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Cricket: England pray for redemption day

ENGLAND STARTED this tour without a prayer and duly ended the First Test on their knees. They have abundant shortcomings, of which an inability to bat, bowl or field may be only the start, but nobody should accuse them of failing to meet expectations.

Derision and ridicule have been mounting in South Africa as the second match in the series at Port Elizabeth approaches. The English may think England are useless and treat them as a national joke, but that is idol worship compared to the view of the South Africans, or at least those who can be bothered to observe the tour's progress.

The papers have piled in wherever they can. The closing shot on a television magazine programme the other night came from a one-day festival match England played in the Lenasia township south of Johannesburg. It had been a pleasant day, but in cricketing terms it was an insignificant occasion (oh, all right, it was vital that England won to preserve what status and self-esteem they have left).

The clip showed Chris Read, the England wicketkeeper, making a porridge of gathering a ball. He dived, stumbled and ended up sprawling with his face touching the ground. "And there's an Englishmen eating turf," said the presenter. The inference was fairly clear. There is plenty more dirt to be eaten yet, the diet probably continuing in the Second Test in Port Elizabeth, which starts on Thursday.

It is difficult to envisage England getting out of this, but it is also time to keep matters in perspective. True, the huge defeat at the Wanderers was only the second time in the history of Tests between the countries that South Africa had won by an innings; true, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock are a potent speed bowling combination of the type which comes along every other generation; true, the South Africans still nurture a grudge (not to mention a chip on their collective shoulder) for what happened to them in England last year and want revenge; true, they have a settled side who have now won 10 consecutive Tests at home and 9 of their past 11 in all with two draws. Yes, yes, but apart from that what have they going for them?

All this should be balanced by the knowledge that no toss could have been more influential than that in Johannesburg. England lost it (their ninth in a row overseas, Hussain calling heads after calling tails all tour) and after 17 minutes of a match scheduled to last five days were in effect 1-0 down. By the fourth morning they were in reality 1-0 down. In addition, England are at the start of a new era, which is long way yet from having a conclusive judgement delivered on it, and they fielded three debutants.

While that is not much to become excited about it is a tribute to England that they have remained in remarkably high spirits in the past week. They are still talking about competing, about pushing South Africa all the way and there are no long faces. Why, jokes are flying about as well. The new Gough-ism (this has now become a collective term) is gleefully related. At a meal the other night one of the players asked what was the name of the thinly sliced beef served in these parts. Apparently, Alan Mullally thought for a moment and said: "Parma ham."

It is not entirely improbable that this general good form (off the field) is that of the condemned man who knows the gallows await and is determined to enjoy the moments left to him. But it represents something tangible for England to cling to. They know that if somehow they can repel Donald and Pollock in their initial burst they can get into the game. They suspect, although the figures lately do not hold out much support for the contention, that South Africa's top order is vulnerable.

England's team are likely to see at least one change from the Wanderers. Gavin Hamilton, the splendidly zealous all-rounder, will almost be certainly be dropped after playing only one Test. He failed to score in either innings and took no wickets. The amenable Broxburn boy looked slightly fazed by it all, and Donald and Pollock knew it, but it would be a rum kind of policy which made him pay the price after one measly international. If he goes now, he may go for good, deemed not quite up to the job but he would be in auspicious company as a one-Test man bagging a pair. Back in 1880, Fred Grace, W G's brother, made nought in both innings against Australia. Hamilton should consider himself the more fortunate. A few days after the match Fred was dead of pneumonia.

Those vying for Hamilton's place are Alex Tudor and Phil Tufnell, neither of whom have had an excess of cricket. Tudor would keep the batting up to strength but the jury is still out on his fitness and form as an international bowler, and it could easily end up in being hung. Tufnell would offer variety and the fact that South Africa almost invariably go into Tests with a spinner and that St George's will not be green should give him the nod.

Whoever comes in, the roles of Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick have assumed an importance to rival their rivals. Caddick is in good form, but he must be more flexible according to the pitch and the state of the match. Gough may at last be properly match-honed. Both Mullally and Chris Silverwood have been injured and have had cortisone injections on side and ankle respectively. It is a trip of cortisone injections. If Mullally's works he plays.

The batting, as ever, has to recover some semblance of order and propriety. The hearts of all cricket followers will be with Michael Atherton when he goes out to bat to try to avoid his fifth consecutive duck in overseas Tests. What a difference runs from this dedicated opening batsman would make. He can expect to see the titanic twosome pawing at the ground, ready to unleash on him all the venom they can muster as he goes out to bat.

Hussain has been an accommodating captain so far, although one who is fully aware of the influence and power he wields. There is no question that he is calling the shots. What happens this week will probably not make or break his captaincy (depending either on England winning or the size of their defeat) but it could well define it. The way they play, how they react to adversity will be down to him.

England should have an eye on history. The inaugural Test match against South Africa was played in Port Elizabeth 110 years ago and England won by eight wickets. They were led by C Aubrey Smith, who later became a venerable Hollywood movie actor. Whatever happens this time nobody will be heading for the stars, but England must avoid the gutter.