Cricket / Second Test: Combative Zebras eager to earn stripes: Derek Pringle assesses the all-round strengths of the South African tourists

Click to follow
TWENTY-NINE years is a long time to have been away. On the last occasion the South Africans were here, Rubber Soul was the latest Beatles masterpiece, Harold Wilson was at Number 10, and Worcestershire won the County Championship.

It was also the year - 1965 - that Fred Titmus was preferred to Ray Illingworth, the present chairman of selectors, as England's off-spinner. Manchester United won the Football League and South Africa won their first series against England on foreign soil.

Since their high-profile return to the international arena in 1991, the South Africans have played rather better than expected. As their two recently drawn series against Australia have shown, they are a combative outfit and function far better as a team than their bland line-up would suggest. Indeed, more Bauhaus than Baroque.

Despite some initial problems, South Africa are still running on adrenalin, and the former Australian captain Allan Border reckons that they are still getting by on the novelty. 'The endless grind,' he reckons, 'has yet to hit them.'

Having finished his career with back-to-back series against them, Border has seen more of the Zebras (the politically correct name for the old Springboks) than most, and believes their strength lies with their pace attack. 'They have four or five very handy fast-

medium bowlers, who should be well suited to English conditions. With Allan Donald to rough people up, they work extremely well as a unit.'

Of those, Fanie de Villiers and Craig Matthews are the most accurate and persistent, and both have a knack of moving the ball away from the right- hander. De Villiers has huge resources of stamina, and his marathon spell of six for 43 in the second innings at Sydney saw South Africa to a fairy-tale victory over Australia.

If these two establish the platform, then Donald and Brian McMillan will be used to provide the lightning strikes. Donald has been called the 'fastest white man on earth'. However, when Donald gets it right, he is simply the 'fastest man'. McMillan is not as quick, but his hustle and extravagant use of the bouncer often persuade batsmen that it is time to move on.

'Balanced attack' is not a phrase bandied around by the South African selectors. Both Pat Symcox, the off-spinner, and Tim Shaw, left-arm orthodox, are seasoned domestic campaigners, but only the former has any experience at Test level, and neither can expect to play a leading role in the series.

The batting, according to Border, is their Achilles' heel. 'Their line-up is nothing flash apart from Hansie Cronje, who is a good aggressive player. They bat a long way down, though, and when you think they are on the rack, someone down the order gets 50.'

Getting used to English pitches may affect some, but several key batsmen, including the captain Kepler Wessels and Peter Kirsten, have had lengthy associations with county cricket. With Kirsten's half-brother Gary likely to share opening duties with the talented Andrew Hudson, South Africa have a left-right combination that may upset the line of both Angus Fraser and Philip DeFreitas.

That leaves Cronje, who also bowls a bit of medium pace, Jonty Rhodes, and the all- rounder McMillan, to control the middle order. A practisaholic in the Gooch mould, Cronje, with his elegant aggression, has emerged as South Africa's most dependable batsman of the new era. Rhodes, on the other hand, has a technique that looks haphazard until he has to dig his side out of a hole.

The team excel in the field and, apart from some suspect slip catchers, South Africa are the best fielding side in world cricket, With an all-round strength that makes the West Indies look clumsy with their hands. In Rhodes, they have a ballistic blond who can seal off a 15-yard stretch of the covers either side of backward point, and who, according to Border, 'is worth 30 runs before he even starts to bat'.

With all this talent, it is a surprise to find that there is a feeling that South Africa lack the killer punch. Clive Rice, Wessels's predecessor as captain, believes that they should have beaten Australia. 'We got into good positions, but failed to turn them into wins. I blame Kepler's negative nature. He can be too cautious at times.'

Stodgy captain or not, South Africa will provide some good, tough opposition who, if not all-conquering, will prove very difficult to beat. As Border acknowledges: 'With South Africa, you know you're in a