Adams asked to turn the outcome

Cricket

England players who tour regularly are long used to combining their family Christmases with the more serious matter of winning Test matches. Yet this has not always proved compatible, as the previous two yuletide Tests in Melbourne have proved.

This year in a break from the traditions of celebrating Christmas in fancy dress, England have instead spent most of the festive season here singing songs and watching videos in an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Christmas past.

England realise there are only 10 days of cricket left to win this series, which is still level pegging after three drawn matches. Any slip-ups in the fourth Test here could let the opposition in and both sides know that with so little slack to play with, few can be afforded.

But if the karaoke party - in particular Raymond Illingworth's version of "The Twist" - on Christmas Eve eased tensions and provided the appropriate hilarity, much of yesterday was spent practising, watching videotape of the left-arm wrist-spinner Paul Adams and worrying about the height of the sightscreens.

Since his nine wickets against England in Kimberley, the 18- year-old Adams has shown he is no flash in the pan wunderkind. Today, barring last- minute injury, he will become South Africa's youngest Test player.

Apart from the raw inexperience of having only played five first-class games - although Ramadhin and Valentine had only played three between them when they were first picked for the West Indies - it is a moment he is clearly relishing. "I am just looking forward to bowling my first ball," he said. He does not follow in the modern sledging idiom, either - "I just laugh at them."

His is a debut which will resonate around his country as an an example of just what can be achieved by those so long at the margins of this sports- crazed land. But it is a debut that carries great pressure too, poised as it is to be made at the critical stage of the series, on a notoriously slow, flat and well-grassed pitch which looks perfect for batting in the early stages.

England however believe that playing Adams will be easier to play second time around, most of them having played against him at Kimberley. But the youngster's inclusion has brought problems closer to home. Dave Richardson has never kept to him before and his captain, Hansie Cronje, had a long net batting against him to work out the best field settings.

Richardson, playing his 27th Test has never taken a stumping and he said he desperately wants one for Christmas. He has not had long to prepare, unlike Brian Taylor, who toured South Africa with England in 1956.

In those days the team travelled by boat and Taylor, who had never kept to England's left-arm spinner Johnny Wardle (then bowling chinamen) had brought a gross of tennis balls with him in order to get some practice in on deck. Legend has it that a further gross were picked up in Gibraltar, the first lot having disappeared overboard as Taylor failed to read the wiles of Wardle.

But if England are now more confident of reading Adams, their complaint that the sightscreens are too low verges on the nit-picking and suggests a side not entirely at peace with itself. South African sources report that no one has complained before about the Press box window above the sightscreen, and anyway they are coated with a special film to prevent glare.

Yet Atherton and Illingworth have been adamant and a token white strip about 18 inches high has been painted to the lower edge of the windows. Interestngly, nothing as been said about the Castle Lager adverts in bright cricket-ball red situated at ground level right behind the bowler's arm.

England who, providing there are no last-minute misgivings over the pitch this morning, will play the same side as as in the last Test, with the exception of Jason Gallian at No 3 for the injured John Crawley. Gallian has been pulled in to help give the innings the solid starts it has so far lacked and will try to end the first-wicket-down hoodoo once and for all.

Judging by the pitch, the bowlers will have much work to do should South Africa decide to bat with due care and attention. Once again England have plumped for swing, but as the former South African captain Kepler Wessels has already warned, it only swings at St. George's Park when the wind is from the east, a direction it was not blowing from yesterday. Unless it lightens and swings around, Richard Illingworth could find himself with an aching pair of spinning fingers and a hairline that has receded an inch a day.

England (from): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, J E R Gallian, G P Thorpe, G A Hick, R A Smith, R C Russell (wkt), D G Cork, P J Martin, R K Illingworth, M C Ilott, M Watkinson.

South Africa (from): A C Hudson, G Kirsten, W J Cronje (capt), D J Cullinan, J N Rhodes, J H Kallis, B M McMillan, D J Richardson, S M Pollock, C R Matthews, A A Donald, P R Adams, N Boje.

Umpires: C J Mitchley (SA), S A Bucknor (WI). TV Replays: R E Koertzen (SA).

Match referee: C H Lloyd (WI).

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