Vaughan out to sharpen attack as real test looms

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The Independent Online

It may have taken him three weeks but Michael Vaughan has eventually found the part of southern Africa he has been looking for. But whether the England captain finds Graeme Smith's dogged South African team as accommodating as those his side have just beaten in Namibia and Zimbabwe is another matter entirely.

"This is the exciting part of the winter for us," said Vaughan on his arrival at a wet Johannesburg. "We have five Test matches and seven one-day internationals against a good South African team and that will be a good test for us. This was always going to be the part of the winter that we would be tested on but we are looking forward to the challenge.

"These are two evenly matched teams but if we can perform to the standards we have done during the last 11 Test matches we will certainly put South Africa under a lot of pressure."

"We have played some good Test match cricket this year [England have won 10 out of 11 Test matches in 2004] and it is crucial that we pick up the momentum we had against the West Indies when it all starts in 10 days' time."

England's opponents have not had the best of years. South Africa have failed to win each of their last three series - in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and India - and they have a new coach. Ray Jennings has the reputation of being a tough man and he is trying to whip a disjointed and downbeat team into shape.

Despite their recent problems South Africa remain a proud and competitive team, with a wonderful record at home. Indeed, since their readmission into international cricket in April 1992 the Proteas have lost only two of the 20 Test series they have played here - and both have been against Australia.

This South African side is not as strong as that of the mid-Nineties, when they pushed Australia close for the No 1 spot. Players of the calibre of Allan Donald, Gary Kirsten, Darryl Cullinan, Hansie Cronje and Kepler Wessels are hard to replace, but Vaughan's task in the next 10 weeks is still a tough one.

England's preparations for this tour have been split. Eight members of the 16-man squad should be pretty well acclimatised after the one-day series in Zimbabwe. But the remaining eight, which contains six of the players that will line up against South Africa in the first Test, are in real danger of arriving in Port Elizabeth short of match practice, especially if the rain continues to fall.

Andrew Flintoff, Stephen Harmison, Marcus Trescothick, Graham Thorpe, Mark Butcher and Matthew Hoggard have only four days of competitive cricket to get themselves right, assuming the rain does not keep falling. The first match of the trip takes place tomorrow against a Nicky Oppenheimer XI, and on Saturday England start a three-day game against South Africa A.

The form of England's fast bowlers is a primary concern and Flintoff, Harmison and Hoggard can expect to play in both matches. This triumvirate, along with Ashley Giles, have been the main reason for England's recent success and it is vital that they find their rhythm quickly. "We are very happy with our attack," said Vaughan. "But it is how you bowl on a given day that counts. Our aim now is to get the bowlers bowling to the same standard as last summer."

This England squad has arrived in South Africa in far better shape than the side that lost 2-1 here five years ago. Nasser Hussain's side had just lost at home to New Zealand and Duncan Fletcher, England's new coach, had had no input into the squad that was picked.

"It was a very strange situation," said Fletcher. "I had only met the captain a month before we arrived and I did not actually know some of the players when they came through the hotel door at the airport. But we have a good balance to the side now and we have experience of playing and working together. This is a totally different scenario and we arrive here very confident in what we can do."