England's over-reaction fuels the booze-cruise narrative

If there was one moment that summed up the hysteria currently surrounding the England squad, it came at the end of the warm-up game in Richardson Park when Moeen Ali was asked if "you and your team-mates will be able to stay away from pubs between now and Thursday".

You would think most reporters sent to cover such a game might know by now that Moeen is a practising Muslim and therefore appreciate that such a question might be considered pretty crass. As Moeen responded dryly: "I'm not much of a pub guy, to be honest."

But the moment did serve to highlight how the image of the England squad has long since separated from reality.

The reality of this England squad, containing as it does, such clean-cut young men as Alastair Cook, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood (another teetotaller) and Moeen (to name but four of many), is that they arrived in Australia with a single-minded determination to retain the Ashes. You're more likely to see them early in the morning running in the park than drinking in a bar late at night.

The image, however, is of a group of lads on a stag night for whom sessions in the field are a necessary evil in between sessions in the bar.

It's unfair and it's inaccurate. But it's the perception now. And once perceptions are set, they are harder to shift than red wine stains on cricket whites.

It's an image reinforced every time an England player behaves like a fool. Few people can seriously believe Jonny Bairstow or Ben Duckett committed serious indiscretions but, at a time of heightened sensitivity, their actions have provided ammunition for those who want to sustain the narrative that talks of a squad out of control or a team in an alcohol-fuelled crisis.

And it's an image reinforced every time anyone from either set-up is interviewed. The England management, knowing they can't be seen to minimise incidents that, deep down, most of them feel are trivial, inadvertently fan the flames when they talk of "unacceptable" behaviour or impose fines upon players for actions that, if they are honest, they saw every week of their own touring lives. Moeen, with the best of intentions, did the same on Sunday.

Duckett may well need to recalibrate his work-life balance but he is nothing worse than a good-natured halfwit who has been scapegoated by the ECB to show they mean business. A thousand former players - and at least one in the current team - are thinking 'There but for the grace of God...' A more senior, more valuable, player might well have been treated more leniently.

The Australia management, meanwhile, need only sigh and look serious. Darren Lehmann, the Australia coach, played it magnificently over the weekend when, with the gravitas of a weapons inspector, he suggested the Duckett affair was "not funny", thereby passively giving credence to the theory that there is a serious problem at the heart of the England set-up.

That's Darren Lehmann who, a few days earlier in a Guardian interview, recalled a story from his career where, having been up all night celebrating Yorkshire's County Championship success in 2001, he drank the remnants of some champagne out of his helmet before going out to bat. When Australia have a drink it's portrayed as bonding and banter; when England do so it's portrayed as aggression and alcoholism.

Really, we're only days from the headline: "England player fails to use coaster in bar", accompanied by a po-faced interview in which a former player suggests it reflects a lack of respect for Australian furniture and the downfall of British society.

All England's problems here stem from that fateful September night in Bristol. They didn't just lose a fine allrounder, their best fielder and the balance of their team. They gained a ball and chain. The events of that night hang over this England squad like a cloud; it nags at them like a toothache; they drag it around like an anvil. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the affair, the incident has handed this squad some heavy baggage and a narrative that may well come to define the tour.

But it remains absurd and unfair to judge the entire squad on the actions of one man who isn't even here.

It would probably be harsh to pin the blame for all this on the England management. They can't legislate for a guy greeting an opposition player with a 'good-natured' head-butt, any more than they legislate for players pouring beer over one another. And even in a late-night venue such as The Avenue, which could hardly pretend to be salubrious, there is something fundamentally antisocial about a sports team living down to its stereotyping.

However, the management might reflect on the wisdom of imposing a curfew. Not only might it have been interpreted as an acceptance of a need to curb a drinking culture within the team, but the decision to relax it on a few, selected nights might also encourage binging. It might encourage a sense of 'we'd best make the most of this because we're not going to be allowed out for another couple of weeks'.

You wonder, too, how the relationship between the players and their security guards might develop now. It was, after all, those guards that reported Duckett's behaviour to the team management. They had been asked to, of course, and they are employed by the ECB. But we do not want a situation where the players feel they are being judged and assessed even when they are encouraged to let their hair down or, even worse, a situation where they try to give their security detail the slip.

And, all this talk of a drinking culture is a red herring for the issues that actually require confronting. If England really want to improve in Test cricket, they will look at the marginalisation of the county championship programme, the departure from technical coaching throughout the game, and the reliance upon English conditions in home Tests that has provided an illusion that all is well. These subjects may not make for catchy headlines or simple narratives, but if England want to improve their cricket, it's those factors they'll need to look at, not what time their players go to bed.

It would be much easier to sustain that argument, however, if the likes of Duckett Bairstow et al could just be a little more sensible. Sure, they haven't been so bad. But they have to understand that eyes are upon them. They have to act accordingly.