England prepared to overload team with fast bowlers

Fourth Test: Kabir Ali in line to make his debut as Harmison struggles for fitness and South Africa ponder possibility of leaving out spinner
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The Independent Online

The fitness of Steve Harmison has left England's selectors with plenty to contemplate as they consider the make-up of their side for today's crucial fourth Test. They need to be 100 per cent sure the Durham pace man is right before they name their final XI.

England's fastest bowler struggled through the latter stages of Monday's thrilling 70-run victory over South Africa with a sore right calf, which the following was found to be referred pain from his back where he had a pain-killing injection. With Kabir Ali and Martin Bicknell here in Leeds the simplest and wisest decision would be to rest Harmison, not just because of the doubts which surround his fitness, but also by virtue of the pitch here being more suited to the bowling of Kabir and Bicknell.

Should Harmison fail to convince the selectors he has fully recovered it appears Kabir, the 22-year-old from Worcestershire, will make his Test debut, preferred to the 34-year-old Bicknell, who made the last of his two Test appearances a decade ago. England have not ruled out the possibility of playing five seamers and dropping Ashley Giles, whose left-arm spin has been ineffective this summer.

It would be misguided to load a side in such a manner even though English spinners have taken seven wickets in the previous 10 Test matches here. If the pitch proves as friendly to fast bowlers as the oneat Trent Bridge - which does not appear to be the case - it is unlikely that the fourth fast bowler would get much of a bowl. If the surface remains intact and cracks which made batting at Nottingham a lottery do not materialise, a spinner would give welcome variation. Indeed, the only option England do not have at their disposal is that of playing an extra batsman, something which could prove beneficial.

India's spinners, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, proved here 12 months ago that sleight of hand rather than brawn can prove more successful in taking wickets. After India posted 628 withmagnificent centuries from Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, the pair shared 11 wickets in a victory by an innings and 46 runs.

Despite that defeat, in which India's bold decision to bat in overcast conditions was an example of the best way to win a Test match, this has been a happy hunting ground for England who have won three of their last four matches here. Recent results suggest it is advantageous to bowl first, but it is hard to imagine that either side would fancy the prospect of chasing 200 on the last day.

Although Michael Vaughan was non-committal on his side, the England captain did acknowledge how important it was for his side to start this game well. "Over the last two Test matches we have learned that the first day is crucial," said Vaughan, who will become the first Yorkshire player to captain England on his home ground since Brian Close in 1967.

"After the first day at Lord's we were out of the game and on the first day at Trent Bridge we set up the game. We need to do the same here as we did at Trent Bridge. Headingley is usually an exciting Test match."

That is certainly the case according to statistics - only two of the last 20 Tests here have been drawn.

England's cause will be helped by the absence of Shaun Pollock, the world No 1 bowler, who has returned to Durban to be present at the birth of his first child. The absence of Pollock, whose six-wicket haul in the second innings at Trent Bridge took him to 299 in Tests, will be compensated for in some ways by the return to fitness of Gary Kirsten, but the loss of his bowling has left the tourists in a similar predicament to England. Dewald Pretorius, who took match figures of 7 for 69 here during his brief spell playing for Durham, has recovered from the thigh strain that limited his involvement in the Lord's Test and will play. Because Paul Adams, has had as much success as Giles, they too are contemplating playing five fast bowlers.

Should the visitors take the opportunity of playing the extra fast bowler, Monde Zondeki could well make his Test debut. If Zondeki and Makhaya Ntini were to be given the new ball, it would be the first time two black men had opened the bowling for South Africa.

If the tourists are to bounce back, much will depend on their impressive young captain, Graeme Smith. "We were angry about losing the last Test more than anything else," he said. "When you lose and you know you have played badly then you can be hard on yourself but as a side we showed a lot of character at Trent Bridge. The boys are really hungry to turn that result around."

ENGLAND (possible): M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), M A Butcher (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex), E T Smith (Kent), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), A Flintoff (Lancashire), A F Giles (Warwickshire), R J Kirtley (Sussex), J M Anderson (Lancashire), Kabir Ali (Worcestershire).

SOUTH AFRICA (possible): G C Smith (capt), H H Gibbs, G Kirsten, J H Kallis, J A Rudolph, N McKenzie, M V Boucher (wkt), A J Hall, P R Adams, M Ntini, D Pretorius.

Umpires: B F Bowden (NZ) and S J Taufel (Aus).