England face challenging foray into the 'pit of hate'

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The Independent Online

Modern Sportsmen are fond of talking about wake-up calls and whether England need one or not they are about to receive the loudest and most menacing in world cricket.

Modern Sportsmen are fond of talking about wake-up calls and whether England need one or not they are about to receive the loudest and most menacing in world cricket.

The Wanderers was not dubbed the "pit of hate" because of its denizens' predisposition for polite applause and cucumber sandwiches, and tomorrow England will have to run the gauntlet.

By the end, they will know they have been in a contest with both opposition team and crowd. They will have been woken up, all right, for the six matches which follow in this frenetic one-day circus, and win or lose they will be in a state of stunned excitement.

If much of the ire will be reserved for Kevin Pietersen, returning to play for England for the first time in the land of his birth, do not imagine for a moment that the other Englishmen will be the most popular chaps in town.

Eden Gardens at Calcutta is full to overflowing with 100,000 people and a perpetual cacophony of noise, except when Sachin Tendulkar is out, but this stems from excitability and unrestrained enthusiasm. The National Stadium in Karachi is invariably a potential tinderbox but the rage is always aimed at Pakistan if they lose. Bay 13 at Melbourne is a seething cauldron of away-team baiting but tends to be restricted to one section of the ground containing 90,000 fans.

At the Wanderers it is different, at the Wanderers on one-day match days, everybody lets you know that you are unwelcome and if you are a Pom you are doubly unwelcome. The ground capacity is a mere 32,000 but it feels like 90,000. This is perhaps why South Africa have won 14 of the 18 matches they have played at the ground.

The good thing about a series of seven matches, and some might say the only good thing, is that it gives you time to come back. England have a reasonable recent record of staying with the opposition in these one-day circuses on tour. In India three years ago they came back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3, in New Zealand soon afterwards they levelled at 2-2 after being 2-0 down before losing the decider, in the West Indies earlier this year they drew 2-2 by winning the last match.

Something similar is easy to predict this time and it would certainly prevent the series dying from terminal boredom if the teams arrive back in this area in two weeks, in Centurion, to play the decider. They are both works in progress.

England's squad of 17 seems unwieldy at best and the comfortable win against South Africa A in Kimberley on Thursday merely ensured that selectors' discussions about the team would be extended. Pietersen, not in the squad until a fortnight ago, has been earmarked for number five.

It is probable that the management will keep faith with Vikram Solanki to open with Marcus Trescothick, who is returning to the side, after missing the four matches in Zimbabwe late last year. With Michael Vaughan at three and Andrew Strauss at four, Ian Bell is likely to be omitted.

The mercurially talented Solanki is worth persisting with only if the coach, Duncan Fletcher, and Vaughan believe he has a long-term future, that is, will feature in the 2007 World Cup. If not, there is another strategy they should consider.

This involves Vaughan opening, where style and application suggest he should be in both forms of the game, with Strauss, Bell, Pietersen and Paul Collingwood following. As the stand-in captain Trescothick observed the other night after victory over South Africa A, when Freddie Flintoff returns it should indeed be fun.

England's seam bowling department is a significant worry. Darren Gough will lead the attack, but for how long? James Anderson is in awful form. Matthew Hoggard is only suddenly seen as a one-day player again. The management are hardly spoiled for choice.

South Africa are suffering from the familiar struggles of not knowing their best team and being stupidly torn apart by trying to balance the side in terms of skin colour when that should be the easy part. If England can make enough runs - 300 at the ground may be needed on recent evidence - they can follow their first Test win at the Wanderers in 49 years with their first limited overs win of all.

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