England players given tour deadline

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The Independent Online

England's cricketers have until midday on Friday to declare their availability for the tour to India, which is scheduled to leave on 14 November. As conditions stand, the England and Wales Cricket Board consider the tour to be on, the only remaining question mark being the final composition of the tour party.

The deadline, which gives players plenty of time to discuss issues with their families, is felt necessary in order to accommodate alternative selections should certain players feel touring India is too dangerous. England need to prepare both physically and mentally, a point that the captain, Nasser Hussain, emphasised when his team returned from Zimbabwe.

According to Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the ECB, safety was the sole issue discussed yesterday. "We will wait for the outcome on Friday before consulting any contractual obligations, but we won't hold it against any players not going," said Lamb. He would not, however, be drawn on whether any refuseniks ran the risk of being overlooked for the New Zealand leg due to start in February, despite both tours being included under the same central contract. Lamb and Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the ECB, will travel to India at some stage of the tour.

Before yesterday's three-hour meeting at Lord's, which mainly involved a presentation by Sir Rob Young, Britain's High Commissioner to India, those considering pulling out were thought to number three or four. But if that number could just about be accommodated without too much compromise, any more would place serious doubt on the credibility of the side.

Notwithstanding the current brouhaha, India is one of the toughest countries to play against at home, and visiting teams need to be as close to full strength as possible in order to compete. Bearing in mind that Darren Gough and Alec Stewart had already pulled out, any more, particularly leading players such as Graham Thorpe and Andy Caddick, both vocal in their misgivings, would weaken England to the point of ridicule.

The key, as it should be, lies with the captain, Hussain. According to Richard Bevan, the managing director of the Professional Cricketers' Association: "Hussain should be OK." Where the captain leads, others tend to follow, though Bevan added he would "not be surprised if two or three, especially those with young kids, decide not to go."

Bevan, who has moved centre stage as the players' mouthpiece, said that Sir Rob was very impressive in reassuring players that they had little to fear, but felt that certain questions still needed to be answered.

"The players have not seen anything in writing from the Indian Government over their proposed protection measures, and that needs to happen," said Bevan. "We also need to know what exactly has to happen for the situation to worsen and what measures are in place to get the players out of India."

One of the measures that will be incorporated is the appointment of a security officer from India. If this is meant to reassure, the last security officer England had, provided for them in South Africa, was mugged at knifepoint in East London.

Another source of concern, were the venues for the first two Tests in Mohali and Ahmedabad. The basis for this, as widely reported, was their proximity to the Pakistan border and their large Muslim populations. Kevin Brind, the Foreign Office's representative at yesterday's meeting, reckons the composition of the two cities' populations make them among the safest places in India, something the players were not aware of.

Armed with more hard facts than they were a few weeks ago, Hussain's team will have to decide individually whether they want to tour. Yet, cricketers like many team sportsmen, prefer safety in numbers. If the ranks of those not wanting to tour can be cut to just one or two before Friday, there is a chance that come decision time, all 16 will go.