Zimbabwe decision day for England players

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Zimbabwe has been a problem for English cricket throughout this year but only during the past few days have those difficulties shifted from the boardroom to the dressing room.

But as England's players have finally been forced to decide whether they will go on the five-match tour in November the squad for which will be announced on Tuesday the cricket world has been awash with rumours about who might not go. One has England travelling to Zimbabwe without captain Michael Vaughan, who, alongside other senior players, would be rested at the request of coach Duncan Fletcher.

Another is that the withdrawal from the party of Steve Harmison on moral grounds led to a confrontation between Vaughan and his fast bowler, although this has been denied by David Graveney, the chairman of selectors.

Among those players thought to be considering joining Harmison on the sidelines are all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, spinner Ashley Giles and batsman Andrew Strauss, who on Monday told the BBC that all the players had “deep-rooted moral problems” with touring and that he had yet to decide whether he would travel.

All that is certain so far is that Harmison is not available for selection and that Marcus Trescothick is. The Somerset left-hander, who captained England in Zimbabwe in place of the injured Nasser Hussain in 2001, declared himself ready to tour following the Champions Trophy final defeat on Saturday.

The England and Wales Cricket Board on Monday refused to comment on the composition of the squad save to say that England still expected to pick the strongest squad possible. The playing strength of the touring party will not be a problem England could select a team from the top ranks of league cricket and probably win the limited overs series against a Zimbabwean side depleted by political infighting that led to most of its best players being sacked.

That has prompted many observers to suggest that England's interests would be best served by sending out a shadow squad, giving Fletcher an opportunity to blood new players while giving his first-choice team further rest before they head to South Africa for a five-Test series starting in December.

But having found themselves isolated within the international cricket community earlier this year over a suggestion that the entire tour would be cancelled on moral grounds, the ECB has since been trying to shore up its political position and that is best served by taking the strongest possible squad.

The chief point of interest in the party from a playing point of view will be the inclusion or otherwise of Darren Gough. The Essex paceman has had an indifferent international summer culminating in a performance on Saturday when in a match largely dominated by the ball, Gough's 10 overs cost an expensive 58 runs.

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How imported ideas can make money while you sleepSeventeen years ago, I was in a City karaoke bar for expatriate Japanese, watching a senior Nomura executive singing Elvis's “Hound Dog” to a backing tape and a video of a bulldog wearing sunglasses and a hat. Pouring myself another slug of overpriced whisky, I turned to a colleague and scoffed: “It could never catch on with us Brits. We're too reserved.”

Within a few years, thousands of pubs across the UK were giving eager regulars the chance to bawl their way through “My Way” and “Lady in Red”. I had joined the ranks of pundits whose predictions had not only missed a target but ricocheted back wounding their credibility. I was almost up there with Lord Kelvin, the scientist who claimed in 1895 that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible”, and Thomas Watson, the IBM chairman who in 1943 said “there is a world market for maybe five computers”.

Karaoke proved that the oddest imports can catch on and make money. So I have more sense than to predict the success or failure of a plan to set up Japanese-style capsule hotels in the UK, launched last week by Simon Woodroffe, a serial entrepreneur. However, the latest project of this one-time Borstal boy and roadie is still worth studying. Transplanting a product or service from overseas to your home soil is a classic way of starting a business.

Mr Woodroffe knows how to do it: he set up Yo! Sushi, the restaurant chain that imported the Japanese gimmick of distributing raw fish snacks to diners via a conveyor belt. Last year, he sold 78 per cent of the venture for £10m.

Trekking to Earl's Court last Thursday for a design show where blueprints for the “Yotel” were to be unveiled along with a prototype “sleeping pod”, I was sceptical. A colleague who had stayed at a capsule hotel in Japan, where guests were crammed together like sardines, described his sleeping compartment as “coffin-like”.

But then, as a stuffy Brummie business reporter, I had forgotten how weird some Londoners are. Many of the design journalists at the show appeared to have slept in their clothes. One was sporting flip-flops. Another was wearing a dress apparently fashioned from a fertiliser sack. If anyone was going to spend £60 on a night in a unit resembling a microwave oven, these freaks might.

When I got to the Yotel stand I found that the pod was no smaller than some rooms in conventional budget hotels, though better designed. Instead of cramming normal furniture into a tiny space, the sofa turned into the bed and the desk pivoted out of the wall. Nor was Mr Woodroffe quite the twerp he sometimes appears on TV. Having locked us into the pod to prevent interruptions, he explained how the Yotel might work financially. Outside, a crowd of spiky-haired design groupies peered in through the window, as if at a pair of besuited goldfish.

Yotels would be cheap to build, Mr Woodroffe said, because the pods would be prefabricated “in one of the most technologically-advanced places in the world Brentford, Essex” before being installed in the hotel shell. Cramming each floor with pods means few would get natural light. But do guests really care when most of a one-night hotel stay is spent asleep? The extra revenue means Yotels could afford expensive sites and “go into city centre locations which Travelodge or Holiday Inn Express could never consider”.

Mr Woodroffe said: “People will come because of the buzz and will keep on coming because of the quality of service.” He expects to build a trial hotel over the next couple of years and already has external financing lined up to bolster his own investment.

The entrepreneur gave me a CD of himself singing with geezer band The Blockheads and sent me packing. As a train operated by better-known serial entrepreneur Richard Branson carried me with characteristic tardiness back to the Midlands, I reflected that Mr Woodroffe's knack was adaptation as much as plagiarism. In Japan, conveyor sushi restaurants are generally cheap and tatty. Mr Woodroffe took them upmarket to win a UK niche. Now he is modifying another Japanese idea capsule hotels in the hope of repeating the trick.

David Wilkinson of Ernst & Young says: “Transplanting a proven business idea from overseas is a hell of a lot easier than inventing your own. You just have to think about the differences in your own environment which could limit its success here.”

Some imports need little tinkering to work. In the early 1990s, for example, Scott and Ally Svenson asked Starbucks for a franchise to bring the chain to the UK. When Starbucks turned them down, they opened the lookalike Seattle Coffee Company. Starbucks bought the Svensons out for £55m in 1997. Similarly, Hass Hassan brought US-style organic convenience stores here in 1999. In January he sold Fresh & Wild, his UK brainchild, for £21m to Whole Foods Market, a rival US supermarket group.

But you cannot rely on a big foreign company swooping down and buying you out. Mr Wilkinson says: “By demonstrating there is a market in the UK, you may merely encourage the overseas operator to set up here in competition.” You may also find that other entrepreneurs import the same business idea as you. Frantic competition took the froth out of coffee bars in the late 1990s, for example.

Mr Woodroffe has the advantage that the Japanese business concepts he borrows are too left-field to inspire much competition. Yo! Sushi has done very nicely for him, and so may capsule hotels. Another of his ideas a career as a recording artist is a non-starter. Playing Mr Woodroffe's disc confirmed the truth of his confession that he is “a crap singer”. But then, hiring Ian Dury's old band to accompany you on a professionally-recorded CD is at least a step up from singing “My Way” to a hired karaoke machine down the Dog and Duck.

jonathan.guthrie@ft.com

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