Cricket: England fall to the demon king

Stewart delays the inevitable as destroyer Donald takes his haul to 11 wickets

IT HAS been as decisive and overwhelming as anybody could have feared. England, weak, timid England will sometime today, probably sooner rather than later, go behind in the Test series against strong, assertive South Africa.

One down with four to play is the wrecking of nobody's career, nobody's tour and nobody's strategy, but responding to such a heavy defeat so early when it seems that the opposition are conspiring with the fates against you will take an immense effort of will. Skill is another matter altogether.

England will cling on to the fact that last year at home they came from behind to beat South Africa. Unfortunately, South Africa might recall that as well. At the close of the third day at the Wanderers, England were 187 for 7, still 94 runs from making the home side bat again. England's batting talisman, Michael Atherton, collected his second nought of the match to his first ball. It was the 19th duck of an accomplished Test career. South Africa's bowling equivalent, Allan Donald, who a fortnight ago was fighting for form, fitness and a place in the side, has so far taken 11 wickets in the match.

Four years ago in the Test at this ground, Atherton kept South Africa's bowlers at bay for 492 balls in the second innings and earned a famous draw for his side. This time he has faced three balls in two innings. It is well known in this game that what goes around comes around but the revolution could hardly have been more stark.

Even with Atherton at his most adhesive, England were never in with a ghost of a chance of salvaging anything but pride. Without him it was all but useless. The brief fourth-wicket resistance in the afternoon, when Alec Stewart took the attack to the opposition and Mark Butcher found a semblance of touch, merely postponed what had long since been inevitable.

Yet somehow this has been neither a wholly disheartening nor perpetually insipid England exhibition. A shambolically disastrous beginning - their worst to a series in Test history - allied to a first-innings deficit of 281 and a doomed attempt to save the match for which they were obviously ill-equipped seem to dictate otherwise. But, for once, any claims they might care to make about the nature of the pitch, the significance of the toss and the rub of the green would bear scrutiny. But then since England finished basking up to their necks in bright emerald when the two countries met in the summer of 1998 they should probably have few complaints in the latter category.

In view of their recent offences (Sri Lanka, Australia, the World Cup, New Zealand) it is perhaps understandable that a school of thought should have formed which takes as its starting point that flogging is too good for them. This ignores the disparities between the teams. South Africa are one of the three best sides in the world, England are possibly the worst; South Africa have an established squad, England do not. Six of South Africa's players and four of England's in the opening match of this series had more than 30 caps, but five of England's and only one of South Africa's had fewer than 20. When those figures begin to equate and assuming the selectors' judgement is correct (by no means a foregone conclusion) the matches might be closer.

England embarked on this tour without being foolish enough to make wild statements about their chances of winning the series. Instead, sensibly, they aspired to compete. When Hussain called the wrong way on Thursday morning their prospects of doing so immediately diminished. South Africa cashed in. From 2 for 4, which represents a ship heading for the rocks in any language, England were never able to divert from that course. Much is made by the modern Test cricketer of winning sessions, building them brick by brick to win the match. England lost the first six.

This meant that when the sides arrived at the Wanderers yesterday morning only the timing of South Africa's taking a 1-0 lead in the rubber was left to be contested. England, to their credit, showed their mettle. They had not bowled dreadfully on the previous day but they had singularly failed to make the batsman play as often as they ought on a pitch still granting some seaming favours.

Lance Klusener began in that brutal, uncomplicated way of his, precisely where he had left off the night before, clubbing the second ball of the morning from Darren Gough through point for four. The Yorkshireman found his range, speared one through Klusener's gate and shortly after, in successive balls, persuaded Shaun Pollock to edge an away swinger and then had the satisfaction of seeing Donald's middle stump torn from its bearings. It was the sixth occasion in 31 Tests that Gough had taken five wickets in an innings.

Before he had the opportunity to try to complete his second overseas Test hat-trick in a year, bad light and rain, followed by South Africa's declaration, intervened. There was now the matter, almost too awful to contemplate, of whether Atherton could avoid his second overseas Test pair in a year, indeed his second in succession. The answer sadly was supplied resoundingly after one ball.

Butcher had seen out the opening over from Donald in reasonable comfort. Then Atherton took guard. Pollock sprang in. It was the type of fast first ball an opening batsman could never practice against, the type he probably puts to the back of his mind, like stashing the electricity bill in a drawer, in the hope that the day of reckoning never arrives. The ball was not full or short, it was aimed at Atherton and then jagged away a little. He edged to Mark Boucher.

Only Derek Underwood among English batsman has as many ducks. Surely, Atherton cannot pursue Courtney Walsh's 29. If so would it, as the wags are bound to suggest, make England's best batsman the worst in the world. He is clearly being targeted by South Africa. As indeed is Nasser Hussain.

England were 0 for 1 and, after getting off the mark with four byes, Hussain opened the account on behalf of the batsmen by pulling Pollock for six. But Pollock had his revenge with one that kept low and squeezed through a square defence. At 41 for 3, when Michael Vaughan went, disaster was again in store. Stewart decided to go on the attack. His first 25 runs came in 21 balls, he hooked Donald for six. Butcher was more circumspect and had put on 114 with Stewart when he was the victim of a contentious lbw decision.

Chris Adams wafted, Stewart flashed to point, poor Gavin Hamilton bagged his pair to complete a horrible introduction to Test cricket. As usual England had a mountain to climb - which would be all right if you could be sure the only way they could go was up.

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