Cricket: Gough eases back and looks ahead

England's premier strike bowler raises Test hopes with useful workout on his return from injury

DARREN GOUGH gave grounds for optimism yesterday after easing back into action for England in the tour match against a Combined Free State/ Griqualand XI.

The Yorkshire fast bowler was under strict orders not to overstretch himself or allow his competitive spirit to get the better of him during his opening first-class outing since breaking down with a recurrence of calf trouble last July.

He followed his instructions from the coach Duncan Fletcher rigidly, bowling at a brisk pace but not at full throttle and was restricted to just 13 overs in three spells as the Combined XI reached 156 for 3 by the close of the second day in reply to England's declared total of 358 for 9.

It was not his best performance in an England shirt by any means - but with a further warm-up match next week against a Combined Northerns/ Gauteng XI at Centurion Park it gives him every chance of restoring his match fitness before the First Test against South Africa on Thursday week.

Gough even claimed a wicket to finish with 1 for 37, removing Martyn Gidley's off-stump as the opener shaped to push across the line.

"In the first spell I probably took it a little easy - but after that I felt confident and I ran in," Gough said. "You have to on that wicket. It's a good pitch for batting, so you have to try and get as much out of it as you can. I thought it went well. I got through 13 overs - which is the most I've bowled in a while - so I'm pretty pleased. I don't think Duncan wanted me to play deep down. I bowled my first bouncer with my fourth ball and I looked up to the balcony and saw Duncan had his head in his hands - but I'll never change, no matter how many injuries I get."

Gough's breakthrough ended a stubborn 81-run opening partnership between Gidley and Gerhardus Liebenberg which had threatened to undermine the spirited earlier efforts from England's lower order that had propelled them to a challenging first-innings total.

Gidley provided the adventurous approach during the opening stand, with Liebenberg - nicknamed the "walking wicket" during the 1998 Test series in England during which he averaged just nine - seemingly determined not to give up his innings so cheaply these days. "He played well today, and I don't think he wanted to get out to me after what happened last year in England," Gough said. "It was a good competition, and I've always enjoyed challenges."

Liebenberg's team-mates failed to match his determination, and both Finley Brooker and Piet Barnard fell cheaply immediately after Gidley's dismissal to leave the Combined XI struggling on 101 for 3.

But Liebenberg showed the resilience he perhaps lacked in the Test arena to finish unbeaten on 80 after more than four hours at the crease, having added 55 in an unbroken fourth-wicket partnership with Morne Van Wyk. He might have taken his cue from the determination displayed by England's lower order.

Their endless work in the nets with Fletcher and senior players Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart seems to be reaping rewards. Instead of the almost customary collapse when they resumed on 271 for 7, the remaining three wickets added a priceless 87 runs - with Gavin Hamilton aiding his hopes of a Test place with an unbeaten 64. But as fluent as Hamilton's innings was the real bonus for England was the contribution of the tailenders Gough, Alan Mullally and Phil Tufnell.

Gough lasted 44 minutes at the crease, facing 28 balls before chipping the seamer Garth Roe straight to Gidley at mid-on to fall without scoring. Then Mullally, who has been dismissed for a duck in seven of his last 12 Test innings, gave Hamilton valuable support for the next 65 minutes, enabling him to reach his half-century. The partnership added a crucial 54 runs off just 93 balls and Mullally launched the seamer Chrisjan Vorster for the first six of England's innings over long-on.

When Mullally was eventually out for 20, Tufnell carried on the good work, enabling his captain, Nasser Hussain, to declare at lunch.

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