Cricket: South Africans seeking a leader: McCague's return to form and fitness gives England encouragement

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AFTER 46 years of apartheid, South Africa has become the land of pro-black affirmative action, with its cricket board one of the earliest adherents. But, when England A play their 'Test' match at the end of this month, they will find that their success means that principles have been sacrificed to pride.

Since their return from isolation, South Africa's national cricket selectors have consistently encouraged non-white cricketers at every level.

Yet not only are England likely to face an all-white side in Port Elizabeth on 27 to 31 January, but it will include some of the senior players that the cricket board has been trying to force into international retirement for three years.

Peter Kirsten has already, by weight of runs, forced himself back into the national side at the age of 38, and his Australian tour summons means there is no obvious A-side captain.

If he makes some runs before then, Mark Rushmere, 29 this week and a brilliant captain of youth teams, is a candidate, otherwise it may well be 34-year-old Adrian Kuiper, who last played for the national side nearly two years ago. Even Jimmy Cook, at 40, is not out of the question although Clive Rice, due to a broken arm, is.

The intriguing possibility of an appearance by the national captain, Kepler Wessels, who flew back to South Africa from Australia yesterday to rest his knee injury and broken finger, was discounted by a national selector, Tony Pithey.

'There is no chance of Kepler playing, even as a comeback match,' the former Test player said. 'It is his home ground and he will be there, but it will take that long for his finger to recover.'

Pithey admitted Wessels' plight, by taking Kirsten out of the country, had weakened the side, adding: 'We have a lack of depth in batting. The only person scoring runs is Kirsten, and he has now gone. Players like Mandy Yachad, Jimmy Cook and Kevin Rule, who were making runs earlier in the season, can't get any now. They look like different players. Maybe it is because the squad to Australia has gone, and there is a lack of incentive.'

Of England, Pithey, one of five selectors, said: 'Your bowling attack is very strong, but the batsmen have been getting out to bad shots.'

The fellow selector, S K Reddy, who also saw England beat Northern Transvaal at the weekend, said: 'We will be picking our strongest side, it will not be a case of picking young players.'

However, Reddy, who also saw England's only defeat in their 10 matches, added: 'I have not been that impressed by England - but then, I saw the Natal game. Your batting does not look very strong.'

England are more concerned with their fielding which, with only 27 of 46 chances taken in first-class matches, is still poor, despite an improvement against Northern Transvaal.

More encouragingly, Martin McCague is bowling increasingly quickly and the captain, Hugh Morris, who was well- placed to observe at first slip, said: 'He showed a lot of pace and bowled some awkward deliveries. One spell with the new ball was decidedly quick.'