Cricket: Sink or swim time in Durban

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COME HELL or high water, England must avoid defeat in Durban if they are to stay alive in the Test series against South Africa. High water, in the event, may prove to be their salvation.

It has rained in the city for most of the past week - and why not, for spectacular thunderstorms are a feature of the summer in this part of sub-tropical KwaZulu-Natal - and there have been times when the Kingsmead groundstaff might have considered approaching the middle in a rubber-lined boat.

If the tides recede and give way to baking hot sunshine and humidity, which is the other familiar extreme of weather in the city, the prognosis is that the pitch for the Third Test, due to begin this morning, will be somewhere between a green seamer and a minefield. Maybe, maybe not. Pitch reading is a notoriously inexact science and, for all the careful examination of tufts of grass or cracks and the insertion of car keys, nobody has come up with a foolproof method.

It was generally agreed at the time, for instance, that the Wanderers pitch for the First Test in Johannesburg might not favour batting, but that was the limit of the estimations.

Nor was the precise nature of the surface quite immediately clear when play started. After the first delivery from Allan Donald, which went through straight at regulation height, one sage turned round and said: "Flat pitch, draw". Three overs later England were 2 for 4, out of the match and the ball was flitting about with all the haphazard certainty of socks in a tumble drier.

While the toss at Kingsmead may be a good one to win (and England are still due some fortune in this regard, having lost nine consecutively in overseas Tests until Nasser Hussain called correctly in the Second Test at Port Elizabeth a fortnight ago) the tourists must be careful not to make it an overriding consideration. If England believe that the coin holds the key to the outcome then it may well actually do so, at least if it lands on the wrong side.

Nor ought Hussain and the coach, Duncan Fletcher, to allow their men to be undermined by their recent lack of practice and the injuries which have struck the squad in the past few days. They have had precious little outdoor cricket, either in the middle or the nets, since leaving Port Elizabeth with an honourable draw.

Injuries are part of touring life. It is a testament to England's training schedules that they have had so few, and no physiotherapist or fitness guru in the world can legislate against balls hitting a batsman's finger. Michael Vaughan was the most recent, unfortunate recipient of this occupational hazard and England were concerned enough about the state of his digit to summon Mark Ramprakash as emergency cover from his Christmas fireside.

Ramprakash will not play, even though Vaughan was finally ruled out of the Third Test yesterday, a rotten Christmas present for the Yorkshire batsman. Darren Maddy will bat at No 4 and deserves his opportunity although Ramprakash shares Vaughan's quality of adhesiveness at the crease. Gavin Hamilton and Alex Tudor are also in the squad, possibly vying for a seamer's place as Alan Mullally's side strain continues to make him unavailable.

England, still big second favourites in the rubber and steadfastly, sensibly sticking to a policy of making no big claims, will have pondered long and hard about the player who has been the largest single influence on the series so far. The South African all-rounder, Lance Klusener, who is appearing on his home turf in this match, has demonstrated to date that he might have trouble bowling a hoop downhill, but his batting, with scores of 72 and 174, has been resplendent.

He has rattled England and there is a suspicion that England do not know where to bowl to him. He has only three shots in his repertoire - the vicious square cut, the brutal straight drive and a savage carve to mid- wicket - but he plays them with such belligerent assurance that the bowlers' bewilderment is understandable.

Sixteen matches have now gone by since England last took a first-innings lead, against this opposition in the First Test of the 1998 home series. In that time they have passed a total of 400 only once, and Sri Lanka replied by posting almost 600. Their 373 at Port Elizabeth was their first first-innings score of more than 300 since Brisbane almost exactly a year and nine matches previously.

Whichever way it is analysed this is a lamentable record. Bowlers might be said to win matches but, as it was in the age of Don Bradman, so it is in the modern era. Weight of runs scored at reasonable rate persuades the opposition to wilt. Until England manage that they will not win Test matches regularly. It really should not be too much to ask to take a lead against this South African side, no matter how much they like to make their presence felt. They have a metaphorical tendency to puff out their chests out there in the middle, but this cannot fully disguise their own batting frailties. South Africa's tail, frequently but not always in the shape of Klusener, is accustomed to extricating them from the mire.

Kingsmead is as good a place as any for England to begin their revival. South Africa last beat them on the ground 71 years ago, England having prevailed in three of the eight matches since. On that occasion, in February, 1928, seasonal rain washed out play on the first day.

England were then put in and undone by a seam bowler called Buster Nupen, who had only one eye and whose parents were both Norwegian. In a spell of 5 for 7, Nupen reduced them from 240 for 4 to 282 all out. England's team might not have been their strongest but it included Herbert Sutcliffe, Wally Hammond, Percy Holmes and Bob Wyatt. What a story it must have been then, what a story it would be today: half- blind Scandinavian seamer sees off England.

That will not happen this time. There is not a Norwegian in view and it is only some of the present South African team's followers who are one-eyed. It would be a pity if the pitch was decisive in the outcome of this match - and the series if the home side were to be the beneficiaries - and a draw is distinctly improbable.

If England can keep their heads above the water they can think of setting sail for the sunny uplands; if not, they may be drowning men without straws to clutch at.

England (from): M A Atherton, M A Butcher, N Hussain (capt), D L Maddy, A J Stewart (wkt), C J Adams, A Flintoff, A R Caddick, D Gough, C E W Silverwood, P C R Tufnell, G M Hamilton, A J Tudor.

South Africa (from): G Kirsten, H H Gibbs, J H Kallis, D J Cullinan, W J Cronje (capt), J N Rhodes, L Klusener, S M Pollock, M A Boucher (wkt), A A Donald, P R Adams, M Hayward.

Umpires: DL Orchard (SA), DB Cowie (NZ).