Stiff test awaits the untried of South Africa

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The Independent Online

Tomorrow is Youth Day in South Africa, a public holiday marking the 1976 Soweto uprising. On the day his country reflects on its violent past, Graeme Smith, a 22-year-old greenhorn of 10 Tests, two as captain, and 27 one-day internationals, will lead his blend of rainbow warriors through customs at Heathrow.

For New South Africa, read Young South Africa. The 16-man Test squad has an average age of 25 and a combined total of 433 appearances, Gary Kirsten, Shaun Pollock, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis accounting for 285. Six players - Robin Peterson, Dewald Pretorius, Jacques Rudolph, Charl Willoughby, Thami Tsolekile and Monde Zondeki - number just five Test caps between them.

Before the First Test against England, at Edgbaston starting on 24 July, South Africa will compete in the NatWest Series. A contingent of 16 fly in for those matches, a handful to be replaced next month by their Test brethren.

Smith was endorsed as the youngest captain in his country's history hours after Pollock was jettisoned for that Duckworth-Lewis faux pas. He was called into the squad when Jonty Rhodes broke a hand after two World Cup matches, and the decision to fast-track the opener drew strong accusations of a Cape Town cabal. That was fuelled when Lance Klusener was discarded, leaving Pollock the only Durbanite of 23 players representing the country in both forms of the game this English summer.

At a recent business breakfast, Smith branded Klusener "a disruptive influence, bad for the young guys in the team". The Cape Town uprising had begun; nine players, captain, coach and chairman of selectors, as well as the United Cricket Board president, represent the region.

Yet it is Pollock, with 285 Test wickets, who has heavy responsibilities now. Only Allan Donald has taken more Test wickets for the Proteas. Complicating the issue is that Pollock's wife is expecting their first child during mid-tour, and he has asked to fly home after the one-day series and miss a Test.

Smith candidly regards England as favourites for the five-Test series. "It's no coincidence we haven't won a series there since readmission to international cricket," he said of the 1994 (drawn) and 1998 (lost 2-1) visits.

A big left-handed batsman of considerable talent, he made his Test debut in Australia, and then revealed the extent and nature of the sledging he received down under in a magazine. Sensationalised, it sold copies, but privately older players were saying, "what happens on the field stays on the field". This has not stopped Smith from making his thoughts public, but to ensure there isn't a loose connection from brain to mouth on this tour, the UCB have hired the former Indian all-rounder turned commentator Ravi Shastri to hone the squad's media skills.

But the doubts remain. Last week Nantie Hayward, Worc-estershire's South African pro, also declared England favour-ites. "There are problems back home," he said, pausing and then thinking better of elaborating. Another to voice an opinion is the one-time England batsman and Protea coach Bob Woolmer. "I am a South African who feels like a masochist because the state of our sport really hurts me. Our cricket is in a mess. There is too much politics, not just at the top level," he said.

Of course, South Africa, like neighbours Zimbabwe, will present a united front on arrival today. In Jacques Rudolph, they have a young batsman who looks a genuine prospect, while Gibbs, Kallis, Smith, Pollock and Boucher can flay any attack, except Australia's, in any form of the game. In the Tests, Gary Kirsten and Boeta Dippenaar will be asked to drop anchor.

It is the bowling ranks which are threadbare. Pollock and Makhaya Ntini will take the new ball, backed by Kallis. In the one-dayers, Nicky Boje, Alan Dawson, Andrew Hall, Andre Nel and Charl Langeveldt will be entrusted to keep the runs down. Zondeki, Willoughby, Peterson, Paul Adams and Dewald Pretorius then arrive for the Tests. The feeling is that one or two young bowlers will have to emerge to avoid another uprising back home.