Cricket: England eager to establish renewed competitive edge

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The Independent Online
THE WANDERERS lies 6,000 feet above sea level and is the highest Test ground in the world. Like every visiting team England know that they must leave here with a win, or at least draw as they managed against the odds four years ago. If they do not, the series, as it heads for the coast, will end up going downhill in more senses than one and Lord's will once more be a place of witch-hunts and working parties.

Known locally as the Bullring, the stadium here is an intimidating place set in a leafy suburb of Johannesburg, now reckoned to be the murder capital of the world. Here, the lungs burn as much as the skin, the combination of thin air and hot sun providing an assault course to test the stamina of England's bowlers and batsmen as well as those fleeing from armed muggers.

Then there is the human factor pitted against Nasser Hussain's men. Since losing to England at Headingley, a defeat that cost them the series, South Africa have played 10 Tests, winning eight and drawing two.

England's record over the same number of matches has been to lose six and win two, the remainder being drawn. If those are the bare stats, it does little to prepare you for Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock charging in with tails up and war paint on.

Hussain, captaining England abroad for the first time is aware of his team's low standing in world cricket. Hussain, a realist, believes there are no miracle cures and despite easy victories in their last two matches on tour, feels that perhaps too much is being read into the side's recent successes.

"We're not suddenly going to turn up in South Africa with a new young side and thrash them five-nil," he said yesterday. "Time and hard work are what it will take to turn things around.

"I know our stock is low at the moment, but the perception I get from people back home is not about us losing, it's about seeing an England side competing. The players here have been selected for that reason."

The final XI will be picked after Hussain and his think-tank have looked at the pitch this morning. Bob Woolmer, a man who has seen many pitches here, thought it damper and softer than usual, conditions unlikely to change after steady overnight rain. Despite the moisture, Hansie Cronje insisted that he would play a spinner and Paul Adams, who twisted an ankle in practice, is expected to have recovered enough to play.

The damp, though not unusual these days, may well be there to delay or disguise the fact that the surface will break up and turn, in which case Phil Tufnell must play. Hussain likes to have Tufnell in his side, believing the left-arm spinner gives him variation and control. Against most teams he would do a decent job, but South Africa's batsmen, especially on home pitches that favour pace, tend to go after the spinner, a tactic that rarely brings the best out of Tufnell.

As the England captain will have gleaned from Michael Atherton's experience here four years ago, you must look up as well as down at the Wanderers should you win the toss. Atherton did not and seeing a grassy pitch, rather than a bigger picture that included a cloudless sky, he put South Africa in, whereupon their batsmen used the good weather to make hay.

If Hussain's plan is to insert South Africa, Gavin Hamilton will make his debut alongside his Yorkshire team-mate Michael Vaughan and the Sussex captain, Chris Adams. All three have had their moments in the warm-up matches, but from now on they will be judged in the A-stream. As Cronje pointed out: "A Test match is an examination of each individual as well as the team."

Unlike his counterpart, who looks relaxed and contained, the England captain appears far more tense than he did during the summer. He knows that his honeymoon period is almost at an end and that champagne and plaudits will only come if England play to potential more often than their opponents, something the batsmen in particular have consistently failed to do.

Again the figures are revealing. Since taking a firstinnings lead against South Africa at Edgbaston 18 months ago, England failed to repeat the feat in any of their next 14 Tests. South Africa, by contrast, in the aftermath of their series defeat by England, held a series of batting clinics run by their former Test captain, Eddie Barlow. Since then, they have not once conceded a lead on first innings.

If the figures do not paint a rosy picture for England, Test matches are generally won by personalities. Atherton v Donald; Hussain v Cronje and Gough v Kallis are some of the key ones. There will be others, but as Hussain stressed it is those that want to be in the thick of it, "when the crowd are baying for their blood", who will prosper.

The all-rounders; Klusener, Boucher and Pollock for South Africa; Stewart, Flintoff and perhaps Hamilton for England, is another vital area of conflict though Stewart apart, England's trio lack the experience of their opponents.

Yet what is certain once the chatter stops and the proper cricket begins is that England will need to win two Tests to have a chance of taking the series. First though, they must try not to lose here. If they do, recent history shows there is no way back.

SOUTH AFRICA (v England, First Test, the Wanderers, Johannesburg, 8.30am GMT; from): G Kirsten, H H Gibbs, J H Kallis, D J Cullinan, H J Cronje (capt), J N Rhodes, S M Pollock, L Klusener, M V Boucher (wkt), A A Donald, P R Adams, D J Terbrugge.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (Lancashire), M A Butcher (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex, capt), M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), C J Adams (Sussex), A Flintoff (Lancashire), G M Hamilton (Yorkshire), A R Caddick (Somerset), D Gough (Yorkshire), A D Mullally (Hampshire), P C R Tufnell (Middlesex).

Umpires: S Venkataraghavan (Ind) and D L Orchard (SA).