Cricket: Cronje throws curve ball

Graeme Wright says this South African side are more than the sum of their parts
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MANCHESTER at 10.45 on a cold, damp morning is not the place for a pinch-hitting opener. In Australia last winter, Gary Kirsten played the part so well that he won himself one of those mean-machine motorbikes as man of the limited overs series. But in Australia, as in other hard- wicket countries, the ball comes on to the bat and asks to be hit. England in May is a different story. There is no easy riding when the ball is darting about.

Put into bat, the South African top order played to England's somewhat predictable game plan by following the ball instead of the conditions. Lucky with the weather since coming to England, and with Thursday's win at The Oval under their belt, they might have been wise to take this match on the learning-curve principle, particularly in view of the World Cup being here next year. But as first Kirsten and then Jacques Kallis went after balls from the excellent Darren Gough that were running away from them, it looked to be more a case of the Dead Man's Curve.

This, however, is a South African outfit which before play began yesterday had won 20 of their last 24 one-day internationals. They rolled over in the finals of the Australian day-night series after Allan Donald was injured, but those two defeats were out of character. Yesterday, they once again put their faith in the teamwork that is such an integral part of their international cricket and came back when it looked as if England had them on the ropes. For the old hands like Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes, their religious faith is similarly integral to their cricket. Their belief in God is such that the self-centred relativism of our modern age is forced to take a back seat.

England, by comparison, always looked like a collection of individuals, rather than the collective that is South Africa. The South Africans may have one of the truly great fast bowlers in Donald, perhaps the outstanding fieldsman of all-time in Rhodes and one of the potentially great all-rounders in Shaun Pollock. But you'd never say that South Africa boasted them. Boasting isn't this team's style. What they do lack, though, is the star batsman around whom the innings develops. They still await a Graeme Pollock or Barry Richards to grace the present generation. Their strength comes from quantity rather than quality. So when the chips were down yesterday, with three wickets down for 42 by the 12th over, four men chipped in with scores of 30-plus to produce a competitive total. Cronje and Gerry Liebenberg quietened the England supporters with a stand of 61 off 81 balls, Rhodes repeated his Oval effort and, at the end, Lance Klusener, the combative "Zulu" clubbed three successive fours off Matthew Fleming in the last over to post an unbeaten half-century.

You could tell from the way Cronje came to the wicket that he meant business, determined to defy the weather as well as the odds in his short-sleeved shirt and sleeveless sweater. Recognised everywhere as an intelligent captain, Cronje also uses his brain at the crease. He knows where the field has been set and, seeming to pick the length early, he works the ball around the gaps when it isn't there for the big boundaries. Yesterday's 35 came off 44 balls and showed how South Africa could still grasp the initiative from England.

Cronje's commanding presence also helped bring Liebenberg out of his shell. For over after over until the 20th the tall opener did little but survive. Then a pull-smash off Mark Ealham and a pulled four next ball, signalled his break out. For him the curve was very much about learning, and he took it well.