Cricket: Third Test: Atherton deserves opening: Gooch may turn to Emburey as England seek to recover some lost pride on another spinner's pitch

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The Independent Online
IT IS all very well being the best prepared side ever to leave England, but as the Indians have sneakily based the itinerary more around playing cricket than squat thrusts and press-ups, there is no evidence that England's master plan for the third Test match here tomorrow involves anything more cerebral than avoiding the Chinese restaurant this evening.

In fairness to the England brains trust, they did allocate part of their preparation at Lilleshall to attempting to recreate Indian conditions on slow, indoor matting, but from what we have seen so far, they might just as well have spent the time learning to shoot tigers and studying slides of the Taj Mahal.

There have been isolated individual successes, but England have still not learned how to cope as a team against Indian spin, and the fanciful notion that England's own spinners would be bowling live cobras at India's batsmen is currently responsible for more stomach clutching than anything resulting from a plate of dodgy Chinese prawns.

Whether it is coincidence, or a wicked shaft of Indian humour, John Emburey has been booked into an adjoining room with Navjot Sidhu at the teams' hotel. Ordinarily, there would be no prospect of England tomorrow allowing Emburey to get anything like as close to the batsman who has hit him for six over most parts of India, but with Ian Salisbury and Philip Tufnell having taken 2 for 174 between them in Madras, Emburey is not without hope of selection here.

England have already pencilled in Phillip DeFreitas to replace Devon Malcolm, and Graham Gooch, given that the captain is abandoning what is now more of a junk than a ship before the Sri Lankan leg of the tour, will return to open the batting in what will probably be his last overseas Test match. The only question is, with whom will he open?

Unhappily, England have not yet embraced Basil Fawlty's idea of his wife's special subject on Mastermind - the bleedin' obvious - or that Test-match cricket seldom rewards the cobbling together of patchwork quilts. The betting, therefore, is not on Michael Atherton, but on Alec Stewart if England bat first, and Robin Smith if they bat second.

Statistics are not always the most reliable guide to selection, but for England to ignore, under current circumstances, the one which ranks Gooch and Atherton as the third most productive opening partnership in Test match history (behind only Rae and Stollmeyer and Hobbs and Sutcliffe) would not only be muddled, but also represent an unwarranted vote of confidence in England's middle order.

England's solitary attacking strategy against the Indian spinners has been to employ the sweep shot, which yesterday prompted Sunil Gavaskar to invite Bombay's Municipal Council to offer them a set of brooms and a job cleaning the streets. A touch over the top, but England have not yet taken on board the fact that the sweep carries a much higher risk factor with Indian umpires than it does at home.

If a place is to be found for Atherton, it will mean dropping one of three players, Smith, Graeme Hick or Neil Fairbrother. As England's leading catcher and wicket- taker in this series, Hick is more or less fireproof, and Smith's second- innings performance in Madras suggests that he is not totally dyslexic when it comes to reading the Indian spinners.

Fairbrother, though, remains far better equipped as a one-day player than he is for a Test match, despite his 83 in Madras, and the head-up slog that cost him his wicket in the second innings was straight out of the last over of a Sunday League game. Atherton is not without his flaws, and is a long way from being Mr Charisma, but if England do not open with him here, it is difficult to see why they bothered picking him for this tour in the first place.

In the wider interests of the game, however, England have been a spectacular success out here. Test cricket had been gasping for breath until they arrived, but the crowds have been coming flocking back, and a team that were recently the butt of national derision are now knee deep in congratulatory telegrams from government ministers. Sport and politics do not mix only when a team is losing, and Gooch has not spent too much time answering gushing phone calls from Downing Street lately.

The captain still looks far from well, but it did not stop him from training at the ground yesterday afternoon, nor from sounding positive in the face of adversity. 'We have not come here believing we are going to lose again,' he said, 'nor are we looking for a draw. You must never adopt a negative attitude.'

The pitch, surprise surprise, looks like being another one for the spinners, and it remains to be seen whether Gooch himself will employ the sweep shot that he last used on this ground, almost exclusively, to propel England to a World Cup semi-final victory over India in 1987.

He made such a mess of Maninder Singh that day that the left- arm spinner has only recently recovered his bowling action, but on the evidence of his performances against England early on the current tour, India might have won the series even more easily had Maninder been in the Test side.

For England to recover some pride at least, they need to win this Test match, an objective that will be considerably less difficult if they win the toss for the first time. 'Keith Fletcher always said I was a hopeless tosser,' Gooch said, with a hangdog look that suggested he was more worried, on current form, about 10 other hopeless tossers.

(Photograph omitted)