Major clean bowls the S Africans

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JOHN MAJOR punched the air with his fist in triumph yesterday after clean bowling the South African Minister for Sport when he opened a cricket ground in the heat and dust at Alexandra township, one of the black suburbs of Johannesburg.

Having taken off his jacket and tie the Prime Minister produced a medium-paced delivery that demolished Steve Tshwete's wicket. It was admired by Sir Colin Cowdrey, the former England cricketer, and the Prime Minister's press secretary breathed a sigh of relief.

As a picture opportunity, Mr Major's sporting foray at the Alexandra Oval had all the makings of a disaster and a field day for caption writers questioning whether Mr Major had a safe pair of hands. But Mr Major, who described himself as a 'sports nut', revelled in it. He toured the ground with his wife, Norma, to see British sporting personalities such as Sir Bobby Charlton and Alec Stewart teaching youngsters to play sports in a township that was more like Beirut than the Surrey Oval until a year ago.

The ground was transformed with British funds from a rubbish dump. One African National Congress spokesman said sport had offered an island of hope in a sea of despair. Mr Major said: 'People sometimes tend to push sport to one side, thinking it's almost an occasional add-on extra to the good things in life. I don't agree with that at all. I think it is an essential ingredient to the good things in life.'

Getting a wicket yesterday in front of the cameras was probably one of the sweetest moments of his premiership. It was in sharp contrast to his visit exactly a year ago to Japan and Malaysia when he was dogged by the leadership question and bemoaned the 'barmy army' in the Conservative Party.

The media feeding frenzy on his Japan tour has not been repeated. Mr Major has avoided being blown off his foreign policy agenda by the press and has earnt praise in South Africa for his speech to parliament.

After he returns tomorrow morning, Mr Major will go to Chequers to spend the weekend with Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia. It is the first time any leader from the former Soviet Union has been invited to spend an informal weekend at the Prime Minister's residence and it is intended to put Anglo-Russian relations on a new footing.

They will discuss Russia's role in seeking peace in Bosnia, leaks of nuclear material to the West, the enlargement of the European Union, and regional tensions in the former Soviet empire.