Cricket: Stewart relishes ultimate Test

Fifth Test: Classic confrontation will determine whether hosts are on the road to recovery or the road to nowhere
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IF ALL the hype is to be believed, this morning's decisive Test match at Headingley against South Africa represents not so much a crossroads for English cricket as the only road. For many the outlook is stark and the choices for England, who have not won a five or six match home series since 1985, are either winning or oblivion.

Not surprisingly this black and white view is not one shared by the England captain, Alec Stewart. "We are going to treat it like any other Test match," he said yesterday.

"We know it's important but, if you get too giddy or excited, you might not do yourself justice. Hopefully we will break the 13 year duck, but we must not lose focus on what's ahead."

If there was tension it was not showing yesterday, and, following a team dinner on Tuesday night where the odd bottle of Lynches Bages '61 was apparently drunk, the England players looked decidedly relaxed at practice. Their captain, too, was in a jovial mood and, when asked if England were on a roll after their win at Trent Bridge, Stewart replied: "What, because we won one on the trot?"

Stewart has been involved in vital final Test matches before, most notably against Pakistan in 1992 and the West Indies in 1994. However, England's record in deciding Test matches is not a particularly good one and, since the war, England have won just 2 (in 1953 and 1955) from the eight Test series that have been level going into the final Test.

The toss, if not decisive, will nonetheless be important. With the weather forecast set fair for the duration of the match, both sides will want to bat first before the pitch dries and cracks and the bounce becomes more variable. Only heavy cloud cover at 11 this morning will provide any temptation to bowl first.

The promised warm, sunny weather means that both sides will probably also play a frontline spinner, though Headingley's reputation as a seamer's paradise - one largely undeserved since the Test pitch was relaid here three years ago - may yet influence the final selection.

If South Africa, who feel the match will be won by attrition, decide to play a spinner they are likely to replace Paul Adams with the 37-year- old off-spinner Pat Symcox, a gnarled competitor who will give little and expect even less.

However, should the visitors adopt a no-spin policy, Brian McMillan will be the man included though, with Makhaya Ntini back after injury and both Jacques Kallis and Hansie Cronje to back up Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, another seamer would be overdoing things a touch.

England, their top six unchanged now that Mark Ramprakash is over his tonsillitis, are likewise considering their bowling options. With Andrew Flintoff certain to play as an all-rounder, the choice will be between Ian Salisbury, Alan Mullally and Dominic Cork.

Although the re-modelled Salisbury has not lived up to the promise of his washing powder billing (new and improved), he is still a useful option to have should the pitch dry out.

Providing Stewart gives him the right field, and only Cronje really dominated him at Trent Bridge, Salisbury might still have a part to play by making sure the South African tail, lengthened if Symcox plays, does not wag.

If the leg-spinner is included the remaining place would be a straight choice between Cork and Mullally. It will be a difficult decision, for Mullally has been bowling well for Leicestershire while Cork, the more experienced of the pair, has veered between the challenging and the mundane.

Both could play but that would mean leaving any spinning duties to Graeme Hick and Ramprakash - a ploy that, while perhaps buying a couple of maidens, would probably result in few wickets.

Considering the importance of the match Cork should play, not least because he knows what it is like to win a Test match with the ball. Once such a path has been trodden, finding your way back is far easier than someone trying to do it for the first time.

With 25 wickets at 21.25 in the series so far nobody knows this better than Donald, who was yesterday fined half his match fee (around pounds 550) and given a one match ban, suspended for 12 months, for comments made about the umpire Mervyn Kitchen.

In a lengthy statement the match referee, Ahmed Ibrahim, a high court judge from Zimbabwe, found Donald's conduct to be "reprehensible" and that his remarks, made on Radio 5, called for the "strongest condemnation."

By echoing Kitchen's own feelings about the Trent Bridge Test, that he made a few bad decisions (not, though, the controversial one to give Atherton not out, which was made by Steve Dunne), Donald apparently breached three clauses of the International Cricket Council's [ICC] code of conduct.

Unlike Ramprakash, whose fine at Lord's was for disagreeing with the umpire, Donald was actually agreeing with the umpire, supporting the view that he'd had "a shocker."

While any right-minded person realises that the abundance of TV replays have placed umpires in an invidious position, it is a nonsense to punish a player for being honest in an interview being conducted in his second language. In fact, had Kitchen's own thoughts not appeared in print it is unlikely that Donald - as gentlemanly a fast bowler as you could wish to meet - would have ventured the comments he did.

The effect this punishment will have on the match, and England's chances of winning their first major series this decade, will not be known until Donald bowls.

Somebody asked yesterday how long it would take for Donald to appeal. One wag replied: "Probably his first over."

England history lesson, page 22