Cricket: Australia in fear of an Englishman

Test of strength for the heavyweight contenders as England's one- day wonders look to a bright future
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The Independent Online
There is something a little galling about Bob Woolmer, once of Kent and England, guiding South Africa into a series against Australia which, by unofficial reckoning, will decide the heavyweight championship of Test cricket. It is not as if we have such a wealth of top-class international coaches we can afford to let one of the best slip the net. But it is more than that; Woolmer is such a very English Englishman. His accent is still gently home counties, his voice holds no hidden menace and his largely unfulfilled Test career, which was cut short by his defection to World Series Cricket, balanced enormous talent with slight diffidence. Less Sergeant Major than Sergeant Wilson.

Yet, since becoming national coach in October 1994, Woolmer has prompted a quiet revolution in South African cricket, which had only just emerged from lengthy isolation. International teams, Woolmer saw, had to be fitter, faster, mentally sharper and stronger and if that meant importing fitness specialists, psychologists, physiotherapists and specialist technical coaches then that was the way forward. Woolmer had a strong ally in Dr Ali Bacher, head of the United Cricket Board of South Africa.

"What we noticed immediately about Bob was that he was an outstanding technical coach and our players like that," Bacher said. "When Allan Donald is in the nets, he wants someone there to make sure he bowls close to the stumps and cocks the wrists properly. But the other thing is that Bob has a lot of flair and imagination. He can go over the top sometimes, but he's always thinking about the game, bringing in new ideas and that's very refreshing because our cricket was becoming stereotyped." The contrast between the preparations of the South African and England sides two winters ago spelled the end of Ray Illingworth's outdated regime. Now England have an army of specialists as well.

With the first of the three Tests starting in Melbourne on Boxing Day, the phony war has already begun. Two one-day victories over Australia have lifted the touring team's morale and Donald is sounding menacing. "I want this series more than anything else in the game," the South African fast bowler said. "I have never ever thought about a series as much as this one." Accusations of ball-tampering made by Channel Nine against Hansie Cronje, the South African captain, have smacked of desperate psychology. "You have to put up with a lot of things," Woolmer said calmly. "Of course it's an attempt to steer our focus away from the job."

The Australians have enough troubles of their own to quell. Injuries to Jason Gillespie and Glenn McGrath, their two leading wicket-takers in Australia's 2-1 win over South Africa eight months ago, have unbalanced the attack, debate over the two "Teletubbies" - Mark Taylor and Shane Warne - has heightened a sense of unease in a camp which began the season with threats of a players' strike. Woolmer is understandably cautious.

"They may be more vulnerable in certain areas than they were last time," he said. "They're talking about changing the captain, they're having a go at Warne about his weight. But I would never underestimate them as long as I live." Warne will be watched with particular keenness after his spat with the media last week. He was unveiling a waxwork statue of himself, but the difference between the slender model and the real thing was too much for one journalist. "Which one do you prefer, Warney?" Shades of the barrackers of Taunton last summer. Exit Warne.

It is a reflection of the indiscriminate nature of the modern itinerary that one of the most anticipated series in recent Test history has been reduced to a whirlwind five weeks. A full-blooded series has been turned into a potential lottery, like a world title fight decided by the first knockdown.

"It'll just be a matter of one catch here, one good delivery, 20 crucial runs here and there," Woolmer said. "It's what makes the Australians so hard to beat. They play as a team in an individual sport; if the top order fail, the middle order get stuck in, but I think we're all learning to take responsibility."

Dismissing Pakistan for 92 to win the final Test - and the series - in Faisalabad is a rite of passage which cannot be experienced on the practice ground. The graduation of Gary Kirsten from strokeless grafter into a top-class opener has added precious steel to a brittle top order, while the resurgence of the 38-year-old Pat Symcox has brought a solidity to the late-order batting and added variety to one of the meanest attacks in Test cricket.

"He's a competitive individual and he didn't like Paul Adams coming and taking his place," Woolmer said. "He's got into our fitness regime and our work ethic and he's more adept in the field." Work ethic? Fitness regimes? Woolmer himself must reflect how his own career would have benefited from such guidance, though the sight of the Australians always goaded him into unexpected resistance. All three of his centuries were made in Ashes series, the first of them occupying a painstaking six and a half hours. Similar resilience from his adopted side might see a shift in the balance of cricketing power, which will heighten expectation for Woolmer's return to England next summer.