October 26, 2001

Will they or won't they? England's tour to India still unresolved

By one of those strange quirks of fate, the announcement about which players will tour India, and those who have asked for more time to consider, came within two hours of news from the Ministry of Defence that British ground forces have been put on stand-by for deployment in the Afghanistan campaign. It appears that the two things are inseparable.

Leaving aside military considerations, on the cricketing front the news is mixed. The England and Wales Cricket Board, which has been working so hard to reassure the players and their families about security arrangements, will be pleased that 11 players have indicated a willingness to travel. On the other hand, they will be concerned about the five players who have requested a longer deliberation period, because they include some key members of the originally selected party.

The good news for the ECB is that Graham Thorpe has put his name on the list to travel. He had expressed doubts in recent days about the wisdom of making the trip, and the presence of his name, along with that of the captain, Nasser Hussain, on the "go" list might yet sway some of the doubters.

Two from that side of the divide, Ashley Giles and Craig White, still have to pass fitness tests, so any final decision could be taken out of their hands.

That would not ease the problem facing the selectors if they have to look for replacements. Robert Croft has not yet made up his mind, so it is conceivable that two of the three first-choice spinners will not go. That would leave only Richard Dawson as a spinner from the original selection, and he has mere ten first-class matches behind him.

With Darren Gough already out of the reckoning, the absence of Andy Caddick would create a vast void in the pace bowling department, while similar doubts surround the opening berths in the batting order. Michael Atherton has retired, leaving Marcus Trescothick as the only proven opener at this level. He is on the doubtful list.

Of those who have decided to go, with the possible exceptions of Hussain and Thorpe, all have compelling cricketing reasons to opt in. Mark Butcher has said that he wants to continue the resurgence of his international career. Michael Vaughan saw Trescothick edge in front in the future captaincy stakes while in Zimbabwe, and he has missed too much international cricket through injury to be able to miss any more without very good reason.

For Warren Hegg the tour represents a perhaps final chance to establish himself in the Test side before the younger wicket-keepers come through. One of those, James Foster, is in a group of up and coming players who might really advance their careers with good performances on this trip.

The next few days will see intense activity on the diplomatic and cricketing front. There is no doubt that the undecided players will seek further clarification and advice, while the ECB will be more than ready to provide it.

Meanwhile, the selectors will be lining up possible replacements. Phil Tufnell, Jeremy Snape and Paul Grayson have been the names most frequently mentioned in the spin department. Nick Knight might be a possibility as a left-handed opening batsman, while the claims of Kent's David Fulton and Richard Montgomerie of Sussex might well be aired again. Among the pace bowlers, Chris Silverwood, Ryan Sidebottom and James Kirtley should ensure their passports are in order. Andrew Flintoff and Ben Hollioake will have their eyes on the all-rounder's spot.

This all presumes that the political situation does not deteriorate. The decision to go from the 11 must be conditional on the fact that the current assurances on security remain valid. Should there be a heightening of tension between now and departure date, the feasibility of the tour as a whole would be thrown into jeopardy once again.