Cricket: England's efficiency proves decisive

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South Africa 215-7

England 219-4

England win by six wickets

NOW THAT cricket has been shifted to Radio Four, the BBC's coverage is no longer strictly ball-by-ball, but if the Beeb's switchboard was jammed by irate callers yesterday, it would not have been for the shipping forecast interrupting the cricket, so much as the cricket interrupting the shipping forecast.

Whatever it was doing in Dogger and German Bight, the readings for Edgbaston were: 'Spectators 18,000, low, rising to go home very slowly.' Whether or not Warwickshire complete the grand slam, their groundsman has certainly pulled off a nasty double in slow, low one-day international pitches, and this Texaco Trophy match against South Africa was as bereft of entertainment as the one here in May against New Zealand.

When conditions militate against fluent strokeplay, efficiency becomes the central currency in this type of cricket, and England, who won by six wickets with an over to spare, had more of it. That was about as upbeat as it is possible to get, unless you include Michael Atherton making it through the day without the International Cricket Council referee asking him to turn out his trouser pockets and hand over some more money.

There was not much chance of Atherton showing dissent to yesterday's run-out decision, given that there was roughly 15 yards of daylight between him and the broken set of stumps, and (short of biffing an umpire in tomorrow's second match at Old Trafford) Atherton is now confirmed as England's captain for this winter's tour.

Raymond Illingworth made the official announcement yesterday morning, and Atherton, at 26, becomes the youngest England Ashes captain since the Honorable Ivo Bligh in 1882-83. The Australian crowds will inform Atherton that they regard him as less honourable than Ivo, but this is a cross he will have to bear.

As for yesterday's game, it is fair to say in the groundsman's defence that neither side were particularly motivated for this end-of-term bunfight. The tourists batted as though they were already plugged into a South African Airlines in-flight movie, and England, as is usually the way in these circumstances, were in no great rush to knock off a modest target.

If South Africa have offered, not unreasonably, the excuse of comparative unfamiliarity with Test cricket as a reason for failing to hold on to a 1-0 lead in their last three series, no such claim can be made for this type of combat. They have gorged themselves so thoroughly on the stuff in the three years since their readmittance that yesterday's XI held a combined total of 377 one-day international appearances compared with England's 306.

Phillip DeFreitas has played more times (86) than anyone else in yesterday's cast list, and it was DeFreitas who undermined South Africa's decision to bat first with two wickets in his opening spell, and a catch at long leg that he misjudged so thoroughly that he turned a routine offering into a high-class effort down by his ankles.

The batsman who fell for the hook shot, as he did in an Oval Test which contained more drama than a hundred of these sort of games, was Peter Kirsten, and the bowler, hoping to sneak up on the rails for this winter's tour, was Chris Lewis. Lewis bowled well enough yesterday, but if his talent was the issue, rather than how often he chooses to reveal it, he would already be on the plane.

The traditional end-of-innings slog never materialised, and once Atherton and Alec Stewart had given England a solid launch with a stand of 57 in 19 overs, you could have cut the tension with a plastic spoon. Graeme Hick briefly raised the entertainment quotient by tucking into some total dross from Hansie Cronje, but once Atherton had been run out by Jonty Rhodes' throw from gully, Hick (81 off 116 balls) took on the team anchor role.

(Photograph omitted)