Atherton is toying with the tide

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The Independent Online
Michael Atherton's first actions this morning, after receiving his alarm call, will have been to pull back the curtains and study his tide tables. Then having memorised what time high tide was due, he would have tried to ascertain which way the wind was blowing by sticking a moistened finger out of the ninth-floor window of his seafront hotel.

This may have seemed crude and unusual behaviour for a history graduate to be indulging in, but, according to local knowledge, the two acts are crucial. Especially, it seems, if you are the captain of a cricket team in need of a pointer or two and already involved in a Test series levelled at one botch all.

Apparently, when the wind blows from the south-west, it is laden with moisture from the Cape, so you must bowl first or take a brolly out to bat. However, if the wind is a nor'easter, the sunny weather makes batting and a front-line spinner imperative. Which in England's case would be Richard Illingworth, while South Africa will have plumped for Clive Eksteen.

However, with the ground at Kingsmead situated about half a mile from the Indian Ocean, high tide can also affect the pitch, depending on what time it comes in, offering help to the seam and swing bowlers when it does. If this sounds like poppycock to those who play their cricket inland - or even to devotees of the timeless Test played here in 1939, when 10 days were not long enough to force a result - a similar phenomenon has been observed at Southchurch Park in Southend. There, Essex players have noticed that when the tide comes up the Thames estuary, the pitch would suddenly change from being flat and dry, to one that seamed about.

However, two days ago when the pitch was first revealed, such specialist knowledge would have been unnecessary, and several pairs of batsmen's eyebrows were raised in unison at the first sight of the moist, grassy surface. With low grey clouds scudding about and a nip in the air, one England bowler was heard to remark gleefully that it was "just like Derby".

Given that the groundsman here at Kingsmead is none other than Phil Russell, an ex-player and former coach of that county, it was not an altogether surprising observation and one which, if prevalent this morning, will have Mike Watkinson installed as a dual purpose bowler in place of the left-arm Illingworth. The Lancashire captain's ability to bowl both seam and spin are, presumably, vital should the tide or wind prove difficult to gauge over the next few days.

Fine tuning selection to this degree is all well and good, providing the remainder of the team are pulling their weight. England's problem at The Wanderers, aside from the irrational decision to field first, is that only five players performed close to their best. Atherton, of course, has been superb in both Tests, as was Graeme Hick at Centurion Park. Russell and Robin Smith, too, have been prepared to fight hard with the bat. Yet only Dominic Cork has shone with the ball.

Five-man teams do not win Test matches, let alone series, and it is time for the other players to contribute more than a passing interest. As Atherton himself pointed out after nets yesterday, England know they have to play better, more consistent cricket. "If we do that," he said, "I believe we'll beat South Africa."

With John Crawley, who comes in to fill the troublesome No 3 slot, the only change to the batting line-up, this morning's big decisions would have been over which bowlers to play. Atherton's own hunches are that this is a "swingy kind of ground" and last night Mark Ilott and Peter Martin were both named in the 13-man squad.

But, according to Allan Donald, there is also a good deal of pace and carry in this pitch, too, ideal for Devon Malcolm, who has been steadily working up speed. Cork will open the bowling with him, but while the selectors might have been tempted into making changes, they have nearly always regretted the thought of dropping Angus Fraser in the past.

England (from): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, J P Crawley, G P Thorpe, G A Hick, R A Smith, R C Russell (wkt), D G Cork, R K Illingworth, A R C Fraser, D E Malcolm, M C Ilott, P J Martin, 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 (wkt), S M Pollock, C R Matthews, A A Donald, M W Pringle, C E Eksteen.

n Ian Salisbury has been granted an early release from England A's tour of Pakistan because of the death of his grandmother.