All about cabin fever

UNBELIEVABLE as it may sound, in being beaten by Pakistan 2-0 in the recent three-Test series, the England cricket team could well have been stating its commitment to the Aristotelian concept that catharsis is always ennobling.

The Test series in Pakistan was the first assignment for Michael Vaughan's team, after it won the Ashes in September subsequent to a high-pitched battle against Australia. The high spirits of the month-long victory celebrations ensured that the emotional vibrancy of the England players during that historic series was never allowed to dissipate.

And, then along came the tour of Pakistan, noted in recent times by English players for the time to catch up on the latest playstations, pulp fictions and Hollywood spy thrillers. If some members of the English media covering the Pakistan tour are to be believed, the reason for England's progressive capitulation in Pakistan was a condition called cabin fever _ Team England's coach Duncan Fletcher also endorsed this view _ which basically means the state of emotional unrest of young high-energy people trapped in rooms without much activity. After all, no amount of artificial stimulants can be a substitute for the real thing, a vibrant social life outside work hours.

By a simple process of extrapolation, the crux of their argument can be discerned; Team England's motivational levels, which plummeted outside the ground, could not be lifted on the pitch to the moderately decent levels needed to ensure a win against a formidable opponent. Suffice it to say, the post-Ashes catharsis has finally happened and has brought about in the England ranks an awareness of their fallibilities in that traditionally tricky terrain, the Sub-continent, which has been readily acknowledged by captain Vaughan and Fletcher after the series loss.

This is the second successive Test series defeat for Michael Vaughan and his men in South Asia. References were only to spin and Muralitharan, and not to cabin fever, in the team's 1-0 loss in Sri Lanka in the 2003-04 season. It must be recalled that the series in question preceded the extraordinary highs the team reached in the West Indies, South Africa and during two successive English summers. A section of the English media has not forgotten to take note that the two substantial gains of the Nasser Hussain-Duncan Fletcher partnership _the back-to-back Test series wins in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the 2000-01 season _ have now been erased by Vaughan's far more inexperienced men.

It is interesting to note that the strengths of the 2000 series in Pakistan, namely the sweep shot employed by the English batsmen and the spin that Ashley Giles got from the spinner-friendly tracks, have turned out to be the weaknesses in 2005. The flatter tracks that England got this time around meant that Giles was no longer a spinning threat _ his miracle ball to get rid of Inzamam-ul-Haq in the historic triumph in the darkness of Karachi in 2000 marginally overshadowed the left-arm spinner's ball in the Ashes series that spun across the face of Damien Martyn's defensive blade to knock back his off-stump. Similarly, the sweep was used by the 2000 England batting line-up more as an accumulative option unlike the current crop, which tried to use it in a more attacking fashion and paid the penalty many times.

The relative batting inexperience of the current lot in the Sub-continent, perhaps, sealed the fate of the series. In the first Test at Multan, which England had dominated from day one, thanks to a near double hundred by acting captain Marcus Trescothick, the Englishmen were faced with a fourth-innings target which was reachable in spite of the pitch increasingly helping leg-spinner Danish Kaneria. They were bowled out 22 runs short of the target and the professionalism, comparing poorly with the solidity and determination of Graham Thorpe and Co. in the 2000-01 season.

The absence of Simon Jones due to injury could not help England to replicate the reverse swinging success achieved in 2000 by Darren Gough. And, the pace bowling attack of Hoggard, Harmison, Flintoff lacked penetration in the series, especially in the third Test in Lahore.

But, Vaughan's England failed where Hussain's succeeded because of the differences in the approach. Hussain was clear that he did not have the arsenal to out-attack Pakistan (or Sri Lanka) in the Subcontinent, and he preferred a cussed hang-in-there-andwait-for-the-kill approach. Vaughan's England was supremely confident after its recent achievements and went for attack without undertaking a realistic assessment of the team's different options in conditions that are alien and difficult.

Interestingly, Hussain states in his autobiography Playing with Fire that the defensive strategies for the Subcontinent were devised to suit the team not just from the cricketing angle. A defensive on-field approach, the former captain writes, was commensurate to the low-energy life off it, which he tried to sandpaper by exhorting the team to travel around Pakistan. Was Duncan Fletcher having a rare nap this time around?