Cricket: Atherton's climbers ready to conquer Nevis: Fraser, Malcolm, Ramprakash and Tufnell set to stretch their legs as England seek to build on their runaway start in the Caribbean

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THE MOST eye-popping statistic about England's tour so far is not so much played one, won one, as been here a fortnight, three days off.

Under the old Graham Gooch regime, it could only have happened if the captain had been wandering about in the sun without a hat and had a Chris Lewis-type attack of delirium.

A casual visitor strolling down the beach in front of the team's hotel in Antigua on Thursday afternoon would have seen the players swimming back to shore after a yachting cruise and David Gower, here in his new capacity as full-time media critic, lounging on a sunbed. It was a bit like emerging from a time warp, or waking up on the beach after an eight-year nap.

Gower, whose own idea of a punishing routine when he was in charge in the Caribbean would have been to place the men on half rum daquiri rations, is looking even more wistful to have missed out on the Mike Atherton regime, which is already significantly different to his predecessor's ethic of work hard, work hard. The ultimate irony would be an article from Gower in his Sunday newspaper column tut-tutting at all these work-shy players wandering around in snorkel and flippers.

Atherton, having spent more than enough time abroad on tours when morale descended more abruptly than a falling coconut, has decided to do away with the all stick and no carrot method, and two consecutive days when the most strenuous form of exercise has involved lifting a rum punch ladle is a direct reward for winning the opening match.

This was by no means an unimportant result, even allowing for the fact that Antigua, like England's next opponents St Kitts and Nevis in the four-day game starting here today, are not much above Minor Counties standard. 'It was an encouraging effort,' Atherton said, 'and the boys earned their break. We're here on serious business, but it's also a question of balance.'

Apart from establishing an early reputation as a popular captain,

Atherton is also showing signs of being an astute one. He made a century against an ordinary attack on his first outing here, and he swiftly named himself to play again here against similarly benign opposition.

Neither should there be much in the way of physical danger over the next four days on a surface that mirrors the general way of life on St Kitts, one of the Caribbean's more laid-back islands. Generally, the pitch does little more than doze quietly in the sunshine and batsmen regularly fill their boots. Bigger tests lie ahead, but the general idea is to build on confidence and team spirit before the serious shrapnel starts flying around their ears.

The six players who missed the opening match are all down to play here, with Mark Ramprakash and Matthew Maynard named as numbers three and four in the batting order and Graeme Hick and Graham Thorpe dropping out on the basis that they - unlike Robin Smith and Nasser Hussain - both helped themselves to big scores in Antigua.

Hussain was the only one to miss Thursday's yachting expedition because of a problem with a wisdom tooth - something that Chris Lewis's dentist is unlikely to come across on the evidence of his first shaven-headed, hatless week here, which caused him to miss the opening game with sunstroke.

Lewis, Angus Fraser, Devon Malcolm and Phil Tufnell make up England's attack, a combination that Atherton probably has in mind for the first Test match in Jamaica next month, although Andrew Caddick has since risen in the pecking order following his performance with both ball and bat in Antigua.

Given the modest nature of the opposition, it will be a surprise if all 17 players have not found some sort of form before next Thursday, when they return to Antigua for their first 'serious' game against the Leeward Islands.

India yesterday accused Sri Lanka of employing negative tactics to stave off defeat in the second Test in Bangalore. When play resumes today after a rest day, Sri Lanka will be struggling to build on a precarious 59 for 2 in reply to India's 541 for 6 declared.

'These days you do not see bowlers persisting with a leg-stump line and deploying seven men on the on side,' the Indian team manager, Ajit Wadekar, said. 'Even (Don) Bradman's side would have found scoring runs difficult under these circumstances.'

The Sri Lankan captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, countered: 'Does the Indian manager expect us to play the way he wants?'

ENGLAND (v St Kitts and Nevis, today): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, M R Ramprakash, M P Maynard, N Hussain, R A Smith, R C Russell (wkt), C C Lewis, A R C Fraser, D E Malcolm, P C R Tufnell.