England in spin over tall order

Gallian kept in suspense for Fourth Test as No 3 spot remains tourists' No 1 problem
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The Independent Online
WHILE throughout the world parents are anxiously doing everything to ensure that their children have a perfect Christmas, in South Africa the unseasonal behaviour of one mite is threatening to ruin the party before it has begun.

So far El Nino ("The Child"), a system of warm currents in the Pacific, has caused havoc with South Africa's weather systems. Instead of sunshine and the odd scattered thunderstorm, widespread torrential rain has been the norm. Any further outbreaks, particularly in the week ahead, when the next Test is due to be played in Port Elizabeth, and the tour will be in danger of dying an early death from drowning.

Normally, yuletide Test matches are pivotal, but as this series is in danger of ending before it ever got started, the stakes for winning this one, with only the Cape Town Test to follow, are even higher than usual. Having bruised each other a couple of times in the previous three skirmishes, both teams will be aware that if they land a significant punch in the next two games it might be the knockout blow.

With so little scope or time for manoeuvre, any early slip-ups could prove disastrous. The team which makes them will probably find itself with nothing but salvage work to do. Likewise the winner - should pitch and weather permit one - will be safe in the knowledge that the series cannot be lost. That truth will dictate both teams' selections, and the problem of trying to win a Test match on a slow pitch of increasingly low bounce could throw up a number of solutions.

As ever, the key strategies lie with taking wickets and the bowlers who are best suited to do so. Broadly speaking, the options open to both captains are twofold: either to cast caution to the wind in an effort to dictate the game; or to go in for some careful and patient sparring, giving as few runs away as possible while waiting for the opponent to make mistakes.

Traditionally, England's limited but steady bowling firepower has meant they nearly always opt for the second course, while the South Africans will probably choose the former. It is a method that will again be spearheaded by the quicksilver Allan Donald, whose Test best seven for 84 was achieved at the St George's Park ground in Port Elizabeth three years ago, when he used reverse swing on the low bouncing pitch to stunning effect to dismiss India.

The pressure on Donald to perform is enormous, but it pales beside that about to be heaped on Paul Adams, the precocious 18-year-old with the whirligig bowling action. When Adams, who is still classed as a mixed- race "coloured", makes his debut, probably in place of Jacques Kallis, he will have played just five first-class matches and he is set to become South Africa's youngest Test player.

Port Elizabeth, where more than 30,000 seats have already been sold, is ready to celebrate the presence of a player whose appearance will not only carry the hopes of the cricketing public, but also the heightened expectations of this country's majority who have been so patient so long.

More important, for a nation sceptical of the compromises of affirmative action, this is not tokenism. Rather it is a selection merited by a natural, if unorthodox, talent who can spin a cricket ball a long way.

Unusually for a left-arm wrist spinner, Adams mainly bowls googlies that spin away from right-handed batsmen. But as England found out earlier in the tour, knowing which way the spin goes only eases the immediate panic; playing a turning ball is quite another thing, as his nine-wicket haul in Kimberley clearly showed.

However, presuming South Africa do not open the bowling with Adams, England's most pressing problem is finding a No3 capable of staying in long enough to scratch his guard at both ends. This will almost certainly fall to the new arrival, Jason Gallian, assuming England persist with their policy of playing six batsmen, though Jack Russell, who Ray Illingworth yesterday confirmed would be part of England's World Cup squad on the strength of his improved batting, and Robin Smith are both possible candidates for the position should England play five bowlers.

But the England chairman, so long an advocate of playing five bowlers, remains unconvinced, and he also intimated that unless it looked like turning "a fair amount", then playing the extra bowler would probably be a waste of time. With Peter Martin and Mark Ilott again set to join Dominic Cork in the seam and swing department, you sense that Illingworth senior has decided that the time is right, particularly against South Africa's average batting line-up, to blood the next brood of bowlers.

If so, the way back for ANgus Fraser and Devon Malcolm will become increasingly difficult, though with Yorkshire's Darren Gough still sidelined, Malcolm would be many people's choice as the fifth bowler. Without one, England will end up turning to Richard Illingworth and Graeme Hick to share the bulk of the overs, particularly if the ball fails to swing.

There is little doubt that when England are not faced with a series deficit their selection policy see-saws from one half-formed idea to the next. Flexibility is one thing, but players also need time to attune themselves mentally. England have to be bold, but it is no good being so at the last minute. If they are going to play five bowlers, they must make the decision soon, so all those concerned can enjoy a better Christmas, knowing where they stand.

lCraig White, the Yorkshire all-rounder, was yesterday added to the senior England squad for next month's seven one-day internationals in South Africa.