Cricket: Tudor's big chance to stake his Test claim

TWO DROUGHTS were broken in the high veldt this week as England's first tour victory over first-class opposition was followed yesterday by thunderstorms in Johannesburg. With only a week remaining before the first Test hopes are that rain stays away over the next four days as England take on a combined Northerns/ Gauteng side which, if not able to quite harness the awesome power of Mother Nature's thunderbolts, should at least provide Nasser Hussain's team with their sternest challenge to date.

There is competition within the side, too, and with Andy Flintoff at present able to bat but not bowl, it appears to be a straight fight between Alex Tudor and Gavin Hamilton for the No 8 spot. Philip Tufnell, not playing in this match, could yet come into the equation, but only if the pitch for next week's Test at the Wanderers promises lavish amounts of turn.

A final assessment between the pair will be compounded due to their origins within distinct sub-species of all-rounder: Hamilton stronger with bat, Tudor with ball. Judging their respective contributions, particularly if conditions should favour one discipline over the other, will not be a simple task. If it proves otherwise, all you need is to add Alan Mullally, resting this game, and you have the probable side for the series opener.

Impressions at this stage will be vital, and with the pitch at Centurion Park (about 20 miles north of Johannesburg) rumoured to be fast and bouncy, Tudor should have the edge providing he feels confident enough to release the handbrake. "I believe Alex has the potential to become a batting all- rounder," said the England coach, Duncan Fletcher. "He's an exciting player who gets awkward bounce. I'd like to see him really run in during this match and show everyone what he is capable of."

Daryll Cullinan, arguably South Africa's most talented batsmen, is playing and there is the chance that some psychological points scored over the next few days could easily stay in the mind over the coming weeks.

The Northerns/Gauteng side boasts four other Test players alongside Cullinan, though Adam Bacher, David Terbrugge, Steve Elworthy and captain Clive Eksteen have never been regulars. Still, a seam attack comprising of Elworthy, Terbrugge and the distinctly slippery Greg Smith will offer a healthy challenge to England's batsmen.

"We need stronger opposition to measure ourselves against," claimed Fletcher yesterday. "This way the step-up to Test level won't be as big." A plain speaking man, Fletcher was also keen to see how the off-breaks of Michael Vaughan - without Tufnell, England's sole spinner - fare against better batsmen. "Over here they like to attack the spinner and I want to see how he copes with that," Fletcher said.

Given the tour got off to a humiliating start after England lost the curtain-raiser to a scratch Invitation XI, and despite the modest calibre of the opposition since then, there is still the sense that England are making decent headway. To date, all the top eight bar Alec Stewart have now made runs, while among the specialist bowlers only Dean Headley knows what it feels like not to have a wicket to his name.

Headley, who had a trundle in the nets yesterday, is still not fully recovered from the back strain he sustained in the opening match 17 days ago and will again miss out. With the recently arrived Chris Silverwood as cover, the Kent bowler will be further assessed immediately after the first Test, by which time a decision whether to keep him or not will be made.

ENGLAND (v Combined Northerns/ Gauteng XI, Centurion, today): M A Atherton, M R Butcher, N Hussain (capt), M P Vaughan, A J Stewart (wkt), C J Adams, A Flintoff, G M Hamilton, A J Tudor, A R Caddick, D Gough.