England's turn to liven up the pyjama party

Fletcher and Hussain risk untried blend of youth and experience in one-day series against South Africa and Zimbabwe

It is time once more to switch on the lights and don the flannels of many colours. Barely 72 hours after a remarkable conclusion to the Test series between South Africa and England, the triangular limited-overs tournament begins in Johannesburg today. England's primary objective in the next month must be to ensure that they do not perform as though they are fiddling about in the dark wearing fancy dress.

It is time once more to switch on the lights and don the flannels of many colours. Barely 72 hours after a remarkable conclusion to the Test series between South Africa and England, the triangular limited-overs tournament begins in Johannesburg today. England's primary objective in the next month must be to ensure that they do not perform as though they are fiddling about in the dark wearing fancy dress.

One-dayers are a form of the game in which they once almost excelled, but they kept it sniffily at arm's length as if it was some smelly, poor relation when they should have been embracing it warmly like a rich benefactor. The approach to a discipline which has its own plentiful merits - if the rest of the world have indulged far too much, England have played far too little - has cost them dear.

South Africa who open the competition with a floodlit match against the third team, Zimbabwe, are overwhelming favourites. If they were to win all six group matches and the final it would be no surprise. They are that good and England know it. The hosts' one-day team are more formidable than their Test side and while they have named an initial squad without Allan Donald, their all-round firepower does not look much diminished.

This is not to say they are impregnable and they have never quite shed a reputation for choking, which was witnessed most recently during the World Cup last summer in two scintillating matches against Australia. South Africa lost the first, tied the second - both in unbearably tense circumstances - and went out of the competition. The art of choking in any sporting contest, however, demands that some sort of consistent pressure is being applied by the opposition and neither England nor Zimbabwe have been renowned lately for carrying tourniquets around in their kit bags.

The sides play each other three times in the preliminary matches, the circus visiting every part of the republic in the next three weeks, and the top two meet in the final on 12 February. England's best hope of being at the Wanderers that Saturday evening certainly lies in their ability to impose themselves on Zimbabwe. History insists that this may be no formality despite the Zimbabweans' desperate recent form. Since the World Cup they have won only one of 10 one-day matches.

But that cannot entirely expunge their knack, established immediately upon their entry into the international game, of refusing to go quietly. Their first match of all was against Australia in the 1983 World Cup. They won by 13 runs, thanks largely to an impressive all-round performance (69 and then 4 for 42) by their captain, a chap by the name of Duncan Fletcher. Yes, that Duncan Fletcher, now England's coach. He will be aware that his home country have also made a habit of getting up England's one-day noses. England have started out as potentially easy victors in all seven matches between the two sides and have lost five.

Recent form - they have lost six from the last 10 - is not much of a guide in England's case as they have not played a one-day match since last May and have a reshaped squad of raw youth and gnarled experience. As yet, they will have little idea of what their best XI is. The absence of Alec Stewart continues to be baffling and the manner in which he marshalled the runs chase in the fifth Test at Centurion Park on Tuesday, in what had effectively become a one-day match, merely heightened the mystery. The team for their first match on Sunday against South Africa, under lights at Bloemfontein, should be that which played the warm-up match last night.

That was in Potchefstroom, known to all as Potch. It was not difficult to conclude that, with the need to evolve a team for the next World Cup in South Africa in 2003, complemented by the need to try to win now, England were also entering hotch-potch territory. In looking forward to his attempts to mould a new side, Fletcher said they needed to find all-rounders like South Africa and, he might have added but did not, Australia and Pakistan.

"There is no doubt that they have a very good all-round side which makes them very difficult to beat. They have strength in depth and each of their all-rounders tends to be strong in all three departments of the game. They cover a lot of ground, chase down balls, take good catches, and they bat all the way down." Apart from that, of course, they are rubbish.

England's all rounders in this series - and for the swift four-match sojourn to Zimbabwe after it - are Mark Ealham, Gavin Hamilton, Ashley Giles, Mark Alleyne, Craig White and to a lesser extent, Vikram Solanki and Darren Maddy. At least three of the first quintet can expect to play. Giles, the Warwickshire left-arm spinner who has shown himself to have an impeccable temperament for dealing with the intense, immediate pressures of limited-overs cricket, has a back spasm which may or may not be something worse.

Graeme Swann, who was due to leave for home with seven other members from the Test party yesterday, is staying on as cover for Giles. Despite Fletcher's protestations that Swann's inclusion in the original squad would have left them top heavy with spinning all-rounders, it is still difficult to think that England should omit a dashing player of 20, who gives the ball a tweak and about whom they have not learned much else by including him in the Test squad. The faster bowlers are Andrew Caddick, making a limited-overs comeback after three years, Darren Gough and Alan Mullally.

For runs, England will be reliant on the left-handed Nick Knight who, for some reason never satisfactorily explained, as if poor form mattered in the preliminaries, was thought surplus to requirements in the World Cup campaign; on Graeme Hick, who remains a gigantic one-day batsman; and on Nasser Hussain, the captain, who has never been considered a sufficiently flexible batsman. Hussain, to boot, is leading England in a one-dayer for the first time.

It is a pressure-cooker business out there under the lights when the crowd are baying, the opposition need 10 from six balls, or, worse, six from 10 balls, and your best bowler has finished his spell. Hussain will doubtless learn quickly. It promises to be a one-sided series of matches, not necessarily unforgettable. But it will have its moments of excitement and its own special skills which the so-called purists would be wise not to demean, considering the crowds which continue to be enthralled by it.

Watching South Africa in the next few weeks will be to watch masters of a potted craft, watching England try to catch up and match them will be an experience, watching Zimbabwe needle them both will be pyjama fun.

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