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Cricket: Christmas put on hold by England's cricketing women

After three weeks of being hauled around India when half asleep, the England women's cricket team take on New Zealand today for a place in the World Cup final. Far from being jaded or homesick the side are relishing their big Boxing Day. Pete Davies reports from Madras

The England women's cricket team has played eight matches in the past 20 days, and spent 10 of the other 12 days travelling. There has been one seven-hour train journey, four six-hour bus rides - three of them through the night - and on Tuesday an alarm call at 3.30am (their fifth pre-dawn start) got them up for a 6.30am flight from Delhi to Madras that was then delayed until midday.

Karen Smithies, the captain, said: "I hope people know what we've been through. We've kept going because we've had to, but I think when we get home we'll all completely collapse."

The past two days of rest and practice before today's semi final with New Zealand, have therefore been an unfamiliar luxury, tempered only by thoughts of family at home. Clare Connor, the left-arm off-spinner, summed it up when saying: "In our house Christmas is always the same. At any time of day you know exactly what they'll be doing. It's hard not to think about it."

Twenty-one years old, Connor is a student of English at Manchester University. She has toured in India and Zimbabwe before, and been twice to Romania to work in orphanages, but she confessed to being more homesick this time than she expected. News of her little brother decorating the tree touched a nerve - but, on the other hand, she said simply: "Everything else fades into insignificance when cricket's around."

England are sternly focused on today's game. They know it will be different to anything that has gone before; the prize is a place in the final against Australia at Eden Gardens in Calcutta on Monday and Smithies said: "We'll be up for it big time. If anybody isn't, what are they doing here?"

New Zealand, beaten by England in the final at Lord's four years ago, are a quality side. In Debbie Hockley, they have the highest run-scorer in the world. Hockley's 4,521 runs in international competition include two centuries here, and she strikes the ball with such power that in England 18 months ago, she broke three English fingers.

On that tour, New Zealand won a one-day series 3-0, but have lost players since then, while England are very much better prepared, and can bat right through the order. Confident that players like Charlotte Edwards and Jan Brittin can score runs all day, England believe that if Hockley is contained, the game is theirs.

Conditions are promising. After the dense and chilly fogs of Delhi and Chandighar, Madras offers welcome sunshine, with nodding palm trees and warmth in the high 20s. The MA Chidambaram Stadium is an imposing arena with a flat, rock-hard batters' track and an immaculate outfield. England have trained there twice, clouting the ball so hard in the nets that four have been lost over the wall amid the barefoot boys who crowd to watch their every move.

In short, with all the players fit and well, England have come through their debilitating itinerary in remarkably good shape. Today's game is a massive challenge, and promises to be enthralling, but whatever the outcome no one should doubt that the side have given their all.

It has been especially hard for the wicketkeeper, Jan Cassar, who has missed not only Christmas, but also a birthday at home on Christmas Eve. She spoke for the squad, however, when she said: "Cricket is more important than Christmas right now. Christmas can wait, because we all want this so badly. If we lose we'll be distraught. We've won the World Cup before, and there's nothing that compares to it. I've never felt anything like it, and I want to feel that feeling again."

Spare a thought, then, for these women of England doing battle far from home on Boxing Day.