Atherton still fishing for a suitable Test line-up

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The Independent Online
It is one of the more enduring gripes of modern cricketers that they work twice as hard as the Almighty did during the first week of Creation. And so it proved yesterday when, on the 14th day of the tour, the players finally rested, taking their first day off to enjoy some local hospitality and colour around the city.

England have been made to feel very mortal all of a sudden, and the tenacity of Zimbabwe's small cricketing population has brought home just how precarious life can be among the minnows.

How appropriate because the skipper, Michael Atherton, spent his day fishing, taking a large contingent of players off to shoot and fish at a nearby game ranch owned by Dennis Streak, father of Heath, Zimbabwe's opening bowler. Francolin as well as 50 small catfish were bagged and caught in a day that brought colour to the cheeks as sunblock was left idle in unopened cricket bags.

Jack Russell and Nick Knight, the artists in the party, upped with sketchpads and paints to the Matopo hills, where the views, and precariously balanced granite boulders around the grave of Cecil Rhodes, offer the kind of raw landscape not glimpsed around Chipping Sodbury, where Russell has his gallery. Sadly he may have even more time than normal to apply the finishing touches if England persist in giving Alec Stewart the gloves.

However, after last week's churlish behaviour, which involved the team snubbing the opposition's offer of a post-match drink, time away from the cricket is vital if a healthy perspective is to be kept.

Huddling together and eyeing the outside world with suspicion is fine for nervous chickens, but for cricketers - even those taking unusually faltering steps as Atherton's men have so far - it is a foolhardy habit, and merely serves to spread self-doubt, the scourge of every sportsman and woman.

Mind you, taking time off when the cogs are running anything but smoothly can also leave the decision-makers open to criticism, particularly from the performance puritans. They advocate hard work and "being seen to be doing the right thing", which are the enemies of inspired play, a smattering of which tends to win more matches than solid all-round performance, as teams like Pakistan and Sri Lanka constantly illustrate.

Not surprisingly, England's woeful start to this tour has brought more than its fair share of furrowed brows despite the captain's claims that his squad remain supremely confident and are simply taking longer than normal to defrost skills that have recently lain idle.

The problem is - as the assistant coach John Emburey pointed out the other day - that losing, like winning, can become a habit. Fortunately, England have broken that cycle, with Sunday's victory against Matabeleland, whom they again play today on the slow pitch at Bulawayo Athletic club, the last four-day match before the Test in eight days' time.

Ideally this means that Atherton would like to play the team closest to the one he intends to rely on in the first Test, tinkering rather than restructuring his team for that match at the Queen's Club.

As yet, though, he has few clues - other than a bit of local disinformation - as to how the pitch will play, and even less idea of the batting order he wants to go with now that Alec Stewart's move to No 3 has had the effect of destabilising the entire batting order. That is something only John Crawley seems to have been able to cope with so far.

The team may pick itself if the niggling injuries to Phil Tufnell and Ronnie Irani (both groin strains) as well as Stewart (back spasm) are monitored rather than put to the test. That would give Chris Silverwood and Andy Caddick, who spent yesterday perusing the wildlife diorama housed in this city's Natural History museum, a last chance to stake their claims.

Also, Alan Mullally would miss a last chance to put his feet up before the serious cricket starts. He has bowled steadier than a fish eagle's gaze and is about the only bowler in anything resembling a mid-season groove.

Darren Gough is getting there, but has yet to reach the penetrative heights achieved during those heady couple of weeks in Australia two Christmases ago, when he looked every bit a Test match bowler. So far he has looked fluent without looking dangerous, something the majority of England's batsmen cannot even begin to claim.

With a prolonged evening thunderstorm damping everything down, their resolve could again be given a searching test if the pitch has sweated under the covers and Atherton shows his usual poor form with the toss.