Cricket: Cricket on front foot in township of Alex: England A's first stop on their tour of South Africa highlights the progress of black players. John Perlman reports from Johannesburg

THE last English cricket team to visit South Africa never met the people of Alexandra, but it was not for lack of the township folks trying. The trouble was that every time they set out for the Wanderers stadium - where Mike Gatting and his men were playing South Africa and making a hash of even their narrow purpose 'just here to play cricket' - they were stopped in their tracks by policemen carrying teargas, truncheons and guns.

Today, nearly three years later, the people of Alex, as this township on Johannesburg's east side is universally known, will have their day with the English all right, and there probably will not be a cop in sight. That does not mean that all of South Africa's harsher realities will be hidden when Hugh Morris's England A side open their tour in Alexandra against a Transvaal Invitation XI.

The Alexandra Oval is perched high on the township's East Bank, a new section of much-better housing that looks down on the rest of the place. A smack over the bowler's head would land the ball in a neat suburban street called Springbok Crescent. But a fierce pull over midwicket would send it bouncing into a rough-and-tumble shantytown of tin shacks and open refuse heaps.

The oval has been built on an old rubbish dump. The British government was prompted to put up some of the money after Douglas Hurd attended an Alex cricket clinic and a South African company did the bulldozing for free. The grass has grown lush and green and the Astroturf wicket looks smooth and safe, as it should - it was paid for by the Bank of England.

The fact that the tour opener takes place in one of the country's poorer townships, against a team which includes five teenage products of a cricket development programme that Gatting and Co almost derailed, is significant in itself. But what is even more striking is just how relaxed cricket people are about it all.

The township programme these days has shed that desperate-to-please edge that was always there in the days of sporting isolation. The people who run it and play in it are eager rather than anxious to push ahead. That is good news for the five young men who will be up against England's (second) best.

Nobody denies that it's a big moment for them. 'It's a very important day because the people from Alex have never seen us play against a team like this,' said Walter Masemola, an Alexandra youngster who will open the attack. 'I feel very nervous but it's a big challenge,' said Geoffrey Toyana, a stylish 18- year-old left-handed opening bat who will captain a team that includes two players, the batsman Mandy Yachad and the spinner Clive Eksteen, with South African caps.

But for everyone concerned, the England A match is just a splash of colour in a much bigger picture. 'This game is great but the Michaelmas week gave me far greater pleasure,' said Imtiaz Patel, development manager for the Transvaal Cricket Board. Patel is talking about a recent tournament in Natal where a Development XI took on some of the top schools in the country. 'We won two games out of four and we had Hilton College (Mike Procter's alma mater) 110 for 6 chasing 280 when rain came down,' Patel said.

After one practice with Saturday's team, Toyana, Masemola, the opener Ahmed Omar and the Alex batsman Justice Nkutha (his twin brother Peace is 12th man) returned to their bread and butter, playing in the Beckwith week, which is used to pick the Transvaal team for the national schools tournament on 13 December. The fifth player, spinner Jacob Malao, trains with the senior provincial players.

At one time Masemola in particular was constantly being held out as a township prodigy who would one day play for South Africa. 'Initially there was pressure to deliver someone,' Patel said. 'Now we're not so worried about who it's going to be and when it happens. We know it's going to come.'

The United Cricket Board's coaching director, Khaya Majola, said: 'From juniors all the way up to under-19, there is no representative (side) selected on merit that will not include some of our development programme boys.'

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