Cricket: England fit for their Caribbean ordeal

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ENGLAND'S cricketers wound up their West Indies tour training at the National Sports Centre in Lilleshall yesterday and announced themselves to be 'well prepared' for this winter's series in the Caribbean. However, as they said much the same this time last year before setting off for India, the knowledge that England are super fit and raring to go may not quite precipitate a tidal wave of national optimism.

The bookmakers, who are scarcely renowned for allowing patriotism to interfere with their arithmetic, are currently quoting Mike Atherton's side at anything up to 14-1 to win their first series in the West Indies since 1968, odds which the captain himself yesterday acknowledged as 'probably realistic given our recent track record'.

However, England's winter build-up, which this year included a week's outdoor practice in Portugal, has been nothing if not thorough, and hard bargaining over the itinerary has also ensured them of a full month in the Caribbean before their opening international fixture - the first of five one-dayers - in Barbados on 15 February.

'In many ways, the best preparation will come when we get out there on 15 January,' Tim Lamb, the TCCB's cricket secretary, said yesterday. 'We have also had strong assurances that the practice facilities will be up to scratch.' As, in the past, West Indian practice facilities have occasionally amounted to nothing much better than a couple of white lines 22 yards apart, this was another statement based more on hope than experience.

Keith Fletcher, the team manager, is optimistic that the 17-man squad will all be fully fit, and reported yesterday that Alan Igglesden, the Kent seamer who broke down with a side strain in Portugal, was almost back to full fitness. He also reaffirmed that any injury replacements would come from the A team squad currently playing in South Africa rather than from the press box, which for the opening Test in Jamaica on 19 February will contain the likes of Graham Gooch and David Gower. Should Gower decide to take an aerial view of proceedings, he might invite Gooch along as his co-pilot this time.

The TCCB's post-mortem on England's last winter tour appears to have ruled out an allergy to razor blades as a factor in the India debacle, judging by Robin Smith's beard at yesterday's press conference, which, judging by Smith's previous experiences in the West Indies, might have been grown for its cushioning effect.

'I know that about half the balls I face will probably be aimed at my head,' he said, 'but as there is less chance of getting out to that type of bowling, I prefer it that way.'

(Photograph omitted)

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