England rely on blowers and a lot of hot air

Hilbert Smit performed a solemn ceremony last night under a long, narrow marquee accompanied by gas-fuelled blowers. He did not intend to sleep a wink, which was probably as well considering the noise, the heat and the nature of his task.

Hilbert Smit performed a solemn ceremony last night under a long, narrow marquee accompanied by gas-fuelled blowers. He did not intend to sleep a wink, which was probably as well considering the noise, the heat and the nature of his task.

The blowers were meant to go from twilight until dawn, throwing out hot air under Smit's direction at a temperature of 70C. It promised to be a curious sight but the marquee, the blowers and Smit were crucial elements in today's final group match of the Standard Bank Series between England and Zimbabwe.

Smit is the groundsman at Centurion Park where it has rained incessantly for two days and all but ruined his pitch preparation. If it rains again today - and the forecasts give it a 40 per cent chance compared to the 80 per cent yesterday when it never stopped - the prospects of the match taking place at all are exceedingly gloomy.

The groundsman was refusing to concede even the possibility. He was nurturing his pride and joy to the end. The blowers were brought in to dry the pitch. There are practitioners of his trade who would prefer to treat their pitches like some vintage car restorers treat their vehicles: do everything to ensure they are in pristine condition but then leave nothing to chance by actually using them.

Smit is not among them. He sounded aggrieved only that his painstaking efforts to provide a track which might at last be conducive to something resembling attractive strokeplay in this triangular tournament would be confounded.

"By Sunday we were 95 per cent there with three days to go," he said. "This has taken us back to 85 per cent. My only hope of restoring the balance is to take off the covers, put down this 30-metre-by-nine-metre marquee and bake the pitch with the blowers. If you don't have a par of 250 in one-day matches I don't think it's worth the effort."

But the chances are still that it will be a slow, sticky seamer now. And a slow, sticky match as well, with the top first-innings score in the series of 231 unlikely to be beaten.

This in itself may be good news for England if they lose the toss and have to bat second. In their last 11 attempts to win one-day matches by chasing totals of more than 210 they have failed. The sequence dates back to December 1997 when they won the Champions' Trophy by successfully pursuing West Indies' score of 235.

Whoever wins today's match will qualify for the final at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Sunday. England will be favourites but it is a meaningless status. Zimbabwe have taken on the mantle of the New Enemy in this form of the game and when they see England round the corner they suddenly find two extra gears and head for the line. They have won six of the nine one-day games between the sides.

Nasser Hussain, England's captain, is aware of the pitfalls. "We need to be spot on from the moment we have the team meeting and all the way through to the end of the match. If not... somebody like Neil Johnson can take us apart. Field badly and they'll pinch singles, bat badly and they've shown they'll bowl us out."

If England have to guard against the wily Zimbabweans in what is effectively a semi-final knockout, they have to be wary of tiredness, too. It has been more than 100 days since some of the players left home.

"Those who were over for the Tests are getting a little bit tired," Hussain said. "It's been a long tour and somebody like Andrew Caddick at the start of this tournament could bowl you eight overs in a row. Now you look at the body language, the look in his eyes when you throw him the ball. He might have to do his overs in three spells."

Both Caddick, especially, and Darren Gough have thundered in on behalf of England since October. They and Hussain are the only three to have played in every international match and there is no question that it must have been harder on the bowlers, notwithstanding Hussain's onerous duties as captain.

England have a complicated team selection. With Craig White's hamstring likely to have recovered they must decide if Alan Mullally, who bowled beautifully last Friday in conceding only 24 runs in 10 overs, retains his place and lengthens a dodgy tail. Spinner Ashley Giles will come into the reckoning if there is a damp spot on which he can turn it.

Hilbert Smit's blowers should put paid to that possibility, assuming the rain stops. Unfortunately, it does not mean the contest will be electrifying. The question remained of when Smit hoped to catch up on his sleep. "During the game," he said.

HOW ENGLAND CAN QUALIFY

Whoever wins will qualify for the final against South Africa. If the match is rained off, each side will be awarded a point and England will go through by virtue of their superior average run rate.

If the Duckworth-Lewis scoring system has to be invoked in a rain-affected match, every effort will be made to ensure the sides have the same number of overs. A minimum 25 overs have to be bowled at the side batting second to constitute a match.

Play can be extended by an hour. Overs will be reduced at a rate of 14.28 an hour.

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