Cricket: Undiminished glow of the Dazzler

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THE LEGEND is back. Darren Gough, that is. He was restored to the England side for the current four-day match at Bloemfontein, pronounced fit once more. As ever, he was raring to go, which seems to be a permanent state with the man known as the Dazzler.

He is probably the most important single component of this squad, boisterous, funny, competitive, a real pleasure to be around and, probably without knowing it, a natural leader. He is a player who will always take the fight to the opposition and, of course, he is a fast bowler from the topmost of drawers.

Gough is a perpetually positive influence on the side, garrulous and a touch naive. He was having some treatment from Nigel Stockill, our physiologist on the tour, earlier this week. Now, it is well known that Darren is very proud of his upper body strength, he works hard to keep it intact, and he was preening himself on this matter in conversation with Nigel.

His nickname, or rather one of his nicknames, in the Yorkshire dressing- room, is Rhino. "And do you know why they call me Rhino?" he asked Nigel. To which Nigel replied that he had no idea. "They call me Rhino," said Goughy proudly, "because I'm as strong as an ox."

Cricket needs more characters like him. Every individual in every team has a part to play in the approach to the game but there is no question that Gough brings something special. He is a man prepared to go out on a limb, take on the opposition singlehandedly and not rely entirely on the coach's helping hand. I cannot overestimate his worth to this touring party.

Still, this might be a moment to put in another word for the contribution of England's coach, Duncan Fletcher. I have done an enormous amount of one-to-one work with him since arriving in South Africa, working on my technique and talking about the best methods to employ in given situations.

He is the master of the throw down, "tds" as they are known to us lot, probably the best in the world at it. This is a hitherto unheralded part of a batsman's practice but Fletcher gets the pace exactly right, lands it in the right area and has the ball doing just enough.

Such precision and his natural attention to detail allow for quality practice and I can't emphasise enough that five minutes of that is probably worth an hour of the other sort. It has helped me to two scores in the eighties in the past week.

The first was a massive release of pressure. OK, so you feel you have nothing to prove, you know you are a good player, you feel in good form but the translation of that into runs is not to be underestimated. I am disappointed that I did not convert one of those innings into a century but that is to be negative. The positive is that I have found the sort of form I wanted early.

Not that this has gone down well with some of our hosts, or indeed even been noticed by them. After the draw against the combined team of Western Province and Boland last week their captain, Louis Koen, made some observations the following day - and he was not congratulating us on our model technique. The phoney war leading up to the real conflict, no doubt.

The purport of his remarks about me was that when I got into the Test matches I could expect Allan Donald to whistle the odd rapid ball past my nose end. Well, get away. I am expecting no less. Now Donald is some bowler, but apart from being an imperious driver, I can square cut pretty ferociously and I have been known to pull and hook fairly fearlessly in my time.

We are not daft. We know that not everything has run with clinical perfection in our preparations for the First Test in Johannesburg in just under a fortnight. We know we might have scored more runs in the top order. But I cannot emphasise too strongly that these are early days on tour. We have been here barely two weeks. It is somewhat premature to be writing us off. We, the players, remain considerably upbeat and the mutual support on tour is a considerable weapon.

These are times to be positive, to look forward to the big games ahead, to learn from the mistakes now to ensure they are not repeated, to keep practising.

Take, for a moment, Mark Butcher. He has not had a decent score yet. But he has looked a million dollars in the nets, where he is hitting cleanly and confidently. It is our job, and one we have taken to well, to back each other. This is a squad with that ethos in abundance and one from which we will not be deflected by outside influences.

The First Test may well be the defining moment of this tour. That is an important match, that may be the time when judgements can begin.