England's considerable fall from Grace

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IF THE phrase 'It's not cricket]' ever stood as shorthand for English morality - except from English twits in movie and stage comedies - then it might be time to popularise the phrase 'It is cricket]' as a swift ethical commentary. Watching England's cricketers trudge through the airport on their return from defeat in India and Sri Lanka, I was struck by the growing parallels between English cricket and English life. True, cricket fanatics, including myself, have

often been prone to the delusion that the game provides some kind of spiritual rule book for life, with Brearley as the Bhagwan and Botham as Buddha. But the parallels are many, and uncanny.

The Scapegoat Game. England's defeat by Pakistan last summer was attributed, by many of our players and journalists, to the visitors' fast bowlers having interfered with the ball. In India, where we lost again, the ball stayed round but was still unusable by the English because, apparently, of bad shellfish, heat and industrial smog. In Sri Lanka, where the third series defeat in a row occurred, the ball was round, the fish was clean, the air was clear (though 'nearly too hot for Europeans', said England's manager) but the home bowlers reportedly 'threw' the ball (bent their arms illegally).

John Major, the great cricket fan, has learnt from such tactics. The recession, says the Government, is a global phenomenon, locally worsened by journalists 'talking down Britain'. Violence and disturbance in society is the fault not of economic or educational policy but of television. Interest in the disturbing tax affairs of the BBC's Director-General is, we learn, an 'attempted coup' by disaffected enemies. The line is constant: there's nothing wrong with the way we're playing the game, it's what that lot are doing to the ball.

Not-Me-Guv Management. In declining to take responsibility for the failure of the team - or to resign over a series of miscalculations - Ted Dexter, chairman of the selectors, is the very model of a modern English manager. National parallels for his deadbat approach on a moral sticky wicket abound, but at the top of the batting order would be Norman Lamont, John Birt, Marmaduke Hussey and the board of British Airways. The sign on the desk of this country's top executive reads not 'The Buck Stops Here' but 'Buck Off'.

The Fallacy of Manners. Astonishingly, Dexter has found support for the theory that England's defeat was caused by the prevalence of 'designer stubble' and the lack of jackets and ties among the England squad. That this tactic succeeded is another terrifying illustration of the English tendency to respond to problems with snobbish social reflex. There is nothing wrong with the inner cities, successive Conservative education ministers have suggested, that won't be solved by getting Shakespeare and Jane Austen on to the school syllabus.

The 'sloppy' speech of children's television presenters is solemnly presented as a factor in the breakdown of law and order. A long letter to the Sunday Times bemoans a newsreader's assertion that 'War and famine has resulted in many deaths.' No, no, no, they have resulted, the correspondent tetchily corrects. What priorities] But there is a streak of Englishness which holds that verbs really do matter more than Serbs, whiskers more than commitment, clothes more than soul.

The Market Muddle. Like most other aspects of national life, cricket has increasingly responded to market forces. There has been more one-day cricket, with Liberace-style flannels replacing virgin white, as well as advertising logos on the pitch. But this was planned as what you might call a pragmatic market. The theory was that the one-day games would subsidise county and Test games, which attracted fewer spectators but were regarded by the purists as the game at its best. In practice, the requirements of the short form for spendthrift batting and parsimonious bowling have gutted the English game of spinners, long-haul batsmen and adventurous bowlers. So the Indian and Sri Lankan spinners were a mystery to England's batsmen.

Exactly this kind of half-market - reform without the destruction of traditions, the new elements guaranteeing the old - is being attempted at the BBC and British Rail. Equivalents of the anguished cry 'We never meant to destroy spinners/the long innings' can easily be imagined for both those industries.

Shabby Moral Pragmatism. The Chancellor could not resign after Black Wednesday because all the Cabinet agreed on the same policy. Though distressed by events, the BBC governors must support the status quo because to force resignations would cause instability to the corporation. This kind of sophistry has been seen in the cricket selectors' cynical manipulation of the periods in which foreign-born players were required to await qualification for England and for which English players were banned after touring South Africa. Decisions were made not on an ethical basis but from a desire to see certain players in the team.

But there is evidence that the god of cricket is not mocked. Graeme Hick's qualification period for England having been shortened by three years, he remained almost runless during this bonus time, eerily achieving success at about the time he should properly have been admitted to the team. Similarly, the Rand-paid Englishmen whose ban was shortened to free them for India - Gatting, Emburey and Jarvis - put in performances that suggested they were involved in a subliminal, contritional game of forfeits with the African National Congress. Perhaps pragmatic morality will prove equally unacceptable to the gods of television and politics.

Declining National Significance. Because the international Test calendar in essence matches England against members of its former Empire and present Commonwealth, cricket has been a useful metaphor for global realignments. There is something automatically poignant therefore about the fact that England now seems to be a match only for Zimbabwe. But the trend towards relative English insignificance is seen in other fields: Britain's role in the Special Relationship with the United States, for instance.

In literature - where England has suffered a cricket-style series of defeats, with the Booker test series now won by New Zealand, Australia, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka - the mother country cunningly pretends that all of these writers are English, through declaring the Booker Prize to be for British and Commonwealth fiction. On the cricket field, none of these delusions is possible. The truth is seen: a teacher thrashed by her students.

These six hits tell us something. The England cricket team - failing, morally shifty, globally insignificant, distracted by irrelevant attention to demeanour, run by discredited leaders insolently continuing in office - may not be a credit to the nation, but is a perfect reflection of it.