England braced for test of nerve

Over the years Nairobi has been the staging post for many an expedition, some more optimistic than others. A hundred years ago it was the midway stage for the Mombasa to Uganda railway, the so-called "lunatic line" that saw many lose their lives to the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo. But if England's one-day side are unlikely to encounter anything quite so ferocious, in South Africa they have opponents used to going for the jugular.

Over the years Nairobi has been the staging post for many an expedition, some more optimistic than others. A hundred years ago it was the midway stage for the Mombasa to Uganda railway, the so-called "lunatic line" that saw many lose their lives to the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo. But if England's one-day side are unlikely to encounter anything quite so ferocious, in South Africa they have opponents used to going for the jugular.

"It's when we have sides that come at us that we are going to find out about ourselves as a team," said Nasser Hussain before today's quarter-final match in the ICC Knockout tournament. "Looking at the teams we are due to play this winter it's going to be a hugely hard-working couple of months, and that starts today."

Since England last played them in January, South Africa have undergone one or two changes. With Cronjegate just entering its second hearing under the auspices of the King Commission, they are a side torn between continuing their past and burying it.

It is the familiar face of Allan Donald, returning from one-day retirement, who will bring an extra dimension in helping to achieve both.

The pitch at Nairobi Gymkhana possesses both bounce and pace, factors that are sure to make him, Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis a handful for England's batsmen. Add to that the improved form of Roger Telemachus as well as the unflappable left-arm spin of Nicky Boje and their bowling remains a formidable power.

In fact, most changes, enforced or otherwise, have largely been made to the batting line-up. Andrew Hall, an opener and Neil McKenzie, a free-scoring strokeplayer, have both made the step-up from provincial cricket. McKenzie, in particular, is an exciting talent who gave England's bowlers a pasting in one of their early warm-up matches last winter.

Before Mammon consumed him, a straight Hansie Cronje was a boon to their middle-order, which also has to make do without another experienced player, Daryll Cullinan. For that reason Lance Klusener's pyrotechnics could be more controllable than normal. If they are not, especially on such a modest-sized ground, they could make a mockery of predicting a par score. At the moment Hussain reckons 250, but if "Zulu" starts wielding his club to maximum effect, anything up to a hundred more could de added.

Judging by the division of labour at yesterday's net practice, England look to be giving Paul Grayson, who arrived as cover for Ashley Giles on Saturday, every chance of playing, probably in the place of Mark Alleyne.

A left-arm spinner who believes flight is strictly for the birds, Hussain must decide whether to risk Giles on a ground where, due to the thin air (Nairobi is 5,800ft above sea level), mis-hits can carry for six. If he does, England must officially replace him in the squad for the rest of the tournament.

"It is such a fast-scoring ground," said Hussain yesterday. "Keeping your nerve is the key, especially for captains and bowlers. Whoever can handle the heat best on the day will win. Paul has got bottle, I've seen that at Essex, but we've yet to decide whether spin is a viable option.

"South Africa are a very good one-day side and must start favourites. To beat them we will have to be at our best, though India showed what can happen on any given day when they beat Australia in their last match."

In one-day cricket, even the slightest advantage can make all the difference. With their win against Bangladesh, England at least have the benefit of having played on the match pitch, a very different beast to those at the practice venues and one that Alec Stewart and Hussain himself appeared to relish.

"We've played South Africa a lot over the last year," added Hussain, "but I believe we've improved since we toured there a year ago. It would be nice to show them that and get one over them."

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