Cricket: Eclipse of a favourite son

Stephen Fay fears he may have seen the last of Angus Fraser
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HERE IS a tale of great expectations and hard times. The leading characters are two fast bowlers, one South African, the other English, and both will remember the day - in one case for longer than he might prefer.

Contrast Allan Donald with Angus Fraser. Donald is 33 now and his captain, Hansie Cronje, reports that he no longer bowls flat out in one-day games. Donald concentrates on getting the ball in the right place, and yesterday he did so on four different occasions.

The most significant was when Graham Thorpe was facing him. Thorpe and Graeme Hick had carefully accumulated 33 together after England's dismal start and, shortly after Donald came on, Thorpe square drove him cleanly and splendidly for four. Suddenly, the revival seemed possible. Except that Donald's next ball was fierce and straight enough to slip past Thorpe's defence. He was leg before, and England's sad descent had begun.

The emphasis on direction rather than pace is one reason why Donald is happy to bowl first change. Indeed, Cronje said yesterday that Donald himself had suggested this three years ago when he was still considered an indispensable member of the opening attack.

Now he brutally excised England's middle order, making Andrew Flintoff look out of his depth and finding a reluctant edge on Mark Ealham's bat, before ending all serious resistance by catching Neil Fairbrother leg before. Donald's figures were 8-1-17-4.

On a slow wicket it was always hard to get the ball off the square, especially if the bowlers concentrated on wicket-to-wicket deliveries. The difference between the two teams was the persistent accuracy and deliberate pace of the South African attack. "We just didn't do it as a batting team," said Stewart. Reverse that remark. South Africa, led by Donald, did it as a bowling team. He did everything South Africa have come to expect of him.

At 34, Angus Fraser has been England's master of seam for years. In this World Cup swing and seam have dictated the pattern of most of the games that have been played so far. Wasim Akram complains of abnormal swing and calls for flatter wickets. Angus Fraser was just the man, surely, to exploit these conditions.

The cricket correspondents certainly thought so and had badgered the selectors to bring in Fraser instead of Ian Austin, who had been ill-treated by the Kenyans. When Alec Stewart won the toss for the third time in a row and put South Africa in, there were great expectations of Fraser, too. This was to be his first World Cup game, and that seemed hardly credible. That it might also be his last would have been scarcely less so.

Fraser had a halcyon season against South Africa last summer but he never fired on all cylinders in Australia last winter. I remember seeing him and Robert Croft sitting mournfully in a restaurant in Perth. They had both been dropped, and both hated it.

Fraser had not been asked to stay in Australia for the one-day series, although the selectors never ruled him out of the World Cup squad. He was indeed selected, but did not play against Sri Lanka or Kenya. Now he was coming on to bowl in the second over of the morning and his old colleague Croft was close by at mid-on. It was like a resurrection.

By the end of that one over it was clear that something had gone seriously wrong with the script. Fraser had bowled fairly tidily, though Herschelle Gibbs had driven the one loose ball for the first boundary of the day. But there was no swing through the air, no movement off the seam. Nothing at all.

Fraser was looking sadly short of match practice. He is often compared to a carthorse. This is intended as a compliment to his strength and reliability. But the metaphor can also suggest a lumbering object and, in that sense, Fraser was bowling like a carthorse.

In his sixth over, Gibbs hit a half-volley hard and high to mid-on for four. When he tried the same shot in Fraser's next over, Gibbs sent a steepling catch that fell through Mark Ealham's outstretched hands and celebrated by hitting Fraser harder and higher to mid-on for six. Perturbed, Fraser bowled the first wide of the innings. Eventually, 14 came off that over, the seventh and last of his first spell. His figures were 7-0-44- 0.

Fraser trudged to long-on where he took out the bib he uses to clean and dry the ball. He dried his brow, but you would have understood if he had used it to wipe away a tear.

At the end of the day Cronje said that he was surprised that Fraser had been preferred to Ian Austin. Yesterday may well have been the last time.