The other day, Matt Prior the England wicketkeeper put a couple of things in his Telegraph column that I feel it's important to address. One was the idea that people should lay off criticism of the England side and 'show us some respect' to quote the front page, on the basis that they are currently 3-0 up in a five test series and are so doing very well. The other was an idea that he mentioned further in, that the British public just wants to see England winning, and doesn't care how they do it.
For the first idea, should the press/public lay off? It seems like there is a point where criticism becomes unacceptable and turns into abuse/hounding. It seems like there are inevitably a few very vocal individuals who can appear to represent the majority just because they shout louder. There is a point where it is appropriate to remember to simply be nice, or at least civil, to other people.
Yet it doesn't seem right that the England wicketkeeper should tell us that winning means we should avoid criticism. There are legitimate issues to be raised, from the persistent negativity of England's tactics against batsmen who aren't blasted out immediately, to the fragility of some of their batting (and since Bairstow has gone for this test, it seems clear that England shared that view) to some drops in the field and a few moments when the bowlers have started to look tired/less than convincing.
Should we ignore all of these because of the score line? Or, to put it another way, would it be okay if England did poorly so long as their opponents did worse? That brings us around to Prior's second point: that people only care if England are winning. Speaking as one of the English public concerned, I can only say that for me, it isn't true.
I care about good, entertaining cricket played in the right spirit. I will not make a claim for how many other people feel the same way, because I have no way of knowing. I suspect Matt Prior doesn't have one either. I will say that the reactions of the crowd at the tests seem to suggest that they are there to be entertained.
For myself, 'we're just there to win' sounds like an obviation of duty. A sportsman's get out clause. Sport is always caught between the twin elements of victory and enjoyment. Players want to win. Fans probably want them to win when there are fans to watch. Yet amateur players of a sport take it up for enjoyment too, and the followers of professional sport follow it because they enjoy doing so. It is a balancing act that is difficult to achieve, but it is a balancing act. It is not enough to say that you are simply there to win.
As evidence of this, I would throw in the fact that I started to really watch cricket in the 1990s, when victory for the England team didn't really seem to be an option. The way the cricket was played must have mattered more to me, because if it had been just about the win, then surely I would have been off watching another sport?
Indeed, the whole of Test cricket makes the point that it is not just about the win quite convincingly. The presence of the draw makes the point that it is not just about being better than the opposition by default. It's about playing good enough, positive enough, cricket to take the win. Then there's the part where it's over five days. A win can be had in an hour or five in one day cricket, yet players continue to say that test cricket is the pinnacle. Why? Because of the demands it makes on your cricket. It is not just the fact of winning, but the trials and tribulations along the way.
At the other end of the scale T20 has consistently shown better crowds than longer format one day games. Why? Some of it is convenience. Atmosphere. Rather more of it, I suspect, is that it is entertaining. Things happen in T20. I don't think Matt Prior can legitimately argue when we complain that they aren't happening right in a Test.