BEFORE LOSING three quick wickets for 17 runs late in the day England's plan of arriving at next week's first Test at something approaching peak form was moving sedately on here yesterday after the two Michaels, Atherton and Vaughan, had both made 80's against a decent combined Northerns/Gauteng side. But England's batting can change as quickly as the high veldt weather and their slow scoring allowed a first day that looked comfortably theirs to be turned into a minor triumph for the hosts.
It was not all bad news, although the failure of the experienced trio of Nasser Hussain, Alec Stewart and Mark Butcher to make significant scores on a good pitch will niggle away at their respective confidences.
As strokeplayers, England need them firing and well though Atherton and Vaughan applied themselves, they are essentially one-paced batsmen who do not put bowlers under pressure but wait instead for the bowlers to make mistakes. On a day when a row broke out over affirmative action - the home side are fielding just one non-white player instead of the minimum of two required by law - England could well have done with some affirmative batting.
If the Atherton way is justifiably the right way to begin an innings, batsmen need to be able to accelerate, and Chris Adams apart, England appear to have the tortoises in form, though not the hares. If these are quibbles, they are important ones and Australia's aim of scoring Test match runs at four per over is not simply to gain extra hours on the beach. Bowlers need time, especially on surfaces as true as this one, also the venue for the fifth Test in January.
There was much to credit England with, not least the fact that Atherton is looking as fluent as he was last time he toured South Africa, a period of his career he would, if pushed, probably consider to be his apogee. He obviously thrives at altitude and the oxygen deprivation most experience in these parts did not affect him or his fickle back unduly. His cover driving in particular was delightful and if the hooks that brought him a six and several fours had more risk attached, the fact that he took them on shows his confidence is high.
Vaughan too batted solidly and impressively, unperturbed by ball or barb from the bowlers until he played across a late outswinger from Steve Elworthy in the final session. He may not have an imposing presence off the field, but his upright stance, which conjures up impressions of the debonair amateur of the Edwardian era, makes the Yorkshireman look unflappable at the crease.
Apart from a solid defence, and the odd thumping drive, there is a deftness to Vaughan's game and several of his boundaries came from late cuts, a stroke rarely played in the modern era of big bats.
Put into bat, Atherton and Butcher had to weather a testing new ball salvo from Elworthy and the left-arm Greg Smith. Yet, just as the hard work seemed to have been done, Butcher got his feet in a tangle against Smith and was lbw hitting around a straight ball. Get one, get them all, used to be the battle cry and Hussain, bowled by David Terbrugge in the next over as he shouldered arms, at least proved the adage to be partially correct. If it was an aberration on the England captain's part to trust in such hairline judgment, some credit must go to the bowler, who followed a series of outswingers with one that cut back to hit off.
The pitch was than put into context by Atherton and Vaughan, who added 132 runs to take England from 44 for 2 to 176, the score when Atherton succumbed to a corker from Smith which cut back sharply to trim his middle stump.
Stewart, whose century in the Melbourne Test last December was the last first-class hundred scored by an England player, began brightly. With the pith Oval-like in its pace and bounce he must have felt huge disappointment when he touched an outswinger from Terbrugge.
A gangly man, Terbrugge, who played four Tests against the West Indies last year, was the pick of the bowlers. With the second new ball still hard, his presence this morning will ensure the passage open to England's remaining batsmen is a tough one.
First day of four; Combined Northerns/Gauteng XI won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings
M A Butcher lbw b Smith 15
M A Atherton b Smith 81
*N Hussain b Terbrugge 1
M P Vaughan lbw b Elworthy 85
A J Stewart c Pothas b Terbrugge 20
C J Adams not out 11
A R Caddick lbw b Terbrugge 0
A Flintoff not out 2
Extras (b4, lb5, nb14) 23
Total (for 6, 90 overs) 238
Fall: 1-43, 2-44, 3-176, 4-218, 5-234, 6-235.
To bat: G M Hamilton, A J Tudor, D Gough.
Bowling: Elworthy 23-4-67-1; Smith 16-2-49-2; Terbrugge 19-4-44-3; Masimula 11-0-33-0; Eksteen 20-7-36-0; McKenzie 1-1-0-0.
Gauteng/Northerns Combined XI: S Koenig, A Bacher, N McKenzie, D Cullinan, M van Jaarsveld, N Pothas, S Elworthy, D Terbrugge, *C Eksteen, G Smith, W Masimula.
Umpires: D L Orchard and W A Diedricks.Reuse content