Candy upstages cricket
To be successful as an international sportsman, a certain degree of arrested development is undoubtedly a useful character trait. After all, any profession that requires you to "play" for a living is best left to those who still giggle at fart jokes and delight in the delinquency of dressing-room humour. But at Trent Bridge this week, England's cricketers were left looking rather childish, after an incident involving jelly beans that has become the talk of the tabloids.
"It's not the reason we've lost a game of cricket, because of some jelly beans," said England's captain, Michael Vaughan, but his protestations were falling on deaf ears. Not since Dean Jones demanded that Curtly Ambrose remove his wristbands during a one-day international in 1992-93 has something so innocuous roused such a vehement response. Fuelled by a sense of righteous indignation, Zaheer Khan swung the second new ball both ways at will to cut England's batting to ribbons, and set his side up for a famous win.
There was more to the story of course. England lost a crucial toss and were ambushed on a damp first-innings track, and to compound that misfortune, India's batsmen responded with the sort of unilateral determination of which few of their followers believed they were capable. And then, when Vaughan himself was threatening to charm the initiative back to his team, he was bowled freakishly off his thigh pad - a moment of misfortune that India's fans might argue was karma, given the controversial dismissals of both Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly.
All in all, it added up to a classic no-holds-barred Test match - a contest from first day to last, and one that bloomed like a lotus flower on that magnificent fourth afternoon. And yet, all that mattered in the aftermath was the saga of the sugar-coated candy, which perhaps says more about the attention span of the average news consumer than the cricketers who've been vilified for their actions.
On an American news channel recently, the anchorwoman Mika Brzezinski first refused to read, then burned and finally shredded the day's lead story - Paris Hilton's release from jail, which had been given precedence over a major political development. India's fifth victory in 75 years of Test cricket in England has similarly been shunted down the pecking order.
"It's all been blown out of proportion," said Vaughan. "I know it's a great story, but the guys eat jelly beans, jelly babies and chewing gum for energy out in the middle. A few were brought on at the drinks break, and one or two might have been left on the floor as a prank for the new batsman. If we offended Zaheer in any way, we apologise, but there were no jelly beans thrown from the slip cordon, they were just left there. Again it's not the reason we've lost a game of cricket."
Vaughan looked rather embarrassed at the barrage of questions, and even refused to answer one query as to the exact significance of the "prank". Either way, the saga rather undermined England's tough-nut image that Matt Prior had attempted to portray on Sunday evening.
"It's important to have 11 people hunting together on the pitch," he said, "creating an intensity and an environment that's uncomfortable for people to bat in." Somehow, peppering the opposition with boiled sweets doesn't give off the same aura that you'd find in an Australian slip cordon.
Images of Zaheer brandishing his bat in the direction of Kevin Pietersen were flashed around the world over the weekend, but in the manner of his bowling, as well as his emphatically humourless reaction afterwards, Zaheer emerged with every ounce of the dignity that he had laid on the line during the incident. "I just felt it was insulting," he said. "I'm here to play cricket."
His captain, Rahul Dravid, was delighted with the net result, and tweaked England's embarrassment ever further. "If he's going to perform like this, can we please get him upset after every game!" he said. "I've never seen him as fired up. He came into the dressing-room really keyed up, so please, if you're going to upset our boys, and they're going to perform like this, I'll be more than happy."
And yet, if England's childishness (or "mental disintegration" as Vaughan would dearly love to be able to call it) was seen to backfire on one of India's players, then it arguably scored a direct hit on another. Sreesanth, the breakdancing bundle of energy from Kerala, had a shocking Test match. Teased for his apparent resemblance to Harry Potter while batting, he bowled like one of Voldemort's stooges - ineffective, erratic and at times downright ugly. He sent Pietersen, the object of India's ire, crashing to the turf with a whistling beamer, and then aimed a vicious bouncer at Collingwood after overstepping by almost a metre.
"I hope to God that wasn't meant to be," said Vaughan. "He's young and a really good talent, but I don't see how you can be bowling a two-foot-over-the-line no-ball. It's a tactic that could be used in most games, and it's something we don't want to see." Dravid, for his part, said that Sreesanth would be taken to one side and that the matter would be dealt with internally.
"Sree is a talented bowler, but he's young and very excitable. He's going to learn along the way, and it's part of our responsibility to see that he learns."
Sreesanth may have emerged from a fiery match with a 50% fine, but India emerged with a precious 1-0 lead, and when all the jellybeans have been done and digested, that tasty fact will remain. "We lost this match because we didn't get enough runs in tricky conditions," said Vaughan, in a vain attempt to keep the cricket at the centre of the attention. Had England taken that attitude a few days' earlier, they still might not have averted defeat, but they'd have done away with the embarrassment.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo