Cricket: England behind times

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"Do you know," Phil Tufnell said, fag hanging from his lip and fried breakfast on its way, at the Harare South Country Club on Sunday, "that for the first time in six years I actually feel like a professional sportsman."

He was in earnest and quite "chuffed" at the turnaround. Old habits - tobacco and fat - may die hard but this England team should not be able to point to a lack of physical preparation as the reason for their present travails in Zimbabwe - played two, lost two. A week in Portugal with a rugby league conditioner has made them the fittest cricket side to leave England and in David Lloyd and John Emburey they have imaginative and positive coaches. There is also the added bonus of the Lancastrian's ever- present sense of humour.

And how Lloyd needed it just a week after their arrival. He joked on Friday morning that he had not dared look at an English newspaper for fear of reading what had been written about his side after defeat in three days by Mashonaland. Ironically the loss actually seemed to lighten the mood in the England camp and for the first time the players emerged from a hotel in which they had appeared to have made themselves willing prisoners.

Realistically, a rusty England are still clear favourites to take the two-Test series but it is no foregone conclusion. Although Mike Atherton maintains it should never have been seen as such, the fact is that Zimbabwe have won only one of 20 Tests and seven of 62 one-day internationals.

There is an unhappy, but informative, contrast to be drawn between Atherton's diffidence and the attitude of the South Africans when they visited Zimbabwe 13 months ago and won the Test match with a day and half to spare and both one-day internationals by more than 100 runs. If England have any serious world-level aspirations they should be inflicting the same type of defeats on Zimbabwe.

But for all England's embrace of modern preparation techniques it is hard to shake off the suspicion that they are still playing catch-up with the rest of the sporting world.

Certainly, they were purposeful and organised in Friday's nets after the defeat by Mashonaland with one group of players doing shuttle runs while Emburey used video to coach players individually in one set of nets while Lloyd "umpired" a focused workout in another. Several players finished off with a session in boxing gloves to build up body strength and sharpen reflexes while Lloyd enthused about the arrival of the team's motivational videos on the previous evening.

But then videos were being used by Wigan rugby league club at the end of the 1980s and boxing training - another aid learned from rugby league - is something the South Africans have been using regularly for some time. Fitness conditioners are old hat - a minimum requirement, rather than a mould-breaking discovery.

South Africa's forward- thinking coach, Bob Woolmer has made a habit of breaking moulds in his coaching career and his strength remains that he never stops looking for new ideas. He introduced the lap-top computer and meticulous - almost Don Revie-like - dossier-keeping to cricket and the South Africans' present tour of India has seen him experimenting yet further.

The reverse pull - a lofted shot over cover point - is creeping into the South Africans' one-day armoury as they have gone on a run of almost unbroken success since defeating England 6-1 at the start of the year. When they have lost - most painfully to the West Indies in the World Cup quarter-finals - it has been used as a source of fresh inspiration. A collective mental slump was identified as the reason for the West Indies' defeat and in response the players in India have been asked to keep a simple "mood diary" to find out how mood correlates to performance.

Cape Town's go-ahead Sports Science Institute has been regularly monitoring and refining players' fitness targets since it opened two years ago. Last year's fitness levels (for a home series against England; a World Cup) were deemed insufficient for this gruelling season and each player's individual targets were raised accordingly. Woolmer's latest idea is to achieve a level of fitness where the idea of "seeing off" a fresh bowler can no longer apply.

At nets no one stands still. There is always a minimum of an hour's fielding practice (England chose not to do any at all on Friday) with Jonty Rhodes and his team-mates reckoning on throwing at least 100 balls at a single stump every day.

South Africa's touring bio-kineticist has designed a series of bizarre looking weight routines to build specific muscles and a practice session is a sight to behold. Even their Indian opponents have stopped to watch the South Africans race through their training routines.

Not least of England's problems at the moment is that people are beginning to wonder for how much longer it is going to be worth watching them play.