England's winter of cricketing promise

While the Test team have struggled again, there have - believe it or not - been encouraging signs for English cricket in the last few months Alan Wells' irresistible A team have swept all before them in India. Jonathan Marks reports from Indore
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Back in November, after the first of England A's gatherings at Lilleshall, Alan Wells was asked his impression of the team he was to lead to India.

"Very young, aren't they?" he said, and you could sense the trepidation in his voice. India, as thousands of British soldiers in the days of the Raj originally discovered, is not the easiest place to tour successfully.

How were this group of boys going to succeed where Graham Gooch's full England side of 1993 had so spectacularly failed? Indian spinners, dust- track pitches and hordes of fielders around the bat were not the only problems. There were also the fears of biased umpiring and the simple difficulty of adjusting to the food.

Yet now, if you ask the 33-year-old Wells about the team who have just beaten India A 3-0 - and who have made the most of the Indian experience - all you are likely to get is a stream of superlatives. His team have given English cricket hope in the aftermath of Australia and the retirements of the last of the old guard who dominated England teams for 20 years.

Wells says: "We were well prepared, we have adjusted quickly to Indian conditions and beaten them at their own game. There are a lot of talented young players here, and we have developed a super team spirit. The players believe in themselves and in each other."

The tour manager, John Barclay, has been analysing the success and seeking answers to the bigger questions facing the immediate future of England cricket. "Spirit, yes, there is a lot of that, and energy, too, which has been created by the captain and Phil Neale [the team manager]," Barclay said.

"But what has been very apparent to me is the vibrancy of young people wanting it to work. They have worked incredibly hard, but they have also enjoyed India.

"They have laughed at it, laughed with it. They've eaten the food - and they have gone out into the streets and haggled in the market places. They're young."

A youthful attitude, allied with an eagerness to learn and a natural lack of cynicism, has been a striking part of the management's approach as well as the players'. Neither Barclay, Neale nor Wells have played Test cricket and Barclay is the only one to have visited India previously - as vice-captain of the 1970 English Schools team.

So is this a tour that has exposed as a myth the overriding need for "experience'' as a prerequisite for international cricket? Has a comparative ignorance of both India and of what has been popularly believed to be the way to approach top-flight cricket actually helped?

The freshness of the leadership should not be underestimated as it has clearly created the atmosphere in which inexperienced but talented players have been encouraged to make their own decisions.

Barclay said: "Phil Neale has impressed me because he is particularly good at what I call the four E's of management: Expertise, Energy, Encouragement and Enthusiasm. He listens to the players, and of course offers advice. But he's good at judging the right time to do it and he is more inclined to say `how do you feel' first. I also believe that, technically, he is a very good coach.

"As a management team we have encouraged the players to do things for themselves - even silly little things like making sure ther own bags are down in the lobby on time - but we have been lucky because this is a very intelligent bunch."

Old Etonian Barclay, at 40 the same age as Neale, has run affairs smoothly and has lost his cool just once in India - this week in Delhi when, after an hour's wait, a longed-for steak and chips still had not arrived and he needed to leave to catch the flight to Indore. But even then it was more amused exasperation than rage, and his quirky, off-the-wall character has gone down well with the players.

Only yesterday, he caused much merriment in the team by sitting calmly on a chair in the middle of a shanty town reading a book - with a small crowd gathered round him just to watch.

Neale's meticulous attention to detail, his analytical and organisational strengths are complemented by Wells' force of character and natural leadership skills.

His ability to get the best out of players has worked particularly well with a transformed Richard Stemp, the Yorkshire left-arm spinner who - until this tour - was regarded as something of a wild child. Mark Ramprakash, the vice-captain, has also made a significant contribution and like Stemp has grown up. They have both been given responsibility and have seized it eagerly.

Barclay adds: "Ultimately, it is the skills and attitude of the players that matters most. They have held their composure, and out here that is so hard to do."

Two more men, however, should take a bow when the end of tour awards are handed out. One of them, the chairman of selectors Ray Illingworth, hardly fits into any celebration of youth except that his mind is still sharp and his eye for a cricketer a timeless virtue. It was he who argued the selection in September of certain youngsters ahead of others of then equal ability. Players like Stemp, the find-of-the-tour fast bowler Glen Chapple, the batsmen Jason Gallian and David Hemp, the seamer Richard Johnson and the all-rounder Paul Weekes owe much to Illingworth for giving them their chance.

The contribution at Lilleshall of John Emburey was also of value. The former England captain then came out to India to watch the opening Bangalore and Calcutta Test victories. Afterwards he admitted that mistakes - of team selection, philosophy and state of mind - had hamstrung Gooch's 1993 side.

He, of course, was a member of that squad, but the lesson of this winter, which Emburey quickly learned, and the one which English cricket needs to grasp, is that new attitudes, new players and a new approach can indeed solve old problems.

n Dominic Cork, the Derbyshire all-rounder, is doubtful for today's one- day international in Indore because of a virus.