England to join the space race

Derek Pringle reports from Johannesburg on the weekend's one-day internationals that are attracting Gauteng's cricket public

For once, the people of Gauteng, as the Transvaal is now known, will have to make some unusually tough decisions about how to spend their weekend- or at least those who can afford it. Normally this would involve a choice between having a braai (barbecue) and a few beers by the pool, or should the weather turn particularly fine, just having the beers.

This weekend, however, they will be dazzled with choice. For starters, there are two back to back one-day internationals, at Johannesburg today and Verwoerdburg tomorrow, but if that appears a little tame, there is the opening football match in the African Nations' Cup as well, which pits the hosts against Cameroon. Add Pavarotti to the list, and you can see why those used to making easy choices are calling it the greatest show south of the equator.

By Sunday evening, an estimated 17m rand will have been spent on tickets alone, and if those selling food stand to be disappointed (South Africans take mobile barbies with them everywhere), the ticket touts should have a field day. Already both cricket matches are sell-outs, and this in spite of taking place entirely within the hours of daylight.

Having already given two near-midnight press conferences, Michael Atherton may see it as a cue to have a game or two off. If he does, Alec Stewart will captain the side, though he may not open, particularly if England decide to stick with a "hitter" up the order, a role Phil DeFreitas performed with some success in the last match.

If they do - and Ray Illingworth thinks it will depend entirely upon the circumstances of the game - then Robin Smith could well be the other opener. Certainly Smith needs to bat in the top three if he is to maximise what he has to offer, though with Graeme Hick striking the white cricket ball like John Daly does a white golf ball off the tee, the No 3 spot currently looks occupied.

The only problem England have - and it will surface when they come to select the 14 who go to the World Cup - is that Stewart's best position is also as an opener. Both he and Smith, who average roughly 30 and 40 respectively, like to hit the ball with the middle of the bat. This is fine in most forms of cricket, but in one-day games it only works if you keep finding gaps in the field, or are fortunate to have the chance to play yourself in as an opener.

Neither is therefore particularly well-suited to batting in the middle order, where the going becomes more hectic, and working the ball into gaps - as Graham Thorpe has brilliantly done in the last two games - is far more important than playing big, booming shots. Which, if not finding those fielders positioned in the ring, are invariably cut off by those sweeping the boundary.

Compared to Australia, England are beginners when it comes to playing the ball into space and pinching quick singles. Ironically, it was just such an attempt that did for Mark Ramprakash, who has barely faced an over's worth of batting in the middle since the beginning of December.

His run-out two nights ago, for his first run in four innings, must have pushed him close to breaking point. Although few could blame him, he has become an increasingly remote and frustrated figure on this tour.

Yet if anything positive can be gleaned from his winter of discontent, it is that he has been to places in the mind and soul where few, given the choice, would ever dare to venture. Knowing what that feels like can only make him a stronger person and he will get another chance before this tour is over, as will Richard Illingworth, now happily recovered from a side strain.

n The openers Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge subdued England with a stand of 137 as the West Indies retained the World Masters Series title with an eight-wicket win in Sharjah yesterday. West Indies, chasing England's 40-over total of 163 for 7, reached 164 for 2 with 17 balls to spare in a final reduced from 45 overs because of morning rain.

n Pakistan yesterday recalled their veteran batsman, Javed Miandad, after more than two years' absence to the 14-man squad, led by Wasim Akram, for the forthcoming World Cup. Miandad has played 228 one-day matches for his country since making his debut 20 years ago.

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