England's cup of shame runs over
For India's cricketers and their fans, this year's Diwali was an especially joyous occasion. For England, on the other hand, the light and sound of a million Kolkata firecrackers cannot atone for the five damp squibs that preceded them. It's been a humiliating fortnight on and off the field, and there's still time for one last comeuppance. On Saturday, the side that sits at the top of the World Twenty20 rankings will slink back into Eden Gardens, hoping against hope that they can exorcise the memories of their 10 for 47 collapse in Tuesday's whitewash decider.
Excuses will not wash. England knew that taking on India in their own conditions, and moreover in their first home series since winning the World Cup in April, would be an exponentially tricky challenge, far removed from their 3-0 success amid the showers in September. Nevertheless, all the signs were that they intended to tackle the challenge head-on. As proof of the management's intent, if nothing else, the squad departed for the country a full 10 days in advance of a series that was done and dusted in 11 - which is longer than India themselves had allowed in the build-up to a five-week Test series in July.
For all the good that preparation did the players, they might as well have rocked up in Hyderabad on the first morning of the series and taken pot luck with the conditions. Long before the final indignity in Kolkata, England's campaign had degenerated into farce and recrimination. Their most cherished standards of discipline deserted them as their players ended up either at each other's throats or in the faces of the opposition, and their battle plans for the subcontinent were once again been revealed to be several decades out of date.
If England thought they'd been embarrassed by defeats against Ireland and Bangladesh in the recent World Cup, then at least their fighting spirit in that campaign was rarely called into question. Here, on the other hand, England proved to be all talk and no action - more of a rabble, arguably, than they had been in their last 5-0 trouncing by India in November 2008, when they could point to the world-class contributions of Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag, and concede they didn't have a prayer.
This time England had opportunities to dictate terms in at least three of the five contests, but were muscled off the ball by an Indian outfit whose collective desire to prove their detractors wrong far outstripped any incentive that England could muster. The most surprising barometer of England's failings was their inept fielding - catching and run-saving alike - while an inability to rotate the strike was the most striking feature of their pusillanimous batting. Astonishingly England actually struck more sixes in the series than India - 14 to 13 - a fact that, in theory, bodes well for the Twenty20. But then again, drowning men always tend to make more of a splash than those who pop out for a casual morning dip.
"I thought we'd learned lessons from three years ago and put in place training drills which would equip our batsmen to deal better with the conditions out here," said England's shocked coach, Andy Flower. "But obviously I'm wrong in that regard."
The 2015 World Cup in Australia may be the long-term target for this one-day squad, but they'll be returning to Asia for more fun and frolics in the New Year, and in January 2013 they'll be back for another seven-match series in India - a country in which they have now won just one ODI out of 18 since 2002. It's an emasculating statistic for a team with England's ambition and resources.
Unless their shortcomings in such conditions are addressed forthwith, the contagion is in danger of spreading - not just into their preparations for the faster, bouncier conditions in Australia in four years' time (where their 6-1 post-Ashes record isn't much to write home about either) but into their world-beating Test squad as well. Just ask Duncan Fletcher for guidance on that point. His England Test side reached the cusp of greatness in the 2005 Ashes, which was the same summer in which his ODI team finally gelled as well. But when the rot set in thereafter, it was all-consuming.
The great Test teams of the past 30 years, West Indies and Australia, have ruled the roost in both formats at the same time - largely because they have been able to reap the benefits of permanent superiority, as well as utilise the breadth of squad that success on two fronts requires. And to be fair, that is one of the reasons why England travelled to India with rare optimism this month, because as their one outstanding player, Steven Finn, demonstrated, the desire to keep up the pressure on the incumbents in the Test team ought, in theory, to be propelling the many youngsters in this next tier to new heights.
That wasn't the case on this trip, however, where too many players dipped too far below the standards that England currently expect. Tim Bresnan, whose stamina and accuracy had marked him out as the attack leader, claimed as many wickets in five games as he had managed in that one epic tie in the World Cup in March; Graeme Swann, chastised by the coach for some untimely comments in his autobiography, lacked spark, penetration and joie de vivre, and his two botched slip catches in Delhi and Kolkata were crucial and crushing moments.
Ravi Bopara, apparently on the up after a starring role in the home series, shied away from the chance to fill Eoin Morgan's boots, and finished ignominiously when Suresh Raina bowled him round his legs in Kolkata. Jonny Bairstow found himself overawed, having glided through his debut in Cardiff without stopping to take in the significance of his new status. And then there was Craig Kieswetter, finally unleashed in conditions that should have aided his inside-out boundary-clearing potential. A run-a-ball 63 in Kolkata could not mitigate some sketchy work behind the stumps, and was probably not enough to save his career in the short term.
Excuses will not wash, because England knew what was at stake in this series, especially in this era of social media in which everything exists in the now, and past performances, good and bad, are quickly forgotten by the masses. They could have no complaints about the conditions either. Nevertheless, the timing of the series - so soon after the end of the English season - did the tourists no favours, just as had been the case in their post-Ashes 6-1 thumpings by Australia in 2009 and 2010-11. To judge by the gaps in the stands throughout the five games, England weren't alone in feeling jaded by the experience.
There is a wider issue at stake as well, which is one that the keyboard warriors on Twitter and Facebook will debate until cyberspace flows over, even if the teams themselves move quickly onto the next challenge. For India's disaster in England, and vice versa, it was all too easy for the respective sets of fans to pretend it did not matter. England's rise to the World No. 1 spot in Test cricket was the only story that resonated for their supporters, just as India's triumphs in one-day cricket - the World Cup in April, the whitewash in October - sated their own. The polarisation of priorities is an undeniable concern, though not one that will overly bother either fan base, so long as England and India perpetuate their successes in their favoured forms of the game.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo