CRICKET: Young guns set out to salvage England's pride

Jon Culley considers the A team's tour of India where the emphasis will be on aggression and mental toughness
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As humiliation after humiliation befalls Mike Atherton's battered Australian expedition party, painting an optimistic picture of the future of English cricket becomes increasingly difficult.

However, it has fallen to the management of the England A team to have a go as they prepare to lead their bunch of intrepid tourists on a two-month tour of India in an attempt to salvage what remains of our national pride. The party, under the captaincy of Alan Wells, leaves Heathrow this morning.

A team policy is based around sending young players with Test potential on tours specifically planned with future Test itineraries in mind, throwing them in at the deep end in the most difficult match conditions and observing who come up swimming.

The tours are the focal point of the development plan sponsored by Whittingdales, the success of which is measured in part by the number of A team graduates who go on to establish themselves at full Test level. The trip to India, however, will have a bearing not only on future Test prospects but on future support, too, given that the four-year Whittingdales deal is up for re-negotiation next spring.

But the team manager Phil Neale, the former Worcestershire captain, is convinced the fruits of Whittingdales' support are not far from being harvested. "Someone suggested to me that English cricket is in a sorry state, which is maybe not surprising giventhe results in Australia," he said. "But I think that in terms of talent, we are not that far behind. Perhaps what we need to do is to raise the level of concentration, application and mental toughness.

"It is those qualities which we hope players will develop on A tours, when they will be exposed to demanding conditions and will learn if they can cope.

"There is a lot of thought now that if a player is good enough, you should see if he can cope at a higher level, rather than leave him in his own age group. That's one reason why the squad chosen to tour India is fundamentally very young.

"The idea is to provide the England structure with strength in depth, so that the future generation of Test players is ready to step up."

As ever, Ray Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, has spelt out their prospects very clearly. "We've picked a very young side but there is a great opportunity there for these kids. It depends on what happens in Australia during the next month or so, but there might well be some places available."

The wisdom of working intensively with young players has been proved emphatically - to Atherton's embarrassment - by the Australian Academy side, but Neale believes it will not be long before England teams are turning the tables. "We are particularly conscious of the aggressive way in which the Australians and the West Indies play Test cricket. In South Africa last winter we were determined to play our cricket hard and tough.

"Apart from the results, which were very good, the success of that tour is proved in that three members of the side we took to South Africa are now touring with the full England team."

The 16-strong squad is heavily biased towards youth. At 33, Wells has six years seniority over the next oldest member, Richard Stemp. The vice-captain, Mark Ramprakash, with 10 Test caps, looks a veritable veteran at 25.

Richard Johnson, the Middlesex seam bowler, who took 10 wickets in an innings at Derby and dismissed Brian Lara twice last summer is 20 tomorrow and the youngest but many others - Jason Gallian of Lancashire, Glamorgan's David Hemp, Nick Knight, lately of Essex and now Warwickshire, and Yorkshire's Michael Vaughan among them - have had barely more than a season in the first-class game.

Johnson and the 20-year-old Glen Chapple, of Lancashire, represent two of the brightest pace prospects but their role may be subsidiary to the slow bowlers, a strong contingent of which includes Kent's Min Patel, the left-arm spinner who was last season's leading wicket-taker and the leg-spinner Ian Salisbury, who toured the Caribbean with England last winter but seems no closer to establishing himself at the highest level.

Wells, his captain at Sussex, dismisses suggestions that the 24-year-old is running out of chances. "He is still very young for a bowler of his type and needs time," Wells said.

"He sees this tour as a great opportunity to gain experience. With Eddie Hemmings nagging him all the time from mid-on or mid-off, he has become a much more disciplined bowler. He bowls at a decent pace and provided he gets his line right, I can see him being a handful even on slow wickets."

A revised itinerary presents Wells's team with only a brief acclimatisation period before the first competitive match on Tuesday with the first of three "Tests" falling only a fortnight into the tour. The original programme included only one.

"A format building to one Test worked well in South Africa," Neale said, "but this one has its advantages in that more players will be thrown in at the deep end. And the four-day matches will be against select sides, so we are likely to come up against potential Test players from the outset."

ENGLAND A Squad: A P Wells (Sussex, capt), M R Ramprakash (Middlesex, vice-captain), G Chapple (Lancashire), D G Cork (Derbyshire), J E R Gallian (Lancashire), D L Hemp (Glamorgan), R L Johnson (Middlesex), N V Knight (Warwickshire), P A Nixon (Leicestershire), M M Patel (Kent), K J Piper (Warwickshire), I D K Salisbury (Sussex), R D Stemp (Yorkshire), M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), P N Weekes (Middlesex). Tour manager: J R T Barclay. Team manager: P A Neale.