reports from Port Elizabeth
South Africa 230-4 v England
South Africa at last appear to be getting the hang of Test cricket. True, they have not yet lost a series since their return to the international fold, but then they have not won too many either.
However, yesterday things looked set to change. Not only did their captain win the toss and bat, a time-honoured right thing to do in Test matches, but his batsman looked more attuned to playing out the five days that constitute a Test match, instead of approaching the game as if it were the last five overs of a one-day match.
It made for a slow day's cricket on an easy pitch, but once Atherton had lost the toss it was always going to be a case of England's bowlers of having to gird up their loins and put in some hard graft to prevent the opposition from straying too far ahead.
The only trouble was that with the wind set fair from a westerly direction, the ball did not swing and England, although highly disciplined until tea, failed to look particularly penetrative with little variation to work with but Mark Ilott's angle. In fact South Africa outgrafted them, going from 89 for 3 to ending the day a healthy 230 for 4 following an attacking flurry from Daryll Cullinan and Jonty Rhodes in the last session.
"We were wobbling a bit after lunch, but Daryll and Jonty both played marvellous innings," Bob Woolmer, the South African's coach, said.
The pair make an odd middle-order couple. Cullinan, who finished the day unbeaten on 83, is comfortably South Africa's most gifted but unfulfilled batsman (their best is McMillan) while Rhodes is the least skilful but one of the most resourceful.
Together the pair added 118, dovetailing like Laurel and Hardy, Cullinan playing his part sure and straight, while Rhodes fashioned some bold, outrageous strokes - one a pulled six off Dominic Cork - that did not always amuse those at the receiving end.
Both have a habit of getting under the opposition's skin, and when Rhodes fell for 49, pulling the second new ball straight to Robin Smith at square leg, a tiring England were visibly lifted. The only trouble was that Cullinan appeared to be animated too, belting two sumptuous fours off Cork, his Derbyshire team-mate last season, to bring up 1,000 runs in Test cricket.
Cork and Cullinan do not act like best friends, and both are coy when asked about their professional relationship. Yesterday, at least, Cullinan wore a bigger smile after leading South Africa out of trouble. "It's not particularly a rivalry," Cullinan said. "But I think he enjoys getting my wicket. He's a good competitor and that brings the best out of batsmen."
A product of Queen's College in Queenstown, who can also list such recent cricketing luminaries as Tony Greig and Ken McEwan amongst its alma mater, the 28-year-old Cullinan has that immediately identifiable hallmark of class - time. Some of his back-foot shots through the covers were sublime, splitting Atherton's dense field settings as neatly and as precisely as a laser beam, his delicate cutting making a spendthrift out of the normally frugal Illingworth.
But if he has oodles of time to play his shots, his critics believe he lacks the patience required to graft when things do not quite go his way. If that is the case yesterday may well be a breakthrough innings for him. On the other hand, given that England were more steady than threatening, the way he eased the bowling around the ground suggested that he never felt his usual need to hurry.
The England bowlers appeared similarly afflicted and, just as they had done in Durban, they lacked necessary urgency with the new ball. Cork in particular was less than distinguished in his opening salvo, while Ilott beat the bat but did not have the venom to push the batsmen on to the back foot.
The breakthrough came when Andrew Hudson edged a Cork outswinger to Russell, but only after the fifty partnership had been posted. The wicket, while bringing out the usual snakeskin- shedding contortions of glee from Cork, also gave the 5,000 or so England fans something to get excited about on what has so far proved a drab excursion
Many have seats in the new Duckpond pavilion stand, directly above the sightscreen at the northern end of this pleasant old ground. This is one of the sightscreens whose lack of height has been at the centre of England's pre-match complaints, the management citing Mexican waves and movement behind the bowler's arm as potential for disrupting play.
Yesterday, however, there were no complaints from the South African batsmen, but that could have been because there has been little sun for the newly arrived to sizzle in that they merely added to the whiteness behind the bowler's arm. Another day of sun and it could be a different story as England's batsmen try to pick up a red ball from a sea of sunburnt faces.
There is a tourism leaflet generally available here - "100 things to do in and around Port Elizabeth". Watching the cricket is listed at No 74, but as this was technically a sell-out crowd (all 18,000 tickets being sold, but at least several thousand seats being unoccupied), the largest Test crowd in some time, its position in the charts must have been based on some spurious market research.
More certain however, is the miserable run Hansie Cronje, the South African captain, is having with the bat. Ever since his opposite number gained the upper hand in Johannesburg, Cronje has appeared to be under increasing pressure. Yesterday he took 24 balls to get off the mark before Atherton again proved his nemesis by pulling off a brilliant diving catch at short extra cover as Cronje carelessly drove at Peter Martin.
Gary Kirsten then edged Ilott to Russell two overs later after another unlovely but invaluable fifty, his eighth in Tests. It was then that England should have done their utmost to prevent the jittery Rhodes from settling, and the normally secure Graeme Hick was as culpable as any when he parried a chance from Rhodes on 20. It was the obvious cloud from an England point of view on an otherwise much needed sunny day.
n Bob Woolmer was reported to be annoyed that England were invited on Christmas Day by Sky TV to view new footage of the spinner, Paul Adams, in a nets session. "I think they are concerned or else they wouldn't have poured into the the television van," Woolmer said.
Port Elizabeth scoreboard
(First day of five; South Africa won toss)
SOUTH AFRICA - First innings
A C Hudson c Russell b Cork 31
(102 min, 79 balls, 3 fours)
G Kirsten c Thorpe b Ilott 51
(167 min, 128 balls, 9 fours)
*W J Cronje c Atherton b Martin 4
(50 min, 27 balls, 1 four)
D J Cullinan not out 83
(209 min, 166 balls, 13 fours)
J N Rhodes c Smith b Cork 49
(156 min, 119 balls, 5 fours, 1 six)
B M McMillan not out 3
(38 min, 25 balls)
Extras (lb5 nb4) 9
Total (for 4, 363 mins, 90 overs) 230
Fall: 1-57 (Hudson), 2-85 (Cronje), 3-89 (Kirsten), 4-207 (Rhodes).
To bat: D J Richardson, S M Pollock, C R Matthews, A A Donald, P R Adams.
Bowling: Cork 23-6-57-2 (nb4) (5-1-14-0, 7-4-7-1, 6-1-10-0, 5-0-26-1); Ilott 23-6-60-1 (7-3-10-0, 4-0-17-0, 5-2-16-1, 4-1-11-0, 3-0-6-0); Martin 22-6-46-1 (7-2-20-0, 5-1-11-1, 5-1-9-0, 5-2-6-0); Illingworth 18-5-51- 0 (4-2-5-0, 10-3-25-0, 4-0-21-0); Hick 4-0-11-0 (1-0-3-0, 3-0-8-0).
Progress: 50: 88 min, 22.1 overs. Lunch: 63-1 (Kirsten 31, Cronje 0) 30 overs. 100: 188 min, 45.2 overs. Tea: 135-3 (Cullinan 31, Rhodes 13) 59 overs. 150: 262 min, 66.1 overs. 200: 313 min, 78.5 overs. New ball taken after 80 overs at 201-3.
Kirsten's 50: 163 min, 127 balls, 9 fours.
Cullinan's 50: 139 min, 117 balls, 8 fours.
ENGLAND: *M A Atherton, A J Stewart, J E R Gallian, G P Thorpe, G A Hick, R A Smith, R C Russell, D G Cork, P J Martin, R K Illingworth, M C Ilott.
Umpires: S A Bucknor and C J Mitchley.