Cricket / Tour Analysis: Hick and Lewis shine out of gloom: England selection and preparation methods under microscope. Martin Johnson reports from Bombay

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The Independent Online
THIS always threatened to be a difficult tour from the moment Dave Roberts, the physiotherapist, posted home his first letter from Delhi. Three days later, it arrived back underneath his hotel room door, and it is fair to say that England's cricket team never came to terms - either on the field or off it - with an exasperating and extraordinary country.

Roberts has been the busiest man on the trip, dispensing pills and potions from a bottomless bag. Even the scorer fell ill in Calcutta and had to return home. For the rest of the series, Dermot Reeve's mother filled in for him, and a pounds 5 note for every time she has written down 'bowled Kumble' would have paid most of her air fare back to Hong Kong.

In the light of losing the series 3-0, and all three Tests by enormous margins, the speculation surrounding Graham Gooch's successor as captain has begun several months earlier than it would otherwise have done. Alec Stewart? Mike Gatting? Mike Atherton? Or A N Other? On this topic, the word that springs most readily to mind is help.

First, it is a touch sad to be made even more aware that Gooch's England career has moved into late autumn, not only by his inference that he may have had enough of the captaincy, but also by the fact that the events of the past couple of months have left him looking not conspicuously younger than Mother Teresa.

He has not had a happy tour, what with illness, and marital problems back at home, and his contribution of 47 runs in the series is slightly at variance with the 753 he made in three Tests against India in 1990. He must also suspect, that even if he himself believes he was party to a sound selection back in September, he would be hard-pressed to find a seconder in any snug or saloon bar the length and breadth of England.

There is also the question of whether his remarkable dedication to the job in general, and England in particular, much needed though it was after the circus of five captains in 1988, and the David Gower fiasco the following summer, has not been counter-productive on this particular trip.

Gooch is quite right in identifying an England overseas tour, whether to India or anywhere else, as something other than a weekend break in Torremolinos. But when players are confined to hotel rooms most nights - either through the fact that the entertainments column in the evening newspaper does not take up much space, or simply the requirement to stay close to the bathroom - a regime of nets, nets, and more nets may not have been over-conducive to morale.

Gooch may have prolonged his own career by a fanatical approach to physical fitness that has even resulted in an entry to this year's London Marathon but it has also, latterly, obscured his mind to the fact that cricketers in general do not share his enthusiasm for hard labour.

As for the original tour selection, whether or not he had visions of Gower sending notes to say that he would be a little late to nets because of a luncheon appointment at the maharajah's palace, no one knows for sure, but there is a mysterious incongruity about claiming that you have picked a side to win a Test series, at the same time as claiming that younger players need to be looked at. You either say 'this is the best side to win this one' or 'this may be the best side to win the next one.' You cannot, as the selectors have done, have it both ways.

By the same token, the notion that England now need to play all their cricket on raging dust bowls to cope with future generations of Indian spinners, becomes a total nonsense in the light of the fact that the protagonists for the next two series will include the likes of Merv Hughes, Bruce Reid, Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop.

It is also a strange concept for people now to be insisting that the way forward is to adopt the Indian system, and starting plucking people from the school playgrounds. If someone aged 40 is a better batsman than someone aged 20, then it is logical to pick him. Ideally, it would be better if the reverse applied, but English cricket rarely throws up such obvious teenage talent as it does in India. Cricket has always been a game rich in contrasts, and India is simply different. Life here can be indescribably hard, and nowhere in the world are there older five-year-olds than this country.

Getting back to the captaincy, the line of succession may not necessarily point to the current first lieutenant. Stewart's prospects have not been enhanced by being asked to keep wicket as well as hold down a top order place, and those who would like to see a slight relaxation in the elbow-grease regime may not get it from Alec. If anything, Stewart's philosophy is such that he probably regards Gooch as a bit of a malingerer.

Furthermore, personable bloke though he is, Stewart does not always react with the required deportment when - as a batsman - he spots an umpire's upraised finger, and it is not difficult to believe that the oft-touted views of his father, the former England manager Micky, on what separated 'disappointment' from 'dissent' were the product of a benevolent smile whenever Alec booted over his stumps in the back garden.

Gooch, on the other hand, rarely offers his innermost thoughts to public scrutiny, or even to parental scrutiny if it comes to that. His father, Alf, has been here in Bombay, and understandably enough, asked his boy whether he thought he had been correctly given out caught behind in the first innings. Gooch, typically, replied in that squeaky voice of his: 'Well, the umpire thought it was out . . .'

Stewart none the less remains a more authentic candidate than Gatting, who presided over more displays of 'understandable disappointment' (as Stewart Snr used to put it) than anyone cares to remember.

The strongest challenger to Stewart, in fact, may well be Atherton, despite the fact that he has been passed over at Lancashire in favour of Neil Fairbrother. Atherton wants the job more badly than he cares to let on and, as Stewart discovered when they were both stranded in the same crease in this Test match, there is a stronger will about him than is immediately apparent from his boyish looks and diffident air.

Returning to the series post-mortem, Atherton's omission from the second Test match was almost as baffling as picking four seamers on the slow turner in Calcutta and dropping Paul Jarvis for Phillip DeFreitas here. While a certain amount of sympathy is due for an army that spent more time clutching its stomach than marching on it, England's major medical problems here were mostly identifiable as gunshot wounds in both feet.

The two pluses from this trip (if you discount the inverse plus of regarding Richard Blakey's performances as a reminder that picking, at a rough estimate, England's ninth-best wicketkeeper for India's turning pitches on the basis that he might score a few runs, is almost a resignation issue in itself) were undoubtedly Chris Lewis and Graeme Hick.

When Lewis first came into county cricket, Leicestershire immediately identified him as - in terms of his batting potential - a more genuine all-rounder than DeFreitas, which he is now beginning to prove.

It is too soon to say whether Lewis will ever make it as a Test match No 6, but a bigger plus for England here is the discovery that, when it comes to a dogfight, Lewis is no longer the poodle they once suspected. His bowling, particularly here, was a conspicuously big-hearted effort.

As for Hick, Madras may be as big a turning point for him as it was for Gatting in 1984-85, by which time he had gone 53 Test innings without a century as opposed to Hick's 21. We still, however, need to see Hughes helping Hick fulfil the second part of the equation this summer, and no one will be more obliging at putting it up around his nose than Merv.

As for England, they still have a one-day series to win (which as consolation prizes go will hardly qualify them for a ticker-tape reception when they get home) and a Test match to win in Sri Lanka. England could do with some weaker opposition, but there again, they are probably saying much the same in Colombo.

(Photograph omitted)