Cricket: Self-belief quickly put to the test

England on tour: In-form old guard provide foundation but new boys must find their feet as flak flies
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE reasons - more than might have been expected - to imagine that England's cause in South Africa this winter is far from being hopeless. Considering that the last time they appeared in a Test match this was a heady category into which only their mothers might have elevated them, optimism ought still to be restrained.

Indeed, those taken with the idea that their progress both spiritually and physically so far in South Africa has made England a well-drilled unit had their ardour considerably dampened at Centurion Park yesterday afternoon. A good start was thrown away in a few minutes of ill-discipline against bowling that would not have been out of place in happy hour down the local. It marred, if it did not entirely spoil, a happy evolution on this trip, geared to priming a new side for Test cricket.

When England were overwhelmed by New Zealand on that August afternoon at The Oval, Nasser Hussain stood on the balcony and pronounced himself proud of his players. As his side's resistance had fallen somewhere between abject and non-existent, it seemed the action of a general handing out medals to deserters.

Hussain was perhaps misguided, or had his judgement clouded by defeat, but it demonstrated his passion for his team. That element of his promising leadership was again handsomely apparent as he spoke about England's prospects for the Test series which begins at the Wanderers ground in Johannesburg on Thursday.

He adopted a more realistic stance which paid respect to the achievement of the opposition, who have won nine consecutive Tests and resemble a Manx cat in having no tail, but he also lent a balanced view of the England team, which is not always prominent in the observations made by their more strident critics.

"We will stand up and be counted," he said. "If they look us in the eye we will be looking straight back. We will not be shying away." The body language in the first session, he thought, would dictate to an enormous degree what ensued. If England were among them with bat or ball the South Africans would know they had the kind of battle on their hands that has marked all three rubbers between the sides since the end of the republic's isolation.

If England were to be judged only by their previous achievements, which have been conspicuous by their complete absence, the bookmakers' clinical odds of 8-1 England, 2-9 South Africa and 9-2 a drawn series, would be fair. But there is a mood in the England camp, provoked by Hussain and the new coach, Duncan Fletcher, which, for the moment at least has injected a renewed measure of self-belief and, quite as importantly, self-esteem.

The new faces have helped to fashion this. In addition, the old sweats, if they may be so termed since men like Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart look as cool as cucumbers, have responded with smiling, indulgent enthusiasm. Atherton is in princely form, seemingly pacing his path to Johannesburg and beyond, each of his finely tuned runs another step along the way to his return to the Wanderers where he made his inestimable 185 not out in 1995. Any worries about Stewart's batting are probably not shared by the fellow himself.

When England lost their opening friendly match on this tour, a game which was supposed almost an exhibition, there were the usual knowing hoots of derision, which doubtless found echoes as wickets tumbled yesterday. England, dear old useless England.

There is still a huge difference between anything they have faced so far and what awaits them when Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, whose mastery of the seam's direction is astonishing, start whizzing it past their nostrils. The question marks over England's batting and the effect this will have on the balance of the side are what makes them such second- raters in the bookies' eyes. They have to perform quickly and assemble decent first-innings totals. There will be simply no time for the new boys, Michael Vaughan and Chris Adams, to become accustomed to the level at which they find themselves. They must take to this like Garbo to the camera.

The key, it seems, to the outcome may well arrive in the first 20 overs of each innings. Survive those and you can survive almost anything. Both sides must then be sure to take advantage of the scoring opportunities in the overs from 60 to the new ball at 80. Dainty progress then will not be appreciated. Equally, England will be looking to ensure they have the bowlers to contain with the old ball.

That factor should help Phil Tufnell's claims but it will all come back to batting, batting and more batting. England may decide to opt for Gavin Hamilton at eight simply because they have made so few runs lately and will wish to avoid a long, embarrassing tail batting for a short, embarrassing time.

South Africa are confident and strong, as they should be with their record. Only West Indies, with 11 between 1983-84 and 1984-85 have won more matches consecutively. But this does not bestow invincibility. As England have demonstrated in the past, South Africa's top order can be as vulnerable as, well, as England's and England now have an opening attack in Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick, bowlers all but on a par with Donald and Pollock.

The home side's squad, announced yesterday, has a familiar ring. Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs replaced Adam Bacher and Boeta Dippenaar as opening batsmen from the side who hammered Zimbabwe. All the other usual suspects are there in a 12-man squad: Cronje (who was confirmed as captain for all five Tests), Kirsten, Gibbs, Kallis, Cullinan, Rhodes, Pollock, Klusener, Boucher, Donald, Adams, Terbrugge. The likely number nine in that order made a century in the last Test. Kallis, at least, will not be fit to bowl.

Hussain's side will blend vast experience and rawness. It could contain as many as three debutants in Vaughan, Adams and Hamilton with Flintoff having played only two Tests. England simply want to compete. How the nation would cheer if they managed that. What a measure of their decline that this should be so.

No matter. They start all over again on Thursday. "I will be telling them how important it is and also playing it down so they don't think it's the biggest thing of all time," said Hussain. "It's a delicate balance between how important it is and how important it isn't." How well the new men receive this sensible advice will be known as early as lunchtime on Thursday.

Probable 12: N Hussain (capt), M A Atherton, M R Butcher, M P Vaughan, A J Stewart, C J Adams, A Flintoff, D Gough, A R Caddick, A D Mullally, P C R Tufnell, G M Hamilton.