Cricket: Atherton's advantage squandered

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IT WAS all progressing so swimmingly. This is an unfamiliar state of affairs where England are concerned which alone made it more pleasant. Still, those who took the advice to enjoy it while it lasted made the right decision. The third day of the final warm-up match before the serious business of Thursday had begun on a sad note but it had been cosy thereafter.

England had carved out a significant first-innings lead of 102 during which two of the all-rounders on which the balance of the side and the fate of the Test series could depend each took three wickets. Gavin Hamilton had found some smart away-swingers in his armoury and Andrew Flintoff, enjoying his first bowl of the tour, had responded with that panache which should empty a few bars before filling them again later over the next few years. The side had then built on these efforts to extend their advantage over the Combined Gauteng/Northerns provincial team to 190 with all their second-innings wickets still in hand.

Mark Butcher, who perhaps needed to convince himself of his readiness, looked as composed as he has done all tour. Michael Atherton was in his pomp once more, pulling and square driving adeptly. It was almost enough to compensate for the bad news about the fast bowler Dean Headley. A scan on his injured back had revealed a hot spot and possible stress fracture which will need a period of rest of eight to 12 weeks. Although a second opinion is being taken in the next two days, the likelihood is that he will fly home this week, his place on the tour to be taken by Chris Silverwood, who has already arrived here in a temporary back-up capacity.

This is unwelcome news for a whole-hearted player, not least because until the problem arose after he had bowled 10 balls in the tour's opening match Headley had never had a sore back in his bowling career. It only confirms that sooner or later the stresses exerted by the discipline catch up with its exponents.

Despite that bad news, a lead of nearly 200 was all England could have hoped for in this match. This was, after all, the Sixth Test according to the South African media, so they wanted to give England a severe examination. It then all went horribly wrong for the tourists.

"Tell me the old, old story," they might have started to chant on the grassy banks of this surprisingly convivial ground. First Atherton, perhaps content with his form and thinking the others might need a go, gave the charge to the left-arm spinner Clive Eksteen and edged to slip. This was revenge of a sort for Eksteen. He had bowled 52 overs in England's second innings at The Wanderers four years ago and failed to dislodge the England opener. Atherton kept vigil for 10 hours, made 185, saved the match and Eksteen has never played another Test. Presumably, he has now worked Atherton out.

Unfortunately, this was followed by a procession. From 88 for 0 it became 97 for 5. The ball was turning for Eksteen but there was some unnecessary gaiety in the play at the other end. This is a fault England now have a mere four days to eradicate. This is a happy party and it is much too early to suggest that they are not up to the job - which of course many predict - but these were disturbingly familiar faults on show.

Butcher dabbed the left-arm spinner to backward square leg while Hussain nicked one to slip which span enough. Then, in short order, Stewart, who could have done with hanging around, drove to cover and Vaughan played a horrible cross-batted shot. Both fell to the delighted Walter Masimola, the late replacement in the Combined side, there as part of the quota system designed to give black players a proper chance.

Even England could not continue in this vein, for it was not a Test match. Hamilton and Flintoff put on another 30 before Hamilton edged Steve Elworthy to slip. Chris Adams, who had come in down the order because of a severely bruised thumb, immediately drove to mid-off where he was dropped. Taking no account of this, Flintoff, whose enthusiasm for making mincemeat of bowlers should not be curtailed, drove too carelessly to cover.

When bad light ended play 16 overs early England were 136 for 7. That was a lead of 238, which may or may not be enough to avoid a defeat which can only undermine them.

They played into South African hands at precisely the wrong moment.