Cricket: World Cup - Lloyd and Woolmer do it their way

Cricket World Cup: Today's collision of England and South Africa brings together two coaches with points to prove
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THE MAIN event might be at Wembley, but a most intriguing sideshow is promised at The Oval, where England meet South Africa. Not only is the result likely to have important ramifications for the Super Six stage to come, but it will also pit the backroom nous of the two outgoing coaches, Bob Woolmer and David Lloyd. With the former widely-touted to replace the latter, today's skirmish could also herald a glimpse of the future.

Depending on who you listen to, Woolmer is either a genius or a snake- oil salesman, a view encapsulated by the use of radio receivers in South Africa's match against India, an idea that while bold was also crass in its mockery of the spirit of the game.

Therein lies the rub and, while his reputation as an innovative coach has largely been fuelled by his hyperactive mind, a receptive team led by two superb fast bowlers has helped to obscure the negatives. A disciplined, well-drilled unit, it is said that the main strength of Hansie Cronje's team is that there are no egos to contend with. If that is true, it clearly does not include their coach.

Sounded out by the England and Wales Cricket Board, along with others such as Phil Neal and Jack Birkenshaw (Lloyd's own choice), Woolmer is, as one prominent member of the England Management Advisory Committee put it, "the favourite with the ECB suits". However, his unavailability until further notice, as well as a counter offer from Warwickshire (a club he coached from 1990-94), has given the impression that the tail is wagging the dog - a strange situation for a man whose recent CV includes coaching the first side to lose a five-match Test series to England in 12 years.

Woolmer is a shrewd operator, and has so far kept everyone guessing. All he would say on the subject, as both teams practised at The Oval yesterday, was that nothing had changed from when he was first approached by Simon Pack, the ECB's international teams director.

"I have a role with South Africa in this World Cup, and I will not make a decision about my future until that is finished," Woolmer said. "I would like a rest and will do some radio this winter - that still stands. I don't want to be involved for a period after the World Cup. It's my decision how long that will be."

If that is his public stance, it apparently differs in private, where word has it that he is 90 per cent certain to rejoin Warwickshire next season.

Reading between the lines, you get the impression that not many of the South African team will be all that unhappy to see him go. Four and a half years is a long time to spend in each other's pockets and personal quirks have apparently begun to grate. Yet in recognition of his efforts, old rifts have been healed for this World Cup and players are said to be rallying around him for one last hurrah.

Sport is a powerful force in South Africa and Cronje's team were yesterday doing their bit to promote football by wearing t-shirts proclaiming: "I back South Africa 2006". As England are also bidding to hold that World Cup, the act will be seen as deliberately provocative.

England's best retort will be to win today's match, which although not beyond them will probably require something special to break down South Africa's excellent bowling and fielding. Although both sides can lose this match and still qualify for the next stage, an England win would allow them to take at least two points with them into the Super Six stage.

It is a valuable booty, especially when coupled with the quantum leap in expectations of both team and country. Recent meetings do not give cause for optimism, however, and England have won just two of the last nine one-day contests between the sides.

"Their new-ball attack, with Allan Donald at first change, are capable of knocking over anyone," Alec Stewart, the England captain, said. "The way they beat Sri Lanka the other day was not a surprise. They just showed what they can do."

A drier pitch - this one has dampness below a dry crust - would have better-suited England. As it is, they may bring in Angus Fraser to replace Ian Austin, while retaining the services of the off-spinner Robert Croft. The Oval is a big ground and Croft tends to bowl well there.

Airing his thoughts of the tournament so far, Cronje felt that England were the only side to have batted properly in the prevailing conditions. The trouble is they may have become victims of their own success and easy wins over Sri Lanka and Kenya have meant that only four batsmen have so far been to the crease. If that remains the case by close of play today, England can look forward to topping their group and a first Super Six match at Trent Bridge.

ENGLAND (probable): N Hussain (Essex), A J Stewart (Surrey, capt and wkt), G A Hick (Worcestershire), G P Thorpe (Surrey), N H Fairbrother (Lancashire), A Flintoff (Lancashire), M A Ealham (Kent), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), I D Austin (Lancashire), D Gough (Yorkshire), A D Mullally (Leicestershire).

SOUTH AFRICA (from): G Kirsten, H H Gibbs, M V Boucher (wkt), J H Kallis, D J Cullinan, W J Cronje (capt), J N Rhodes, S M Pollock, L Klusener, S Elworthy, A A Donald, N Boje.