WHEN it comes to applying the coup de grace, England invariably give a fair impersonation of a matador armed with a cocktail stick, and at 326 for 8 from a mid-afternoon 135 for 5, South Africa are this morning in much the same condition as Jonty Rhodes. Concussed, but still alive.
Rhodes spent last night in a south London hospital after being hit so violently on the helmet by Devon Malcolm that the ball travelled all the way to mid-on. In the Test match list of cranium-assisted rebounds this is not quite a record as Keith Fletcher, the England team manager, was once caught at cover when Jeff Thomson hit him on the peak of his cap, but Rhodes' distress was magnified by the fact that he is an epileptic, and he was immediately whisked off for a neurological scan.
Happily, Rhodes suffered nothing worse than concussion, and while boxers are required to rest for three weeks in similar circumstances, and rugby players for three, Rhodes could even resume his innings this morning if he felt like it. As cricketers are well down the list of abstemious, early-to-bed professional athletes, Rhodes would not be the first player to wobble on to the field with a dry mouth and a blinding headache.
South Africa had chosen to bat first on the customary bouncy Oval pitch, and although the four- pronged England pace attack prompted a good deal of agitated hopping about, Rhodes' injury was the result of ducking into a ball of fullish length from Malcolm which failed to get up much above stump height. In fact, had it not been a no-ball, Malcolm might have been tempted to inquire for leg before.
Without any head protection, there is no doubt that Rhodes might have been much more seriously injured, but it is an unarguable fact that professional cricket now involves almost as many headers as soccer did when Nat Lofthouse was playing centre forward for England.
As a concentration aid, helmets are about as safe as jogging through traffic while plugged into a Walkman, and whether Rhodes - and others like him - would have taken his eye off the ball in the old cloth-capped era is a moot point. A cricket journalist who took a trip down a gold mine in Kalgoorlie a few years ago was equipped with a helmet, and spent the entire journey bashing his head on horizontal beams.
However, the case for wearing helmets was bolstered by a second nasty blow on the head yesterday. A helmetless pigeon was pecking happily away at mid-off when a drive from Brian McMillan sent it reeling away towards the boundary as though it had just consumed several pints of Old Peculiar.
The stricken bird received rather less sympathy than Rhodes, and McMillan's main concern was in being deprived of three runs by the umpire despite the ball travelling all the way to the boundary. McMillan will resume on 91 not out this morning, with only Allan Donald to keep him company if Rhodes doesn't make it, and he will be pretty miffed if he is out for 97.
McMillan is a particularly handy all-rounder, as England discovered in the previous Test at Headingley. There, South Africa were in an even bigger hole at 105 for 5, and McMillan made 78 as the tourists rallied to a total of 447 which eventually saved the game.
South Africa have by now been identified as a fairly ordinary Test team, but with a reservoir of fighting spirit in tight situations unmatched by any other country. England, by contrast, have the more talented individuals, but when they catch sight of an exposed jugular, they are less inclined to bare their fangs than drop their dentures into a bedside glass.
It was, in fact, a good toss for England to lose. They omitted Philip Tufnell, a decision which may yet rebound on them, but while The Oval's pace and bounce invariably makes for a fair contest between bat and ball, there was also an encouraging amount of movement both through the air and off the seam for England's bowlers.
Darren Gough failed to make the best of it, but Malcolm, Phillip DeFreitas and Joey Benjamin all bowled with genuine hostility for the first half of the day. Neither (apart from one bouncer from Malcolm which flew for four byes over the equivent of leg slip) did they get carried away with bowling too short.
Gary and Peter Kirsten, only the second pair of brothers - although in their case half-brothers - to open a Test innings in England, did not fare quite as well as W G and E M Grace in 1880, and DeFreitas split them in his second over. Peter Kirsten then fell victim to the inswinging yorker that Malcolm has rarely produced since England beat the West Indies in Jamaica in 1990, and Hansie Cronje, not for the first time, reacted to the short stuff as though he was batting barefoot on broken bottles.
Cronje, ironically, fell to a poor leg before decision against Benjamin, Darryl Cullinan - preferred to the out-of-form Andrew Hudson - nicked a wide one from DeFreitas, and shortly after Rhodes' injury, Kepler Wessels (having been missed by Graham Gooch in the gully) lost a marginal leg-before decision against Benjamin.
However, the bowling deteriorated to such an extent that McMillan and David Richardson barely looked in any bother while adding 124 for the sixth wicket. Had it not been for the 33-year-old debutant Benjamin (who has risen in nine years from Birmingham League, Staffordshire, and Warwickshire
reject to Ashes tour contender) picking up two more wickets in consecutive overs, England's day would not even have been average.
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