Cricket: Relaxed, and as ready as we can possibly be

THE TOUR has begun at last. England have been in South Africa for three weeks, of course, but the feeling that matters were about to start in earnest was unmistakeable when we returned to Johannesburg.

It has been important to journey round the country, getting the feel of the place, the climate, the different venues. The matches in that time have allowed the team to bed in, and the victory in Bloemfontein earlier last week reinforced what is a soaring squad spirit.

But there is no doubt that the final match in Centurion before the First Test has felt like the official tour opener. The opposition, a combined Northerns/Gauteng side, are indubitably tougher, the pitch lively. It was bound to provide a severe examination of our credentials and our progress.

Put in on Thursday, we produced a solid batting display. It was led by another beautifully assembled innings by Michael Atherton. Here was a master craftsman at work. The mixture of judicious defence and sensible attack was an object lesson for any batsman.

My innings against the second new ball was marked, not entirely unexpectedly, by the receipt of some bowling which was not exactly in my half. It was, in its way, perfect practice for what might be ahead in the Test matches. And then for one brief moment on Friday morning I thought that the first game in the series, at least, might not be an issue for me personally.

A ball from David Terbrugge rose late and hit me on my right thumb. Just in that fleeting second I thought it might have caused serious damage. To be on the safe side I sought some treatment. The nail was bruised. As it happened, the very next ball from the other end lifted and swung. It grazed the same thumb on the way past and I was out.

I went for what they call in the trade a precautionary X-ray. There was no break. Again as a precaution I did not take the field on Friday afternoon or yesterday, which is always extremely irritating as I like to be in the action. There should, there will, be no problem for Thursday.

If I needed a reminder, I now know at least some of what I can expect when the big action starts. I am as ready as I can be for what lies ahead. Practice, practice, practice has been my dictum. And whatever comes at me I shall also bear in mind a little saying of Graham Gooch: play the ball, not the man.

We are now waiting for the team to be named. How many batsmen will play? What about the all-rounders? And how to divide the balance of the bowling? Will Phil Tufnell play, not because it is likely to be a raging turner but because of the control he can give at one end while the seamers are rotated at the other?

Everybody in the potential early batting order for the opening Test has now had time at the crease. The performance at Centurion in the first innings was as solid as it needed to be. If there is a shortcoming it is the need to turn eighties into hundreds. Seven times batsmen have reached the eighties and on none of them have they gone on to three figures.

But I have a little feeling that someone, given the occasion, will do that at the Wanderers ground this week. I sincerely hope it will be me, but if it isn't I shall be the first to buy a drink for whoever it is.

The seam bowling department is strong and almost at full strength, which itself is a major boost for squad and team morale. Maybe they are just keeping a little bit in reserve for the South Africa batsmen. If there is a department of the game which we will be looking to pick up, it is our fielding. It is sound enough in its technique but it could do with a little more buzz, a little electricity. If fielders are on top of the game, in the game, that transmits itself to the opposition and the crowd.

England were written off in some quarters before this tour started. Some of the views have been extremely negative. But we won in Bloemfontein and won well, a good time to do so. We had a couple of days off back in Johannesburg which I spent shopping and watching movies.

All I can say is that the team spirit is excellent, the unity and care for each other is excellent. After all these years my Test debut may be just four days away, all the years of hard work, success and failure, joy and upset have at last come down to less than a week. Some of my thoughts are turning to family and home as the moment arrives. I feel a sense of pride. Maybe there will be a few nerves but not yet. This team are relaxed, confident and ready.