Cricket: Injuries diminish England's prospects

in Port Elizabeth
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IT IS not often you can say England's prospects of winning a Test hang on a breeze, but at St George's Park wind direction and strength is every bit as vital to the outcome as pitch conditions. Finding the right men to bowl when it is blowing could be the deciding factor, though in England's case, just finding four bowlers fit enough to play may prove to be trickier.

For Nasser Hussain, the challenge runs deeper still. With his side 1- 0 down in the series, a winning, or at the very least a drawing, performance is a matter of necessity, not just for the series but also for the future of his captaincy. His head is not yet on the block, but unless his team rally to his exhortations, the jury will not be out for long.

So far he has not had much luck with either the toss (England have lost their last nine abroad) or the fitness of his troops. Injuries to bowlers are a necessary evil in cricket, but England appear to have suffered more than most recently. Alan Mullally and Chris Silverwood are the two most recent casualties on a tour that has already seen Dean Headley sent home with a back problem.

By contrast, all South Africa's potential injury problems have cleared up, though the home side's reliance on Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock could well be balanced by the inclusion of the local fast bowler, Mornantau Hayward, in place of a batsman, probably Jonty Rhodes. Hayward is quick, but has a reputation for waywardness. If he does make his debut, it will be on his home ground, a familiar place that should help settle any nerves.

Mullally's indisposition, a sore right side, is particularly troubling and Hussain delayed picking his team until this morning in an effort to give the tall left-armer every chance of being fit.

The prospects are not good and when England had their final net session late yesterday afternoon, the best Mullally could manage was a 10-minute trundle. If ruled out - the most likely outcome given that the match is scheduled for five days - Mullally will be badly missed, particularly if the breeze plays its part.

According to locals, an easterly wind coming from over the scoreboard is laden with moisture, which helps seam and swing. When it blew from there against the West Indies last season, the match, in which just nine overs of spin were used, lasted three days. A repeat this time - only two of England's last 10 Tests have gone into the fifth day - will mean plenty of work for the excellent Port Elizabeth brass band, which blasts forth from the stands from noon till dusk.

When the breeze stiffens from the west, as it has done for the past two days, batsmen tend to cash in as the pitch dries and flattens. Either way the right-arm bowlers will want to bowl from the end that will help them take the ball away from the batsmen. Mullally, from left-arm over, would give his captain options from the other end.

The bowling option most likely to be taken, unless Gavin Hamilton's stock rises unexpectedly, is to team Darren Gough and Andy Caddick with Phil Tufnell and either Silverwood or Alex Tudor. Neither of the latter pair is experienced at this level, and if Tudor's extra bounce is capable of producing the odd surprise among the sundry no-balls, Silverwood provides unrelenting effort.

On the evidence of the last game, which Silverwood missed with a sore ankle, the arguments for excluding them, as well as Tufnell, are a great deal stronger than the ones for inclusion. South Africa having won their last 10 Tests on home soil is one good reason why the local bookies are quoting an England win at 9-1.

Before covers were placed over it to keep the moisture in and prevent it cracking, Hussain felt that the pitch was shaping to be a "proper Test wicket". Speaking about his team's chances on it, Hussain stressed the need for them to think for themselves.

"Mentally we need to be more adaptive," said Hussain, stressing a word he probably last used to describe Darwinian evolution in one of his science papers at Durham. "The bowlers need to know when to attack and when to sit in and bowl a line. Likewise the batsmen need to work out when Donald and Pollock are blowing hot and when they might be tired. It's a question of learning on our feet. You can make speeches, do diagrams, watch videos and have great game plans, but in Test cricket every ball can change the game."

Unless England can raise their game - making sure, that at the very least, they do not lose - the four balls it took to consign them to defeat on that first morning at the Wanderers probably decided the series.

South Africa (from): G Kirsten, H H Gibbs, J H Kallis, D J Cullinan, *W J Cronje, J N Rhodes, S M Pollock, L Klusener, M V Boucher, A A Donald, P R Adams, M Hayward, D J Terbrugge.

England (from): M A Butcher, M A Atherton, *N Hussain, M P Vaughan, A J Stewart, C J Adams, A Flintoff, C E W Silverwood, A R Caddick, D Gough, A D Mullally, A J Tudor, P C R Tufnell.

The England and Wales Cricket Board has confirmed it will appoint a fourth selector before next year's Test series' against the West Indies and Zimbabwe. The England Management Advisory Committee met at Lord's to discuss the possible candidates for the job, who include Ian Botham, the former England captain.