Cricket: Cronje error lets Butcher off the hook

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The Independent Online
THE SOUTH African side has been held up as the most disciplined bunch of cricketers around today. They may not have players with real flair, Allan Donald and Jonty Rhodes apart, but they bat long, they bowl tight, they stop everything in the field and scarcely drop a catch. They are efficiency personified.

Hansie Cronje may appear to be a cold fish and is not an "up boys and at 'em" sort of captain. In appearance, he would make an ideal leader of a particularly ascetic religious movement. But it would be hard to imagine a more determined captain or one who leaves less to chance.

He is dour and he is dedicated to the job of leading South Africa to victory. The Old Testament prophet, Elija, would have captained his side in much the same way.

Those around Cronje are of a like mind. There is Ali Bacher, the managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, Bob Woolmer, the coach, and the players under him. There is no one there who would ever stumble and put play before work.

A side founded on such principles will surely have come into a Test match as important as this one fine-tuned to a rare degree. Nothing should have been left to chance. Yet, the most extraordinary aspect of this absorbing first day was how the South Africans did not get it quite right.

By now, they should have acquired a working knowledge of the ways of Mark Butcher. They have had to suffer three decent opening partnerships between him and Mike Atherton before this. They know how he likes to come on to the front foot and drive if he is given half a chance.

They also know that he loves nothing more than to play the ball away off his legs. If they had forgotten, they will have been reminded in the first over of the match when he played Donald to the square-leg boundary.

Did they learn the lesson? Not a bit of it. For the rest of the day, it was almost as if they fed these strokes on purpose. Butcher scored a huge proportion of his runs from them both and yet Cronje, maybe refusing to believe in the mere mortality of his bowlers, made little attempt to block either.

Some captains and some bowlers feel that feeding a batsman his favourite stroke will prompt a fatal error. This obviously depends on how well the particular stroke is played. There is no future in bowling at Butcher's pads for he is word perfect in that area.

There is more to hope outside the off stump as he can be persuaded to go for the drive when the ball is not quite there for it.

Brian McMillan proved this point beautifully in successive overs after tea when Butcher moved from 93 to 101 with flashing drives which flew off the edge for fours.

By now Butcher had been joined by Mark Ramprakash who likes to play the square cut, but does not control the stroke. Quite rightly, the South Africans gave him every chance to go for it and after a certain amount of playing and missing and uppish contact which did not go to hand, Donald found his bottom edge. Apart from McMillan, they did not bowl so thoughtfully at Butcher. Had they done so England's total might have been even less.