Cricket: Ramprakash keeps England on track

First Test: South Africa bowlers fight back after a poor first day but the home side's batsmen manage to continue their good work

ALEC STEWART will be thankful that his first two days as England captain were not reversed as both South Africa and the Edgbaston pitch gave a truer reflection of their character yesterday. With 462 runs on the board, England remain firm favourites to win the First Test, though the visitors' retort will have at least brought a glimmer of hope.

South Africa's chances will be improved further should a nasty blow to Darren Gough's right hand prove anything more sinister than a bad bruise. Struck by Alan Donald 20 minutes before the end of play, Gough was in obvious pain and he later went for an x-ray on his right index finger.

South Africa leave little to chance and their coach, Bob Woolmer, would have drummed into his bowlers the need to bowl a fuller length. Fortunately for their captain, they obliged, and England found runs harder to come by than they had 24 hours earlier.

Even so, with England resuming on 249 for 1, any pressure would have been firmly on the South Africans. By their own unremitting standards, they had had a bad first day and amends had to be made sooner rather than later.

The first wicket came before most spectators had settled in their seats. With 103 runs burning a hole in his back pocket, Michael Atherton was perhaps destined to be extravagant. Whatever his state of mind, his attempt to force Allan Donald off the fourth ball of the second over was ill-judged, the extra bounce ensuring that the edge ended in Mark Boucher's gloves. It was the kind of shot Atherton had eschewed for most of the previous day and its boldness allowed South Africa to achieve in five minutes what had taken them almost four and a half hours to do on Thursday - take a wicket.

The early breakthrough, while clearly boosting South Africa's bowlers, did not herald a collapse. Coming to the wicket a place lower than had been planned, Nasser Hussain immediately announced himself with a sumptuous cover-driven four. Other boundaries followed, including a majestic pull off Shaun Pollock, who having sensed a quickening in the pace of the pitch, couldn't resist trying one half way down.

After an initial burst from his two frontmen, Hansie Cronje brought on Paul Adams from the City End, alternating his three main pacemen from the other. It was, give or take a few overs from Jacques Kallis, the pattern for most of the day, and one that, until the post-tea session, threatened to get South Africa back into the game.

Never at his strongest against spin, Stewart was slowed by the unorthodox consistency of Adams's left-arm spin. By his normally fluent standards, England's captain was reduced to a crawl. Having carefully reached 49, he cautiously played out a maiden to Adams only to fall to a loose drive at the other end.

Although power tends to invest more significance in a person's actions, it was just the kind of shot the old Stewart might have been guilty of. Any claims, however, that the captaincy is affecting his batting are a tad premature.

Four balls later, Hussain followed his skipper back into the pavilion, the victim of a cruel jape by Dame Fortune. Playing calmly back to Adams, Hussain was undone by a grubber that barely bounced six inches, which even at Adam's reduced pace, is lethal. It was reminiscent of his dismissal in the third Test in Trinidad, when Carl Hooper produced something equally unplayable and Hussain must be wondering what he has done to upset those who sit in judgement in the cricketing Valhalla.

The double strike, which came with the score on 309, left England bereft of momentum. The loss, too, of Graham Thorpe, England's recent player of the year, soon after lunch, did not help matters as only 61 runs were scored in the second session. According to the Speedster, Thorpe was bowled by the quickest ball of the Test, a 87 mph swinger from Pollock that the left-hander hit across.

England's caution, though perhaps overdone, illustrated that they still do not entirely trust this potentially awkward pitch. The way in which Mark Ramprakash wore his ascetic's hat, rather than the jauntier one he had been seen in recently for Middlesex, betrayed England's desire to bat only once.

Nevertheless, it was another assured display from the Middlesex captain and he was a model of calm authority. Since his coming of age in the West Indies, Ramprakash is unafraid to play the ball on its merits. If that means sitting tight for a few overs, or walloping a half-volley for four, so be it. After all, that is what most Test cricket is about.

Once Mark Ealham, who spent 53 minutes scoring five runs, had become Adam's third victim, Ramprakash decided to accelerate. In partnership with Dominic Cork, who struck the ball sweetly, the pair added 55 in 89 minutes before Donald, returning with the third new ball, removed Ramprakash with his first delivery.

After a brief stoppage for rain, Cork followed, well caught by Pollock at third man as he slashed uppishly at Donald. In failing light, Donald proved more a handful than he had done at any stage of the innings, and Robert Croft driving loosely, became the bowlers fourth victim after he edged behind.

Edgbaston

scoreboard

Second day; South Africa won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings

(Overnight: 249 for 1)

M A Atherton c Boucher b Donald103

366 min, 279 balls, 12 fours

*A J Stewart c Cullinan b Klusener 49

187 min, 128 balls, 5 fours

N Hussain lbw b Adams 35

98 min, 82 balls, 5 fours

G P Thorpe b Pollock 10

39 min, 30 balls, 1 four

M R Ramprakash b Donald 49

194 min, 151 balls, 4 fours

M A Ealham b Adams 5

56 min, 39 balls

D G Cork c Pollock b Donald 36

128 min, 109 balls, 5 fours

R D B Croft c Boucher b Donald 19

33 min, 21 balls, 2 fours

D Gough not out 16

34 min, 15 balls, 2 fours

A R C Fraser c Cronje b Pollock 9

27 min, 21 balls, 1 four

Extras (b18,lb26,w8,nb2) 54

Total (722 min, 181 overs) 462

Fall: 1-179 (Butcher), 2-249 (Atherton), 3-309 (Stewart), 4-309 (Hussain), 5-329 (Thorpe), 6-356 (Ealham), 7-411 (Ramprakash), 8-430 (Cork), 9-437 (Croft), 10-462 (Fraser).

Bowling: Donald 35-9-95-4 (w2); Pollock 42-12-92-2 (nb2,w1); Klusener 31-7-74-1; Cronje 11-3-28-0 (w1); Adams 42-10-83-3; Kallis 20-7-46- 0 (w1).

SOUTH AFRICA: G F J Liebenberg, G Kirsten, J H Kallis, D J Cullinan, *W J Cronje, J N Rhodes, S M Pollock, M V Boucher, L Klusener, P R Adams, A A Donald.

Umpires: D R Shepherd and R Tiffin.

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