Fletcher upset by tour absentees

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The Independent Online

Duncan Fletcher is not a man prone to nostalgia, but the England coach could not restrain himself yesterday, following England's 10-wicket defeat by India in the first Test at Mohali. He was not casting his rheumy eye too far back, though, merely to when England were last able to field their best 11 players without injury, irrational fear, or selfishness intervening.

"I feel a bit disappointed that we haven't got our strongest side out here," he said yesterday, at the team's hotel here. "You are always going to be at a disadvantage missing four or five players, especially playing India in their own conditions."

Fletcher's observations, although not groundbreaking, come after England were forced to travel to India without players like Alec Stewart, Darren Gough, Andrew Caddick and Robert Croft. All declined to tour, the latter two following security fears in the wake of 11 September.

Since their triumphant return from Sri Lanka last April, where they had made steady progress, England have lost six of their last eight Tests, a record that includes one defeat by Pakistan, four by Australia and one by India. Without Gough, Caddick and Stewart, England look a vulnerable side and their latest defeat, which stemmed largely from their batting failures against spin, has continued that worrying trend.

In a dig aimed specifically at Gough and Stewart, who made themselves unavailable for India – but not New Zealand – long before the World Trade Centre atrocity, Fletcher said: "I'd like to have a full Test side all the time, but when you turn round to players and tell them that by missing one tour they will miss out on another – well, that should be motivation enough for them to want to play here."

In Stewart's and Gough's cases it was not, but that has meant opportunities for others, particularly James Foster. Unfortunately for Foster, in these days of instant judgement, his Test debut in Mohali will be remembered for its glaring errors rather than the fact that it was made by a 21-year-old undergraduate with just 22 first-class matches to his name.

Foster, still a student at Durham University, was perhaps unlucky to have made his debut alongside Richard Dawson, who has only recently graduated from university himself. An off-spinner, described by the Yorkshire coach, Wayne Clark, as "an impressive character", Dawson looked remarkably able in all departments and Foster, a team-mate in the 2000 British Universities side, perhaps suffered more in comparison with him than Stewart, the man he replaced.

A former fast bowler for Australia, Clark, who first saw Dawson at the beginning of last season, also predicted that the bowler would not only play for England, but would one day captain them. "He's a real thinker, and has the intelligence, aggression and ability to gain respect from players," Clark said.

Dawson appears impressively focused, perhaps scarily so for a 21-year old. He also appears genuinely confident of his own ability, and he previewed his tour of India by saying: "I'm going out there thinking something great might happen and that you could come back as a bit of a legend. There's no point thinking that you are going to get rattled around and take 0 for 300."

Although 21 as well, Foster appears to be younger in all ways, a teenybopper to Dawson's prog rocker. His confidence appears less contained, too, perhaps betraying insecurities. He is certainly too inexperienced to keep the emotions of keeping wicket and batting separate.

In sport, adrenalin needs to be mobilised but controlled. Like a chain reaction, Foster's duck on the opening day affected his glove-work, which caused the dropped catch and missed stumping that cost England valuable, though not match-saving ground. Those mistakes then led to the poor decision to sweep again in the second innings, a bad option considering the ball was not turning and lbw decisions were therefore likely.

According to another Fletcher, Keith, who, as Essex coach, has watched Foster's progress for a number of years, the youngster is dedicated to improving his game. "People forget how many mistakes Mark Boucher, South Africa's wicketkeeper, made when he first started. Now, with his batting as well, he's a vital part of the team."

"James is a worker, a listener and a fighter," added Fletcher, who also happened to be England's coach last time they toured India. "He's worked with Alan Knott and is very sound as a player and a person. I'd back him to come through it."

England's dilemma is one of faith. Warren Hegg, the second wicketkeeper out here, is an experienced old professional who would almost certainly do a better job than Foster, were he to be called on for the second Test next in Ahmedabad, next Tuesday.

But, at 33, Hegg has only todays, not tomorrows, left in him. If persisted with now, Foster has it in him to become the next Mark Boucher – a player most teams would cherish.

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