Fletcher adopts positive spin on England's lack of quality practice

England's attempts to hide any sign of panic before tomorrow's first Test against South Africa are becoming far less convincing. Michael Vaughan's side spent three and half hours practising in the nets at St George's Park yesterday morning, endeavouring to cram two weeks' work into a couple of days. This was not unusual. Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, always works his side hard two days before a game. But it was the 45-minute meeting which preceded the net session which raised eyebrows.

"It was the type of meeting we have on every tour," Fletcher said defensively. "They started in Bangladesh and they allow everyone to express their views. What was discussed will stay in-house but it was to make the guys aware of where we are at at the moment.

"I think everyone has got over what happened in Potchefstroom [England lost to South Africa A by seven wickets]. We have had a couple of meetings and there was a better intensity to the practice this morning. They now realise it is over and that we have five back-to-back Test matches."

Since taking charge in 2000 Fletcher has encouraged players to get involved in the day-to-day running of the side. One of the first things he introduced to the team was a senior management group made up of a cross-section of players. It was their job to tell him how the squad felt things were going and whether any changes should be made.

Most of Vaughan's squad have admitted that they would have liked more quality practice before they take on Graeme Smith's side, but it is now far too late to make any changes to the itinerary. One has some sympathy for England, in that when this tour was planned they were scheduled to play two Test matches in Zimbabwe before they arrived here.

Despite this, Fletcher remains bullish about his side's chances of becoming the first England side to win in South Africa since 1964-65. "We are definitely ready," he said. "We are ready for any Test series. For years we struggled to win in the West Indies but we gave them a good hiding earlier this year at home.

"We have the same attitude going into this match and feel that we can go out and beat South Africa in this series. The individuals in this side have come from behind on numerous occasions and played very well. It is often when they are at their best."

Mark Butcher appears to be the most vulnerable of England's players having played two short innings in the last six months. This again failed to concern Fletcher, who believes that England's No 3 and Graham Thorpe are "big match players."

Fletcher said: "Butch hardly had any practice before the first Test in the West Indies. He picked up an injury but he ended up being one of our main batters. The most important thing is a player's frame of mind and who can tell what that is like until he goes out there.

"And there is no better operator than Graham Thorpe. He is someone who appears able to turn that switch on and off."

Sarah Botham, the daughter of Ian, the former England all-rounder, was mugged on Tuesday while walking along the main coast road in Port Elizabeth. Botham, who is in South Africa working for Sky, was accompanied by Gerald de Kock, the South African media manager, when the pair were attacked from behind and pushed to the ground. Neither party was injured but the thieves ran off with her handbag. Her credit cards were later found but money and a mobile phone had been taken.

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