CRICKET: Matthews fingered over his thumbs

South Africa 225 England 152-5
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Not a single ball was bowled at Kingsmead yesterday, as rain washed out the fourth day's play of this Test match. But even another wash-out did not prevent the little red projectile from briefly stealing centre stage, as ball-tampering's latest storm briefly gathered momentum and then blew itself out in time for lunch.

Craig Matthews, who on the basis of some fairly inconclusive film of Friday's play bore the brunt of newspaper and television allegations, brought a ball with him to a press conference to demonstrate how a personal habit had come to be misconstrued as picking the seam.

It was as if an expert witness had turned Queen's Evidence, as he told the assembled throng about his method of running a dampened thumb along the side of the seam in order to smooth out any scuffs or marks that may have accrued on the shiny side of the ball. As the match referee, Clive Lloyd, said after studying video footage earlier in the day: "It is something and it is nothing. I trust my umpires implicitly and we don't think there is any case to answer."

He is right. If Matthews had picked the seam to gain an advantage, he would not have negated it by immediately bowling a loosener at mid-off, as television pictures show. That would have knocked flat any seam he had just lifted, making the whole exercise pointless.

Referees in rugby union are constantly pointing out that a penalty offence occurs at every line-out, yet common sense rules the day and it is the same when bowlers get a ball in their hands. Everything can look suspicious, but only the umpires can tell if the ball's condition has been altered.

The one thing that has not altered so far in this Test series has been the scoreline, which remains becalmed at nil-nil. So far nearly five playing days have been lost to the weather - a damp state of affairs which has decimated both profits and public interest, after 9,000 advance seats had been sold for the weekend.

It is sorry news in a country which says it is trying to control an addiction to one-day cricket - a claim not entirely convincing after the Natal Cricket Union revealed a R225,000 (pounds 40,000) loss of profit, a sum not covered by insurance, which is only taken out to protect one-dayers.

Inevitably, the gloom permeates everywhere, as people are forced to seek unplanned entertainment. While some of the keener players head for the gym, those less inclined to physical activity set up card schools. The lengthy sessions behind closed doors test the patience of even the most fervent autograph hunter lurking in the lobby.

Even Michael Atherton, confident that his side would have batted themselves into a strong position, said he thought the weather "frustrating," before moping off to his room to watch a film, the only entertainment on offer before Jason Gallian arrives sometime tomorrow to regale the team with his 30-hour odyssey from Peshawar in Pakistan, where he'd been playing with England A.

Unusually, Gallian has already been guaranteed a place in the top three for the fourth Test in Port Elizabeth, which starts on Boxing Day, though he may yet open, with either Atherton or Alec Stewart dropping down to No3.

This leaves Mark Ramprakash with little to play for, unless someone breaks a finger, and he has already been told by Illingworth that he will not be considered again at No3 for the rest of the tour - an indication that the poor lad is likely to be twiddling his thumbs even when the rain stops.

(Third day of five; South Africa won toss)

SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings 225 (P Martin 4-60).

ENGLAND - First Innings

(Friday: 123 for 5)

G A Hick not out 31

D G Cork not out 23

Extras (lb4, nb7) 11

Total (for 5, 188 min, 48.1 overs) 152

Fall: 1-2 (Atherton), 2-13 (Thorpe), 3-83 (Smith), 4-93 (Stewart), 5- 109 (Russell).

To bat: J P Crawley, M C Ilott, R K Illingworth, P J Martin.

Bowling (to date): Donald 12.1-1-57-2 (2nb), Pollock 15-2-39-0 (4nb), Matthews 12-5-31-3, McMillan 9-3-21-0 (1nb).

Play abandoned for day because of rain.

Umpires: S A Bucknor and D L Orchard.

TV Replay Umpire: K E Liebenberg.

Match Referee: C H Lloyd.