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Cricket: Medlycott's new spin on a bold theme

Iain Fletcher finds an optimistic Englishman who knows South Africa's strengths
ENGLAND have a new captain and may even change their personnel, but however confident and bullish they like to appear, in their hearts there is the fear that this series will probably have a familiar outcome. However, one man with a first-hand knowledge of both South African and English cricket believes that the home side have a chance.

Step up Keith Medlycott, 33, Surrey's new director of cricket and for the past two years director of provincial cricket for the Northern Titans (formerly Northern Transvaal). Medlycott, a left-arm spinner, was selected for England's tour to the West Indies in 1989-90 and it seemed he was on the verge of something big. Instead it was the start of something horrible as he hardly featured and on his return was ambushed by the dreaded "yips".

The pressure of turning the ball away from the bat lends itself to maverick personalities full of bravado and roguish charm, witness the two Phils, Tufnell and Edmonds, and Medlycott is no exception. Always ready with a comment and a laugh, he struggled on until Surrey released him at the end of 1992 when he decamped to Pretoria to coach. Now he is back and awaiting the coming series with interest, especially as he is in a minority who believe England can win.

"We're not far off where we want to be - God, he's moosed that one," he said earlier this week, the first part about English cricket and the second a natural response to an Alistair Brown special that was bouncing off the pavilion roof at Southampton.

Medlycott continued his chirpy commentary of the game throughout the conversation, his boyish enthusiasm, energy and sense of fun fully evident. "During the winter we had our chances but didn't take them," he continued. "If we can learn to take a chance, then the next one and the next one, suddenly winning will become a habit."

But this is the heart of England's problems, other teams win through in tight situations. Passion, hunger, mental toughness, all have been discussed as the probable reason why but Medlycott thinks it is purely a cricketing reason. "Look at Australia and South Africa," he said, "both have match-winning bowlers. Australia have [Glenn] McGrath and [Shane] Warne and when they score only 250 or 300 these bowlers make it a competitive score. It's the same with South Africa, they've got [Allan] Donald and [Shaun] Pollock - they are world-class bowlers.

"Unfortunately we haven't got these consistent match- winners. To win we have to post some big scores and allow our bowlers to work together as a team to get the 20 wickets. Our top six are highly rated and if they can see off the threat of Donald and Pollock, then I feel the South African bowling is a possible weakness, players like [Roger] Telemachus and [Makhaya] Ntini are pretty inexperienced. I don't believe their batting is weak, we should watch out for [Gary] Kirsten, he's a fine player in both forms of the game."

The one attribute that the South Africans have oozing from every pore is a "never say die" attitude, in this they are very similar to the Australians. It was this attitude of national pride that David Lloyd believed was lacking when he assumed command two years ago. Aiming to emulate this mentality, England started listening to recordings of speeches by Winston Churchill, but the irony was that neither the South Africans nor the Australians need this prompting - they just have mental fortitude.

Medlycott has witnessed first hand the differences that allow South Africans to develop this inner power: "There are many reasons why they are mentally stronger than us," he said. "South Africans love to fight, they love to battle and this shows in their sport. They see it as a battle and treat it as such. It starts as children because their facilities are so good that they play competitive cricket from a young age. Only at county level are our facilities any good.

"Their club structure has a definite edge as well because their provincial players still play club cricket, raising the standard and allowing club players and youngsters to see how much hard work is needed to succeed. I don't think that their provincial game is better than our county game. But they can train to peak more because they play less, this means they are fit and raring to go. In England, players will go from a Test to a quarter-final next day. Other countries have rest as an integral part of their training, we don't and it shows.

"Our players desperately want to win, though, and really I think we can do the South Africans. I just hope we get a flyer because like the Australians last year I think they will get stronger later in the season."