Cricket: England players threatened by `Christmas rush'

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The Independent Online
IF THE Team England "cricket widows and orphans" were readying themselves for a hot, sunny Christmas, they would have been sorely disappointed when they flew into Durban yesterday. Since Monday, the heavens have opened and they remain that way, a sign that little Johnny's bucket and spade, packed at great insistence, are more likely to be used digging the hire car out of the mud than building sandcastles on the beach.

Cricket is an antisocial game when it comes to familial responsibility. Even in an English summer, the players are away from home for half of the five-month season. For Test players, the absenteeism is even worse, and this year some will have been at home for less than 25 weeks.

In other walks of life, it tends to be women and children first these days, though not in cricket, and most certainly not on tour. Even as recently as four years ago, Raymond Illingworth, then team manager, blamed England's defeat in the Cape Town Test on Devon Malcolm and the arrival of players' families and girlfriends for the festive period.

The loss cost England the series, which is probably why Illingworth, seeking a diversion, chose the softest targets at which to direct his ire. At one point, he described the team room, normally a sacred place for cricketers on tour, as looking like "a bloody creche".

At the time, the whinge sounded bigoted, pathetic, and barmy, yet it obviously struck a chord. Indeed, the "Christmas rush", as the entourage was dubbed, were banned from coming out to Zimbabwe, when England toured there the following winter. It did the team not a jot of good, however, and they left without winning a single match of any significance.

Illingworth may lack tact, but he generally knows his onions. Players can become distracted by their families, especially in a country as dangerous as South Africa, where just leaving the hotel demands precautions only previously used by neurotic pop stars and unpopular politicians.

Generally, the other halves only visit places that are convenient and relatively safe, such as Australia and Barbados, where players can worry about the cricket rather than the well-being of those dearest to them.

If it remains an issue, it is not one the England captain will be getting too precious about. Speaking yesterday Nasser Hussain, although stressing the importance of the next two back-to-back Tests - played here and in Cape Town - welcomed the arrival of spouses and significant others.

"The two weeks coming up after Xmas are what we came here for," Hussain said. "We can be in the series or out of it, it's that important. With a lot of our supporters coming here, it should be exciting stuff and I've no problem with wives and girlfriends being here for that period. We've got a young, spirited team, but I expect them to be professional and keep working hard."

Hussain added: "The focus will be firmly on the cricket, but there is no harm in getting away from things and away from the boys. In any case their better halves may spur them on to play better cricket."

The weather, should it continue to rain, could test off-field resolve to the hilt. Durban is a port whose basic charm was captured in Jeremy Taylor's 1960s pop hit, "Ag Pleez Daddy," in which he described the place as having "lots of sea and sand and sun, and fish in the aquarium." It is an accurate vignette, though when it pours as it has been, only the last one passes muster.

Rain also swells the rivers, which when raging, wash all manner of things into the sea. This attracts the sharks, of which Durban has more than its fair share. Even when it stops, the beaches usually remain closed for several days, while the shark nets are repaired and driftwood removed.

Hotel rooms are not designed for your average modern child and finding something to occupy the kids once the snake park and aquarium have been ticked off would test even the most resourceful of parents.

It is problems like these that probably dissuaded Graeme Hick from opting to fly out as cover, and why Mark Ramprakash's wife, although supportive of her husband dropping everything to be here waiting for Michael Vaughan's bruised finger to declare its intentions, will spend Christmas at home.