Cricket: England encouraged by easy rides

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WITH THREE days left before the first Test, England's cricketers headed for the golf course yesterday, happy in the knowledge that they can have done as much as has so far been asked of them. Micky Stewart, father of Alec and himself an England coach, used to say: "You can only beat what is put in front of you", a task England have achieved with ease.

That is surely not how the South Africans planned it, having combined their provincial sides in an attempt to give the visitors as tough a time to settle in as possible.

That is the theory, but with South Africa's current Test players missing in all but one of the three first-class matches played, the reality has been quite different. Nasser Hussain's men have barely stuttered in winning their last two games.

For fairly obvious reasons, many believe that easy matches, rather than rum old tussles, better help visiting teams to settle and find some form. At home, England captains have long complained how some counties rest their best players during tourist matches when they should be doing everything in their powers to prevent the visitors finding form.

The point, which is often made, is that England are never given easy rides when they visit Australia and the West Indies, who pit selected President or Board XIs against them between the Tests, strong sides which mainly feature players on the fringes of Test selection.

David Graveney, here in his capacity as the chairman of selectors but acting mainly as an observer, says he has been proposing a similar system in England for some time.

"I'd be very keen to look at what they have here, but really I'd like to go down the route of what they have in Australia and the Caribbean where they field representative teams under various titles."

The stumbling block, as ever, is the counties, who unsurprisingly do not want to give up one of the few opportunities they have to attract a big crowd and make money through hospitality and advertising.

"At present the counties are keen to retain their own matches against the touring sides," Graveney added. "Mind you, as the domestic season wears on, the strength of the sides put out often ends up as second XI standard."

This apathy was not always the case and Graveney remembers his experiences of playing against the tourists as "a huge game for the county player to pit himself against the best". It probably still is, wherever you play your cricket. Indeed it would require some seriously myopic selectors not to have taken note of Neil McKenzie's two superb innings against England for Northerns-Gauteng over the weekend.

However, McKenzie apart, the rest of the team had little desire for the fight, a common malaise when sides are combined, as Gloucestershire and Kent will be next season when they play the New Zealand A team over four days in July. Their twinning transpires not from excellence though, but from the fact that they are the only two counties without a game. That is a quirk of the fixture list and one that will no doubt be cursed by those players who are selected.

The answer is to involve players close to national selection, though after the concessions made by the counties over centralised contracts for Test players, the England and Wales Cricket Board will find it difficult to persuade them to provide players for Board-selected teams during county matches.

Witness, then, the attitude in Australia, where state sides willingly provide players for the national cause, as they did for the A team that played against England in Hobart last year, after the visitors went 2- 0 down in the Test series.

But if the idea was to grind England down by stuffing them, a task the Aussie side duly accomplished, it failed to work. England won the next Test with fire in their bellies, a result that makes you wonder whether their winning ways here, before a Test has been played, might just be something of a tactical error.

Dean Headley will fly home today after further consultations on his troublesome back confirmed a stress fracture.

"I have to get my body right," Headley said yesterday. "I'll be getting a break for the first time in ages and hopefully I can come back rejuvenated. The job that fast bowlers do is probably an unnatural action for the body and if you play for hard enough and long enough the law of averages says you will get injured if you're a fast bowler."