As England's most formidable batsman of recent vintage flies to South Africa today there is a sense that he is embarking on his mission in the nick of time. Graham Gooch, it was unexpectedly announced yesterday, will join the England squad to help them prepare for the First Test, which begins in three weeks.
Perhaps it was always intended that Gooch's expertise be used in the final planning for a daunting series. Andy Flower, the England coach, who worked as a player with Gooch at Essex, is meticulous and thoughtful in his approach and will seek help from all reasonable quarters.
It is a trait he shares with his counterpart in the opposition camp, Mickey Arthur. But if the call had not already been made, there was every reason for dialling Gooch's numbers in the aftermath of South Africa's overwhelming 112-run victory in the third one-day international in Cape Town on Friday night. Different format of the game it may have been, but it was incontrovertible that South Africa had intensified matters.
They were not quite unrecognisable from the side who lost the previous one-dayer by seven wickets, but by including the young tearaway fast bowlers Morne Morkel and Wayne Parnell, there was an obvious declaration of things to come. Morkel had not been included in the original squad, Parnell had just recovered from an ankle injury, but both provided a cutting edge. From now on, England will have their hands full.
Morkel is prone to waywardness, but his pace and steep bounce make him decidedly awkward. The select-ors dropped him last summer, but have made it clear they want him back, and the one-day recall smoothes his passage. Parnell's trajectory as a left-arm fast bowler places different demands on the batsman's skills, and if the ball swings he will be more troublesome still. He made his first-class debut at 17 and played a handful of games last summer for Kent, home from home for South African players looking for a gig. His stamina may well be under scrutiny in a five-day Test but he has taken 22 wickets in a mere eight ODIs.
As the pair took eight of England's wickets between them on Friday night, it was easy to conclude that both of them will play a part in the Test series. That is where Gooch comes in. Flower knows only too well that he will have tips galore about how to play extremes of pace and swing, and respect for his method of imparting those skills has grown in the past years.
For now, England have a one-day series to complete. After the battering on Friday night, which owed something but not much to the loss of the toss at Newlands, they must try to regroup quickly in the fourth match at Port Elizabeth today. They could do with more assistance from their strike bowler, Jimmy Anderson, whose troublesome right knee continues to be a concern despite medical reports.
Although St George's Park is another of South Africa's favourite grounds, where they have won two- thirds of their one-day matches, the surface can be contrary, as Paul Collingwood, England's most in-form batsman, observed yesterday. Sometimes it turns, sometimes it is low and slow; it is rarely quick.
It would be misguided to suggest that Collingwood has been a revelation. He has been around too long for that. But his thrilling work since the summer has made a nonsense of his status as a journeyman international cricketer.
Collingwood, fully embracing the new attacking policy, is now England's six-hitter in chief. Thirteen sixes have come in his past six innings and since the beginning of 2008, albeit in eight more innings, 32 to 24, he has hit twice as many sixes as Kevin Pietersen.
No doubt Pietersen will be seeking to redress that balance and, after a slow start getting surer, he is due a score. But with Eoin Morgan and Luke Wright both willing to strike out for home runs (respectively they acquire 58.8 per cent and 48.9 per cent of their runs in boundaries), England have entered their brave new world with some aplomb. Test cricket may be a different bag, but Gooch has something to work with.Reuse content