England's weary tale of the road

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reports from Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad may have been famous for being the place where Mahatma Gandhi set up his ashram and waged his long, peaceful struggle for independence against the British, but the "Manchester of India," as this textile centre is known, will today be the focus of a worldwide audience thought to be in excess of one billion people, as England play New Zealand in the opening match of the Wills World Cup.

Who wins this match will probably be of little importance - except in ascertaining who plays who and where in the quarter-finals in three weeks' time - though England need it more than their opponents, if only to erase the memory of their poor showing in South Africa. The demoralising effect of that tour cannot simply have disappeared in two weeks, despite the contrary claims of England's captain.

As England practiced yesterday, under the watchful eyes of the media and about six hundred policeman, there was no discernible spring in their step as they went through the usual catching and fielding routines with all the enthusiasm of those waiting for the dentist.

Atherton has never made light of the burdens of captaincy and, like his predecessor, Graham Gooch, he has a habit of withdrawing into himself when England are playing badly. The effect is doubled when his own form is suffering, as it did during the one-dayers in South Africa, and he was hardly sweetness and light, audibly cursing himself after dropping a couple of skyers, yesterday.

"South Africa," he opined tetchily at the press conference later, "has little relevance to what goes on here. We've had a good week in Lahore and, apart from an irritating period of no cricket for four days in Calcutta, our confidence levels are much higher than they were three weeks ago."

In England we tend to place more importance on Test cricket than one- day stuff," he added, "but the World Cup is a different tournament altogether. For many it is their one and only opportunity of playing in it and, as England have never won it, there is plenty for people to prove."

As sixth favourites, they will prove a lot should they manage to do so, not least that one-day cricket is an unpredictable beast. Even so, it is hard to see them beating Australia, India or Pakistan, unless they suddenly start gelling as a unit, though nothing is certain in the subcontinent and England have unexpectedly done well here before.

However, the only thing certain about today's game is that Robin Smith will not be one of those taking part, though the groin injury has sufficiently healed for a replacement not to be sought. Smith, who missed the last World Cup final with a back spasm, was visibly relieved. "You don't get too many opportunities to play in the World Cup," he said after a 20-minute fitness test on the outfield. "I was pretty low three days ago, but the injury has responded well and I'm just looking forward to getting 100 per cent fit, which should happen in the next four or five days."

It is still not clear, despite England's attempts to seek clarification regarding replacements, what would have happened had Smith been forced to go home. According to Raymond Illingworth, who had a meeting with the tournament's technical committee in Calcutta, replacements were "not a problem provided the tournament had not started." After that, he reckoned it would be "in the lap of the gods."

The impenetrability of some of the playing conditions approved by Pilcom, the organising committee, is legendary, but they have not upset Illingworth quite as much as England's last two journeys. The first, from Lahore to Calcutta for the opening ceremony last Sunday, took over 18 hours, while Calcutta to Ahmedabad took almost 16 hours from one hotel lobby to the other.

"If I were a football manager," Illingworth said, "and you'd asked me to do the travel we've just done, you'd have been laughed out of court." It was a sentiment acknowledged later by Atherton, who felt the team that coped best with the potentially exasperating travel would, in his words, "be half-way to winning it."

But, if even the hardiest traveller had looked forward to a stiff drink after England's latest odyssey, their hopes would have soon been dashed, for Ahmedabad is in Gujarat, the only dry state in India. Apparently, beer can be purchased but only with a permit issued after you have registered as an alcoholic. Even then, only 10 bottles per week are allowed. Hardly enough for an impromptu celebration, whoever wins.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, N H Fairbrother, R C Russell (wkt), C White, D G Cork, P A J DeFreitas, N M K Smith, D Gough, R K Illingworth, P J Martin.

NEW ZEALAND (from): C J Spearman, N J Astle, S P Fleming, R G Twose, C L Cairns, A C Parore, S A Thomson, L K Germon (capt), C Z Harris, D N Patel, G R Larsen, D K Morrison, D J Nash, R A Kennedy.

Umpires: S G Randell (Aus), B C Cooray (S Lanka).

Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, witnessed the rare event of a joint India-Pakistan team in action yesterday, in a goodwill match arranged after the Tamil Tigers' bomb attack in the city two weeks ago. Protected by tight security arrangements, the joint side beat Sri Lanka by four wickets.