Key's polish poses problem for selectors

Nicky Oppenheimer XI 172-4
England 190-2
England win by eight wickets (Duckworth/Lewis Method)

Robert Key gave the selectors a timely reminder of his class in the opening match of England's tour of South Africa, but it may not be enough to gain him selection for the first Test. The Kent opener smashed a belligerent 87 during the tourists' comfortable eight-wicket victory over a Nicky Oppenheimer XI at the proprietor's beautiful Randjesfontein cricket ground.

Robert Key gave the selectors a timely reminder of his class in the opening match of England's tour of South Africa, but it may not be enough to gain him selection for the first Test. The Kent opener smashed a belligerent 87 during the tourists' comfortable eight-wicket victory over a Nicky Oppenheimer XI at the proprietor's beautiful Randjesfontein cricket ground.

Marcus Trescothick, with an unbeaten 85, also benefited from his time at the crease but the remainder of England's batsmen will have to wait until the weekend before they gain worthwhile practice.

Key's innings leaves England's selectors with a major decision to make before Saturday's three-day match against South Africa A. It is England's final game before they fly to Port Elizabeth and they will want to play their Test XI.

But who do they pick? Key or Mark Butcher? Key replaced Butcher in the England side when the Surrey captain injured his calf, and performed well. The 25 year-old played in all four Test matches against the West Indies, scoring 221 at Lord's and an unbeaten, match-winning 93 at Old Trafford. The selectors were able to avoid choosing between this pair during the summer because Butcher suffered further injuries - whiplash in a car accident and a pulled muscle in his thigh lifting boxes at home.

Yet before yesterday's innings it was generally felt that Butcher would regain his place in the team. "I have been philosophical about the situation all along," Key said. "I got picked because Mark picked up an injury and then got involved in a car crash and that was a bit of luck on my part. It was also pretty harsh on him. So if he gets picked ahead of me it won't be too much of a worry.

"I am aware that we are playing for one place but I certainly don't know what is going to happen. It is tough but there is not a great deal I can do about it. He has credit in the bank. He did not get dropped, and he has been one of England's best players for a few years now."

Butcher's career can be broken into two sections. In his first spell as an England player the 32-year-old struggled. Butcher scored two hundreds in 27 Test matches and averaged 25. In the latter stages of this period he was going through a divorce and he fell off the rails. He was dropped after England's 1999-2000 tour of South Africa.

This setback focused Butcher's mind and he returned in 2001 a different player. He scored a marvellous unbeaten 173 against Australia at Headingley and averaged 42 in 42 consecutive Test matches before his injury. But Butcher's record away from home does him few favours. The left-hander averages 41.5 in England and only 29 abroad. This, along with his innings of six yesterday, will probably be overlooked by the selectors and Butcher's experience will win through. But he now knows that his place in the team is under serious pressure.

The principal reason for this match, other than to get the tour off to a gentle and sociable start, was practice. Key and Trescothick got this but Butcher, Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff did not, and all three could be found in the nets after at the end of the game.

But England should be grateful for the cricket they played. Torrential rain turned the ground into a paddling pool after 22 overs of the first innings. This would have been enough for a competitive match to be abandoned but the players returned and attempted to ignore the saturated outfield that at times threw up a spray of water as the ball rolled along it.

Each of England's probable Test attack had a decent workout but the results were mixed. Stephen Harmison and Matthew Hoggard slipped into an encouraging rhythm straight away but Flintoff looked rusty. Simon Jones bowled a reasonably good first spell but struggled to stand up after the rain and conceded a few runs.

Neil Johnson, the former Zimbabwe Test cricketer, struck Flintoff back over his head for six in his first over. The left-hander also deposited Gareth Batty into the cypress and fir trees behind the deep midwicket region during his innings of 74. Heath Streak, Johnson's former Zimbabwe team-mate, did not have such a good day. The seamer was smashed for 16 in an over by Trescothick and conceded 34 runs in his six overs.

Meanwhile, cricket finally said goodbye to one of its greatest fast bowlers last night when Allan Donald announced his retirement from first-class cricket. The decision of the former South African paceman brought an end to a glittering career which reaped 330 Test and 272 one-day wickets.

During the nineties there were few finer sights in cricket than Donald in full flow. He possessed all the assets you would want in a fast bowler. He was strong, athletic and big hearted. And it was these traits, along with a superb action, which allowed him to become the 16th highest wicket-taker in Test cricket.

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