Maturing Marcus plays the perfect supporting role

Trescothick curbs his natural instincts to serve the team cause
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The 47 runs Marcus Trescothick chiselled out here yesterday did not form an innings that he will look back on with a great deal of fondness - for an opening batsman who is capable of making the leading bowlers in the world look foolish it was a singularly unspectacular display. In all the left-hander failed to score off 111 of the 139 deliveries he faced. Self-control and discipline on a scale like this are not virtues for which he is often noted.

But it is exactly for this reason that Trescothick should take a great deal of satisfaction from the 190 minutes he spent at the crease. Andrew Strauss's imperious third Test century will be lauded as the innings that moved England into a commanding position, but Trescothick's role should not be underestimated.

The 28-year-old's obdurate approach helped protect England's under-prepared middle order from fresh South African bowlers and the new ball. He also allowed those of a nervous disposition in the England dressing room to sit back and relax. But most importantly his reassuring presence gave Strauss the confidence to get after the bowling and put Graeme Smith's side under pressure. It is difficult to play your natural game when wickets are tumbling at the other end and the presence of a new partner every 30 minutes can either break the surviving batsman's concentration or lead to him becoming defensive. But the sight of Trescothick walking towards him at the end of every over would have told Strauss to continue batting with positive intent.

South Africa's bowlers helped England's cause enormously and contributed hugely towards Trescothick regaining his form. The Somerset opener entered this Test match short of runs, and deprived of quality time at the crease by England's restricted itinerary. He had posted an unbeaten 85 in a beer match, but in England's only serious warm-up game, he scored just nine runs in two unconvincing visits to the crease.

Batsmen are at their most vulnerable at the beginning of an innings - even Don Bradman was dismissed for less than 10 on 17.5 per cent of the occasions he batted - when fast bowlers, armed with a shiny new ball, charge in and attempt to knock their heads off. It also takes time to become accustomed to the pace and bounce of a pitch and to get the feet moving properly.

Trescothick would have been expecting a thorough examination when he walked out to bat with Strauss for a testing 15-minute barrage before lunch. Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini form one of the most effective partnerships in Test cricket, and between them they have taken over 525 Test wickets. All these advantages are wasted, however if the bowlers fail to make the batsmen play at the ball.

Pollock and Ntini were not guilty of sending down a succession of half-volleys and long-hops, but nevertheless Trescothick was hardly tested. He has the reputation of flirting dangerously with fullish deliveries angled across him, as Australia have found out. But the South Africans failed to bowl straight enough, which meant Trescothick could play deliberately inside the line and watch the ball go harmlessly through to Thami Tsolekile.

For a batsman who loves crunching boundaries Trescothick showed enormous control; on too many occasions in the past he has perished attempting to dominate. He did have one unconvincing push at a ball from Ntini, and was fortunate to see it fly to the left of gully's outstretched hand. But it was a rare mistake.

It was heartening to see Trescothick graft so hard and it is to be hoped that this is a sign of maturity. Michael Atherton often said that his most important innings were the ugly forties and fifties he scored when he was struggling for form, not the centuries on flat pitches when every part of his game was working well - he felt they ensured he played in the next Test. Trescothick is certain of his place in this England side, who will be all the stronger if he keeps showing the same levels of discipline and concentration.

The slow, low nature of the pitch helped cover up some of Trescothick's technical problems. These have often become apparent on tour, where bouncier and quicker surfaces expose his lack of foot movement. Trescothick is aware both of these weaknesses and an England career that shows he averages 54 at home and only 33 when on tour. He himself is unable to explain the difference in the figures but has been working hard on a solution.

Trescothick was not the only player to show that he has the ability to raise his game for the big occasion. Mark Butcher's preparations for this match were even less convincing than those of his team-mate, but he too seemed adept at switching into Test match mode.