Now for the difficult part: the tour itself

The Indian Winter: After agonising will come agony as late call-ups expose England's weaknesses Stephen Brenkley

England's passage to India was never meant to be smooth and the chances are that it will become much stormier before it is done. Concerns about security arrangements for players were finally resolved last week but unfortunately for the tourists they do not extend to protecting their bowlers from excessive punishment or sparing their batsmen from torture by spin.

England's passage to India was never meant to be smooth and the chances are that it will become much stormier before it is done. Concerns about security arrangements for players were finally resolved last week but unfortunately for the tourists they do not extend to protecting their bowlers from excessive punishment or sparing their batsmen from torture by spin.

All the renewed optimism that the country is effectively safe and that the trip can proceed as planned was slightly offset by abundant pessimism of what might happen to England in a cricketing sense. Anybody watching Sachin Tendulkar flay South Africa's attack to all parts in Bloemfontein yesterday, accompanied by the debutant Virender Sehwag, who made a century, could only imagine what they and their colleagues might have in mind for Bangalore in late December.

By then, India could easily be 2-0 ahead against an England side who do not begin to stack up as a potent international force. If a case can be made for the batting order, which at least possesses experience if no enduring achievement, the bowling list is bereft of both. When David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, said on Friday that it was the most inexperienced Test bowling line-up ever to leave these shores he was probably exaggerating but only because he had forgotten the team who played the first ever Test in Australia in 1877.

They had no caps and at least this set of adventurers can boast more than that. Of the specialist seam bowlers, Matthew Hoggard, James Ormond and Richard Johnson have three between them while the tri-pronged spin menace consisting of Ashley Giles, Robert Dawson and Martyn Ball have eight, all of them belonging to Giles, who is by no means certain to pass a fitness test on Wednesday.

It all adds up to 11 Test appearances by bowlers against a set of batsm`en who are resplendent on home soil. Earlier this year, India came from behind to beat the world champions, Australia, at home and we all know what Australia then did to England.

Of course, it is possible that England's selectors, through a combination of perspicacity and necessity, have emerged with a lethal force. At least the Indians should have trouble finding video footage of what they have to face.

The latest pair to be summoned are Johnson and Ball, who have replaced the withdrawals, Andrew Caddick and Robert Croft. Last summer Johnson was called up for three Test match squads without getting a game. He took 62 wickets for his new county, Somerset, in the season at a little more than 23 and the fact that he did so on the flat surface of Taunton persuaded the selectors to plump for him ahead of Chris Silverwood of Yorkshire.

Johnson is fast enough and moves the ball, but is wayward. The evidence of last season was that he finished much weaker than he started. That put a question mark over his stamina and at 26 he is hardly a sudden breakthrough which has placed doubt in batsmen's minds.

But England must pray that he is one of those who can transcend the chasm between county and country. The last man to be picked from Somerset was Marcus Trescothick and look what happened to him.

Ball is a stunning slip fielder, probably the best in England and truly fit to stand comparison with anybody anywhere. Sadly, this cannot be said of his off-spin bowling. At 31 he has undoubtedly improved with age and was the leading English spin bowler in the averages last summer. His 62 wickets for Gloucestershire at 25.76 compared well to his previous career figures of 257 wickets at 38.48, an astronomical cost. It may or not be significant that last summer's haul was achieved in the second division but India will probably spot the difference.

On the surface, it will be all England can do to maintain their spirits. A start to doing so, if a small one, can be made by Giles (achilles) and Craig White (knee) being passed fit. Neither is certain to be considered up to playing three back-to-back Tests and having to find two more replacements after the shenanigans of recent weeks would be a further sap to morale. Apart from anything else it shows up the deficiencies in the depth of English cricket.

Presumably, Andrew Flintoff for the all-rounder White and Phil Tufnell for the left-arm spinner Giles would be lined up. Flintoff deservedly has his supporters but he averaged 26 with the bat last summer and was nowhere with the ball. Tufnell is a good bowler but Australia at The Oval demonstrated that he is putty in good batsmen's hands.

If his knee allows it, this is the time for White, at least, to stand up to be counted. A year ago he had come back from nowhere to achieve proper Test status. Injury and self-doubt have since crept up on him again and there is a real danger he will recede to the shadows. He has the talent and if he can stumble across his self-belief again he could help to keep England afloat this winter. His prevarication over whether to go at all, though, does not augur well.

Long before England get into serious action on 3 December, the winter Test calendar will have been under way. It started in South Africa yesterday and continues in the next 10 days with the start of three series. Australia begin the First Test against New Zealand on Wednesday, as do Bangladesh against Zimbabwe. A few days later, Sri Lanka meet West Indies in Galle. Only poor Pakistan, who were forced to cancel their home series against New Zealand, have an empty diary.

There are several fascinating struggles ahead. Australia should brush aside New Zealand but the return of Chris Cairns may lift the tourists in Brisbane. If neither Bangladesh nor Zimbabwe are good enough to be playing Test matches at present in strict trems of ability and organisation their matches in Dhaka and Chittagong will give the home team a chance to score some points in the World Championship. Sri Lanka, with Muttiah Muralitharan, will begin as favourites against the West Indies.

The programme indicated that the two series of the winter would both involve Australia and South Africa. They play three Tests in Australia in December and January, three in South Africa in February and March. They are the two best sides in the world and something was bound to give. That prognosis lasted until yesterday when Tendulkar batted like a king and found a new prince in Sehwag, and South Africa wilted. For England it was grim indeed.

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