THE English invented cricket, but they are having to re-learn the game - from the countries they taught it to.
Returning from a tour of India and Sri Lanka in which England lost all four "test" (international) matches, team captain Graham Gooch said he was "confident that we can iron out our problems" before a side from Australia arrives April 25.
Cricket experts are not so sure. David Frith, editor of the Wisden Cricket Monthly, read by fans throughout the cricketing world, is scathing about the failures in Asia and concerned about the prospects against the Aussies.
"We were not just beaten - we were annihilated," Mr. Frith says.
"Something has gone terribly wrong. Unless measures are taken to retrieve the situation, the Aussies will teach us the lesson of our lives."
Exactly what did go wrong on the South Asian tour is being hotly argued by cricket's practitioners and pundits. Gooch, a veteran player with an enviable record as a high-scoring batsman, concedes failures in "all departments of the game."
"There can be no excuses - they beat us fair and square," he says.
England's batsmen, Gooch says, seemed unable to cope with the Asian countries' slow bowlers, who tweaked the red-leather ball between their fingers and made it spin disconcertingly on the dust-dry turf.
He also allows that the England side lacked really fast bowlers able to break through the defenses of Indian and Sri Lankan batsmen who notched up big tallies in the blazing sunshine.
During the tour, the English players did appear to wilt in the heat - but sometimes they only had themselves to blame. Before one crucial match, Gooch took his players to a Chinese restaurant where, against advice, they ate shrimp. The next day the diners were ill and the game was lost.
A journalist traveling with the side commented that it was the "first time China had defeated England" at cricket.
More seriously, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, a leading cricket commentator for the British Broadcasting Corporation, says there could be no excuse for a "comprehensive display of incompetence."
Defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka, which began to figure as a significant cricketing nation only a few years ago, was "the last straw," says Martin-Jenkins. He noted that it was the Asian side's first-ever victory over England in a test match.
England's loss followed defeats in the last couple of years at the hands of Pakistan, the West Indies, and New Zealand - all former British dependencies that learned the game in colonial days.
Long ago, cricket's white-clad players earned the description "flanneled fools." Test matches usually stretch out over five days, and there are long periods when nothing very much seems to be happening. Terms such as "bowling a maiden over" (preventing an opponent from scoring for six successive balls) and "out for a duck" (sent back to the pavilion without scoring) are widely used. All this tempts the uninitiated to poke fun at cricket.
But there is little amusement over the defeats in South Asia, which are seen as a humiliation. Even in fairly good times, when the England side loses, headline-writers are apt to reach for large type and proclaim "England Defeated," suggesting it has lost a war. When the word was flashed from Colombo that England had lost to the Sri Lankans, a London newspaper announced: "The Empire Strikes Back!"
A member of the English side who asked not to be named points the finger at "a generally blase attitude" toward cricket among English youngsters, which was "not helped by an equally blase attitude among the game's administrators."
"In India, you see kids playing cricket in dusty village streets, and on every available piece of wasteland," the player says. "They turn their country's batsmen and bowlers into heroes. There is huge enthusiasm. Crowds who attended the matches we played cheered their chaps at every turn. Compare that with the casual hand-clapping at an English cricket ground."
Frith agrees that lively patriotism is a key to the aggressive style of play common in the young cricketing nations.
"They are determined to tame the mother country," he says, "and they get great pleasure out of rubbing the old colonialists' nose in the dust."
With the clock ticking around to the arrival the Australian team in a few days, the crisis facing English cricket is so acute that a thundering editorial in the Times of London called for the resignation of Ted Dexter, chairman of the England selectors and a former captain of great distinction.
Mr. Dexter's response was to sniff and advise the nation against "punching the panic button." He says he had no plans to quit.
Another editorial, in the mass-circulation Sun, said the newspaper had conducted a worldwide search for a cricketing country that "England might possibly be able to beat." It had found one - Zimbabwe.
Test matches between England and Australia are regarded by enthusiasts as the ultimate encounter. Australia beat England in their last clash two years ago.
Meanwhile, Australian players whose ancestors learned cricket when they were transported Down Under as convicts 200 years ago have been training hard for months, preparing themselves for the coming series.
Unlike in England, where scientific study of the game tends to be frowned upon, Australian fast bowlers who hurl the ball at close to 100 miles an hour have been practicing on closed-circuit television, with coaches analyzing every aspect of their technique.
Jeff Thomson, a former Australian fast bowler who has been helping with the coaching, gave English players advance notice of his countrymen's confidence.
"Tommo the Terror" told a London newspaper: "The England bowling attack doesn't even rate as high as ordinary. They couldn't harry a granny."