Cricket: England earn straight A for accomplishment: Tourists build commendable record and foundation for future. Glenn Moore reports from Port Elizabeth

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The Independent Online
THEY were well-dressed, clean- shaven and broke neither beds nor hearts, but even if they had it would hardly have mattered because the England A team got the most important thing right on their South African tour: they won.

They did so 10 times in 14 matches with one solitary defeat on a tour which, after some of the poor itineraries and selections of previous years, finally established the A team concept as a valuable exercise.

There was a lot of first-class cricket against sides who took the matches seriously (none of the provinces rested their overseas players) and, with the tour being concluded with a 'Test' against South Africa A, there was always a sense of purpose. The knowledge that replacements for the West Indies would be drawn from the A squad provided a further incentive.

John Crawley, Alan Wells and Mark Ilott responded best and are the most likely to be pounding the chilly streets of England in case the summons comes. Martin McCague, who, unlike the unlucky Martin Bicknell, was able to prove his fitness, is also a candidate with his moderate figures primarily a result of the slow pitches.

The choices of Crawley, who looked a batsmen of high class, and Ilott, who bowled consistently well, as recipients of the pounds 500 Tetley awards for best batsman and bowler were predictable. That of Steve Rhodes as player of the tour was less obvious. But the wicketkeeper was one of the most valuable members of the party. He has been on five of these tours, which must be worth a Test and County Cricket Board long-service award, and given his experience and chirpy, generous nature is likely to do several more.

'He has been fantastic to work with,' Hugh Morris, the captain, said. 'He has done a lot of work with both the seam and the spin bowlers and, with Alan Wells and Peter Such has been a great help to me in the field.'

Phil Neale, who made a very promising debut in his role as coach, said: 'The balance of the side was ideal. If you only have young players there are times when it is tough and there is no one around to learn from. The experienced players were the right kind of players, they have done what they were supposed to on the field and also brought the young players along. The younger batsmen have said how helpful it has been batting with Wells while Such has spent a lot of time with Robert Croft.'

Croft is one player who has clearly benefited from the trip both in terms of performance and confidence. In the Test, for example, he refused to be cowed by Eddie Barlow's strong personality when the South African coach was indulging in a little verbal gamesmanship in the shared dressing-room.

The youngest tourist, Mal Loye, blossomed the longer it went on, ending with an average behind only Crawley and Wells among the specialists. Neale, who is also his coach at Northamptonshire, said: 'Mal can take a lot from this tour. The pitches here were not conducive to his natural game but he learnt to adapt to the conditions and looked very solid in defence.'

Dominic Cork, whose premature departure due to family illness unbalanced the side for the Test, Such, who bowled better as the tour went on, and Darren Gough - who took 23 wickets - were also among the successes. 'He has a lot of natural talent and an excellent attitude,' Neale said of Gough. 'He learnt to bowl tighter and to take wickets by building pressure.'

On the debit side was Mark Lathwell's misery. He rarely appeared happy on or off the pitch, becoming trapped in a catch-22 situation. Being a poor traveller his form has a disproportionate effect on his mood. Since his batting is based on confidence, his mood is crucial to his form. Once locked into the spiral of no runs and fewer smiles he was unable to break free.

'His game is about dominating the bowling and he should stick to that,' Neale said, 'but he needs to find a way of staying in long enough to play those fantastic shots.'

Although it was a shame, with the World Cup approaching, that some day / night internationals could not be fitted in, the tour was good preparation for Test cricket and will be especially beneficial for those who come here in 1996. .

Next year, again with an eye on the World Cup, India is likely to be the A tour venue and if the side is as well-selected, prepared and led as this one the memories of the senior tour's debacle there may well be extinguished.