Cricket / South African Tour: Desire of the history men: Captain Wessels confident for the challenge ahead as his side prepare to bridge the generation gap - Derek Pringle expects England to find the latest tourists a tough proposition

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ON THURSDAY, Lord's will play host to the South Africa Test team for the first time since the opening match of the 1965 series, which the tourists eventually won 1-0. Twenty- nine years seems an abnormally long time to wait to even the score, but despite the generation gap the similarities between the two South African sides are uncanny. So much so, that if Rip van Winkle were to splutter into life in the Long Room this week, he could easily be forgiven for thinking that 30 years was more like 40 winks.

Then, the captain, Peter van der Merwe, was an Afrikaner who was also a respected leader and a committed Christian. The present skipper, Kepler Wessels is much the same. Similarly, both sides share a clean-cut, athletic look, with a sharp-edged zeal making up for whatever lack of experience they have.

In 1965 the emerging players were the Pollock brothers, Graeme and Peter, whose duet with bat and ball won the decisive Trent Bridge Test. They were joined by the mercurial Colin Bland, a batsman and fielder of breathtaking skill and verve. This side has Allan Donald, Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes, stars who are primed to leave their mark on the forthcoming series.

On the last occasion they were here, the South Africans were miffed at having to play just a three-match series. This time they are booked in for the same, but no such arrogance prevails, this abbreviated tour being the quickest way for the TCCB to reintroduce the South Africans into its busy programme.

South Africa have played 14 Tests since their return to internationals in 1991 and, unsurprisingly, they have hardly set the world alight. But neither have they looked out of their depth, and their two recent drawn series against a rampant Australia have rightly been seen as triumphs for the new era.

Wessels admits that his team have been cautious: 'When we got back into the scene, we were aware that we lacked experience and star players. The last thing you want to do with a new side is to dishearten them, particularly the youngsters, by being beaten all the time. What we lack in class we make up for in enthusiasm and hard work and we definitely played above ourselves against the Aussies. But the team is settled now and has a big desire to do well. We have now passed that fear of losing and if there is a sniff of victory, we'll be having a go.'

So far, their preparations have been hit by the weather and stubborn county sides intent on not losing. In just over a month's cricket, they have yet to register a first-class victory, their much-vaunted bowling attack failing to cut through teams that both Australia and Pakistan disposed of without so much as breaking sweat.

Wessels is happy with his side's form: 'If we get three good days against Northants we'll be ready. The batsmen have all had time at the crease and the bowling is coming together. In fact we have not played our front-line attack together yet on purpose. I'm happy with the key bowlers and both Donald and Fanie de Villiers have done very well.'

With South Africa's first democratic elections now just a pleasant memory, the cricketers, who were as much pioneering ambassadors as sportsmen representing their country, can now get on with things. Unshackled, they are free to go about the business of winning without fear of upsetting their hosts. They have come a long way since their almost apologetic presence in Calcutta three years ago, and England have a stern task ahead of them.

This will not be lost on Ray Illingworth and his captain, Mike Atherton, who both know that a slumbering giant will be a lot more difficult to deal with than a grounded Kiwi. Normally it would be prudent not to tinker with a team that has brought home the bacon, but South Africa are a different animal altogether. According to Allan Border, their tough approach is coupled with a rare discipline that, while not making them world-beaters, still makes them hard to beat.

England will need to make changes, rethink strategies and alter the roles of those reselected. Gooch should again open the innings but this time with Atherton, Stewart coming in at No 3. Atherton and Gooch have a wonderful record together against the new ball and the change should not affect Stewart's aggressive strokeplay.

The No. 4 slot, though, presents a greater problem. Perversely, Robin Smith is in fine form for his county, but this has not transferred itself to his batting for England. Test bowlers are a cut above most county bowlers, who are drawn into feeding a batsman's strengths like moths to a porch light. It is hard to recall when a Test bowler last allowed Smith the room to swing his beefy arms and give the ball the hefty crack his confidence has always needed.

One can understand Atherton's faith in giving Smith another chance, for it is tempting to believe that just one big score would restore his self-

belief. South Africa, though, will have done their homework and the last thing England need is a nervy batsman battling his way back to form in a three- match series. If Smith were to go, his spot could fall to the in- form Mike Gatting, but his return to Test cricket two seasons ago did not bear fruit and Graham Thorpe should get a much-deserved recall.

As for Graeme Hick, the big score on the big occasion still eludes him. Apart from having skill and strength in abundance, he still fails to look in control at the crease, and his hesitant body language merely fuels opponents' confidence. Hick's problems are not technical, they are mental. And they will be terminal so long as he is made to feel on trial every time he bats for England.

This would normally open the door for John Crawley, but having him and then the relatively inexperienced Craig White at No 6 may be a gamble that even Illingworth would not be prepared to take. Either Hick or Smith will probably be granted a reprieve.

After Old Trafford, the bowling looks to be the least of Atherton's worries. That is until you consider how ineffectual Angus Fraser and Peter Such were in contrast to the potent threat offered by Phillip DeFreitas and Darren Gough. After his first winter tour in three years, Fraser is clearly jaded. Even so, he should have looked more threatening against New Zealand. Unlike the West Indies, South Africa have a solid, if unspectacular, line-up that will have to be prised from the crease. Fraser's accuracy is always handy but unless he can inject some of his old zip, a fit Andy Caddick may be more penetrative.

Such presents a similar problem. Like Fraser, Such gives his skipper control, which at Test level can be crucial; conversely Ian Salisbury offers aggression, but England would have to budget for him at four an over, since he is no Shane Warne, which will give South Africa much heart if he is selected.

Having started their Test ban in 1970, while, many would say, the best team in the world, they now return in a bid to reclaim the mantle. England will be looking to make sure it takes them longer than they expected.

Possible 13: Atherton, Gooch, Stewart, Thorpe, Hick, White, Rhodes, DeFreitas, Salisbury, Fraser, Gough, Caddick, Crawley.

(Photograph omitted)

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