Cricket: The desert proving ground

Much is at stake for a radical new England this week, says Andrew Longmore
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The Independent Online
The next phase in the tale of two Hollioakes begins in earnest this week with the arrival of the England one-day squad in Sharjah for the quadrangular Champions Trophy series against Pakistan, India and the West Indies. Makeshift though the tournament might be, entertainment for the ex-pat Asian community, this is the start of a road which could lead Adam, the first custom-made one-day captain, straight to the World Cup in 1999 - and untold celebrity should he lead the side to victory at Lord's on 20 June - and his younger brother Ben towards the fulfilment of a talent more transparent than that of any batsman since David Gower. It is a significant winter for both the Australian-born brothers.

Success for the elder Hollioake would add some substance to the campaign for the full captaincy waged in some quarters last summer. Michael Atherton, the incumbent Test captain, has moved aside for the trip to Sharjah but has rejected any idea of a long-term abdication of the one-day post, which could pose a diplomatic quandary when both are available for the one-day internationals at the end of the Test series in the West Indies. Only then will the seriousness of England's one-day experiment be fully confirmed.

As the anchorman in the one-day side, Atherton still feels he has a valuable role to play. But the radical tactics of the Sri Lankans in the last World Cup overturned traditional play-by-numbers thinking on the one-day game and widened the division between Test and one-day cricket. England were badly exposed, cumbersome in mind and body. This tour is the first step towards rehabilitation. Improvisation, versatility, athleticism, discipline, these are the qualities David Lloyd will be wanting to develop over the next 10 days in the Champions Trophy. One-day sides thrive on continuity, on an automatic understanding of roles and an instinctive reaction to pressure. "One-day cricket is just a totally different game," Hollioake says. "The mentality and the tactics are different."

Many will regard this mini-tour as no more than a lucrative jaunt before the real flak flies in the New Year. By the end of the winter, no one will remember who won the Champions Trophy in Sharjah. Yet the development of a combative and successful one-day side is just as critical to the future of English cricket, both in terms of prestige and finance, as victory in the West Indies. Imagine the publicity - not to mention the street credibility - which would be generated if, in their own backyard, England became the world champions for the first time two summers on. The marketing department of the English Cricket Board would dance a jig on the Lord's square, having at last found a weapon with which to stem the relentless, money-strewn, advance of Premiership football. Sales of Adam Hollioake duvets would soar.

The 14-man party to Sharjah is a compromise, a nucleus of one-day specialists - Matthew Fleming, Ally Brown, Dougie Brown and Ashley Giles - and a sprinkling of regular Test players - Robert Croft, Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe. Eleven of them played in a one-day final last summer. Fleming, drafted in to replace Darren Gough, is the most obvious of the specialists, perhaps the only player in the squad who would happily accept the description. Apart from his Etonian background, he is just the sort of modern cricketer who could make a profitable living out of the one-day game: a pinch hitter for Kent, a useful and energetic medium-pacer and a brilliant field.

The tour will also mark the next stage in the apprenticeship of Ben Hollioake, whose rise from unknown tyro to slayer of the Australians had even the most grizzled of selectors believing in miracles, and the rehabilitation of Graeme Hick. Hollioake's promotion into the Test side for Trent Bridge produced one of the most riveting passages of cricket during the summer, a duel with the enigmatic Glenn McGrath, and an all too brief glimpse of Hollioake's considerable ability. The younger Hollioake, 20 last month, has been overlooked for the senior tour, but can stake a claim for the one-day series in the spring.

Hick dismisses the label of one-day specialist with scarce disguised disdain, but it is possible that his mixture of uncomplicated hitting and tantalising off-spin will prove a vital part of England's one-day future. It is a side brimful of invention and ability, with an ideal balance of dash and guile, youth and wisdom. Whether they like it or not, a few will return to England at the end of their brief tour with reputations for the one-day game enhanced.

Unlike Atherton, Adam Hollioake wears his heart on his sleeve. His England will be seen to be committed in the way Atherton's sometimes are not and if Surrey are a measure, the decibel count will be high. "I can't see the point in being timid," he said, promising that his captaincy would be as aggressive at international level as it has been for his county and on the successful A tour to Australia. "I'm just a simple person who likes winning things," he adds. An ideal combination by the sound of it.

The Sharjah schedule


A J Hollioake (Surrey, capt), A D Brown (Surrey), N V Knight (Warks), A J Stewart (Surrey), G A Hick (Worcs), G P Thorpe (Surrey), B C Hollioake (Surrey), M A Ealham (Kent), M V Fleming (Kent), D R Brown (Warwicks), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), A F Giles (Warwicks), D W Headley (Kent), P J Martin (Lancs).


Today: v Pakistan A (Lahore).

Tomorrow: Travel to Sharjah for Champions' Trophy. 11 December: v India; 13 December: v West Indies; 15 December: v Pakistan; 19 December: Final of Champions' Trophy (if qualified); 20 December: Return to UK.