England in throes of glorious evolution

Form and class point to first series win in South Africa in 40 years and another big step on road to the top
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The Independent Online

For the first time in 40 years, England are about to start a Test series in South Africa as favourites. The odds are simple enough to compute: the tourists are on the crest of a wave, with 10 wins in 11 matches, five series victories out of seven and a rampant bowling attack; the hosts have won one match in seven, one series in six and appear not to have a clue what their best side is.

In assessing the series, which begins at Port Elizabeth on Friday, Michael Vaughan, England's captain, was characteristically low-key. "The public expect us to win, which shows that we have gone in one direction for 12 months, but I don't want to add to that pressure. South Africa had more experience five years ago. They have still got batting depth, but Gary Kirsten leaves a big hole which we will be looking to exploit.

"They are quite aggressive verbally, and in terms of play, but when I saw them in India recently they sat back, which I could understand considering India's spinners and the conditions. It would be really good if they came at us, and we play on flat batting wickets. We will be going at them, but we will have to work hard and that can bring its own rewards."

This is Vaughan-speak, of which a rough translation might be that England should win pretty well against a raw team still trying to find their feet, and that he would not be surprised if the opposition try to play attritional cricket. Some unlikely prospective results are being bandied around, and none of them are in South Africa's favour.

It is as though the home team fear the worst, and will have no compunction about using the old tactic of damage limitation.

England came here in 1964, won the First Test thanks to their off-spinners, and then for the next four matches kept at bay a South Africa side on the verge of greatness. They returned twice in the Nineties and were beaten comfortably both times by a superior side.

Vaughan's England have evolved into a genuine, if not yet complete, force. They will be confident of taking an early lead despite the events here yesterday, from which they should learn lessons for the future of all tours.

South Africa point out that much of England's recent record was compiled against the West Indies, who were also convincingly beaten 3-0 here a year ago. But the home team seem to be stumbling from one crisis to the next. Nobody doubts that they possess some cricketers of extraordinary talent, but they are being undermined. Ray Jennings, their new coach, was ticked off last week for expressing robust opinions about the selection of the sides which he has been expected to coach. The chief executive of South African Cricket, Gerald Majola, wrote him an email telling him to desist and inadvertently sent it to every media outlet in the country.

Nobody can have expected Jennings to be a wilting wallflower. This was a coach, after all, who once told his charges in provincial cricket that they would be offered a reward if they managed to hit Allan Donald while he was batting. He later apologised, but the incident epitomises his style.

For all his combativeness, Jennings appears to know the trick of getting his players to give their all - he won an unlikely provincial championship with Easterns - but by so openly casting doubt on selectorial policy he has made it more difficult to pull off internationally.

A 1-0 defeat in India last month was almost acceptable after they ensured a draw in the first match, and at home they have lost series only to Australia since their readmission to world cricket. But the balance of the sides suggests England should win in some comfort at Port Elizabeth. On paper, South Africa's batting line-up is long, but it is full of players who have not yet accomplished much. Their new wicketkeeper, Thami Tsolekile, batted at 10 in India, unheard of for a modern keeper.

South Africa's hopes are pinned almost entirely on four players: Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini. For all Vaughan's hopes, they simply do not have the personnel to take the attack to England. Smith, the captain, perhaps more than Jennings, will have his work cut out. Lose this rubber badly and the vultures will begin to circle.

England's team will almost certainly show two changes from the line-up who beat West Indies at The Oval in September. Mark Butcher will reclaim his place from Rob Key. Vaughan said Butcher, who spent the latter half of the summer with a variety of injuries, deserved the chance on his record in the previous two years. But he implied that it had been a tough decision.

Key, do not forget, made an unbeaten 93 to see England home at Old Trafford last summer, having earlier hit a double century at Lord's, the highest score in the squad. Simon Jones will take over from James Anderson in a race whose course is likely never to be run.

St George's Park at Port Elizabeth is one of the country's most charming venues, perched by the sea and enhanced by the presence throughout the proceedings of a brass band. Since readmission, South Africa have a formidable record there: only Australia have beaten them in eight matches. But England have a bowling attack of enviable balance and can expect to become the second. A draw is the best the hosts can hope for, and in the conditions they may not have the equipment to achieve it.