Donald laps up the fight

Derek Pringle talks to a champion paceman about the testing winter ahead
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SEPTEMBER used to be the month when cricketers took one last look at their trusty bat and applied a liberal coat of linseed oil to the blade before consigning it to the attic until the following spring. Today, only the diehard supporters lament the onset of winter as players, worn down by the equivalent of 17 Test matches (if you include incongruous Sunday League matches stuck in the middle of four-day games) and a sales rep's mileage, punch the air at the prospect of some rest.

Cricket, despite almost 50 per cent of the four-day programme finishing in three, is becoming increasingly tiring work, especially for the best players, for whom cricket is no longer a seasonal occupation. Allan Donald, Warwickshire's South African fast bowler, whose 89 wickets in almost 540 overs was the principal force behind the retention of the Championship, reckons 1995 was the toughest of the seven seasons he has enjoyed in county cricket.

"It was really only my short run that kept me alive," he said, suitably bleary-eyed last week, after a night out in Canterbury, celebrating the triumph with team- mates. "Thankfully, it worked well. I simply couldn't have bowled off my normal run every day, especially away from home, where the pitches were usually very slow."

Inevitably, pitches are always at the centre of any debate about cricket, and Edgbaston, after a brutally fast and uneven Test strip in July, attracted more criticism than most. This aggrieved the champions, goading Dermot Reeve into producing a statistic showing Warwickshire to have averaged more runs per wicket at home than away. Reeve is fond of quirky stats, but the fact is that the top three teams in the table received the worst pitch marks in the competition.

Presumably, most groundsmen were not helped by the lack of rain, which took its toll on the workforce too. In fact until September's disrupting rainfall, the umpire Barry Dudleston had not missed a single ball to the weather all season.

Inevitably it was the bowlers who suffered most, and England have already lost Richard Johnson with a suspected stress fracture for the tour of South Africa which starts next month. He is replaced by Peter Martin, whose late inclusion may by no means be the last, with doubts still lingering over the fitness of Devon Malcolm and Darren Gough.

Unrelenting conditions can soon fatigue minds and bodies and Donald admits he was disappointed at the lack of fight shown by those counties with little to play for. "In the second half of the season a lot of sides we played just rolled over and died, though we did have a hell of a game against Sussex. I think with so many sides to start with, a two-division Championship would certainly be worth a try. Then with promotion and relegation hanging over them, sides not in contention would be forced to try harder and play better cricket.

"Too much cricket is played and that's probably why England's performances are so up and down. The players are just too drained to keep lifting themselves. I remember Dominic Cork, who has had a great season, telling me how he just couldn't lift himself for a one-dayer following the Lord's Test because there was no adrenalin left. Your motivation suffers."

It is a view at present shared by many, and though England's performances against the West Indies were hearteningly upbeat after the losses in Australia, Raymond Illingworth understandably wants to guard against complacency. Apart from wanting the right to stop counties playing their Test players between engagements for England, Illy would also like to do away with overseas players on the grounds that they are parasites getting far more out of the system than the system gets out of them.

It would be an unnecessarily xenophobic move, and one not widely sanctioned by the players. However, the widespread ire felt over those pursuing a living under the convenience of dual nationality, such as Gloucestershire's 20-year-old batsman Andrew Symonds, is completely understandable, and it is only right that the matter is resolved post-haste, particularly in light of Gloucestershire's cynical willingness to offer the player another contract.

Such self-interest has always been at the heart of the county game and has long been blamed for England's poor Test performances. However, England's strong showing against the West Indies this summer has weakened that particular argument, though record receipts will undoubtedly mean greater bargaining power at the table when the counties are next asked to ring the changes needed if England are to sustain the progress they appear to be making.

Michael Atherton, whose determination and fight were so emotionally displayed in that match-saving innings at the Oval, simply puts the improvement down to getting tougher characters involved on a regular basis. It is this ability to cope with the heightened pressure that Donald believes will provide South Africa with their biggest challenge since returning to the world stage in 1991.

"Our initiation is over and we now know what it is all about. We realise we will have to cope with the extra demands that five Tests will make, particularly in our heads. We've shown mental weakness before, usually after winning, and we've always been nailed as a result.

"The other big hurdle for us will be playing in front of an unforgiving sporting public whose expectation has been heightened since South Africa won the Rugby World Cup. Not having a front-line spinner might make us vulnerable but the first three pitches aren't likely to turn much yet each of them is likely to produce a result. It's my guess that whoever wins the series will be ahead after the Third Test."

If Donald has as much say with the ball for his country as he has done this summer for his county, then England's great leap forward may turn out to be just another no-jump.