India tour doomed bar change in situation

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The Independent Online

England's cricket tour to India is due to be cancelled unless the situation in Afghanistan changes dramatically over the coming days. Speaking at the launch of the England cricket academy at Sandhurst yesterday, Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, confirmed that a decision over the tour would be made within two weeks.

"We are monitoring the position on a daily basis," said MacLaurin yesterday, before jetting off to Kuala Lumpur for a meeting of the International Cricket Council. "If we'd taken the government's advice for last week, which was that Europeans in India should keep a low profile, we'd have been forced to cancel. At the moment, the tour is on, but there will have to be a definite improvement in the situation, or it will be off."

The tour, scheduled to begin on 15 November, has been under threat of cancellation ever since Afghanistan was targeted by Britain and the USA for harbouring Osama bin Laden. Other sides, like New Zealand, have cancelled tours to the region and Australia's rugby league side called off their tour to the UK last week.

Proximity is not the issue for England (the closest point to Taliban-held territory England would get to is about 500 miles away), but India does contain 100 million Muslims. Most will be ardent cricket lovers desperate to see England play but, as the world has seen more than once in recent years, it only takes one or two zealots to cause havoc.

"The players are our crown jewels and we have to look after them," added MacLaurin. "The England captain has made his feelings on the matter very clear and the team will not be put at risk. If the situation remains as it is, the players will be very uncomfortable. An England side in India is a high-profile side and could be a focus for people who want to cause trouble."

If the tour is cancelled, ready alternatives are not obvious. Even if Lord MacLaurin gets his fellow chief executives to check their diaries in Kuala Lumpur, only the West Indies, in January looks plausible, and only if England then cancel their one-day series against India as well.

Given the delicate nature of events, it was perhaps ironic that the ECB chose to introduce its Academy intake at a military establishment. The reason was not symbolic, just that the 15 players chosen, all between the ages of 18 and 24, will be put through their paces here before heading off to winter at the Australian Academy in Adelaide.

Although more than five years in the pipeline, the English academy is a finishing school that is not finished, though a venue, plus plans, have been promised before Christmas. At present, Bisham Abbey and Loughborough University have been mentioned along with a green-field site in west Cambridge.

Although modern facilities are important, the most vital cog could be the head coach, Rod Marsh. A fierce competitor and a pukka Aussie to boot, Marsh's biggest challenge will be to cut through the culture of apathy that afflicts so many talented sportsmen in England.

Saddled with making England the best side in world cricket by 2007, a goal Marsh feels is realistic, the former Test wicketkeeper will have to stomach them beating Australia, a seemingly Sisyphean task given the 1-4 drubbing England received during the summer.

"It is in the nature of all Australians to beat England but, for the good of cricket, I want to it be in the nature of all Englishmen to beat Australia," said Marsh. If he can do that, and it will be huge task, the £250,000 his three-year contract costs will be money well spent.