Next stop cloud nine for the England history men

Fletcher and Vaughan determined to keep their flying team's feet on the ground as Durban brings a chance to go one step closer to the ultimate dream
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The Independent Online

Everything that England do from now on will be considered only in one context. That became apparent as soon as Michael Vaughan's team achieved an unprecedented eighth successive Test victory last week, and it will merely be amplified if they make it nine in the Second Test against South Africa which begins today in Durban.

To win this winter series would be an excellent achievement on its own. Never mind that South Africa are in a state of confusion: they are bedevilled by selection arguments, unhinged by what their admirable captain, Graeme Smith, accurately identified as a lack of stability, and afflicted by ill luck, which has no basis in scientific logic but invariably plagues teams needing a substantial dose of the other kind.

They still take some beating, and Smith is a pugnacious operator well aware that submission does not form part of the contract between the South African team and the rest of a perpetually expectant nation.

It is all too easy to forget that South Africa are the second-oldest cricketing enemy. England, led by the one-Test wonder C Aubrey Smith, a medium-fast bowler who was to find greater fame as a Hollywood actor, won the first match between the countries in two days in March 1899.

That was only 12 years and 30 matches after Test cricket first began, but second- oldest enemy is not oldest, and therein lies the dilemma for the England of late 2004. Their performance in Port Elizabeth was defined, as it will be in Durban, and in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Centurion, by what it will mean when the Australians come to town next summer. In short, can England can reclaim the Ashes after 15 years?

The immediate aftermath of Tuesday's eventually comfortable win in St George's Park brought forth one potential record that made you quiver with fear and anticipation at the same time. England's record eighth win beat the seven managed by Percy Chapman's team in the Twenties and by a side led by three different captains in the 1880s. But it is a run well short of the world record, the staggering 16 accumulated by Australia between October 1999 and March 2001. The bald fact is that if England beat that they will indeed be holders of the Ashes once more. It means they will have beaten South Africa 5-0, swept aside Bangladesh by 2-0 and gone 3-0 up against Australia by August 2005.

This probably makes pipe dreams look like what results from decades of rigorous laboratory testing, but it is impossible to resist. Duncan Fletcher, England's coach, is the man charged with keeping feet firmly on the ground, and there could be no better-qualified character. He has been a profoundly impressive coach for England for many reasons, but he has constantly demonstrated that his lack of excitability, sometimes a source of bemusement, is among his strongest attributes. He was ready to field the inevitable Ashes question ahead of this match.

"We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves," he said. "If we start thinking too far ahead, we're going to lose our way." That would be mere lip service from other coaches, but he means it. Do not suppose that he is not watching everything that Australia do this winter, but that is for personal consumption, to be used at a later date in the dressing room.

He will therefore recognise that England still have much to do to bridge the gap. At the same time as England were going 1-0 up last week, Australia were crushing Pakistan. It is true that Pakistan's exhibition was woeful and well short of the required standard both in conception and execution. But it must be considered how much Australia reduced them to that state. Australia have become a team operating on mutual trust and dependency, who almost make light of pressing situations - which 78 for 5 on the first morning at Perth last week represented.

The fact that Australia can exhibit that sort of vulnerability will not have escaped Fletcher's notice, but England's exhibition in Port Elizabeth was probably more pertinent. Vaughan described it as shoddy in places, which might have seemed harsh after a seven-wicket win but was brutally realistic.

Vaughan was adamant that the batting collapse in the first innings - from 152 for 0 and 238 for 1 to 358 for 8 - was not down to lack of match practice, which makes it more culpable. Some of the strokes amounted to batting madness, and the culprits will know who they are.

Nor was the bowling always much to write home about, though it should be said that the least incisive of the bowlers was Stephen Harmison, and he is entitled to a bad match (rather him do it now than next July, but there we go again, getting ahead of ourselves).

Then there was the fielding. There were two chances on Monday morning which were not taken, one blatant, the other never more than a mild opportunity. Mark Butcher put down the first off Jacques Kallis at cover, reacting late to a miscued drive, which suggests that he might not have been wholly concentrating. You really cannot afford to spurn such opportunities against such players, and it has added to Butcher's lexicon of stunning drops.

Geraint Jones laid a glove on a thick edge by Zander de Bruyn off Ashley Giles which then careered towards slip. These either stick or they do not, and perhaps too much blame should not be attached to Jones. However, it was an incident that did nothing to curtail the debate about his wicketkeeping. In truth, he has not dropped too many in terms of catches, but he makes elementary errors at times, and it is legitimate to wonder if these permeate the rest of the fielding.

The point is, of course, that England won and Vaughan, having had time to dwell on the result, was able to put it in better perspective on Friday. "We want to look after our performance. We spoke after PE and we felt we were about 75 per cent. Over the year it's impossible to play at 100 per cent, but we felt we managed 85 to 90 per cent. If you think of that as a 10 to 15 per cent improvement and we can do that here, we'll put South Africa under a lot of pressure."

Nor was Vaughan concerned about Harmison. "When he's playing well he glides through and he's probably trying too hard at the moment. When you're striving for wickets you can put in too much effort. In this series, Steve will produce spells to threaten South Africa, and that could start in Durban."

It is hot and humid in Kwa-Zulu Natal, and the grass left on the pitch may not be an indication of how it will play. The inclusion of Charl Langeveldt, who performed with distinction when South Africa A beat England in the warm-up match, as a foil to Shaun Pollock may encourage South Africa to keep it green. But it is a dangerous game which will imperil them if Harmison starts firing again.

A couple of tweaks to the side - the recall of Herschelle Gibbs, for a start - give South Africa a much stronger look already. But Smith's powerful, emotive leadership is not matched by tactical acumen or innovation. England are assertive enough now not be cowed, and going 2-0 ahead is distinctly possible. If that happens, the temptation to look further ahead will become more overwhelming.