Column One: Sorry Mr Fletcher, it's too late to bale out now

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The Independent Online
SPARE A thought for England's new cricket coach, Duncan Fletcher. Taking up his post with a team now officially rated as the worst in the world, he had his darkest fears confirmed within his first quarter of an hour at the office.

Put in to bat by South Africa, England lost their first four wickets for two runs. If there is a crumb of comfort for Fletcher, it is that India were once 0-4 at Headingley, though that was in 1952, when Brylcreem was dabbed on Fred Trueman's barnet rather than David Beckham's. The first session of the first Test must have been particularly upsetting for Fletcher, a Zimbabwean who once turned down an offer to coach South Africa, the team very much on top here.

Since arriving a month ago, England had been playing well and hopes of a resurgence were high. Unfortunately, as their captain, Nasser Hussain, sagely pointed out the other day, success against sides outside the Test arena counts for nothing.

Losing the toss in conditions perfect for pace bowling did not help England's cause and South Africa quickly made inroads. When Allan Donald, one of the world's great fast bowlers, plucks out Michael Atherton's off stump for a duck with his second ball, you sense trouble coming. Four years ago, Atherton defied Donald and Co for well over 10 hours to save his team's bacon. This time he was gone in less timethan it would take to boil an egg.

In cricket, they often say one brings two. In England's case, it is more like three or four and on a moist pitch beneath leaden skies, wickets fell in rapid succession.

At one stage, with both Hussain and Alec Stewart out without scoring, it looked as if England's top order were heading for a set of Olympic rings (five noughts in a row).

For the several hundred English tourists here for the match, the grim scene would have brought back bad memories of England's last Test at the Oval, when they lost their last seven wickets in 43 minutes. Collapses by this team are not simply limited to the rarefied air of Johannesburg.

In truth, it would have needed a Botham-esque miracle for England to have reached more than 150. A modest recovery did come but it was engineered by the less familiar figures of Andy Flintoff and Michael Vaughan, the latter making his debut.

With the score registering 88-5 by lunch, the prospect of England making their lowest ever Test score - 45 against Australia in 1886/87 - had passed. A half-decent spinner himself, Alastair Campbell would, bar the first three overs, have even had it down as England's morning.

He'd have struggled to give them the afternoon and having struggled to 122 all out, their opponents ended the day largely without alarm. For some reason England's bowlers failed to extract the menace of their counterparts and South Africa were 64-1 when bad light stopped play 16 overs before the scheduled close.

And how will the good burghers at Lord's respond to the latest disaster? Probably with another working party.

Match report, page 32

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