Burn-out warning for the Donald wannabes

'If I was playing in England next season I'd have to hang up my boots afterwards'
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ALLAN DONALD is so popular with South Africa's cricket fans that when, in a larky moment during practice before the first one- dayer here, his captain Hansie Cronje swiped the cap off his head and threw it into the crowd, someone actually lobbed it back. After a series in which the sheer pace of his bowling, not to mention that classically intimidating sprint to the wicket, had repeatedly punched a hole in England's top-order batting, Donald remains the exhilarating figurehead of South African cricket.

Indeed, the enduring memory of the Test series is of the crouching, fists- clenched dash towards slips with which Donald celebrates a wicket. It is like a lightning flash - it sparks a thunderous roar in the stands and creates an atmosphere thick with menace for the incoming batsman. Donald was Man of the Match in the final Test and, with 19 wickets in all, Man of the Series as well. In his speech he modestly suggested that the latter award might have gone to Atherton, and he had a point. But Atherton's heroics staved off defeat; Donald's burning pace was the drum-roll that brought South Africa victory.

It is possible that things would have been different if the first Test had not been washed out by a deluge. At that time, amid much talk of injuries, Donald was, in truth, firing on only half a cylinder. After another highly successful season in England, in which his bowling - 89 wickets at 15.90 - inspired Warwickshire to a second successive Championship, he blew a fuse. "I started off very badly, very lethargically," he said. "I felt awful. I think it was just that I'd worked hard, bowled 500 overs - 538 I think. Emotionally, I suffered a kind of depression. I really struggled to motivate myself; I couldn't get going."

He was sitting on the players' balcony at Newlands, with a fine view of Table Mountain in front of him and a pile of bats awaiting his autograph outside the dressing-room. As he spoke, Dominic Cork was passing the outside edge of Brian McMillan's bat and giving him a theatrical, glowering stare. At such moments, Cork looks alarmingly like an Allan Donald wannabe, right down to the ceremonial sun-block daubed like war-paint over the bridge of his nose. "Whooahh-whoh!" said Donald. "Having a bit of a go at each other, these two . . . but anyway, I had to do something to get out of it, because the Tests were about to start, so I went to see a sports psychologist, and he called it a slump, an emotional slump. I guess it was all the effort I'd put in during the previous year. It all came out, the tiredness, the hard work. It was a state of depression. It lasted for about two and a half weeks."

It isn't much of a tribute to the English season that two of its brightest stars - Lara and Donald - have both broken down after trying it. Lara, famously, is sulking in his tent. And Donald flinched and shook his head at the thought of playing another year. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't imagine doing it. If I was playing in England next season I reckon I'd have to hang up my boots afterwards. We've had this Test series, and then it's the World Cup, and then it'll be six months off, which is a heck of a relief."

In fact, Donald will be working in England next summer, but only as Warwickshire's bowling coach. He will be in a good position to keep an eye on his young South African team-mate Shaun Pollock who should replace him at Edgbaston. Whether he'll succeed in smoothing Pollock's passage through the grinding English season is another question. "I really don't know," he said. "It's getting more and more difficult, especially for bowlers. And for fast bowlers . . . it's getting too much, I think. Eventually it will get to players, it has to. I mean, look at Cork" - he gestured out to the middle, where England's most enthusiastic bowler was charging in with his usual breakneck vigour. "That guy really bowls a lot of overs for his team. And one wonders when it's going to hit him. But then, you know, he wants to bowl, so fair enough - while he can still do it, why not?"

Looking back at the series, Donald felt that it had been a close-run thing. "It started very tentatively," he said. "It would have been interesting to see what might have happened in that first match if England had got 400 or so - but we'll never know. All in all, the series was a hell of an exciting one to play in. There was some very good cricket played, and some very ordinary cricket. I think England were waiting for us to make a mistake, and we did nearly bottle it at the end. But, you know, it was good fun. I'm sure the South African public enjoyed it. I don't suppose we've seen such a summer of action here for a long time."

In front of his eyes, three South African wickets fell in rapid succession. At this rate, Donald would soon be batting. The one-day game makes strange demands on players, and for the next couple of months - four more contests against England, followed by the World Cup - Donald will be worrying about batting as much as bowling. "Yes, it's a bit unfair. One time I was playing in India and I had to face five balls from Sachin Tendulkar, and we needed five to win. And I missed the first three. And to be put in a situation like that . . . I mean, batsmen don't often find themselves having to bowl the final over. But it's something that tail-enders have to cope with. The face of cricket is changing very quickly, very quickly."

That is true. In one-day cricket Donald ceases to be an opening bowler. "It's one of the things Bob Woolmer has brought in," he said. "It's this thing where the batter's up front - especially with this rule that there's only two fielders outside the circle - use the pace of the ball to go over the top, and it can fly around. So he brings me in first change, when the field can spread."

He quite likes bowling in one day, though it is not, he admits, remotely like bowling in a Test. "It's nice when you've got 250 on the board, there's always a nice adrenalin rush with the crowd and everything, but sometimes it's the other way around: you're trying to defend a total of 160 or 170 and you're getting smashed around. But that's one-day cricket for you. You can't bank on anything. You have to experiment. Pace variation is very important - slower balls and stuff. I've just invented this new slower ball myself - I fiddled around in the nets and it came out well."

In the second match at Bloemfontein, Donald tried his slower ball out on Atherton, who obliged by giving the bowler a sharp return catch which he dropped. So he tried another one, and this time Atherton paused, waited and crashed it past extra cover for four. On the whole, it was the faster ball that did the damage. At Newlands, Donald came on when Atherton and Stewart had put together a calm opening stand of 59, and single-handedly turned the thing around. Bowling like a man with his spinnaker full of wind, he blew in at high speed and trapped Stewart leg before; then he sent Atherton's off-stump flying out of the ground, and ripped one into Hick's pads for another lbw.

It will not console anyone that England's best hope of containing his ebullience is to persuade him back into county cricket. Nothing else looks likely to take the spring out of his delivery stride.