to behaviour and decency. Compared with the summer game, in which everyone is thoroughly agreeable to one another, football is, the argument goes, violent, vain and stupid.

Seldom in the annals of sport can a more fatuous argument have been advanced. These paunchy metropolitans may have played village cricket, chatting to mums while fielding in the deep, but have they ever actually been on a football pitch? If they had, it might occur to them that comparing 90 minutes of a hard, impassioned contact sport to four or five days of bat and ball under the sun was peculiarly pointless.

As it happens, the public piss-artists of the English cricket team could learn a useful lesson from the mature and dignified behaviour of footballers, rarely reported by journalists hooked on the idea that any show of temper or stupidity by an English player on the pitch is cause for shame, shock and scandal. When the England football team were defeated (shame, shock, scandal) by Northern Ireland, the immediate response of the team's captain was to face the press and explain himself. He congratulated the Irish. He avoided blaming the manager, the crowd, the state of the pitch. He agreed that supporters had been let down and that the team had to improve. Even as the press bayed for blood, David Beckham behaved in a manly, honourable way.

That is not easy, after a humiliating defeat, but it is the way sporting role-models can set an example.

Yet, such is the class-based prejudice which informs much of this issue that, whenever footballers behave well it is ignored, and when cricketers are beery or leery their behaviour is seen as an entirely acceptable bit of fun. So bores continue to complain about the yobbishness of football while lionising the man who had "twat" written on his face while drunk as the perfect role model for younger generations. No real thought, only a lazy and snobbish form of instinct, goes into this debate.

Terblacker@aol.com

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