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Atherton forced to take a back seat

Mike Atherton must miss England's next game in Zimbabwe after having an injection to relieve the pain in his back. And, although yesterday's treatment should help him, it also increases the pressure on England's captain at a vital stage of the tour.

Atherton has had a rough time of it since arriving here 10 days ago. His back has been hurting more than usual, he has suffered diarrhoea and sickness following a flu virus, and has made only nine runs in three innings, while England have lost both their first two completed tour matches.

Now, England's management are banking on Atherton's health improving significantly over the weekend as he sits out tomorrow's one-day fixture against Matabeleland in Bulawayo and then making a big score in the four- day match against the same opposition which starts on Tuesday. Otherwise, Atherton will go into the international games against Zimbabwe in no sort of form.

England's players practised in remarkably good humour yesterday, as if to emphasise their determination to bounce back from the humiliating seven- wicket defeat against Mashonaland on Thursday. Their coach, David Lloyd, said: "Yes, the boys are very perky. We had a good chat about things last night and we really wanted a professional practice session today.

"I have absolute faith in these players to do the job we came here to do and although they are very disappointed at their performance in this last match they are absolutely determined to improve.

"We could have had two easy games to start the tour. As it was we came up against two good-class oppositions and the positive way of looking at that is that we have been given an extremely good examination. We now know what this tour is about and I believe that these defeats can have a positive effect.

"My main concern about the last few days was that we looked very tentative - almost playing the game in slow motion at times. I think it's fair to say that the players are angry at losing, as well as frustrated and disappointed, but this tour is all about playing Zimbabwe in the Tests over Christmas and new year."