Cricket: Donald deals England a reality check

World Cup: Stewart's men face an anxious week after being overwhelmed by accuracy of South Africa's paceman: South Africa 225-7 England 103 S Africa win by 122 runs
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The Independent Online
HANGOVERS COME in many shapes and sizes, but the one suffered by England's batsmen following their rout at the hands of South Africa's pacemen, may linger for some time. Pitted against a side hardened by their first two matches, England's under-utilised middle-order appeared to be caught in a Kafkaesque landscape where all options and outcomes looked hopeless. All of a sudden, Tuesday's game against their nemesis, Zimbabwe, has taken on huge significance.

If truth be told, Saturday's encounter was a mismatch as one-sided as any involving the non-Test-playing minnows. By dispatching England with such clinical ease, South Africa at least gave fair warning to others what is required to beat them. The humiliating loss by 122 runs, apart from having their cup-winning ambitions put rudely into perspective, is not catastropic.

Providing they qualify, England can still take two points through with them to the Super Sixes, though they will probably have to win both their remaining group matches to be certain.

Alec Stewart's side can at least take some consolation from the way they bowled in the middle part of South Africa's innings. With Stewart winning his third toss in a row, the decision to put South Africa in was looking doomed as the opening pair put on 111 by the start of the 25th over.

Angus Fraser, in particular, will not have relished his first World Cup match. Coming in for Ian Austin, Fraser's lack of variation allowed Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten to settle quickly and play with confidence, something neither had been able to do previously. Fraser may be experienced, but a lack of match bowling means he still takes a while to settle. By the time he did, his first 7 overs had cost 44 runs.

A change of end for Alan Mullally and tightening of the screws by Mark Ealham, saw four wickets fall in quick succession, and when Darren Gough yorked Shaun Pollock for a golden duck, to leave South Africa 167 for 7, England had managed to haul themselves into the box seat. As it was, Lance Klusener and Mark Boucher rallied strongly to add 57 in the final nine overs.

After the match, Alec Stewart, despite the 15 runs gifted by England through fumbles in the field, said he would have settled for chasing a modest score of 225 at the normally high-scoring Oval. Which means that, after a bit of dodgy umpiring at the start of their reply, both Stewart and Nasser Hussain were both given out in dubious circumstances, England's batting was essentially overwhelmed by a superior force.

Like the West Indies sides of the early Eighties, South Africa's bowling, spearheaded by the evergreen Allan Donald, had a relentless power and quality that few sides will find a way round. Those teams who best stand a chance are those who possess brilliant batsmen like Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. Ironically, neither India or the West Indies appear certain to progress to the next stage.

On a sluggish pitch that aided neither bat nor ball, and with the value of hindsight after seeing the way England's bowlers clawed the game back earlier in the day, the discipline shown by Donald and Co was chilling and almost beyond human nature.

Of the quintet, Donald was the virtuoso whose four incisive strikes cut down England's undercooked middle-order. Coming on first change, he did not cow them into submission by sheer pace, but by subtle variations of it.

He would have learnt the rudiments of this while at Warwickshire, which is why, presumably, Lord MacLaurin, in a statement that is both misguided and blatantly xenophobic, is calling for overseas players to be banned from county cricket.

Donald also bowled unerringly straight, as did his colleagues. Apart from the lbw's of Thorpe and Fairbrother, where Donald skewered England's two best players to the crease with extra pace, England were generally frustrated into giving their wickets away.

South Africa field like no other side in the competition. Even Australia, for so long the torchbearers, cannot touch them. They keep setting new standards as well, and Jonty Rhodes' catch at backward cover to dismiss Robert Croft - leap, parry and pirouette to take the rebound - was worthy of Nureyev.

With perilously few balls to score from and with an outer ring of fielders to stop those that were hit with any power, England were simply prevented from playing.

Providing they are not too traumatised by the experience, they forget their shortcomings and turn their attentions to Zimbabwe and India.