BACK in medieval Britain, people used to take their sandwiches along to watch prisoners being hanged, drawn and quartered.
It was perceived as a family day out – the olde worlde equivalent of a trip to Alton Towers.
Great crowds would gather – men, women and children – and look on as criminals were hung until almost dead, drawn through the streets while tied to a horse, and then disembowelled and forced to eat their own innards.
Why, Samuel Pepys referred to such gruesome events in his diary.
Fast-forward several hundred years and it strikes me that going to watch the England cricket team is fast becoming the nearest thing to a modern version of this ghastly public spectacle.
It has suddenly got very grisly, very grotesque, with the sporting torture of Alastair Cook and his players an increasingly macabre sight on England’s green and not-so-pleasant land.
Tomorrow, England’s supporters head to Southampton – sandwiches at the ready – to watch the third Test against India, no doubt expecting more of the X-rated same.
After seven defeats in nine Tests, and no win in 10, calls for the head of Cook, the captain, could hardly be louder were they emanating from the baying crowds of medieval Britain.
For now, Cook’s head remains intact – even if the contents of his brain are scrambled after a sequence of defeats and a storm of criticism that would test anyone’s resolve.
Cook has copped it from all sides – supporters, journalists, former players – and is clinging on for dear life like Harold Lloyd dangling from the clockface in Safety Last!
One more slip at The Ageas Bowl, either in terms of the result and/or another batting failure, and Cook’s grip on the captaincy will loosen further, just as the calls for his head will rise in volume.
His position is already untenable in the eyes of many, who are clamouring loudly for the axe to descend.
Cook, however, is defiant in distress and insists that he can turn things around.
He has vowed to continue until he receives “a tap on the shoulder” and/or comes to the conclusion he is fighting a losing battle, amid suggestions he will carry on for the rest of the series at least.
It is an extraordinary situation – possibly unprecedented, with the world and his wife shouting for blood – and the only reason England have not sacked him is because there is no obvious alternative and because they backed him so publicly after the Ashes.
A personal view is that England have gone so far down the road with Cook that they should give him until the end of the summer and then reassess, but unless he learns quickly from his errors and starts scoring runs, the die is cast.
A couple of things, however, must be kept in mind.
England can still win the series – two years ago, they overturned a 1-0 deficit in India under Cook.
And the captain is far from the only problem. In fact, it would be easier to look at the set-up and ponder where there is not a problem.
In many ways, Cook’s difficulties have taken the heat off head coach Peter Moores, whose honeymoon period is emphatically over.
Is he the right man to lead England forward?
Many have their doubts.
There are numerous other questions.
Is Sam Robson a better opening batsman than, say, Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth?
Is the No 3, No 4, No 5 combination of Gary Ballance, Ian Bell and Joe Root the right one? Or might that running order be better shifted around?
Matt Prior has gone, quite possibly for good, having struggled with injuries and form, and there are question marks over Ben Stokes and even James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who have under-performed in tailor-made conditions.
There is no frontline spinner, and the difficulties run much deeper than Cook.
Yet this India team are beatable; England could have won at Lord’s last week, while they also had chances to put away Sri Lanka earlier in the summer.
They do not have to bridge a divide here as great as that which currently exists between themselves and Australia.
Perhaps the best thing England and Cook can do this week is make a conscious effort to play with freedom and try to enjoy themselves. It is hellishly difficult with the brickbats flying around, but they have reached the stage of nothing to lose.
Like condemned prisoners offered a final cigarette before going to meet their fate before the sandwich-eating crowds of medieval Britain, they might as well savour every puff of smoke and live in the hope of a last-minute pardon.