Cricket: Sunshine before the storm: A relaxed approach replaces a rigorous regime as England's cricketers warm up for the forthcoming tour of the West Indies. Derek Pringle joins Atherton and Co on their pre-tour exercise in Portugal

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The Independent Online
A STRANGLED scream as chilling as anything in a Hitchcock film pierces the Algarve morning air. Given that England's cricket team are out here preparing for the tour to the West Indies, there appears to be nothing sinister or mysterious; an appeal for leg before, or someone being hit in the box, maybe? Not a bit of it. The bellow is in fact coming from the golf range, where Devon Malcolm, England's fastest bowler, is busy clearing the perimeter fence, following his first golf lesson.

As ever, little in cricket is what it seems. Who would have thought that the England team, the pain of their thrashing by Australia still fresh, would be gearing up to face the most fearsome side in world cricket by having a good time? It wasn't that long ago when cold showers and cross-country runs - designed to harden the sinews and toughen resolve - were de rigueur, and days off were thought ideal moments for getting in some extra fielding practice.

But things have changed. Out have gone the hard training and repetitive practice rituals of the Gooch-Stewart regime, and in has come the more relaxed 'preparation should be fun' philosophy, of Keith Fletcher and Michael Atherton. And as if to point up this fact, the mild weather on Portugal's south coast, which might have allowed day-long practice sessions, has been happily sacrificed in favour of activities like snooker and squash.

Though not ideal for bowlers - the overnight dew made morning sessions hazardous for the fast men, and spikes cannot be worn because of the artificial track - the cricket ground has good, firm grassy run-ups and the chance to bowl in a match situation. Apart from the luckless Alan Igglesden, who has a side strain he probably picked up overstretching at the buffet table, injuries have largely been avoided - though those relaxing by the club pool always had to keep an anxious eye on Devon Malcolm warming up on the golf practice range.

There is little doubt that this sort of relaxed atmosphere is more conducive to building team spirit. Nevertheless, there is a danger that too much bonhomie might dull the individual rivalries that give a player his competitive edge. This is particularly important in cricket, a team game comprising distinct individual contributions. This is doubly crucial in the West Indies, where the hostile atmosphere means that a player has to be at his combative best. As Aldous Huxley once remarked: 'The Martyrs walked into the arena hand in hand, but they were crucified alone.' If recent history is anything to go by, come February Atherton and his young lions will probably know how they felt.

As team preparation goes, this visit to Vale do Lobo is not a ground-breaking idea. Most English counties now adopt the same approach, travelling to various parts of the world, and Middlesex regularly use this facility to build up to the start of the season. But as Atherton acknowledges, there is a drawback. 'The timing is not ideal,' he said, ' and there is the danger that players who peak now may be out of form in a month's time when the tour gets under way. It has, however, given us a look at how some of the players who have had operations (Smith on his shoulder and Caddick on his hernia) are coming along and responding in match situations. If we'd had this week just before the start of the tour, it would make it an even longer trip and you can't ask players to be away from their families any more than is absolutely necessary.' With only a brief session at Lilleshall in the New Year to come, the England players must now go home and rely on the Queen's speech to maintain adrenalin levels.

Since the end of the Nehru Cup in 1989, England, largely through Graham Gooch's insistence as the then newly appointed captain, have prepared thoroughly for overseas tours using various indoor cricket centres and the Football Association's rehabilitation facilities at Lilleshall. With Mickey Stewart as his right-hand man, Gooch, a fitness fanatic, found someone like-minded and supportive enough to allow him to impose his own personal philosophies and training regime on the rest of the team.

There is no doubt that Gooch's intentions were passionate and honourable, but the punishing work-outs and practice sessions tended to leave players, particularly bowlers, technically fit, but drained of any reserves of energy. During matches, I found that as long as the team functioned as expected and everything went to plan there was never a problem. But once things got out of control and the pressure began to bite and one or two players had to dig deep, they simply hadn't anything there to give.

Many believe this is what happened during England's last few games of the 1992 World Cup and was the reason they lost the final. Gooch would counter, of course, that without the hard work, England would not have been in the final in the first place.

The legacy of the Gooch regime continues, as does the argument that flair and individuality were rejected in favour of discipline and efficiency. Atherton is keen to change that. 'I don't want people to think they have totally to share my vision of things,' he explained. 'I feel it is important for players to learn to relax so they can fully express themselves. I want the individual to blossom, particularly on the field, and to try to enjoy the experience of Test cricket.'

With fitness levels and training left to the individual, the gym here at the Club Barrington has been used frequently and most players have been on regular runs. This is a good thing in moderation and stems from the example Gooch set to his players during his captaincy. Continuity can be important, particularly in a successful side, but it is crucial for every new leader to make his mark by doing some things differently, especially if he has just taken over a struggling team whose fortunes are in need of a rapid boost.

Atherton has not strained to be different in his approach to the job. 'There is the temptation to try to create your own style,' he said, 'but you just hope that you do what is right, rather than be different for the sake of it. Portugal was a possibility long before I got the job, so it wasn't my idea. It's better than Lilleshall, especially for the bowlers, and we've managed to get outside in match situations. Knowing how best to prepare is always a problem but being here is certainly better than doing nothing.'

He was asked what was next on the schedule. 'Christmas,' he replied, and his grimace suggested he was not expecting a happy new year.

(Photograph omitted)

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