England have the stomach for the fight

Martin Johnson on the prospects for Mike Atherton's men, who head for South Africa today; England are afraid of being killed by kindness. Death by a thousand cocktail parties; Ray Illingworth has finally announced his team of tour selectors. 'Me'
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The Independent Online
England's cricketers leave for South Africa tonight, and never has a team been more ready. After weeks of secret training with vol au vents, avocado dips, canapes and agonising selection choices between vodka martinis and screwdrivers, Michael Atherton's men have not left a single olive stone unturned.

Thirty years ago, when South Africa last issued England with a party invitation, the offer was withdrawn when their guests decided to come improperly attired. Sorry, no black ties - or anything remotely resembling that colour, was the crux of the message from Dr Vorster's apartheid government.

However, South Africa's circle of friends finally shrunk to such proportions that any vaguely friendly visitor was smothered in lipstick, and England are now afraid of being killed by kindness. Death, as it were, by a thousand cocktail parties.

As a result, England's chairman and team manager (for whom the choice between a smoked salmon mousse and a cod and chips wrapped in the Bradford Argus would not represent much of a contest) has ploughed his way through a vast list of invitations to official functions, and concluded that England do not have too clever a record at Test cricket after an early night, never mind after tottering home from some state banquet or other.

"We have had," Raymond Illingworth said the other day, "any number of invitations to social functions, and while we have accepted some of them, a good many more have been rejected. Essentially, we are going on this tour to play cricket."

Notwithstanding the fact that England have been going on tour to play cricket for some years without managing to achieve that objective, this is one issue that Raymond and his captain will not be falling out over. Michael Atherton (a pint and a packet of crisps man) would sooner face the West Indies attack on a minefield than a blazered dignitary coming in to bowl him several overs of verbal rhubarb.

The fact that South Africa have been back in the international fold for four years now only marginally dissipates the historical significance of this trip. It is 106 years since South Africa first embraced a visit from the England cricket team, and yet this is the first time that a black man (other than for purposes of sweeping the floor or replacing a roller towel) will have been inside the visitors' dressing room.

Now that South Africa have officially embraced Law 42 (Unfair Play against the human race) their batsmen will be facing the likes of Devon Malcolm on the field rather than having to worry about nothing more than whether Malcolm has whitened their pads satisfactorily, or served the lunch efficiently.

It was Malcolm's devastating bowling against South Africa at The Oval last year which signalled the beginning of another English new dawn, only for that one to sink beneath the horizon just as swiftly as most of the previous ones.

Since Mike Gatting's side retained the Ashes in Australia eight winters ago, England have played eight Test series abroad, winning just the one in New Zealand, and losing six. Many have been by embarrassing margins, and it was last winter's debacle in Australia which convinced Atherton that England's problems stemmed far more from a shortfall in attitude than talent.

Neither Atherton nor Illingworth is inclined to talk in coded messages, and if the England dressing room is not quite yet a commando HQ, neither is it a boy scout hut any longer. England are taking a doctor away with them this winter, but at least they should not need a heart transplant surgeon.

Nowhere, not even Australia, is the killer instinct more crucial than in South Africa. England can expect an avalanche of welcome mats off the field, but when it comes down to the actual combat, no sporting nation in the world possesses a harder nose than South Africa.

New Zealand can testify to this after rugby union's World Cup final, and neither did South Africa's re-entry into international cricket after a 22-year ostracisation prevent their abrasive competitiveness from rising to the surface.

The "goodwill" tour was the cosmetic label attached to their trip to India in 1991 - one long round of garlands, motorcades, and visits to Mother Teresa - and the goodwill survived right up until the opening match in Calcutta, which ended with South Africa accusing their hosts of ball tampering.

That was a one-day international, the feeling being at the time that South Africa was not quite ready for a return to Test cricket, a form of the game they had to almost totally re-learn after two decades of isolation. The feeling now is that they are still not quite there, and that the lack of real depth to their domestic cricket makes England favourites for the series.

It is a dangerous assumption, even though the new generation of South African cricket (post Wessels, Cook and Rice) has still to mature fully. The last home opposition England identified as ready for the taking were India in 1993. Result, played three, lost three - two by an innings.

Bob Woolmer, whose cricketing and family ties took him back to South Africa as coach despite his successful association with Warwickshire, will have added tactical and technical acumen, and he will have been more or less superfluous in the art of supplying motivation and self-confidence. The republic's current president can testify to the fact that the Afrikaaner culture is not exactly underpinned by feelings of inferiority.

The key to England doing well is likely to revolve around how their batsmen face up to South Africa's fast bowling. Allan Donald is the best in the world, Fanie de Villiers has a year or two in him yet, Brett Schultz has recently made a successful return from injury, and there are a number of younger pace bowlers (among them Peter Pollock's son, Shaun) beginning to come through.

The pitches themselves are not likely to favour one side or the other. Johannesburg and Pretoria have a bit of pace and bounce, Cape Town and Durban are on the slow but uneven side (Durban's humidity providing more assistance for swing bowlers) while Port Elizabeth is the one venue likely to embrace the spinners.

However, if England are to make a decent fist of this tour, there will have to be a significant improvement in their appalling fitness record. Last winter in Australia, the first patient through the door of the X- ray clinic was invariably an English cricketer, and at one stage in Toowoomba they were so short of able-bodied personnel that the physiotherapist was pressed into fielding service.

This time, they have not even made it to Heathrow with a clean bill of health. Richard Johnson reacted to his surprise selection by immediately failing a medical, and Alec Stewart's right index finger has been battered so often that he scarcely knows whether to smear it with vasoline and slip it inside a glove, or smother it with mustard and plonk it between two slices of bread.

Stewart's fitness is crucial to England's batting line-up, in that there is no other specialist opener to partner Atherton. The rest of the top order puts Graham Thorpe at No 4, Robin Smith at No 5, Graeme Hick at No 6, with John Crawley and Mark Ramprakash disputing the No 3 position.

In the absence of a recognised all-rounder and Stewart no longer being asked to keep wicket, Illingworth's preference for five bowlers has been temporarily abandoned, although the chairman has decided that he will still retain an ever so slight input on this tour. After much agonising over the best men for the job, Raymond has finally announced his team of tour selectors. "Me".

Illy spent a good chunk of last winter offfering long distance impersonations of Fred Trueman ("I don't know what's going off over there...") and if England make a porridge of it this time, an interview with Keith Fletcher ought to make entertaining reading.

The squad

Name Age Tests One-

day

M A Atherton (Lancs) 27 51 25

D G Cork (Derbys) 24 5 8

J P Crawley (Lancs) 23 9 3

A R C Fraser (Middx) 30 29 33

D Gough (Yorks) 24 10 10

G A Hick (Worcs) 29 37 47

R K Illingworth (Worcs) 32 6 18

M C Ilott (Essex) 25 3 0

D E Malcolm (Derbys) 32 34 10

P J Martin (Lancs) 26 3 2

M R Ramprakash (Middx) 28 17 7

R C Russell (Gloucs) 32 39 26

R A Smith (Hants) 31 57 64

A J Stewart (Surrey) 32 48 64

G P Thorpe (Surrey) 26 21 13

M Watkinson (Lancs) 34 3 0

On stand-by for one-day internationals and World Cup

N H Fairbrother (Lancs) 31 10 44

D A Reeve (Warwicks) 32 3 25

N M K Smith (Warwicks) 28 0 0

The itinerary

October 24: NFO XI, Randjesfontein.

25: Eastern Transvaal, Springs (day-night).

27-30: SA Invitation XI, Soweto.

November 2-5: Border, East London.

9-12: South Africa A, Kimberley.

16-20: First Test, Centurian Park.

23-26: Orange Free State, Bloemfontein.

30-Dec 4: Second Test, Johannesburg.

December 7-10: Boland, Paarl.

14-18: Third Test, Durban.

20-22: Combined SA Universities, Pietermaritzburg.

26-30: Fourth Test, Port Elizabeth.

January

2-6: Fifth Test, Cape Town.

9: First one-day international, Cape Town (day-night).

11: Second one-day international, Bloemfontein d-n).

13: Third one-day international, Johannesberg.

14: Fourth one-day international, Centurian Park.

17: Fifth one-day international, Durban (day-night).

19: Sixth one-day international, East London (day-night).

21: Seventh one-day international, Port Elizabeth.

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