Heat is on, but it's all smiles from England

Matt Prior tells Stephen Brenkley about the rare team spirit that's turning even crucial training sessions into a skip in the park
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The Independent Online

What a jolly bunch are this England team. They reassembled for work after their hols yesterday and could hardly stop smiling. Happiness is probably defined by draws in Test matches a team knows they should have lost.

England were like a side for whom nothing could go wrong. Having somehow squeezed out of the matches in Centurion and Cape Town they won the one in between at Durban. The fourth and final match of the series begins at the Wanderers on Thursday and the tourists began training again in extremely congenial mood.

They were intense but they were relaxed. It did not look as if they were preparing for a crunch match in a series they were given little or no hope of winning but lead 1-0.

After their improbable draw in Cape Town, when for the second time in the series and the third in eight matches they escaped with only one wicket left intact, England had three days off with their families in the One and Only Hotel on the Cape Town waterfront. As its name would suggest, the hotel is of the exclusive variety.

It appeared to have had the desired effect as they got down to work in the nets at the ground yesterday, having flown out on Sunday night. They spent an hour becoming used to exercising at altitude again – Johannesburg is 2,000m above sea level – but they did not look like men who had had to wait an extra minute for their morning eggs to boil.

There is no question that results affect a sporting squad's demeanour and in extreme cases their manners as well. Losing brings a siege mentality, personality clashes and, depending on who mucks up more often, divisions between batsmen and bowlers. Team talks can do only so much to alleviate the tension.

But it is also true that this England have stuck together well in the past year, as they showed from the moment they went down 1-0 to West Indies last year. Under Andrew Strauss, their captain, and Andy Flower, their coach, they have undoubtedly gained additional resilience.

As Matt Prior, their wicketkeeper, said yesterday after perhaps the longest and most arduous training session of his career on the Wanderers outfield: "I think the whole environment is fantastic, I don't think there's a player in the squad that doesn't feel involved or part of it.

"It might be the same 11 on the pitch this series but the guys not playing have worked just as hard, we've had some very hot days when the 12th, 13th, 14th man have made sure we have everything that we need. It's a very unforgiving, unrewarding job but the way they have done it has shown what a great team effort there is. The way they have gone about it has shown what this team is all about, helping each other out."

Sportsmen talk junk on this subject. A winning team is a happy team. But the point probably is that a happy team can make for a winning team.

"That last Test in Newlands I sat in the changing room and I was as proud as I have been in a cricket changing room, and I include the Ashes at The Oval," Prior said. "We were behind the eight ball for more than half the Test but we fought and fought and until that last stupid half-hour or whatever it was it looked like we were going to get there easily.

"Obviously, we don't want to be in that position but if you draw the games you are meant to lose and win the games you should do, it makes a huge difference. That is a huge step forward this team has made."

Prior was delighted to meet up again with his specialist coach, the former England wicketkeeper, Bruce French. He is undoubtedly a better wicketkeeper for French's tutelage and Prior is so taken with him that he has decided he wants to join his mentor, a fanatical climber, on a mountaineering expedition. Ben Nevis in late March has been pencilled in.

"It looks like we are going. I said to him I don't want to kill myself but I want to do the full business with the ropes and ice picks and dragging myself up and he is keen to do it." England seem as happy as Larry.