Cricket: Atherton's chance to back spin pair

As England land in Zimbabwe today, Derek Pringle assesses their opponents
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The Independent Online
England arrive in Harare today for the first leg of their winter tour with a travelling record marginally worse than a punnet of strawberries. In fact, so perishable are they when they set off to warmer climes - they have won just one series abroad in a decade - that only a hardened optimist will be able to regard this winter as a warm-up for next summer's Ashes series.

The reality is more mundane and England will spend the next three months travelling 30,000 miles contesting the "minnowship" of world cricket. Michael Atherton's men may have beaten a disorientated India in the summer, but in tables recently compiled only their two opponents this winter, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, lie below them. A position England's main sponsor, Tetley, no doubt considered when they withdrew from the final two years of a seven-year deal.

Fortunately, Atherton and his men harbour few illusions, and his predecessor, Graham Gooch, will have warned of New Zealand's capacity to outperform their ability on paper, which was illustrated by last week's decisive win against Pakistan in Lahore.

Zimbabwe, the first port of call, will not be much different either. Like all under-resourced countries - only 1,500 adult cricketers play the game - they are used to battling hard and digging deeper than most.

Two years ago, they had just two professional players when they beat England under lights in a one-day match in Sydney, the rest of the side being picked from an assortment of farmers, hunters and accountants. Even now, the country can only afford only nine contracted players.

Out of hardship, though, comes an inspiration that seems to stir when they play at home - perhaps a throwback to the times when their forebears, both black and white, had dealings with Cecil Rhodes.

Whatever it is, it transports their players beyond their normal everyday capacities. Witness the deeds of Heath Streak, who seems to be a far more potent strike bowler for Zimbabwe when beery bellows and the whiff of barbecues come wafting up from long leg than he does for Hampshire, where the tinkling of tea cups is the norm.

Zimbabwe may have just dipped their toes into the whirlpool of international Test cricket - 20 Tests to date - and play with a novice's zeal, but they learn fast and Streak is not the only decent performer.

Having played in all their country's Tests to date, the Flower brothers are experienced batsmen; Andy the most talented, Grant the most obdurate. Like most developing sides, they bat a long way down and Paul Strang, an improving leg-spinner, recently scored a Test century at No 8. Watch out too for their first black cricketer to play in a Test, Henry Olonga, a slippery opening bowler now that he has allied consistency to a problematic action.

Slow pitches await in both countries and some imaginative captaincy may well be needed to force a result. But while batsmen should be able to seize the initiative and see whether the bowlers can finish the job off in Bulawayo and Harare, on the greener-tinged tracks in Auckland and Christchurch the onus could well be reversed.

Taking 20 wickets has long been a problem for England, and one that is likely to become more acute with Dominic Cork's withdrawal because of domestic problems. However, one man's indisposition is another man's proposition and it gives England's other pace bowlers, not least the rangy Chris Silverwood, a chance to assert themselves.

However, if Atherton was to be bold, a threshold he must be close to reaching after 35 Tests at the helm, he might consider switching the traditional focus of England's seam-based attack to spin and playing both Phil Tufnell and Robert Croft, whose emergence against Pakistan at the end of the summer impressed all who witnessed it, none more than the England captain himself.

"Crofty has a strong action and he spins it hard," said Atherton before the team's departure yesterday. "He's got a good attitude as well. You can always tell when someone comes on for their first over in Test cricket whether they are relishing the prospect or not. With Crofty, he couldn't wait to grab the ball. Hopefully he'll form a potent partnership with Phil Tufnell, who had a good season with Middlesex and is far more settled now."

Atherton's experience of torpid Zimbabwean pitches on the England A tour six years ago means that both spinners are likely to play anyway. And as long as Alec Stewart is not press-ganged into keeping wicket, it probably means there is room for three seamers. As none are established, it is an incentive all should want to rise to.

The batting looks strong and any side who can afford to leave Graeme Hick out on his home patch must be a confident one. Yet if the Ashes and Shane Warne are in the back of the mind, England ought to consider sending Nick Knight back to open the innings with Stewart, who after a storming summer has firmly re-established his credentials.

If countenanced, it would mean a better spread of left- handers - currently at four, six and seven - while allowing Atherton, John Crawley and Nasser Hussain, with their superior skills against spin, to combat Warne in the middle order. Just one of several tough decisions that will have to be made by the selection committee on tour if England are to forge a settled side with a cohesive battle plan in time for the Ashes.

That said, England, with two months' rest behind them, really ought to win both the Test and one-day series in both destinations, providing a partner-free winter doesn't become too boring. To counter that, a trip to see the awesome majesty of the Victoria Falls should be made compulsory, if only to put a cricketer's lot into perspective.

Beyond that, much will depend on the weather and having missed the glorious lilac cascades of jacaranda blossom that herald it, the team have arrived right in the middle of the wet season.

Like much of Africa, this is a bit of a hit or miss affair here and droughts are not unknown. Nevertheless, what Atherton must try his best to engineer is that England hit and the rains miss. As captain of England, at least one of those should be within his powers.

Tim Lamb, the Test and County Cricket Board's chief executive, and Sir Ian MacLaurin, the TCCB's new chairman, are to visit each of the 18 first- class counties over the next four months. A TCCB meeting next month will discuss a recommendation that counties receive substantial compensation on a daily rate for England players rested from a domestic fixture.

ENGLAND SQUAD AND TOUR ITINERARY

Age Tests

M A Atherton (Lancs) 28 62

(Captain)

N Hussain (Essex) 28 12

(Vice-captain)

A J Stewart (Surrey) 33 58

G P Thorpe (Surrey) 27 32

J P Crawley (Lancs) 25 12

N V Knight (Warwicks) 26 6

R C Irani (Essex) 25 2

R C Russell (Gloucs) 33 49

R D B Croft (Glamorgan) 26 1

D Gough (Yorks) 26 12

A R Caddick (Somerset) 28 9

C E W Silverwood (Yorks) 21 0

P C R Tufnell (Middx) 30 22

A D Mullally (Leics) 27 6

*D G Cork (Derbys) 25 16

*joining squad in New Zealand

Tour manager: J R T Barclay.

Coach: D Lloyd.

Physiotherapist: W P Morton.

Scorer: M N Ashton.

TOUR ITINERARY

ZIMBABWE

November 1996

30 v Districts (Harare South Country Club)

December

1 v President's XI (Harare Sports Club)

3-6 v Mashonaland (Harare Sports Club)

8 v Matabeleland (Queen's Club, Bulawayo)

10-13 v Matabeleland (Queen's Club, Bulawayo)

15 v Zimbabwe, First one-day international (Queen's Club, Bulawayo)

18-22 v Zimbabwe, First Test (Queen's Club, Bulawayo)

26-30 v Zimbabwe, Second Test (Harare Sports Club)

January 1997

1 v Zimbabwe, Second one-day international (Harare Sports Club)

3 v Zimbabwe, Third one-day international (Harare Sports Club)

NEW ZEALAND

January

10 v NZ Academy XI (Pukekura Park, New Plymouth)

13-16 v NZC Selection XI (Fitzherbert Park, Palmerston North)

18-21 v Northern Districts (TrustBank Park, Hamilton)

24-28 v New Zealand, First Test (Eden Park, Auckland)

30-2 Feb v New Zealand A (Victoria Park, Wanganui)

February

6-10 v New Zealand, Second Test (Basin Reserve, Wellington)

14-18 v New Zealand, Third Test (Lancaster Park, Christchurch)

20 v New Zealand, First one-day international (day/night match) (Lancaster Park, Christchurch)

23 v New Zealand, Second one-day international (Eden Park, Auckland)

26 v New Zealand, Third one-day international (day/night) (McLean Park, Napier)

March

1 v New Zealand, Fourth one-day international (Eden Park, Auckland)

4 v New Zealand, Fifth one-day international (Basin Reserve, Wellington).

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