Stewart returns for spin examination

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The Independent Online

Skulduggery, intrigue and subterfuge, are all part of the North-west Frontier's culture, so heads are unlikely to be turned when Alec Stewart takes the field here for England's last match before the first Test. The Surrey man is still smarting over his recent experience, but in a town whose black market can supply anything from rare antiques to weapon-grade plutonium, such notoriety probably carries a certain cachet.

Skulduggery, intrigue and subterfuge, are all part of the North-west Frontier's culture, so heads are unlikely to be turned when Alec Stewart takes the field here for England's last match before the first Test. The Surrey man is still smarting over his recent experience, but in a town whose black market can supply anything from rare antiques to weapon-grade plutonium, such notoriety probably carries a certain cachet.

It will be Stewart's first appearance on a cricket field since he was implicated by the Delhi bookie, Mukesh Gupta, in a report by India's Central Bureau of Information. Despite a categorical denial by Stewart that he ever took money from Gupta the experience has left him taking his eye off the thing he does best - which is to play cricket.

"It's been a really tough week for him," said the England captain Nasser Hussain, on the eve of the four-day match against the Governor of the North-west Frontier Province XI. "He's perked up a bit in the last day or so, and I'm sure he'll be up for the cricket. It's what he knows best."

Apart from Stewart's soonest rehabilitation with bat and gloves, a priority if England are to feature in the forthcoming series, the tourists are playing what Hussain terms their most sensible side ahead of the opening Test in Lahore next week.

"Whatever the reason, be it dew, flies, tear gas, or Alec's problems, you can't let the cricket become secondary out here," warned Hussain. "In seven days' time we'll play a very well-balanced Pakistan side in the first of a three-Test series and we can't afford to be caught under-prepared.

"I can't say that our side in this game will be the same as the Test side, as I haven't yet seen the pitch in Lahore, but we'll be looking to give the late arrivals like Michael Atherton, Michael Vaughan and Ian Salisbury as much cricket in the middle as possible. No one is playing just for the sake of getting a game."

With darkness falling early in these northerly parts due to a combination of dust, pollution and the time of year, at least an hour's play is likely to be lost every day. But if that could stymie England's intentions of getting players to the crease twice, another green-tinged pitch will prevent either batsmen or bowlers getting the required practice on the kind of bare, turning pitches forecast for the Test series.

Apart from England's batsmen exhibiting widespread dyslexia over reading spin these last few weeks, the approach to playing it requires the grooving of a gentler rhythm and a softer, defter, touch. Knowing that quality time in the middle will be strictly rationed, yesterday's practice saw one net pitch deliberately roughed up to the point where it looked like pick-axes had been taken to it.

It turned viciously, something all batsmen will have to get used to pronto over the coming weeks, though quite what the locals made of this act of vandalism is anybody's guess. England practices at the Shahi Bagh stadium have fallen foul of bureaucracy before, and during the 1996 World Cup, the team manager, Ray Illingworth, was accused of trying to bribe the groundsman into letting England practice on the square.

The Frontier Post, never afraid to get to what they saw as the nub of the matter after an earlier round of match-fixing allegations against certain members of the Pakistan team, ran the story under the headline: "ENGLAND AT IT AGAIN."

With four Test players in the side, including the left-arm quickie Kabir Khan and the spinner Mohammed Hussain, England's opponents will be stronger than the Patron's XI they beat in Rawalpindi. Captained by the wicketkeeper, Rashid Latif - one of the few Pakistan Test players to have spoken out about the allegations of match-fixing - at least half of the side are from around Peshawar, with the opening batsman Wajahatullah Wasti arguably the most famous.

With England resting Graeme Hick, and Craig White in need of a bowl to test his tight hamstring, the only two players essentially playing for a place in the first Test are the two spinners, Salisbury and Ashley Giles. Hussain claims to know which one he prefers in his own mind, but he was not letting on as there may yet be a case for playing both at the Gaddafi stadium next week.

"I have my thoughts over which spinner to play if only one is required," said the England captain. "In fact I've not captained either of them that much so it'll be good to look them in the eye on the field and get to know them better."

If such competition between team-mates is the way to a more rigorous team, the next few days could be as cut-throat as anything seen on the Khyber Pass. If it is not, England's chances of beating Pakistan could be as robust as the mirages on the dusty plains.

ENGLAND: M A Atherton, M G Trescothick, N Hussain (capt), M P Vaughan, A J Stewart (wkt), G P Thorpe, C White, A F Giles, I G D Salisbury, A R Caddick, D Gough.

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