English cricketers lose big matches in India as well as face back home

February 27, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- For England, it was the greatest defeat since Dunkirk, but unlike that 1940 retreat from the German army in France, nobody expects time and friendly historians to turn this one into a victory.

It was a cricket rout in India.

There, over the past few weeks, in three test matches, which are matches between countries, India's national cricket squad annihilated the pride of England -- in Calcutta, then in Madras, finally in Bombay.

It was the first time India had swept such a series against anybody. It was the first time since 1986 that England had lost every match in a national test series.

The English team won in a sort of consolation match yesterday.

But there's not much pride in the team back home, and not only because it played so badly. There was the matter of comportment, which is as important as the score in this most English of games.

The Times of London described the team as "a closed clique of boring hard men, Roundheads rather than Cavaliers." That was a reference to the anti-monarchist forces of Oliver Cromwell and the royalists who supported King Charles I in the English Civil War.

The type of men chosen for the team on the current Asian tour were not like the men sent out there when England ruled the subcontinent: upper crust, blazered toffs from Eton, Harrow and the higher heavens of Oxford and Cambridge.

Today's cricketers are notably different. And it was the players' behavior off the field that provoked some of the disapproving comment.

Pictures of team members eating beans and corned beef brought from England, advertising their fear of the local cookery, guzzling beer from cans also shipped over went down badly -- not only among the Indians, but among many here who remembered a different sort of behavior in the past.

Then there was the carping and excuses as to why they were being repeatedly thumped by the Indians -- complaints about the condition of the fields, the umpires, the food (the English captain, Graham Gooch, got sick), the smog, the poverty, the beggars, the taxis, the noise, the heat, the dust, the crowds, whatever.

To some, it all recalled the ungenerous accusations of doctoring the ball made against Pakistan's bowlers (pitchers) last year in London, when England lost its test series to that other South Asian country. The complaints were dismissed by cricket authorities and were considered unsportsmanlike by many fans.

This year, the English players in India are seen not only as inept players, but as ill-mannered guests. But that might have been expected. They are, for the most part, described here by the cliche "Essex cricketers."

For Essex, read Dundalk. It is an unkind and perhaps unfair reference to both locales, but one everybody understands.

Mihar Bose, author of "A History of Indian Cricket," described the team's captain, Mr. Gooch, and its manager, Keith Fletcher, as ++ "two of the most insular men in English cricket." Being insular, Essex men don't travel well.

For Mr. Bose, the debacle in India was as much a cultural failure as a failure at sport:

"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 [public housing] and comprehensives [schools of lower quality]."

Cricket remains important in England, but for different reasons to different people. For many in the middle and upper class, Oxbridge graduates and a few intellectuals, it has a transcendent importance. Somehow, it represents what they regard as the best the country has to offer, a game with "a deeper cultural significance," as Simon Heffer wrote.

He is a right-wing political journalist here who makes cricket metaphors much as George Will, the conservative American political journalist, makes them about baseball. It is something more than sport, a Rosetta stone with the secret patterns of the culture written into it.

Cricket, wrote Mr. Heffer, "is a mirror of life."

But he adds: "The mirror is becoming too horribly accurate," a comment that goes to the reason cricket is so important to people quite different from those described above -- the ones who make a living playing it.

David O'Leary, a literary agent who is also a knowledgeable cricket fan, describes the game as it once was as "a perfect example of the English class system in action."

Perhaps it still is, for the state of it today reflects what has happened to that class system generally through the years, its gradual penetration and disintegration.

"It used to be dominated by people who played for Eton," Mr. O'Leary said. "Teams used to be divided between Gentlemen and Players, with the Players invariably coming from more humble backgrounds."

Today, he said, the Players, or professionals, dominate the game, and have edged out most of the Gentlemen, or amateurs.

What is the difference?

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