South Africa's hopes of winning their first Test series in England since readmission were dealt a severe blow yesterday when Jacques Kallis withdrew from this week's Edgbaston Test to spend more time with his critically ill father in Cape Town.
Kallis, the world's leading all-rounder, flew back to South Africa on compassionate leave after their defeat to England in the NatWest Series final. Shaun Pollock travelled with him to see his pregnant wife, who is expected to give birth to their first child during the Headingley Test in August. They were given four days' leave but Kallis, who, unlike Pollock, came back in time for South Africa's last warm-up match before the First Test, asked for permission to go home again to be with his father, who has lung cancer.
As well as missing the First Test, which begins on Thursday, there must now be doubts that he will return in time for the Lord's Test a week later. The loss of the 27-year-old, who scored two centuries during the one-day tournament, is a further setback to a side struggling to find form in England.
Eric Simons, the coach, said: "We appreciate that this is an extremely difficult and emotional time for Jacques. I have told him he must take as much time as he needs to be with his father. He is a vital member of our squad but ultimately the well-being of a player's family is more important than a game of cricket."
That South Africa, who are in second place in the ICC Test Championship, looked vulnerable even with Kallis in the side will have encouraged England. It is, however, a surprise to see a team containing five players at the top of the batting and bowling rankings, as well as the world's two leading all-rounders, struggle like this.
In Graeme Smith, South Africa have an impressive young captain who is trying to say and do the right thing. The 22-year-old is positive when he talks about the potential of his side but he needs to convince his players, who appear to lack self-belief. For a young and inexperienced leader who is still making his way in Test cricket as a batsman, it is a difficult task. It cannot be corrected in the nets and Smith will be looking for help from his senior players.
To see South Africans lacking confidence is a rarity because they are normally bullish about everything they do. It may have something to do with the recent performances of both their rugby and cricket teams. The self-belief, bordering on arrogance, of previous South African sides does not appear to be present in this tour party. They are without Allan Donald, Jonty Rhodes and Lance Klusener, but it is the effects of the Hansie Cronje match-fixing affair, quota systems and being knocked out of their own World Cup at an early stage which seem to have had the greatest influence.
Going into this five-Test series, it is not class that South Africa lack but strong characters. The most resilient in the the dressing-room is Gary Kirsten. At 36, his best days are probably behind him but with 89 Tests to his name his experience and determination will give Smith something to feed off.
As the England captain who watched Kirsten amass 275 in 14-and-a-half hours in Durban in 1999, Nasser Hussain needs little reminding of his love for batting. It was the left-hander's second double-century against England - his first came at Old Trafford in 1998 - but whether Kirsten opens the batting depends on Smith and Herschelle Gibbs, who are both yet to hit form.
Kallis's absence will give three talented middle-order batsmen the chance to establish themselves. Jacques Rudolph has looked a class act from his first innings but Darren Gough and James Anderson are sure to ask more questions of his technique than the Bangladesh bowlers he took for 222 not out on his Test debut. Neil McKenzie and Boeta Dippenaar have played 49 Tests between them but neither looks irreplaceable. They will never get a better chance to show their pedigree.
South Africa's strength when they were a realistic threat to Australian dominance came from Klusener, Pollock and Mark Boucher, three players capable of scoring hundreds batting at seven, eight and nine. Klusener may have gone but England will not feel they are through the batting until the other two have been dismissed.
Because of their depth in batting the tourists should not have a problem posting competitive totals. The challenge will be to bowl England out twice. In Pollock they have the No 1 bowler in the world but age and miles on the clock have reduced his cutting edge. But his unerring accuracy, which allows him to exploit any pitch offering assistance, has not diminished. And should England find themselves on a green track, he could be a match-winner. If the pitch is flat he now needs assistance from younger members of the attack.
Makhaya Ntini has made significant progress since South Africa's last tour of England in 1998 but he is still inconsistent. But Hussain can be sure that Ntini will keep running in and bowling hard to the very last ball. The 26-year-old is as fit as any fast bowler in the game.
Then there are three seamers with two Tests between them. Monde Zondeki and Dewald Pretorius are reputed to be fast, and Charl Willoughby is a left-arm swing bowler. Paul Adams' unorthodox left-arm leg-spin is sure to get plenty of action on his second tour here but both he and Robin Peterson, a 23-year-old left-arm spinner, are unlikely to give England's batsmen sleepless nights.Reuse content