Even in a hole, real winners keep digging

A team do not go bad in the course of one Test match but they can pick up a pretty serious infection. That has to be the worry about the all-conquering England of 2004, who have arrived in the new year dishevelled and, it seems, rather sorry for themselves.

A team do not go bad in the course of one Test match but they can pick up a pretty serious infection. That has to be the worry about the all-conquering England of 2004, who have arrived in the new year dishevelled and, it seems, rather sorry for themselves.

Defeat is not the problem. South Africa, even one sliding down the world league table, are never going to be pushovers on their own soil, especially that of Cape Town, and any team who have fighters of the talent of Jacques Kallis and Shaun Pollock retain the capacity to come back in a formidable way.

No, the worry is not the loss of the winning sequence but the way it was surrendered. There are many ways of losing, but it is hard to imagine that England could have found a more discouraging one. In the crash- landing a lot of old baggage came tumbling out of the hold.

Most disconcerting of all is the sudden discovery that England have a tough itinerary, a rush of Test matches and little time to relax and play themselves back into form or a better frame of mind in some up-country game. Perhaps it was a completely wrong impression, but isn't this the way the modern Test cricketer wants it - all swift business without that time dragging them thousands of miles away from loved ones and home comforts?

Two points leap out of the debris of the slaughter of the English in Cape Town. One is that we didn't hear a peep about the draining schedule when the South Africans were destroyed in Port Elizabeth and pushed to the edge of defeat in Durban. No, all we heard then was how Michael Vaughan's team were getting ever closer to putting some genuine pressure on the world champions Australia before they arrive here in the summer.

The other worry is that apart from five days of wretched performance, England produced some of the most resigned and negative thinking ever seen on a cricket field.

Andrew Flintoff, a glory of England's renaissance, was ordered into a bowling line which would have been dismissed by his great predecessor, Ian Botham, as nothing so much as an outright insult to his ability to claim the wicket of a world-class opponent.

The big fear must be that England, their self-belief fattened on superficially impressive victories against New Zealand and the shattered West Indians, have made only a phantom leap into the highest class. Reaction to stiffening South African resistance at least points to this disturbing possibility.

England were outplayed and out-thought in every phase of the Cape Town action. The South African captain, Graeme Smith, did receive some cutting criticism from England's battery of former captains when his batsmen refused to take suicidal risks against bowling rooted in despair, but he had the reasonable response that his lead was approaching 500 with two days stretching out ahead.

Vaughan, whose own batting is in free fall, correctly points out that England still have everything to play for at 1-1. He says that the last two Tests will see a ferocious restatement of the form and the commitment which made last year such a sustained march away from some of the worst of the nation's cricket history. For the moment he can surely be taken at his word; the light produced by his captaincy may be a little less brilliant after Cape Town, but it is hardly extinguished.

The England coach, Duncan Fletcher, was making similar noises in the Cape dusk but his mood, not surprisingly, was more sombre than at any time last year. Perhaps amid England's drooping body language, he was reminded of the reflections which darkened his brow the last time the Australians were in England. After Steve Waugh's men had retained possession of the Ashes at Trent Bridge, quite imperiously, he was asked what it was about his conquerors that most impressed him.

Now Fletcher's response echoes loudly in the wake of England's defeat and the latest piece of annihilation by the world champions against Pakistan at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Said the coach: "Australia are a fine team, probably the greatest I've ever seen, full of experience and talent and success, but the thing that strikes me most is their enthusiasm, their togetherness, their absolute refusal to become jaded."

Fletcher said how impressive it was to see players such as Steve Waugh and Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist at the ground so full of life and freshness hours before the start of play. "When you are near them you feel the buzz of their anticipation," he said.

It is maybe a point Fletcher might want to make on the journey up to Johannesburg. Winners don't talk about tough schedules, about running out of gas. They keep digging down... and they keep winning.

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