England face ultimate fitness Test

Vaughan's rigorous regime could be the key as third match in quick succession stretches both sides

Thirteen matches, 11 wins, two draws, no defeats. And no New Year Honours either for the England cricket team to mark the most successful passage in their Test history. Not an Order of the Bath in sight, not a sausage. They told us so. No sooner do you sell the television rights to satellite than the game becomes marginalised.

So the world's No 2 ranked side go gongless into Cape Town today, presumably hoping to nudge the Birthday Honours selectors. There are plenty of reasons for supposing that Michael Vaughan's team can begin 2005 in the Third Test against South Africa as they played throughout 2004, most of them embodied in Durban last week.

The progress of the Second Test amply demonstrated that England have become a team, operating on mutual trust and respect. This is not invariably the case in this most peculiar of team sports, but it is always difficult to know what begets what. Is it the team ethic that leads to victories, or the victories that create the team ethic? Vaughan appears to have stumbled across whatever it is, and while only defeat - or a run of defeats - will reveal whether the team spirit still holds good, that quality stood England in great stead at Kingsmead. After two days they were staring down the barrel as well as scraping it, but after five they were two balls away from a stunning victory.

The issue of psychological momentum was addressed by the captains at Newlands yesterday. Graeme Smith, of South Africa, whose heart is usually thudding away in full view on his sleeve, said: "I'm not a big one for the psychology of things between Test matches, but it's important to grab hold of the momentum early in a game. It will be crucial to start well."

Vaughan, whose phlegmatic nature ensures that he uses his sleeve only for covering his arm, was unbothered by the result. True, not to have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat was disappointing, but the big picture showed that if England had been offered a draw on the second evening they would have bitten Smith's arm off, heart and all. "It was disap-pointing not to have won, but we just got on the plane to Cape Town," Vaughan said.

Stamina, good old physical fitness, will come into the equation as much as psychology. Under Vaughan, England have made a considerable virtue of being fit and staying fit. Not everybody worships at the altar of gymnasiums, but compare the Andrew Flintoff now with the Andrew Flintoff of four years ago. Similarly, Stephen Harmison was transformed partly because of his surging fitness.

This is the third Test match that the sides have played since 17 December. There were four days' rest between the First and Second, just two between the Second and Third. Neither side has any complaints about the itinerary because it is the way of modern tours. But it is also why Vaughan was cute enough to insist on more training. England will be unchanged, although South Africa were yesterday considering tinkering, partly through the need to rest a player or two, partly on the suspicion that they still do not know who makes up their best side.

The swing bowler Charl Langeveldt may make his debut at 30 in place of the 21-year-old speed merchant Dale Steyn. Langeveldt, who bowled lethally for South Africa A against England in a warm-up match, would undoubtedly offer control, but penetration at this level may be more elusive. It is also conceivable, but unlikely, that the all-rounder Andrew Hall will replace the batsman Hashim Amla. The latter could consider that rough justice after just one match, although he did play one Test in India.

The home side, however, are desperately searching for a balance that will enable them to take 20 wickets. To that end, they are privately talking about breaking up the opening bowling partnership of Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock after 26 matches. Only 10 pairings have ever shared the new ball more often, and Ntini and Pollock are on the tail of quite a few.

The concern is simple: they are not taking enough wickets up front. Pollock still has enviable accuracy, but his parsimony no longer amounts to an attacking weapon. His 43 wickets in 2004 (the same number as Flintoff) cost almost 30 runs apiece. He is not making the early batsmen play often enough against the new ball, and being allowed to leave at the beginning of an innings is meat and drink for openers.

But Ntini and Pollock are by a considerable distance their side's best bowlers, and the risk in letting somebody else use the new ball must be too great. England have the superior attack, and when Harmison starts firing that superiority will be enhanced. Harmison's lack of consistent potency remains a mild worry, but the manner in which he propelled two brutes in succession, which rammed respectively into Pollock's left and right hands, should have dispelled any concern that the force has deserted him.

He and Matthew Hoggard have opened the bowling in 14 matches, not a combination you would necessarily have thought of two years ago. They look settled for the duration now, although Vaughan was at pains to point out yesterday that the fringe players in the squad have not been forgotten. He mentioned that James Anderson has been going well in practice, and that it was healthy to have so many batsmen competing for places (in particular one place, that of Mark Butcher). Butcher is under pressure in this match, but he is so popular a cricketer that he will be accompanied to the crease by a plethora of goodwill.

As for the lack of gong recognition, the only explanation would seem to be that the powers that be are waiting for this England side to finish their business (ie win the Ashes) before conferring awards, rather as Lord Of The Rings was kept waiting for Oscars until the trilogy was complete. For the moment, England are durable enough to ensure that it will not be honours even with South Africa come Thursday.