Cricket: Spreading troubles threaten tour route: Malcolm puts England's batsmen through their paces in the nets as Gooch and Fletcher stand by the old routine

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S cricketers have settled in nicely in Delhi (decent nets, comfortable hotel, and temperatures closer to korma than vindaloo) but this may be just as well. There is an outside chance that Delhi is the only place they will be seeing over the next couple of months.

It is a touch early to be talking about altering the description of this trip from England's winter tour of India to England's winter tour of Delhi, but their itinerary away from the capital will be hard pressed to survive as printed. You would barely describe India as anything other than Bedlam even on a good day, and good days are conspicuous by their absence here at the moment.

There are two problems; getting from A to B, and whether B is a safe place to venture outdoors. Indian Airlines are on strike and there have been renewed outbreaks of the sectarian violence which placed the tour on hold for a time last month.

England's opening three-day match against the Ranji Trophy champions, Delhi, gets under way in Faridabad tomorrow, and as Faridabad is a relatively non-volatile industrial town about an hour away by road, the players will probably have less aggravation getting to and from work than the average commuter on the Northern Line tube. Thereafter, however, the itinerary takes on a decidedly hairier look.

The tourists' second venue has already been moved away from Kanpur, the centre of the region in which Sikh extremists demolished the Ayodhya mosque, and which is again under curfew after more rioting this week. However, Lucknow is not very far away either, and it too was under curfew until yesterday.

England still fondly imagine they are booked on a scheduled flight to Lucknow (in fact, it no longer exists on the airline computer) but in any event may find themselves in the strange position of reading the in-flight menu in Russian. One of the Indian government's reactions to the pay dispute has been to borrow a few planes from Aeroflot. The train is an option, if not a particularly enticing one. Yesterday's Lucknow Express came to a dead stop for 10 hours because of a power cut.

In a fortnight's time, England are scheduled to play the first of their one-day internationals in Ahmadabad, a city described in a Times of India editorial yesterday as: 'in the grip of communal violence and tension . . . where vendors of hate and prejudice engage one another daily . . . with frequent shootings and stabbings.' Ahmadabad does not conjure up visions of Canterbury week.

For the moment, however, England are safely coccooned from the real world, and have been in the nets every morning and afternoon since they arrived. Under Gooch and Stewart, the ship was always closer to a galley than the Skylark, and nothing has changed under Gooch and Fletcher. Before anyone reaches for the Kleenex, your modern touring cricketer would not so much be utilising any spare time visiting the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort, as playing cards by the hotel pool.

In any event, net practice here has been a good deal more bearable than it sometimes is in India, where players can find themselves changing under a banana tree, and casting around in vain for such elementary facilities as a shower.

The local Air Force ground is just down the road from the hotel (removing the necessity for a drive through the Delhi traffic that can have even the bravest batsman cowering and whimpering in the back seat) and is well enough equipped to have provided the X-rays for Alec Stewart when he was hit on the finger a couple of days ago by Paul Jarvis. It turned out to be only a bruise, but the selectors' policy of taking Stewart and Richard Blakey as the tour wicketkeepers might have proved embarrassing at a very early stage.

Jarvis has looked pretty lively in the nets so far, although the pick of the bowlers has been Devon Malcolm. He very nearly cleaned up Graeme Hick with a short one on Thursday (admittedly not a totally startling occurrence) and is also making the ball swing. The uncapped Northamptonshire left-armer, Paul Taylor, whose inswing to the right-hander is crucial to his armoury, has failed to locate any significant sideways movement.

Malcolm's pace in the pre-tour nets at Lilleshall prompted Robin Smith to describe his bowling there as the most hostile he had faced since the 1990 Test in Antigua (when he had his chinstrap ripped off by Courtney Walsh) and with reports from South Africa of India's batsmen going AWOL at the crease when Allan Donald is digging them in short, Malcolm's speed will be an important weapon out here.

Smith's consolation for missing tomorrow's opening game with the toe broken by a Chris Lewis delivery at Lilleshall is that he has so far been kept well away from Malcolm and confined to the spinners' net. Of the three slow bowlers in the party, Ian Salisbury has looked the most impressive, but he is only here to supply a few weeks' net bowling before moving on with the A tour, and the management confirmed yesterday that he would only be retained in the event of injuries.

John Emburey has picked up an eye infection, although it is not a serious one, and only Smith will not play in England's first excursion into the middle today, a 45-overs-a-side practice match between themselves, with a selection of local players making up the numbers.

Otherwise, England have few visible problems other than the fact that red tape has so far prevented them from getting their hands on an imported consignment of sponsor's beer, and the captain's marital problems do not appear to be affecting him greatly. Gooch, in fact, who is normally one of the better exponents of the art of making life look a complete drag, is in a remarkably cheery mood, although he may have been mildly put out by one back page headline here the other day. 'Team Behind Gooch' it announced . . . 'But Not His Wife.'

Col John Stephenson, the MCC secretary, yesterday accused those calling for a vote of no confidence in England's selectors later this month of breaking 'a gentleman's agreement'. He is furious that the letter the dissenters are sending to MCC members in support of their case was published in a newspaper yesterday.