reports from Harare
It may not feel like the season of goodwill, and Harare is the last place on earth you would expect to see a White Christmas, but that is no excuse for England to play humbug, particularly their coach, David Lloyd, whose latest gaffe was to get involved in a verbal altercation with Ian Goggen, the chairman of the Mashonaland Association who is an official from the Zimbabwe cricket union, immediately after last Sunday's dramatic finish.
The incident, described in a local paper as "an exchange of words," was heated enough to have been brought to the attention of Hanumant Singh, the match referee. In a statement issued yesterday, Singh decided that no further action would be taken, indicating that the matter had been resolved quickly and amicably.
It is a view unlikely to be taken at face value by the barnstorming new chairman of the England Board, Lord MacLaurin, who arrives here on Friday. MacLaurin, who has already stated his desire for English cricket to become a more consumer friendly product, is unlikely to have been impressed by this latest indiscretion and will hopefully seek an explanation from Lloyd, who is barred from commenting about it by ICC regulations.
For a series that was meant to be gift-wrapped, it has certainly been a frustrating time for England, who now have five days to salvage something other than ignominy from this tour. It will not be easy, not least because of the weather and every night so far, Harare has been lit up like Dracula's castle by heavy thunderstorms.
The pitch, should saturated outfields prove playable, will be slow, and will probably offer some early assistance to the seam bowlers. Unless they drop Phil Tufnell, England's response will be to replace Chris Silverwood with Craig White, who despite not having bowled a ball in Zimbabwe is now set to play irrespective of the final balance of the attack.
This gives England an extra batsman to bat at seven behind the six that played in Bulawayo, leaving them - if Tufnell plays - with just two and a half seam bowlers, a risky gambit considering that White has yet to prove his worth at Test level. For a side whose coach remains convinced that they had "flippin' murdered the opposition," last week, the combination smacks of must-not-lose defensiveness.
It is also flawed and should England bowl first without Silverwood in the side, there will be no one to probe that full wicket-taking length needed on a slow seamer. Instead an unvarying diet of Mullally, Gough and White will prevail, bowlers who all prefer to hit the pitch short of a length, a method that provided a rich source of runs for Zimbabwe's top order in the last Test.
Having derived far more than England from the result of the last Test, Zimbabwe are still likely to make changes and the left-hander Mark Dekker is certain to open the batting in place of Stuart Carlisle, who looked hopelessly out of his depth. Unless Eddo Brandes, who damaged his ankle last week, is fit, the bowling will probably remain unchanged unless water gets under the covers.
For England, who spent the festive season trying to fit in practice between thunderstorms, there is now a Test match to be won. However, before the plotting starts, they may like to consider the ghosts of England tours past.
Since the Boxing Day Test 10 years ago, when Mike Gatting's England last won the Ashes, their record abroad has been appalling. In 42 overseas Tests, including last Sunday's thrilling draw, England have won only five. Evidence that, away from home at least, we don't tend to "flippin' murder" anyone.