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Cricket: Atherton in one-day exclusion zone

PLANE strike or not, England should still be able to get around India on something other than a wing and a prayer. Having friends in high places is as handy in this part of the world as it is anywhere else, and flying into Lucknow by special charter yesterday had more than a little to do with the fact that the Indian Cricket Board president also happens to be the Minister of Aviation. Whether the players are grateful to get here is another matter. The capital of Uttar Pradesh has only just had its curfew lifted after renewed outbreaks of violence, and the team have been told not to go out after dark. This should not be difficult to enforce, as Lucknow is not exactly overpopulated with exclusive restaurants and late-night discos.

The players were escorted from the airport by 50 armed policemen, who then proceeded to comb the hotel for bombs while the traditional garlanding ceremony took place in the lobby. 'If anyone goes out of the hotel at all,' Bob Bennett, the tour manager said, 'they have been advised to take some security with them.' This has been interpreted as either go accompanied by a policeman with a rifle, or even better, Devon Malcolm.

The three-day match against the Indian President's XI starting tomorrow has been switched here from Kanpur on the grounds that the original venue was too dangerous. However, Lucknow is not exactly full of whist drives and Young Conservative meetings, and people have been polishing guns here (the hotel regulations booklet politely requests guests not to take firearms into their rooms) since the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Lucknow was surrounded by mutineers and when the garrison held out after a long siege, the inhabitants were all awarded medals. England's cricketers merely have to hold out against tedium for the next five nights, although medals might be struck for any of India's intrepid autograph hunters who make it past the armed guards patrolling the players' hotel corridor.

One minor bonus is that the ground is visible from their rooms, and if England are as ordinary in the match as they were at Faridabad, they will not be able to offer a 6 am alarm call and a three-hour round trip in a bus that may well have done service in the Indian mutiny as an excuse.

The only two players to derive much satisfaction from the first game were Paul Jarvis and Michael Atherton, although the itinerary now is such that Atherton could find himself without another game for 16 days, when England warm up for the first Test with a match against India's under-25s in Cuttack.

There are three one-day internationals to play before the Test series, and England are understandably gearing themselves towards those. One batsman has to make way to accommodate Robin Smith here and, barring injuries, Atherton is not thought to be part of England's one-day plans.

This is not something that pleases him greatly, but at least he presented a strong case to be reinstated as Graham Gooch's opening partner for the Test matches with his first innnings performance in Faridabad.

Alec Stewart opened twice to Atherton's once in the three Tests they played together against Pakistan last summer, and he finished the series as Gooch's partner after protesting to the captain that he was not over-enamoured about being yo-yoed up and down the order because of his wicketkeeping duties.

However, with England clearly now of the belief that Stewart has both the physical and mental stamina to bat high up even if he has been in the field for a long time, Stewart may be offered the opportunity to fill the spot that has caused England so many problems in recent years.

They may also have realised that Atherton is better suited to opening, where dropping anchor is the primary requirement, leaving Stewart more freedom to engage his greater range of stroke play.

Stewart finds himself in an unenviable position at the moment - keen to establish himself as a specialist batsman, yet, in the absence of another Ian Botham, cast as the side's all-rounder. England, locked into a policy of six batsmen, would also like to play five bowlers, and only Stewart as wicketkeeper allows them this option.

When Gooch retires (although if his altered domestic situation persuades him to carry on touring the date he has pencilled in may be some time next century) it is probable that Stewart and Atherton will end up opening together. We may then see Stewart as captain, with another batsman-wicketkeeper (Stewart's deputy on this tour, Richard Blakey, perhaps) at No 6.

It is not an optimistic outlook for members of the Campaign for Real Wicketkeepers, but that is the way of things in international cricket nowadays. Whether selectors are far-sighted visionaries, or people who can barely see beyond the end of their nose, is a moot point - but one piece of paper they may not have consulted before India was the one with Stewart's batting average (16.3) in the five Tests he has been asked to keep wicket.

Smith will play tomorrow, despite being a shadow of his former self (an attack of Delhi-belly left him half a stone lighter in the space of two days) and the fact that the broken left toe he sustained at Lilleshall has not yet fully healed.

The England physio, Dave Roberts, has made him a special plastic toe guard, and Smith himself admits that a direct hit with a fast inswinging yorker would not do him a great deal of good. We can take it that he would not be playing were this game against Pakistan.

The David Gower affair took another turn yesterday when the MCC launched a counter-attack against 'rebel' members who have instigated a special general meeting on 27 January in protest at the Hampshire's batsman's exclusion from England's winter tour.

In a statement sent to members yesterday the MCC committee said: 'The days are long gone when, constitutionally, MCC's was the prevailing influence in the choice of the England team.' It also pointed out that the selectors and their advisors 'are men with long playing experience and in whose integrity the committee has every confidence. Between them they have played no fewer than 406 Test matches worldwide.'