It is eight years since England left, as they do next Monday, for a tour to India, and considering that it coincided with the assassinations of the Indian Prime Minister and the British Deputy High Commissioner, winning the five-match series 2-1 from 1-0 behind was as much a test of mental resilience as cricketing ability. 'Practice?' enquired a quizzical Graeme Fowler upon receiving an instruction to head for the nets. 'And what sort would that be then, captain? Target practice?'
A spot of gallows humour is the Englishman's traditional safety-valve on these occasions, and more may be required on this trip. The tour would not, one assumes, be going ahead had the Test and County Cricket Board not satisfied themselves over the players' safety, but even though the recent violence has now abated, passions and tensions in this vast land are seldom at anything other than the highest setting.
If there is any reason to be optimistic that the most volatile incidents on this tour will be a matter for the ICC's match referee rather than the Indian National Guard, it is that nothing unites India like a leg-before appeal against a visiting batsman in Bombay or Bangalore. Cricket there, unlike football in Bill Shankly's Liverpool, is not more important than life or death, but it comes pretty close.
When England were last in India on business of any importance, the opening ceremony of the 1987 World Cup took up, under the headline 'Cup fever mounts', almost the entire front page of a Delhi newspaper. Tucked away near the bottom was a headline which announced '150 Dead In Indo-Pak Border Clashes'.
The excitement on that occasion was generated by a one-day tournament, which is not surprising as it is the biggest there is, but it is as true of India, where crowds of 80,000 at Test matches were once commonplace, as of almost everywhere else, that the one-day international is now the only form of cricket that pays its way.
India has not hosted a home Test series for four years, partly because of politics (Pakistan and England have both had the plug pulled on them for that reason) and partly because of diminishing interest.
There are still people in India staring up at ceilings that make the Sistine Chapel's look like a once-over with emulsion, but there are plenty more who see nothing but corrugated iron, and a good many have an uninterrupted view of the stars. There are not enough rupees to spare for both forms of cricket, so the biggest Test match crowds in India these days are to be found outside the local equivalent of Radio Rentals.
In this country, and, alas, only in this country, Test cricket remains every bit as marketable as the one-day variety, and it is very nearly irrefutable that while public interest in a one-day game is high on the day, no one actually gives a fig who has won. (pardon the cliche) at the end of the day. Entertaining though it was at the time, what was the score in last summer's Texaco Trophy series?
It is perhaps, therefore, because the English cricketing public is more interested in the outcome of four Test matches in India and Sri Lanka this winter than in eight one-day internationals, that there was such widespread snorting at the team that was picked. Whatever the selectors might think, there are a sight more people than a handful of MCC members wondering what their priorities are.
The absence of a specialist wicketkeeper and the recall of John Emburey at the expense of an emerging, attacking spinner such as Ian Salisbury are contentious enough, but the idea that a cricketer such as Dermot Reeve is more worthy of a place on a major overseas tour than Gower is verging on a joke.
Whatever the official line about Gower's omission, the selectors should not be surprised that counting the number of people who see the 'old age' argument as anything other than a fatuous smokescreen does not require the assistance of a calculator. Perhaps Lord Ted and co decided that when net-practice was called, Gower would have been off lunching at the maharajah's palace or out shooting tigers.
There is enough indignation about the make-up of this squad to make one wonder whether a 3-0 Test series defeat might not represent progress rather than a setback. However, the prospect of India winning 3-0, or even 1-0, is distinctly remote. Their form in South Africa is, by all accounts, as near to hopeless as makes no difference, although England are well enough aware that India in India will be a different proposition.
Apart from the obvious familiarity with the conditions, India will be less tired and de-motivated at home - they have been on the road for so long that the likes of Kapil Dev will shortly be trading in his car for a tinker's caravan - and the sub-continent for an away team brings legion difficulties.
Nothing ever quite runs to plan in India, where the magic words 'no problem' are a euphemism for 'I know all the kit has been sent to Ahmedabad, the match is in Jamshedpur, and we've accidentally flown you to Cuttack, but don't worry . . . ' England can be as well prepared as they like - for the 1987 World Cup they took a microwave oven, tuck-boxes, and a supply (for wearing the wrong way round) of sanitary towels - but India can reduce the stiffest upper lip to quivering incomprehension.
Furthermore, unlike Australia, where the opportunities for having a good time are liable to have the management holding a roll-call whenever they spot a low-flying aircraft, India is the claustrophobic opposite, in which social activity is largely confined to the team room.
The team room is all very well when things are running smoothly on the field, but when they are not, it can become a breeding-ground for tension and grievances, some true, others imagined. In 1987, during the Faisalabad business, morale was so poor that when an England player kicked the door shut in a fit of pique, an autograph-hunter had half of his fingers squashed.
Umpires' fingers are invariably a major bone of contention. Mike Brearley was once contemplating over the luncheon table a decision he could scarcely believe when he was approached by the official who had dispatched him. 'I am terribly sorry, Mr Brearley,' he said, 'I know you were not out, but I felt my finger going up and I just couldn't stop it.'
Whether or not all international series will one day have independent umpires, this one will be along the traditional lines of home officials only. The test for England will be how they cope when an umpire discovers, as with Brearley's tormentor, that his index finger has developed a life of its own.
Neither will there be any television replays for marginal run-outs, stumpings and hit-wickets as has been pioneered in the South Africa-India series this winter. Not even this system guarantees a quiet life - India got very hot under the collar in Johannesburg when the umpire declined to invoke the replay for a run-out appeal - but the South Africans are preparing a video-tape of the experiment for the consideration of the International Cricket Council, and it will almost certainly be used in next summer's Ashes series.
It is, of course, nothing less than the result of the modern cricketer's petulant inability to accept that umpires occasionally get things wrong, and they will undoubtedly employ the usual schoolboy histrionics to pressure officials into calling for the replay at every opportunity. In an era during which Test cricket is struggling to attract spectators, this is just what we need. Slow the game down a bit more.
Owing to rioting, two of England's matches have been moved. The three-day match against the Board President's XI on 8-10 January has been moved from Kanpur to Lucknow, while the one-day match against the same side on 13 January will be played in New Delhi rather than Indore.
ENGLAND SQUAD for the winter tour of India and Sri Lanka: G A Gooch (Essex, captain), A J Stewart (Surrey, vice-capt, wicketkeeper), M A Atherton (Lancashire), R A Smith (Hampshire), M W Gatting (Middlesex), G A Hick (Worcestershire), N H Fairbrother (Lancashire), R J Blakey (Yorkshire), J E Emburey (Middlesex), P A J DeFreitas (Lancashire), C C Lewis (Nottinghamshire), D A Reeve (Warwickshire), P C R Tufnell (Middlesex), P W Jarvis (Yorkshire), D E Malcolm (Derbyshire), J P Taylor (Northamptonshire).
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