Cricket: Hostility in a four-pack: Derek Pringle assesses a bowling unit which feeds on controlled aggression

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The Independent Online
AS TRADITION would have it and history books decree, successful bowlers operate in pairs. But tradition has a way of being snubbed by the modern world, its credibility often shown to be little more than romantic sentiment. And so it is that Allan Donald, Fanie de Villiers, Craig Matthews and Brian McMillan, like the great West Indies attacks of the Eighties, perform better as a quartet and without a spinner in sight.

Unchanged since the beginning of the year, this functional but effective combination, with the virtuoso Donald at its head, have bowled South Africa to victory in three of their last seven Tests. With function appearing to hold sway over form, the South Africans' build-up held no clues to the drubbing they gave England last week.

Instead of turning up like the pleasant string quartet we supposed them to be, they rode in like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, sending England to a record defeat by scuppering their second innings for 99, the lowest score at Lord's this century. When you consider the lack of variety, the win was even more emphatic than any inflicted on England in the Caribbean. But as the England team manager, Keith Fletcher, used to make plain when captaining Essex, you simply back your best bowlers to do a job, spinner or not.

Knowing his own mind, this is exactly what Kepler Wessels has done and while at first it suited his conservative nature to play four pace bowlers, they have learnt to complement each other and have all improved their game. 'Kepler knows exactly what he wants from us,' Donald said. 'It's nice to know exactly what your role is; it gives you stability. My job is to strike and I know I have five-over spells to do that in. There is no special recipe, we've just combined naturally as a unit. We're a nice fit.'

If this all sounds rather chummy, it is because Donald, the sharply honed striking edge of the attack, is reckoned to be too nice by half. According to Mike Procter, the Proteas' coach, Donald, now 27, is bowling better than at any time during the past year, but warns there is still more room for improvement, particularly when it comes to aggression. This does not augur well for England, and apart from improving on his

seven-wicket haul at Lord's, Donald may soon be forcing other batsmen to follow the Gough and Fraser route to the X-ray department before the summer is out.

Contrary to much of the pre-match publicity, Donald does not plough a furrow as the sole aggressor, but while his thoroughbred pedigree means that he is carefully handled in short bursts by the captain, McMillan's immense strength is used for more sustained spells of hostility. Donald explained: 'Brian is the most aggressive player in the team. He loves eye contact and slanging matches. The aggro gets him going. He had a ball against the Aussies; they were right up his street. He's not someone I'd argue with. If he said to me: 'Wash my car,' I'd say, 'Just how clean do you want it?' '

There is no doubt that Wessels likes this aggression, but McMillan, with 11 Tests behind him at the age of 30, has been known to overplay his hand and against Australia he was warned by the umpires for time-wasting during a prolonged bout of glaring with the then Australian skipper Allan Border. Apart from roughing opponents up through the bluff and bluster of his imposing presence, McMillan is always trying different things to get a wicket and at Lord's several key breakthroughs with the ball complemented his neat catching at slip.

One such effort, a low catch at second slip, saw the end of Atherton from a particularly fine outswinger from De Villiers. Initially seen primarily as a useful exponent of the one-day game, De Villiers made his breakthrough into the Test team against Australia, capping his debut with a remarkable 10 for 123 in a momentous victory at the Sydney Cricket Ground last January: a match jointly described as one that could not be lost and was, as well as one that could not be won and was.

Since then he has been one of the pillars of the attack, looking dangerous when the ball swings and giving little away when it doesn't. 'He is your typical Afrikaner tough guy,' Donald said with a mischievous chuckle. 'He talks a lot out in the middle, always joking and taking the mickey out of the opposition as well as his team- mates, in Afrikaans. Apart from obviously helping him to relax, it keeps the rest of us going.'

At 29, De Villiers is a passionate performer whose heart often rules his head but never to the point of losing control. His confidence occasionally dips when the ball refuses to swing, but his never-say-die attitude is cherished by Wessels. 'Fanie is amazing,' Donald said. 'He likes bowling really long spells. But even if he gets hit for successive fours, he just comes straight back. He's a real goer with some clever variations. A good man for a crisis.'

However, for real control when the run rate starts to escalate, Wessels invariably turns to the metronomic accuracy of the 29-year-old Western Province skipper, Craig Matthews. Wicketless in the first innings at Lord's, he produced an unerring line in the second, on a wearing pitch, proving too much for an England team unable to mobilise any convincing resistance to the seductive movement he found off the seam.

As Donald confirmed: 'Kepler relies on him to pin the opposition back. We were sure he'd be a good bowler for us over here as he hits an English length and he's always at you. You might think he is a stock bowler but he often breaks big partnerships.' Unlike many famous partnership breakers, who rely as much on fortune as fortitude, Matthews resorts to attrition to get the breakthrough. 'He is an intelligent cricketer who applies common sense to every situation. One of his nicknames is 'Sensible', and you will often see him, Kepler and Hansie Cronje in deep conversation together over tactics.'

Wessels, as well as pulling all the strings, can be a harsh taskmaster and each bowler is made aware of his presence at slip, should they begin to err from his orders. This doesn't happen often; all four bowlers have done compulsory military service, where teamwork and unquestioning discipline became second nature.

Unlike their skipper and several of the South African batsmen, none of the bowlers is a deeply committed Christian. Instead they have an unerring belief in one another that has been forged and then tempered by the epic scraps of the last 12 months against the Aussies. They are a unit hardened by combat.

Headingley, the venue for the next Test, traditionally offers England their best chance of victory. Unfortunately, Donald has taken 25 wickets in his four visits there. If he and his partners continue where they left off, and Headingley is its usual seamer-friendly self, it will be England who will be on a wing and a prayer.

(Photograph omitted)