THE OVAL was anything but homely and accommodating for England's one- day captain, Adam Hollioake, as his team lost the first Texaco Trophy match to South Africa. With the famous gasometer sunk low before play began, England followed suit and were beaten with eight balls to spare.
It was their fifth loss in a row and they were overwhelmed more by the robust efficiency of South Africa's cricket, rather than any glaring failings on their part. Underprepared they may have been, but there has never been any doubt over their opponent's appetite for winning.
However, chasing 224, the victory, by three wickets, was never the regulation waltz it should have been. With a total at least 20 runs below par, England's bowlers and fielders rallied well, although the match only occasionally lurched their way despite Darren Gough's second-ball removal of Gary Kirsten.
Typically, the visitors' success, their seventh in a row over England, was founded upon the collective rather than the individual, although a measured innings of 62 by Jacques Kallis and spirited knocks from Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes all played their part.
Rhodes is a bundle of raw energy and the alert certainty of his fielding illustrated where South Africa's real strength lies. Apart from an on- song Allan Donald, they have no real Herculean performers. Instead, they all field like tigers on bended knees, a pack effort that tends to dishearten batsmen far more than their fast bowling.
England are not far behind in that department, with Nasser Hussain in particular taking an astounding catch at mid-wicket as Cronje mowed Robert Croft off the meat of the bat. What England lack is their opponents' sheer belief in themselves, a shortcoming again brought out by Hollioake's nervy captaincy.
Although Hollioake marshalled his bowlers thoughtfully, he was timid in bringing himself on to bowl towards the end of the innings. Eight months ago, you would not have prised the ball out of his hand. Yesterday, his one over was more an apology than a last roll of the dice.
Perhaps his confidence, dented by the four consecutive losses in the Caribbean, was further eroded by England's decision to play two debutants in their top five. The selectors may feel comfortable with their experiments, but you get the feeling that the feeling is not shared by Hollioake.
Losing the toss did not help England, and South Africa's already formidable attack were further sharpened by leaden skies. Under such pressure, and with the new ball frequently beating the bat, England's innings proceeded by fits and starts.
In fact, in the circumstances, England's openers did rather well to post the half-century, when on another day they could quite easily have been 30 for 3. Indeed, by the time Donald replaced Pollock in the 13th over, both Alec Stewart's and Nick Knight's strokes had crispened noticeably and their watchful beginnings looked like reaping reward.
Donald's first five balls were despatched for 13 runs as both batsmen dented the boundary boards. Clearly irked, the sixth was always going to have effort rather than phlegmatism behind it. The choice was justified, too, as a breakthrough resulted, although Stewart was unfortunate that the ball was diverted on to leg stump via his elbow.
It was the moment when England lost their hard fought momentum. Instead of sending in Hussain to work the ball around, or Darren Maddy, a prospective Test opener, in came Chris Adams, a batsman whose approach has few shades of grey, to confront a situation that required some grey matter.
Perhaps we demand too much of our debutants, and overlook the effect nerves play on otherwise competent minds and bodies. Whatever the cause, and his limiting front-footed technique to Donald and co was as much a culprit as anything, the effect was a hit and miss innings that comprised a mixture of scrambled singles and fresh air swishes.
After he had gone, edging Kallis to the keeper Mark Boucher for 25 off 47 balls, England never quite got back to speed. Hussain, playing his first one-day match on English soil, began well, but was once again was to blame for another run-out. This time the victim was Knight, who had showed his mettle by passing fifty for the seventh time in his 22nd international.
With Darren Maddy already gone for one and Mark Ealham brilliantly run- out by Pollock, only Hollioake showed the poise and placement necessary to accumulate runs under pressure. In the end neither he nor England had quite enough. Unless his team turn things around at Old Trafford tomorrow, the tap of uncertainty over his captaincy will continue to drip.
The Oval scoreboard
South Africa won toss
N V Knight run out (Rhodes-Symcox) 64
149 min, 90 balls, 4 fours, 1 six
A J Stewart b Donald 27
53 min, 48 balls, 3 fours
C J Adams c Boucher b Kallis 25
58 min, 47 balls, 2 fours
N Hussain c Boucher b Donald 27
48 min, 47 balls, 3 fours
D L Maddy lbw b Symcox 1
8 min, 3 balls
*A J Hollioake c Symcox b Klusener 32
52 min, 28 balls, 3 fours
M A Ealham run out 1
3 min, 2 balls
C C Lewis run out 16
31 min, 30 balls
A F Giles c Boucher b Cronje 2
5 min, 3 balls
R D B Croft not out 7
9 min, 6 balls
D Gough not out 0
1 min, 0 balls
Extras (lb7, w12, nb2) 21
Total (for 9, 213 min, 50 overs) 223
Fall: 1-58 (Stewart), 2-109 (Adams), 3-155 (Knight), 4-158 (Maddy), 5- 160 (Hussain), 6-161 (Ealham), 7-201 (Lewis), 8-209 (Giles), 9-220 (Hollioake).
Bowling: Pollock 10-1-45-0 (nb1,w2) (6-1-23-0, 2-0-12-0, 2-0-10-0); Klusener 8-1-33-1 (w1) (6-1-20-0, 2-0-13-1); Donald 10-2-45-2 (nb1) (6-1-28-1, 4-1-17-1); Cronje 8-1-26-1 (w2) (6-1-16-0, 1-0-3-0, 1-0-7-1); Kallis 4- 0-24-1 (nb2,w4); Symcox 10-0-43-1 (one spell each).
Progress: 50: 50 min, 77 balls. 100: 109 min, 154 balls. 150: 148 min, 216 balls. 200: 194 min, 282 balls. Knight's 50: 133 min, 77 balls, 4 fours.
G Kirsten c Adams b Gough 4
2 min, 2 balls, 1 four
G F J Liebenberg b Giles 30
71 min, 48 balls, 4 fours
J H Kallis c Hollioake b Croft 62
126 min, 91 balls, 4 fours, 1 six
D J Cullinan run out 16
30 min, 25 balls
*W J Cronje c Hussain b Croft 40
63 min, 59 balls, 1 four
J N Rhodes not out 39
74 min, 43 balls, 1 four, 1 six
S M Pollock b Croft 0
1 min, 1 ball
L Klusener lbw b Giles 22
28 min, 20 balls, 2 fours
M V Boucher not out 2
6 min, 4 balls
Extras (b4, lb2, w2, nb1) 9
Total (for 7, 204 min, 48.4 overs) 224
Fall: 1-4 (Kirsten), 2-76 (Liebenberg), 3-105 (Cullinan), 4-134 (Kallis), 5-175 (Cronje), 6-175 (Pollock), 7-214 (Klusener).
Did not bat: P L Symcox, A A Donald.
Bowling: Gough 10-1-38-1 (nb1, w1) (6-1-27-1, 2-0-5-0, 2-0-6-0); Lewis 8.4-1-46-0 (5-1-22-0, 2-0-6-0, 1-0-10-0, 0.4-0-8-0); Ealham 10-0-38-0 (6-0-21-0, 4-0-17-0); Giles 9-0-37-2 (8-0-34-1, 1-0-3-1); Croft 10-0-51- 3 (w1) (1-0-4-0, 9-0-47-3); Hollioake 1-0-8-0.
Progress: 50: 49 min, 67 balls. 100: 98 min, 143 balls. 150: 143 min, 216 balls. 200: 187 min, 272 balls. Kallis's 50: 90 min, 66 balls, 4 fours, 1 six.
SOUTH AFRICA WON BY THREE WICKETS
Umpires: J C Balderstone and P Willey. TV replay umpire: R Julian. Match referee: Javed Burki.
Man of the match: J H Kallis. Adjudicator: G A Gooch.