'What's up with Marcus Trescothick?' is a question that I've been asked more times than any other cricketing teaser this winter. It's assumed that I've got a hot line to every smidgeon of gossip, even when thousands of miles away from the action in India.
We've been told to accept that the reason why England's acting captain left the Indian leg of the tour in a marked manner is because he's picked up some sort of draining virus. Hmm . . .
Trescothick's employers, the England and Wales Cricket Board set up a soft-focus interview last week with Sky Sports News in which the latest recruit from the ranks of former players, Ian Ward, subjected the England opener to the sort of pallid treatment that makes your toes curl.
Ward and Trescothick are old pals from England A tours - and it showed.
The interviewer and his TV station should be charged with bringing the game into disrepute, along with the ECB's Corporate Affairs department, who set up the anodyne exchange. The rest of the electronic media was told we had to make do with clips from Ward's interview and then bona fide journalists were stopped from questioning Trescothick the following day when he fronted up at Somerset's pre-season media gathering.
Just to ensure unfair play, the head spin doctor was sent to Taunton from Lord's to keep Trescothick away from legitimate investigations into why we'd been fed such a spurious line 24 hours earlier.
Now you know where some of the Sky millions is going after they annexed the TV rights for England's international matches for the next four years. The spin doctors must keep the top players on-message, whatever the cost in man hours.
Even when the mixed messages make the head coach, Duncan Fletcher and team doctor Peter Gregory appear shifty and evasive. They fed one line to the media in late February that was contradicted by Trescothick back in Taunton, six weeks later.
By now, some of you will be thinking that is just another incestuous story by a journalist who's convinced that something which fascinates our profession should also be compulsory reading for outsiders. But bear with me . . .
Trescothick was England's acting captain when he left the ground at Baroda in tears, with a session left to play. Michael Vaughan was struggling with his dodgy knee and was set to fly home, his tour over. Trescothick was to take over, as he did a couple of months earlier, in Pakistan.
It's justifiable that the media, on behalf of the British sporting public, should want to know why the stand-in captain left the ground at tea-time, in such an emotional state, to fly home immediately, thereby substantially weakening the side. His team-mates only knew of his turmoil just before Duncan Fletcher briefed the media at close of play.
Fletcher told the media that Trescothick was returning home 'for family reasons' and that 'his privacy should be respected'. Those same quotes appeared on the ECB's website soon after. No mention of the dodgy virus that formed the centrepiece of the player's excuse last week.
In fact Dr Peter Gregory didn't allude to Trescothick's ailment in the build-up to the Baroda match. He mentioned that Shaun Udal and Paul Collingwood had been struggling with a bug, but not Trescothick. Why not? Dr Gregory was very cooperative in his briefing over Vaughan's knee injury but Trescothick's mystery virus didn't get a mention at any stage. Until last week, in Taunton.
There are viruses and viruses. As a veteran of tours to the sub-continent, I can vouch for how low you feel for a few days when one strikes you. And yet two months earlier, Trescothick had opted to stay in Pakistan after his father-in-law had fallen off his ladder, back in Taunton. For a couple of days he was seriously ill but Trescothick, captaining in a Test in the absence of the crocked Vaughan, decided to stay put after deep consultations with his wife.
Isn't something like that a sounder reason for going home than a bug, even one which - Trescothick's words - 'really hit me hard'?
In the past week I've talked with English cricket journalists still on the India tour. They all respected Fletcher's call for privacy. At no stage was Trescothick troubled by any of the usual media corps who have known and respected him since he came into the side in the summer of 2000. The strong rumours for his return have nothing to do with a virus and no - I shall never allude to them publicly. His privacy should indeed be respected.
So the ECB reward the media's integrity by throwing a bone to the organisation they knew wouldn't ask proper, forensic questions. The broadcasting organisation which has thrown stacks of moolah at the English game for the next four years in a squalid deal criticised at the swish dinner last week which launched the new edition of the cricket bible, Wisden.
As various ECB luminaries sat in uncomfortable silence the former Sport Minister Kate Hoey MP roundly condemned the deal in her blistering speech. Her words should be scrutinised by every cricket lover who resents such a fait accompli.
What the ECB's ridiculous own goal over Trescothick has done is to store up trouble for the player. Because that stage-managed interview threw up more questions than answers, Trescothick will be dogged by reporters asking him to justify why he left the tour at such a critical stage for his side. With the first Test due to start on May 11, Trescothick won't be able to rehabilitate himself mentally because those in charge of the game's public relations have made such a botch of the situation.
He is a likeable soul. Reliable, loyal, uncomplaining - he'll do anything for a colleague, and has done so for media people as well. Marcus Trescothick doesn't deserve to be landed in it.
My spies tell me that Fletcher and Trescothick's business managers are furious, and who can blame them?
In a frank exchange of emails last week with the Corporate Affairs Department at Lord's, I was told we should all now 'move on', and that they'd be making no comment on the Trescothick farce. Don't you love that phrase 'move on', beloved of politicians when they've been caught out?
The same Lord's spin doctors are very happy to organise jollies like the bus trip to Trafalgar Square the day after the Oval Test finished last September. On that occasion the media was briefed a week earlier about such a possibility and the ECB asked us to keep quiet about it until nearer the time, in case the Ashes were not regained. We kept our side of the bargain, although the England players felt such planning by the ECB was premature and could be counter-productive.
But it seems a one-way street with the ECB. Keep the media to heel, citing the need for confidentiality, but give nothing back when there's an issue of public interest, like Marcus Trescothick returning home early while acting captain. The ECB invaded the player's privacy last week, not my profession, and now they're a laughing stock. Again.
Savage returns to haunt Gold with Rovers on Euro trail - and Blues . . ?
What a time for Robbie Savage to return to play at St Andrew's for the first time since his acrimonious departure 15 months ago. Any stick he receives tomorrow night can be answered by the player in the most convincing fashion. Just look at the league table.
As Blackburn Rovers continue to impress, the dismissive comment of David Gold, the Birmingham City chairman, comes back to bite him on the backside. Gold said at the time that he couldn't understand why Savage wanted to join a smaller club. Who's laughing now?
I believe that Birmingham City handled the Savage saga correctly. No player is bigger than the club and Savage had become a circus act. But the move has suited him and his new club as Blackburn tilt towards Europe.
Savage hasn't really been replaced at Blues. He may have been a pain and at times an embarrassment but his particular style of aggression and harrying suited Blues, made them more difficult to beat. The driving, chivvying dogs of war are now spaniels rather than rottweilers.
The team isn't athletic or mobile enough, there is little creativity when David Dunn is absent and Chris Sutton and Emile Heskey are too one-dimensional as an attacking force.
Steve Bruce's contrasting mood in just 48 hours epitomised this awful season for Blues. On Friday, as he briefed the media, he was very chipper. For the first time this season, he could choose from a full-strength squad. By Sunday evening, he'd lost Matt Upson and Dunn for the rest of the season and Jiri Jarosik for a part of it. Three very influential players.
Bruce might have sold Upson in the summer for a handsome profit in the event of relegation and the need to rebuild but now the defender's out for the bulk of 2006. He's not an asset, sadly. And will Dunn ever again get a clear run in the side, without incurring injury?
Blues have lost momentum at a vital time - only five points from the last six games, compared to Portsmouth's 14 out of 21 points. Harry Redknapp's team have a better form sequence than Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham in the past month.
Pompey have been lucky to play West Ham, Arsenal and Middlesborough in the last week when all three opponents have been distracted by cup competitions, but this has been the ideal time to string together some victories. So often form picks up off the back of wins. Could you honestly back Blues to have beaten any of Pompey's recent opposition, given how they're playing lately?
Anything other than a win over Blackburn tomorrow night will mean relegation for them. And will Robbie Savage enjoy that?
Moxey observations rare ray of honesty
Throughout this mediocre season for Wolves, the matchday programme notes of the chief executive, Jez Moxey, have been more entertaining than what we've seen on the park. He doesn't hold back.
Early on, he wrote that a place for Wolves in the play-offs was 'the minimum requirement'. Well that hasn't happened. Last Friday, he wrote that this season had been 'a complete disaster'. You could surely draw your own conclusions about the fate of the manager, Glenn Hoddle. Hardly a ringing endorsement?
Yet things are never quite the same at Wolves as they appear. Moxey's trenchant observations don't necessarily chime with those of the man still wielding great influence at Molineux, the president Sir Jack Hayward.
Last Friday, Sir Jack watched a match for the first time in a while and he'd be aware of the calls for Hoddle's head in favour of Paul Ince, now winding down his playing career and keen to start in management.
He will know that Wolves are 12 places higher than when they sacked Dave Jones in November, 2004. On that basis, Hoddle has improved matters. No one doubts his imaginative coaching credentials nor his impressive work ethic in the job. He is no dilettante. Favourable comparisons have been drawn between his example and that of Jones.
Hoddle has spent as much this season on players as any manager in the division yet Wolves have fallen short. But the manager has shown no wish to sacrifice himself. He genuinely appears to relish the job.
We won't know more until the season ends. The club won't be rushed. By then perhaps Tomasz Frankowski might have scored a goal, as we ponder what you can get for more than a million quid these days. Whatever happens, I trust Moxey won't start writing banal programme notes. Football needs more honest opinions from inside the clubs.