England's Asian travel woes December 9, 2005

Cabin fever or siege mentality?

With the one-day series in Pakistan and the tour of India to follow, England must quickly learn to open their minds to South Asia, otherwise this winter will prove to be as fruitless as the summer was fruitful, says Kamran Abbasi

Life's a yawn for Vaughan, even without late nights © Getty Images

Team England is failing a test of character in Pakistan. You may be surprised to learn that it is not directly related to events on the cricket pitch. All teams have to face up to defeat, and it is your response to failure that reveals your potential to rule cricket's roost. Unfortunately, it is this test of mental attrition that England's management and their troupe of official and unofficial communications experts have failed with aplomb.

A great team stands firm in defeat, learning from mistakes, identifying opportunities for improvement, and offering justified praise to the opposition. England, to their credit, have done all that, but they have forgotten the final tenet of this success ethic: Do not ruin your own credibility by blaming defeat on something ridiculous.

Those of you who have observed England's post-Test series angst will have become familiar with a new medical condition, something that apparently affects young men with little imagination staying in five-star hotels. Inexplicably, this latest attempt at excusing poor performance has acquired the inappropriate sobriquet of cabin fever. Cabin fever, according to England's coach and some keen observers in the English media corps, is a fiendish condition likely to affect your performance as a top international sportsman - clearly it might be if England's players had been stuck in a cabin for weeks.

Importantly, this inspirational diagnosis offers an excuse for England's potentially world-beating team to be soundly thrashed by a bunch of foreign Johnnies - all the better for the insulting slap with which it strikes the cheeks of their hosts.

Now, in my long - and some might unfairly say undistinguished - medical career (also known as my day job), I have been involved in the assessment of thousands of patients and thousands more medical research papers. I can sincerely inform you that cabin fever - or five-star-hotel fever as this particular variant might be more accurately described - is not a topic that rivals bird flu as the next major threat to our species. You may have got this impression from the amateur psychologists in the England camp. If you have, forget it.

Cabin fever is not a threat to public health or even mere sportsmen's health. I'm not sure if it even exists. And even if it does, staying in spacious luxury hotels is not a plausible predisposition. Following this precedent of imaginative medical diagnosis, Pakistan should arm themselves with a whole host of implausible excuses when they tour England next summer. Disco fever might be one, particularly likely to strike down fast bowlers who fancy themselves as party animals. Secularism fever might be another, a worrying condition that afflicts Muslims spooked by twenty-four-hour licensing laws, low-cut dresses, and bacon butties. Or how about crap-weather fever, an intense allergy to the miserable climate of an English summer. The possibilities are endless.

Steve Waugh was a pioneer in eradicating cabin fever © Getty Images

But behind all this silliness lie two serious messages. First, to win in South Asia you must embrace its culture, a strategy that Steve Waugh masterminded partly through his compassion and partly through pragmatism. It was an attitude that helped Australia conquer India and Pakistan, as well as influencing the approach of Nasser Hussain and his team five years ago. This England team began promisingly by helping earthquake victims, but since then appears to have succumbed to the siege mentality that comes too easily to cricket tourists in South Asia.

After a pleasant summer with Australia, Pakistan would be harsh and little fun, wrote the sages, a prophecy that induced self-fulfilment. The tight security net around England offers an excuse of sorts, but this security level was sought by England's management. Secondly, in watching England and Pakistan compete for over thirty years, the single most tiresome aspect has been England's lack of grace in defeat, England's gallant knights looted by the scoundrels from the East.

We have had slurs about Pakistan's "excessive" appealing and biased home umpires. Hysteria about ball-tampering and Shahid Afridi's schoolboy spin in Faisalabad, and carping about use of substitutes and intimidatory bowling. The background has been filled with a condescending view of Pakistan as some modern-day hellhole, except even hell wouldn't be quite as boring. And while much of this nonsense has been purged or suppressed in recent years, it lives on in subtle incarnations such as the current enthusiasm for cabin fever.

With the one-day series in Pakistan and the tour of India to follow, England must quickly learn to open their minds to South Asia, otherwise this winter will prove to be as fruitless as the summer was fruitful - and the players will have suffered cabin fever for nothing.

Kamran Abbasi is the editor of Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.