Cricket: Bond ambition fires England

Atherton and Lloyd take their lead from the champions and expect a united front to stand and deliver; Simon O'Hagan unveils a fresh approach to the winter campaign
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The Independent Online
One of the more enduring images of the 1996 cricket season is that of the Leicestershire players gathering into a tight little circle, arms round each other's shoulders, bonding their way to the Championship. The huddle became their trademark, and as England embark on their winter tours of Zimbabwe and New Zealand, they do so very much in the same spirit, realising that what they can achieve together is more than they can ever hope for when operating as, in some cases at any rate, less than world- class individuals.

The decision not to call up a replacement after Dominic Cork's withdrawal on Friday may have left an already smaller than usual party looking severely under-resourced, but it also indicated a desire not to disturb the shared purpose and understanding that has been built upsince the end of last season - in particular on this month's trip to Portugal.

Further withdrawals, of course, and those who remained could not possibly cope. And if past England tours are anything to go by, injuries are almost inevitable. But, in theory, if Leicestershire can get through a Championship season using only 13 players, why shouldn't England negotiate six weeks in Zimbabwe with 14?

On the low, slow pitches they are likely to find not just there but in New Zealand, and against less than hostile bowling, batsmen's fingers ought not to be so vulnerable. The problem, if it comes, will much more likely be with a pace attack that has just been reduced by a fifth and includes in Andrew Caddick a player whose shins have not stood up to strain very well.

Everything about England this winter seems to be geared to keeping them focused on the job in hand as seldom before. Boredom is the enemy for the peripheral players on any tour, and it was in the hope of keeping the maximum number of people actively employed for the maximum amount of time that the original number was pared down from the 16 and even 17 who have toured in the past. Now there might even be volunteers to carry the drinks.

Memories of last winter's tour of South Africa and the way it fell apart in the last few weeks are also fresh. Part of the blame for that has been laid at the door of the wives, children, nannies and girlfriends who turned up over Christmas, but the influx of players arriving for the one-day series and World Cup did little to help the equilibrium either. No such contingency has to be allowed for now, and just to be on the safe side Mike Atherton has done all he can to discourage visits from loved ones as well. The feeling that England are moving into siege-mentality mode has been reinforced by some of David Lloyd's recent pronoucements in which his famed sense of humour has been replaced by a slightly worrying sensitivity to criticism.

But if all this helps create a team capable of at least extending Australia next summer, then nobody will complain. In the meantime, victories over cricket's two weakest nations are vital for the self-esteem that began to be rebuilt against India last summer only to be knocked back again by Pakistan. England are long overdue a series win away from home - they haven't managed one since going to New Zealand in 1991-92.

With the most established top six batsmen that England have had for years, runs should not be a problem. Taking wickets still might be. Without Cork in Zimbabwe, Darren Gough's strike-bowling qualities become vital, while Alan Mullally and Phil Tufnell may have to spend longer than they were expecting tying down an end. For Chris Silverwood there is an enhanced opportunity to justify his selection ahead of Dean Headley.

One should be wary of writing off a Zimbabwean team for whom a first visit by England is the most prestigious arrival since they gained Test status in 1992-93. They have only won one Test (at home to Pakistan in 1994-95) out of 20 and have just returned from losing two Test series in Sri Lanka (2-0) and Pakistan (1-0), but they will be up for these matches as never before.

In Paul Strang, they have a leg-spinner of Test class, and the pace bowler Heath Streak has an average of 21.49 - admittedly after only 13 Tests - that is bettered only by Waqar Younis and Curtly Ambrose. David Houghton, who coached Worcestershire last season, returns to captain and has the experience and cricketing intelligence to pose bigger problems than is indicated by a comparison between the players.

In many ways this is just the sort of winter England could do with before an Ashes series - certainly in terms of its confidence-building potential. As always, the risk of calamity is there, but they cannot be accused of not doing all they can to minimise it.