Cricket: One small step for Nasser

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The Independent Online
RELIEF APPROACHING jubilation greeted England's draw against South Africa in the Second Test match. If it was understandable it was also slightly excessive, and demonstrated that they are still hanging around the pretty pass they reached so long ago and have shown so little inclination to leave.

The reaction might have celebrated the fighting qualities that Nasser Hussain's side, and not least Hussain himself, were forced to exhibit to avoid the embarrassment of being defeated after winning the toss and inserting the opposition. In truth, that was barely the half of it. Simply, when England left the pitch at Port Elizabeth last Monday evening they knew that they could no longer be whitewashed in the series, that the prospect of losing 5-0 had receded forever.

Such a dramatic reversal had obviously never been discussed in public - except by book- makers, punters, all other followers of the team's misfortunes and perhaps, in candid, un-guarded moments, the players - but it had loomed more gruesomely into view following the crushing defeat in the First Test. Having thus averted a terrible fate which had befallen them three times before, against Australia in 1920-21 and West Indies in 1984 and 1985-86, England's next step is logical: ensure that it is not 4-0.

This will take considerable resolve because, whichever way the result from the stirring contest in Port Elizabeth is dressed up, little which has happened so far suggests other than that South Africa are easily the superior side. They are not impregnable and, like England, they possess glaring individual shortcomings in several disciplines, but there is an essential difference. South Africa have developed the habit of digging themselves out of trouble, England are still too often merely digging themselves into it.

Had the tourists failed to survive on the final day at St George's Park, when the glorious brass band in the Old Grandstand was still playing, not even Hussain or the equable coach, Duncan Fletcher, could have found much smelling of roses. As it is, there remains in the camp a touching blend of healthy realism and determined positiveness.

It is possible to imagine them, for instance, being clinical but upbeat about the opening partnerships. All right, in four innings so far the first wicket has never managed more than five runs. But at least they have done that twice. And South Africa may have made 450 after being asked to bat in the Second Test. But they were 146 for 5 and England did bowl them all out.

Neither England's batting nor their bowling has been good enough when it has mattered, though. The batting is the more worrying. Three players have made half-centuries in the opening two matches: Hussain, who has two, Michael Atherton, whose redoubtable 108 in the first innings at PE could not have been more merited, and Alec Stewart, who blazed away for 86 at Johannesburg when all was but lost. These are the men whose international careers go back a decade.

It means that none of the more recent additions to the side has yet made a deep impression in this rubber. Considering that it takes time - perhaps five matches, perhaps 20 - to adjust to the rarefied demands of Test cricket this is no cause for alarm, but the balance of the order looks awry.

Of course, it would be beneficial to have some runs from the opening partnership and Mark Butcher's game looks in some disarray. He has been on the receiving end of two indifferent decisions but that cannot conceal the fact that he is trying to hit balls he should be leaving and missing balls he should be hitting. This weekend, make no mistake, he is playing for his place and his Test future.

Butcher seemed to have the right stuff when he first came into the side and the selectors have stuck with him. An average of 14 since he scored a century at Brisbane against Australia 13 months ago demands a revision of opinion. Darren Maddy, the enthusiasts' enthusiast from Leicestershire, may be entitled, in any case, to feel hard done by. He replaced Butcher at The Oval last year after the latter's poor run and could claim to be the man in possession when this trip started. He was swiftly discarded.

There is a faint air of Test unreality about the middle order. While Hussain is in imperious form and Michael Vaughan has performed with admirable technique and temperament at No 4, there is a harum-scarum look to the next three places. Stewart, Chris Adams and Andrew Flintoff all come out playing shots. Highly attractive, eminently desirable but not, in England's present state, designed to win matches over five days. If it is policy, they had better stick with it. The problem of the tail remains, though Andrew Caddick has proved to be a revelation at number eight.

While the batting was known to be suspect the bowling was to be the trump card. It has not proved so. At the Wanderers on the type of pitch that seamers would have custom-built, they found either the wrong length or were too wayward. At St George's Park, they were unlucky but should have made more of early conditions and had no answer to Lance Klusener.

There is still room for optimism here. Caddick and Darren Gough are not Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald, but they are talented bowlers. They could yet have the measure of a South African order which is not as assured as it would make out. Caddick, especially, now that he has found the right length, will yet find his due reward.

This series, thankfully, is still alive. It has also, it should be remembered, the potential to become bitter and twisted. South Africa crave desperately a win to avenge their bizarre defeat in England in 1998, England crave respectability. It is furious out in the middle.

The verbals are being liberally handed out, almost as freely as the appeals. There were some crass umpiring mistakes at Port Elizabeth but the players ought not to make too much of this. They cannot have it both ways: cheat by appealing for that which they know not to be out and then expect the umpires invariably to be right.

England remain favourites to lose but they are still in touch and they should recognise that their relief is probably matched by South African irritation.