Cricket: Liebenberg starts with a flourish

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South Africa 287-4dec v Worcestershire 31-1

THE OMENS were looking good for England, after South Africa ended their opening day of the tour 287 for 4 declared. Normally visiting teams come to Worcester, acknowledge the impressive 11th Century cathedral, perhaps partake of the sumptuous teas, and get roundly thrashed. They then manage, as Australia did last season, to go on and turn the tables against the national side and win the Test series by about the third or fourth Test.

As first outings go, South Africa will have every right to be pleased with themselves as three of the top four passed fifty. The classiest offering, by some distance, came from Daryll Cullinan, who ended unbeaten on 67, though both Jacques Kallis, with 75, and Gerhardus Liebenberg (98) made up for points lost to style with a steely determination during a tricky first session.

Following a hectic winter over which 11 Tests and 22 one-day matches were played, South Africa have left themselves just five playing days before their first international. With Shaun Pollock nursing a slight abdominal strain and Brian McMillan rested, it was probably not quite the Test side England will face at Edgbaston on 4 June, but it was close.

A few matches may not seem long to acclimatise, but with Worcestershire's bowlers straying a yard too short on a misty morning ideal for bowling, the batsmen probably feel at home already. Indeed had the South African captain, Hansie Cronje, not been seeking the chance of two innings for his batsmen, he would surely not have resisted the temptation to bowl first after winning the toss.

Peversely, things began well for the home side when the evergreen Phil Newport, swinging the new ball, had Gary Kirsten caught at bat pad by Matthew Rawnsley for one. Instead of running through their opponents as they do most years, the home side had to wait almost four hours for their next success, when Kallis was bowled driving past a good one from Alamgir Sheriyar that came back sharply off the seam.

Kallis settled quicker than his partner Liebenberg, who had a period where most of his scoring strokes ended up at third man.

At 26, Liebenberg is, along with Kirsten, the Test opener in residence, playing in both Tests against Sri Lanka during April. A tall cautious player, Liebenberg's demise, two runs short of his century, probably surprised him as much as anyone else after he top-edged a slog off Graeme Hick, deputising for the injured captain, Tom Moody.

The catcher was Rawnsley who, deputising for the injured Richard Illingworth, had a hand in three of the four dismissals. Rawnsley was also primarily responsible - though Culinan's change of mind did not help - for running out Cronje. Unfortunately it had little to do with his bowling which Cullinan, in particular, clouted to all parts of New Road, including a thumping flat six over long-off.

Set a tricky 40 minutes to bat, Worcestershire quickly lost Vikram Solanki, caught on the crease by the slippery-paced Lance Klusener. At the other end Allan Donald bristled but did not strike and Hick took a brace of fours off the fast bowler that even Graham Gooch, watching here as a selector, would have been proud of.