Cricket: Hick in need of Indian winter: Scyld Berry on the options for England's tour squads to be announced tomorrow

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The Independent Online
WHEN England's cricketers fly to India at the end of December, they will arrive in a country which has staged one home Test match in the four preceding years, and that was a walkover against Sri Lanka. Civil unrest over Punjab and Kashmir has agitated the north of India, while Hindu extremism in Bombay led to the cancellation of a proposed tour by Pakistan.

There is also the distinct preference which India has had for one- day cricket since winning the 1983 World Cup. India had been 'timeless' in the 1960s and 1970s when crowds of 50,000 happily sat through five-day draws, but that image has had to be revised. Now, thanks to television, every peasant ploughing his third of an acre, and every woman dhobiing beside pond or river, knows that India's required run-rate to beat Pakistan in Sharjah is 4.72 an over.

As the amount of Test cricket played by India has drastically diminished, so has their proficiency at it. In the last two years their only experience of it was in Australia last winter, when they lost a five-Test series 4-0. It is true that by the time England face them, India will have had another series, against South Africa and Allan Donald, to toughen them; but England can broadly outline their strategy on the lines of 'they don't like it up 'em'.

For making brilliant innings of 30 or 50 on slow pitches, India's current batsmen have to be the best in the world, 'flat-track bullies' almost to a man. In Australia, only Sachin Tendulkar, and Ravi Shastri until he was injured, had the technique and the stomach for sustained graft against short-of-a-length pace bowling led by Craig McDermott.

If England are to win one of their three Tests in India, the most important players will be their pace bowlers. Devon Malcolm has to be chosen as the quickest available; and David Millns, regardless of his form since his premature comeback; and Phillip DeFreitas, if his groin has fully recovered (if not, he should rest up for the Ashes series); and Chris Lewis, especially if Graham Gooch can persuade him to bowl consistently quickly, as he did in the Auckland Test last winter.

Perhaps the best way to test Martin McCague's commitment to England would be to invite him to spend the winter with the A team touring Australia. Only if he agrees to that should he be told that he will actually tour India with the main team. In McCague's stead, Dominic Cork would be discouraged by the slow pitches, except in Calcutta, where the ball can swing in the smoggy mists beside the Hooghly. Better, therefore, for a fifth pace bowler, the variety of the left-handed Paul Taylor.

India would probably settle for a 0-0 draw at this stage, because their bowling appears as thin as ever. Kapil Dev is still far and away their best, and could well overtake Richard Hadlee's 431 Test wickets during England's tour. As support, he has one or two fellow-swingers, but not at Pakistani pace; the main spinner is Venkat Raju, tall and accurate, but without the body action to be a regular match-winner.

However, if India were to lose a Test match, it is conceivable - highly likely - that they would react by preparing a turner in Madras or Bombay, such as the one on which Narendra Hirwani took 16 West Indian wickets. For this reason, to guard against such a ploy, England have to take not two spinners but three: John Emburey, mainly to be used in the eight internationals; Phil Tufnell, mainly for the three Tests in India and one in Sri Lanka; and Ian Salisbury for those practice games, inevitably drawn, in Cuttack and Kanpur.

If England's selectors are choosing on merit, they will take seven batsmen, since five only will probably play in the Tests. But this year, like last, they have been painted into a corner by the England committee offering winter contracts, which then dictate selection. Once a player has been awarded - in June - a winter contract of pounds 20,000, more or less, the selectors cannot leave him at home, even if he would be better off resting. Hence the absurdity of Devon Malcolm going on the A tour of the West Indies last winter, a place with which he was mildly familiar.

Nine batsmen are in contention: Graham Gooch, Alec Stewart, Robin Smith, Mike Gatting, David Gower, Mike Atherton, Graeme Hick, Neil Fairbrother and Mark Ramprakash. Fettered by winter contracts to the last two, the selectors may feel compelled to take the pair of them.

If they were deciding on merit, though, they would acknowledge that while Fairbrother would be valuable in the one-dayers, and might come good in the Tests against medium-pace and spin, his open-faced method stands little chance of succeeding against Australia next summer; and leave Ramprakash at home, to stew in his own juice on standby, and reflect on his approach to the game and life.

It could be argued that Hick needs to go to Australia to tighten his technique on harder pitches. But according to Worcestershire's coach, Kevin Lyons, Hick in the last month has returned to what he was before he began all his experiments and self-doubts. His first move is now half-forward again, a la Tom Graveney, to play to his strength of the front-foot drive, only then adjusting if needs be. His method is as sorted out as it will be.

If Hick is ever to succeed, it is in India. Should he not attune then to Test cricket, he can hardly be expected to do so next summer if he is brought back under even more intolerable pressure. Should Hick not be named in the main party tomorrow, he is not going to help win back the Ashes.