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England aim to tame Tendulkar

It is some measure of how appalling the last six months have been for English cricket that the Texaco Trophy is now regarded important enough to have its own customised squad of players.

England, normally fierce advocates of Test cricket, have gone further in this direction than ever before, but although Raymond Illingworth and his panel have distanced the spectre of the World Cup with an enlightened selection here, the chairman has reopened other wounds with his ill-timed comments concerning Devon Malcolm's performance in last winter's Cape Town Test.

Illingworth, who was not at The Oval yesterday as England limbered up for the first of three one-day matches against India, has a habit of speaking his mind, but even he might have balked at the timing of his latest salvo. The Test and County Cricket Board almost certainly did, and he should be appearing in a committee room at Lord's soon.

Michael Atherton, looking relaxed after a long fielding session, refused to be drawn, saying he did not want to rake over old ground or dwell on the past. "It's at the back of my mind. At the moment I'm just looking for a better tomorrow," he said.

That day, despite the presence of their enthusiastic and innovative new coach, David Lloyd, will dawn only if England start winning. However, although most modern sportsmen will claim that winning is the only habit that matters, it is one England appeared to have kicked some time ago.

Since beating the West Indies 2-1 in the Texaco Trophy this time last year, England have won just three out of 13 one-day games, and two of those were against the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates.

As such, even the most optimistic fan might be hard pressed to come up with any of the usual positive things that get trotted out at this time of year, despite England's 58 per cent win rate in all one-day matches played at home since 1984.

And yet if there is a team that comes close to matching England in the despair stakes at the moment it is India, whose crushing World Cup semi- final defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka in Calcutta still lingers. They, too, are under pressure to deliver to an expectant public.

The man feeling the brunt of that pressure is India's captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, in the wake of his World Cup semi-final decision to put Sri Lanka in to bat on a pitch which subsequently broke up, along with the Indian batting.

Yesterday, after practice and still nursing a sore finger, he insisted that he had not been panicked into a drastic rethink. "Just because we played badly in one match, it doesn't mean you have to change your whole approach."

That approach, as is the fashion these days, includes playing a pinch- hitter, who is Sachin Tendulkar, one of the world's finest batsman. The wisdom of this was self-evident during the World Cup when Tendulkar flayed the bowling to all parts of the subcontinent.

However, on England's early season pitches, particularly with cloud and rain around, it may not be the most sensible thing to do. Should he fail early on - as even he might - the confidence of those batting behind could quite easily plummet.

For that reason, Atherton will probably attack him with the outswing of Dominic Cork and Peter Martin. India have admitted they need big scores to defend. On the evidence so far, Tendulkar is the man most likely to provide them and therefore might be better off at No 3 or 4.

In their warm-up games, India's bowling has for the most part been gentle and uninspiring. Only Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble have looked dangerous and they will head an attack that will probably be joined by the improving Paras Mhanbrey and the steady seam of Venkatesh Prasad.

In contrast England's problems will not be about who to pick, but who to leave out, particularly among the all-rounders. With intermittent rain falling at The Oval yesterday and with the pitch under wraps, those decisions will be made this morning, though it looks as if Ronnie Irani and Mark Ealham will miss out. Both are certain to play at least once in the series.

The only certainty - regarding the new faces - is that Alistair Brown will open the innings and will be given the licence to play as he does for Surrey. If the pitch is true, it should make for some interesting viewing, especially as Neil Smith, another who pinch-hits for his county, is earmarked for No 3 should Brown fail.

This, it appears, is all part of the new fluidity that Atherton and Lloyd want. As Atherton admitted, the widespread use of pinch-hitters keeps raising the ceiling for scores in one-day cricket. "When I started, 240 was a good score. Now it's only a moderate one." Over the next three matches, we shall see if he is right.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (Lancashire, capt), A D Brown (Surrey), G A Hick (Worcestershire), G P Thorpe (Surrey), M P Maynard (Glamorgan), R C Irani (Essex), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), C C Lewis (Surrey), D G Cork (Derbyshire), N M K Smith (Warwickshire), P J Martin (Lancashire), D Gough (Yorkshire), M A Ealham (Kent).

INDIA (probable): V Rathore, S R Tendulkar, N S Sidhu, M Azharuddin (capt), S V Manjreker, A D Jadeja, N R Mongia (wkt), A Kumble, J Srinath, P L Mhanbrey, B K Prasad.

Umpires: R Julian (Eng) and P Willey (Eng).

Match referee: C Smith (West Indies).

The opening day of the County Championship match between Sussex and Middlesex at Horsham was abandoned yesterday without a ball being bowled.