Cricket: Last ditch could prove a big hurdle: Glenn Moore with England's weary cricketers as they arrive in Sri Lanka

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The Independent Online
IF THIS is Sunday it must be . . . where are we now? Like a group of American tourists doing 25 European capitals in 25 days England's travel-weary cricketers will wake up here this morning bleary- eyed, heavy-legged and unsure of what country they are in, let alone which city. The answer is Sri Lanka, and after India's mix of the appealing and appalling, it would come as a relief were it not for the fear that this tour may have one more awful chapter.

In the past six months Sri Lanka have hammered New Zealand and pushed Australia to the wire, losing a Test they should have won when their nerve went. The thought of England losing here is too horrible for domestic consumption but the truth is Sri Lanka will be tough opponents in their own tropical back yard.

After his unfortunately dismissive pre-tour verdict on India Keith Fletcher is now more cagey (or realistic). 'Sri Lanka will be very good in their conditions,' he said, adding with feeling: 'All sides at home are a totally different kettle of fish to away.'

England's morale is on a par with Norman Lamont's, with the successive defeats at Gwalior a heavy blow just when the tour appeared to be picking up. England's failure to beat a side who failed to make the World Cup semi-finals has also strengthened doubts about the whole basis of selection in September.

Then it was announced that the party's make-up had been dictated partly because there were 'so many one-day matches'. Thus the selection of, most obviously, Dermot Reeve, Neil Fairbrother and Richard Blakey. While Fairbrother in Madras showed signs of at last coming to terms with the longer game, their inclusion severely limited the options when smog, prawns and poor form affected the front-line Test players.

Many will feel that England should put Test cricket above all else. But if they are going to take instant cricket seriously out of the World Cup arena they had better win it. While there is an argument that one-day cricket can mess up Test players - it is being employed in India at present to suggest Sachin Tendulkar is left out - not playing at all is even less helpful, and England's decision to play ball with the disjointed Indian itinerary has, besides exhausting all concerned, played havoc with their Test side.

Michael Atherton is set to go in to the Colombo Test on Saturday - if picked - without an innings since Bombay (21 days). This followed a 17-day break earlier in the tour. The three spinners, two of whom should play, also have to go back to Bombay for their last experience of bowling without that helpful netting stuff which stops the ball ending up on the terracing.

While less likely to make the Test team, Paul Taylor, picked for the variety he offers, goes even further back for his last game - to his Test debut in Calcutta in January. He is so short of practice he may have to join Northamptonshire's pre-season South African tour to shake off the rust.

One player who has had plenty of cricket is Robin Smith, and naturally the end result is injury. His shoulder problem, which has affected his throwing all tour, is now likely to need an operation.

Fletcher admits to being so unhappy he may recommend that future touring parties pick separate squads for one-day and Test cricket with players nipping back and forth around the globe.

'In future it might have to be a case of one team for the Tests and one for the one-dayers with players flying in and out of the tour,' he said. 'The Test side is no longer the same as the one-day side.

'But for that you ideally play all the Tests together and all the one- dayers together. This year's itinerary with Australia is ideal with the one-day matches first then the Tests.'

It is not a perfect solution. One can imagine the outcry in Melbourne if Dean Jones was picked for those one-dayers, won all three, and was then told to head for Heathrow while Justin Langer jetted in. But it makes better sense than carting Test cricketers all over India just so they can take out the mineral water.

The effect has been that players are getting worn out without even playing. The last week has been punishing by any standards with matches being played in barely accessible parts of a vast country due to local political considerations.

'We have had three one-dayers in five days with a full day's travelling included,' Fletcher said. 'I know it it's the same for both sides but it is bloody hard work.'

However, in keeping with Essex company policy, Fletcher is making an observation rather than a complaint, and he added: 'It is very difficult on this tour but we agreed to it. We can make suggestions but it is up to the Indian board.'

GRAHAM GOOCH arrived home from India yesterday, indicating that he would still like to lead England this summer. 'I still like playing for England,' he said, adding, 'It is every England player's dream to beat Australia on home soil.'

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