Why England need cool heads

Highveld conditions could finally drag best out of Vaughan's men

As England's historic run came clattering to an end in a mélange of daft shots, another record took its place. It seems pretty certain that the reaction to the defeat in the Third Test was the most rapid knee-jerk of all time. From being the team who could not be beaten in 2004, England suddenly became the bunch who always lost in 2005. Plans for Michael Vaughan to be touched delicately on both shoulders with a ceremonial sword have now been replaced with a plot to chop off his head with it.

Although it is impossible to ignore the defeat at Newlands - its size and its nature were both stunning - England should still win the series against South Africa. They did not assemble their sequence of 11 wins and two draws last year by luck and coincidence. Anything worse than a drawn rubber would be considerable cause for concern for a side with their challenges later this year.

Perhaps England took their foot lightly off the throttle because they are constantly being reminded of the Ashes. They can say what they like about the fact that South Africa are a good side who need to be taken seriously, especially on their own turf (and boy are they saying it with greater urgency now), but the truth is that they came here as favourites who fully expected to win.

Two things have gone wrong so far, and since they involve the batting and the bowling, the gap of a week between Tests, which seems interminable in the context of this merry-go-round series, must be used with due diligence. The pitch at the Wanderers in Johannesburg for the Fourth Test could well prove sporting, given the facts that it has been raining hard and long on the Highveld and that the groundsman has been held up in his preparation. Unless the rain continues, the draw may not be an option.

Mark Butcher, one of England's most reflective players, said yesterday: "This break is going to do us the world of good, not only physically but it also gives us a little bit of time to re-evaluate how we're performing. Not necessarily on the field, but how we're gelling as a unit, whether there are certain things that have changed in the light of the success we have had, or if we've lost focus on one or two things. The result of the series rests absolutely on the next two games, we can't afford to slip up again."

Butcher withdrew from the Third Test on the morning of the match when a wrist injury he had been carrying for a fortnight became too painful for him to continue. The injury is now apparently all but recovered, and Butcher expects to net properly when the team arrive in Johannesburg tomorrow.

The other injury in the party, with due respect to Butcher, is more concerning. The team management are sticking to their chosen line that Andrew Flintoff's side strain is minor and that he will be able to bowl in Johannesburg. They still will not address properly whether, in any case, he should have bowled so much.

Butcher's recall is far from certain. A spate of unlikely injuries in the past six months has put his international career in jeopardy. There is a hint, no more, that the management, having backed him, are now losing patience. This may not be Butcher's fault, but the selectors will feel the need for constancy.

There is also a burgeoning mood - which may not have reached the parts that matter - that Butcher's non-selection would allow some tinkering with the batting order. Vaughan is having a pretty dreadful time of it this series, merely compounding form which has been less than sparkling since he assumed the captaincy. As captain, Vaughan's average is 34.62, as non-captain it was 50.98. He has done similarly as captain whether as opener or as No 4, but the feeling persists that he was moved too quickly from his natural place in the order last summer. The reasons cited for his moving down after Andrew Strauss's debut last summer were always unconvincing. But it is too late now, Strauss having made the berth his own. If Butcher does not play, Vaughan could now go to No 3, since he combines an opener's defence against the new ball with being the team's best strokeplayer.

Either Robert Key could bat at four, or they could ask Graham Thorpe to move up one and put Key at five, where he could well end up one day. The selectors will probably do none of these things mid-series (although they do not have much option), but for Vaughan something has to give soon.

In Australia two years ago he exhibited a range and an approach which were as exciting as had been witnessed in an English batsman for a generation. If that was unsustainable, so is the present run. His phlegmatic persona cannot conceal some poor shot-selection. England keep saying that it cannot go on like this for such a good player. It is all they can do.

Then there is the bowling, and especially that of Stephen Harmison. According to observers who understand the minutiae of actions, Harmison's is in good order. But he is bowling too short, and if he has not been roughed up by South Africa he has been disconcerted. He is looking and sounding a trifle weary, as though he does not quite know where it is going wrong. The depar-ture of the fast-bowling coach, Troy Cooley, which privately left the bowling quarter flabbergasted, will not help.

This week will indicate whether the coach Duncan Fletcher's motivational powers are as great as his coaching credentials. Butcher insisted that the defeat had not upset the applecart. "I honestly thought the guys felt worse after Durban than we did after this game. The mental and physical trials of turning round that game were harder to take than having played poorly and lost. There weren't mass recriminations; there's probably going to be a meeting [about] where we feel things on and off the field could improve. I'm pretty sure there's no panic button." If it all goes wrong at the Wanderers, Fletcher and his crew may need to locate it.

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