Cricket: `We've just got to keep fighting'

Stephen Brenkley hears an honest response to depressing reality
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THERE WAS still a twinkle in the eye and a sardonic tone in the voice. The day that Alec Stewart loses his droll humour is the one when we shall truly realise the game is up for England.

He spoke candidly after the third day's play in Johannesburg when it was obvious that only a monsoon could prevent South Africa winning the First Test. The former captain made no excuses and looked for none.

"We've got to look for something positive out of this game but we've been outplayed by a better team," he said. "South Africa are one of the best sides in the world and we're supposed to be the worst. We've just got to keep fighting."

It was, he observed correctly, a vital toss to win. England had gone past the outside edge on numerous occasions; South Africa had repeatedly touched it.

But that did not mean England had not bowled pretty well. Stewart, the old pro who has been in enough losing sides to recognise that it will always be tough and in enough winning ones to be aware that they are always capable of the astonishing, said his mind went back to Australia last winter.

"Considering that South Africa are where they are and we are where we are, I think we're lucky to be invited to play here," he said. That was the time for the wry smile. He admitted that it was a setback but he repeated the strategy as laid down by the new coach, Duncan Fletcher. England were in South Africa to compete. "We have competed at times, unfortunately South Africa have still beaten us."

Anybody who respects dedicated cricketers, a branch of the profession in which Stewart will one day be elected to the hall of fame, would have been glad that he scored 86 yesterday. It was by far the highest score of his tour. He avoided a pair when the first ball hit him rather than he hitting it and then, as he said, decided to play normally. Maybe it was no more than a stay of execution in the termination of his career but how he hit the ball.

The hook for six off Donald was Stewart as we shall remember him. "It was deeply disappointing to lose Michael Atherton so early. He copped a pair and he copped another good ball. I was glad to get 86 but it didn't matter in the end. We're still losing."

While he was at it, the man they call The Gaffer decided to get in his point about the England bowling. Lambasted in some quarters because the seamers allowed too many balls to pass the bat, he quite rightly pointed out that Darryl Cullinan and Herschelle Gibbs had batted splendidly. So they did.

This is a big reversal for England, make no mistake, not least because the captain, Nasser Hussain, had made much of their body language on the first morning of the first Test. It could, he had said, have an influence on the direction of the series. Well, at 2 for 4 after 17 balls, how would your body language be?

Not that Hansie Cronje, Hussain's South African counterpart, was making too much of it. Last winter at home the South Africans beat West Indies 5-0.

"I'll be disappointed if people are talking like this now. England have played well, the toss was an important one to win, there's plenty of cricket left in this series," he said.

Wise words, but it was still possible to think that he might just have a big winning margin in his mind.

"Gibbs and Cullinan stayed around while the ball went soft and put the bad ball away. This made it much easier for the batsmen who followed. They batted really well," Cronje said. He also pointed to the importance of the early removal of Atherton. Great bowlers had taken full advantage of extremely favourable conditions, he said.

As for Allan Donald, he has claimed 11 wickets in the match so far. "Considering the problems he had only two weeks ago this is the biggest turnaround of his career. I don't think it's the best I've ever seen him bowl." Well, England will be glad of that.