Cricket: England look to heavens for a break

Damp pitch and heavy rain puts third Test in danger as Hussain's men strive to level the series
THE "TIMELESS" Test here between England and South Africa during 1938-39 was abandoned after 10 days of play. Unless the heavy rain that has fallen here over the last few days moves on, this Test, scheduled to start on Boxing Day, will also lack time for a result, though if the pitch starts damp, as it was in Johannesburg, three days' play may prove ample.

The first Test, which England lost by an innings and 21 runs, has cast a pall of ill feeling over this series and England will make representations to the match referee, Barry Jarman, should the pitch at Kingsmead not be dry in time.

"After Joburg, there are major concerns" said the coach, Duncan Fletcher, after a makeshift practice session yesterday, "but we are still three days away. If it does start wet we will make our feelings known to the match referee, though I don't know if it will have any affect on whether the game will start."

Fletcher is right to voice concern, but while The Wanderers pitch was little short of a disgrace there are mitigating circumstances here. The torrential rain that has fallen since the weekend has claimed at least 20 lives and whole areas are flooded.

Unsurprisingly, the pitch and ground, being some 400 yards from the sea, are low lying with a high water table and are badly affected. The KwaZulu- Natal cricket board sensing, literally, that the boat must be pushed out, has brought in a "Super Sopper" machine from Johannesburg at the cost of pounds 1,000 a day. It will have its work cut out if the outfield that is presently like a quagmire is to be fit in time for Sunday.

Yesterday, the sun shone fiercely, though in keeping with this time of the year forecasts vary from torrential rain to heatwaves. In fact, providing the latter prevails, locals believe a prompt start will be made.

For the moment England have worries other than the weather, though if injuries to Michael Vaughan and Alan Mullally are given the green light, it may be the over-riding factor that shapes their final XI.

With outdoor practice impossible, Vaughan limited himself to some throw- downs indoors while Mullally had his first bowl for three weeks in a car park beneath the East Stand. The improvisation was reminiscent of recent England trips to Guyana, though when it rains there fish swim on the outfield.

Vaughan, still visibly feeling the effects of the knock to his right index finger while batting in East London, will be given until tomorrow to declare his availability.

"Michael is feeling it a bit, though the physio reckons he's got a 60- 40 chance." said Fletcher. "It has improved a lot over the last 48 hours and hopefully we'll see the same progress over the next day or so. We'll have a final look on Saturday."

In the past, he might have been give until the morning of the match but Fletcher feels it important to let Darren Maddy and Mark Butcher know their fate as early as possible so that they are able to "visualise and prepare".

There is a feeling that Maddy could open irrespective of Vaughan's fitness, though Fletcher's reiteration that Butcher's problem is simply one of translating net form to the middle suggests that it could be fanciful. One thing is certain, if Vaughan is fit only one of them will play.

This uncertainty surrounding part of the batting line-up is less than ideal against Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock on what is bound to be a seaming pitch. Minds need to be confident and focused - especially if the toss is lost. At one Test down, England need to be able to repel South Africa's push for more territory, come whim, or, Mr White Lightning.

The lack of cricket in East London has compounded matters and even yesterday's indoor practice was of limited value. Apart from the artificiality of the surfaces, Durban was so humid yesterday that the bowlers could not keep their footing, hence Mullally's fitness test on tarmac.

According to Fletcher, Mullally will only be considered for selection if he can give his injured rib a good workout outdoors. The humidity here will help the left-armer to swing the ball and he could replace Phil Tufnell should the match look like being shortened by bad weather.

If the spinner does play it will go against the grain and despite extraneous pressures to play Paul Adams, South Africa have not picked one in their last five Tests at Kingsmead. What is virtually certain from England's point of view is that Mullally will not replace Chris Silverwood without more bowling under his belt.

When he has not been distracted by the speedometer readouts, Silverwood has bowled with pace and heart. Providing he and the opening bowlers, Darren Gough and Andy Caddick, all click from ball one it will probably be a win-toss-win-match situation - which is a shame as there is a lot riding on this third Test, especially for England.

The current series apart, new sponsors must be seduced. Cornhill's decision to cut their ties - allegedly not made in light of England's recent results - will still force potential sponsors to look more closely. And so they should. England's cricket, especially last summer, was doltish and without spirit, though there are signs that this is changing.

Under Hussain they are at least learning to scrap to last man. However, unless England get lucky or remove South Africa's lower order for under 50 runs in every innings from now on, they are still unlikely to win this series.

The reasons for this are obvious and when the current obsession of listing greats of the century returns in a 100 years time only three of the current players in the series look like being candidates.

At present, all three play for South Africa and it may be that until England can produce a star, something Cornhill had with Ian Botham and David Gower, that future sponsors remain hesitant. Indeed, the biggest draw card, unless England can upset the form book and take this series, is that home Tests are still on terrestrial TV.