Cricket: England selectors call on Gatting's know-how

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IT IS perhaps appropriate that the serious business of this tour should have begun in what the guide books describe as the Amber City, in that England have been waiting for the lights to change to green ever since they got to India three weeks ago.

The build-up, if such it can be called, has been numbingly low- key, and if three disappointing performances out of three has proved anything, it is that several weeks of perspiration at Lilleshall is no guarantee of being fast out of the blocks as soon as the players set foot on what passes for grass here.

It has also been a little disorientating to have been in India a fortnight earlier than the home team themselves, who only got in from South Africa five days ago, and whose own preparation for today's opening one-day international has involved an entire year of non-stop cricket since last winter's World Cup.

Graham Gooch's Rusty XI v Mohammad Azharrudin's Knackered XI is not much of a selling point to launch the international agenda, but then again, one-day internationals nowadays do not require any selling. The 20,000 tickets were all taken long ago, and crowd enthusiasm is such that despite the best efforts of the Jaipur constabulary to make yesterday's practice a private affair, the scenes at the nets were even more madcap than the city centre at rush hour.

It was as much a mystery how no one was injured by a descending cricket ball as it is that there are not several thousand fatal accidents per day on the average Indian road. The Indians are, however, great survivors, and nowhere does this apply more at the moment than to the captain of their cricket team.

Azharrudin has taken such a mauling in the Indian media that it takes you back to the 'Gatt The Prat' and 'Gower's Goons' excesses of the English tabloids. Azharrudin has so many puncture marks between the shoulder blades that he could almost be used to strain the lunchtime vegetables.

A sample from the past week's selection of articles (many from former players) describes him as presiding over a side who are a 'national embarrassment', 'unfit', 'talentless', 'pathetic' and 'only interested in making money'. This follows defeat in the Test and one-day series in South Africa and Azharrudin's record of presiding over only one Test victory in 17 outings as captain.

A couple of weeks ago, before the start of an Indian Board meeting in Delhi, the president called for a 'two-minute silence to observe the hopeless performances of our cricketers'.

Azharrudin is understandably confused, as was evident at yesterday's pre-match press conference. Yes the players were tired after so much cricket, but no, they were raring to go; yes, they were under pressure to improve results, but no, they were very relaxed; no, he didn't give a fig whether he was sacked, but yes, he was very happy to be captain. England will presumably be looking for a bit more of this kind of decisive leadership.

The tourists themselves have decided that they require more tactical input from an old head, and announced on Saturday that Mike Gatting had been co-opted on to the selection panel. The Gooch era may be drawing to a close, and all of a sudden Gatting's prospects of going from the wilderness to top-dog again are not as remote as they appeared a few months back.

Gatting is a highly popular figure out here (Indians probably reasoning that anyone who wags an angry finger at a Pakistani umpire must be a good bloke) and has thrown himself into this tour with rare enthusiasm. The only thing he has not volunteered for is to pose for pictures astride an elephant, on the understandable grounds of suspecting the newspapers of producing 'guess which one is Gatting' captions.

The International Cricket Council's referee for this series is Cammie Smith, from Barbados, who yesterday issued the traditional comments that he would not be standing for any nonsense. After the ICC's farcical performance in the England-Pakistan series last summer, this could ordinarily be taken with a basin full of salt, but Pakistan's Aqib Javed recently incurred a one-match suspension, and Australia's captain Allan Border a heavy fine.

Smith's comment yesterday, therefore, that he would be holding the captains responsible for infringements such as ball tampering, might just be an additional sign that the image of the ICC referee pitching up with a deckchair, a pair of Bermuda shorts, and a fat booklet of expenses vouchers, may be about to change.

(Photograph omitted)