South African cricket has had it tough since they last toured England in 1998. In the semi-finals of the 1999 World Cup, with the scores level, they lost to Australia because of a mid-wicket cock-up between Allan Donald and Lance Klusener. Matters worsened in 2000 when their captain, the late Hansie Cronje was identified as a leading figure in the match-fixing scandal that rocked the game.
The most crushing blow to their credibility, however, came earlier this year. As the host nation of the 2003 World Cup the South African people were expecting their team to romp home just as the rugby side had in 1995. To be knocked out in the first round, because neither the captain nor the coach read a Duckworth-Lewis sheet properly, put South Africa in mourning. For this oversight their captain, Shaun Pollock, was sacked.
Watching this young and relatively unknown South African side go through their final preparations at The Oval before today's NatWest series match against England - the first international match in their 12 week tour of England and Ireland - it is apparent the tourists are attempting to put these setbacks firmly in the past. Questions about such subjects are quickly dealt with by their new captain, Graeme Smith.
At 22 he is an impressive man and under him South Africa look fit, athletic and confident. At a time when most teams spend more time singing the praises of their opponents than their own side it was refreshing to here a team speak about their chances with confidence.
"Public expectation is high after the World Cup," said Smith talking about the pressures since taking charge. "Myself and the team realise we owe the public something after that. We have been training hard and working hard to give them something to shout about. We are well prepared for today's game as a team and individuals. If we play to our potential we can really dominate England."
Unhappy at playing back-to-back games, Smith conceded: "We have to deal with what has been given to us. We know the schedule now and we have to go out and win two games and put all the other hassles aside.."
Smith will be looking towards Pollock, the man he replaced as captain, to play a major role during this tour. Pollock's body may not be as supple as it once was, and the ball may not leave his hand with quite the venom of his youth but none the less he is still a magnificent performer. Ranked as the leading bowler in the world in both Test and one-day cricket the 29-year-old still has a lot to give. Fortunately for South Africa he appears to have come to terms with being sacked.
"It was disappointing to lose the captaincy," Pollock said. "I still felt I had a little bit to offer and could have contributed something but other people felt that wasn't the way forward. Sometimes these decisions are made and you just have to accept them. South African cricket is more important than any individual that comes and goes. Once Shaun Pollock stops playing cricket, the game continues to move on."
Pollock was equally upbeat about his sides chances in England. "A lot of teams go into series saying that they don't want to be favourites so they don't put pressure on themselves," he said. "We don't mind that. It is good for us to go in and say we are favourites because we have got to learn to deal with that pressure. I would not say we were favourites in the Test series because England have some tried and tested players who will return. In the one-day series we are because we have the most balanced side."
After losing to Zimbabwe on Thursday England will be keen to return to winning ways as quickly as possible. James Anderson, rested at Trent Bridge, will return but it is the middle order which will be giving Michael Vaughan, the England captain, most concern. Despite failing to impress with the bat, Jim Troughton was unfortunate to be dropped for Robert Key in Nottingham. Troughton has been an inspiration in the field and the sparkle which was present in the three games against Pakistan was lacking two days ago when he was absent. This alone could accelerate his return.
England's weaknesses have not been lost on today's opposition. "England's middle order does look a bit inexperienced," the South African captain said. "They rely heavily on the two batsmen up front [Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick] and it is up to us to exploit that. We are aware that in one-day cricket anybody can come off and we are aiming to put in 100 overs of big cricket during this match. Momentum gained here will play a role in the Test series and it would be nice to take a winning one into it."
TODAY'S TEAMS AT THE OVAL
ENGLAND (from): M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), V S Solanki (Worcestershire), R W T Key (Kent), A Flintoff (Lancashire), A McGrath (Yorkshire), C M W Read (Nottinghamshire, wkt), R Clarke (Surrey), A F Giles (Warwickshire), D Gough (Yorkshire), R L Johnson (Somerset), J M Anderson (Lancashire), J O Troughton (Warwickshire), Kabir Ali (Worcestershire), S J Harmison (Durham).
South Africa (from): G C Smith (capt), H H Gibbs, J H Kallis, J A Rudolph, M V Boucher (wkt), M van Jaarsveld, S M Pollock, N Boje, A J Hall, A C Dawson, M Ntini, H H Dippenaar.
Umpires: S J A Taufel (Aus) and D Shepherd (Eng).Reuse content