England under scrutiny as first Test approaches

Cricket

MARTIN JOHNSON

reports from Johannesburg

Johannesburg lies 6,000 feet above sea level, although whether the air in this city is any thinner than England's prospects of making a winning start to the Test series in neighbouring Pretoria on Thursday is a moot point.

After leaving the gas mark nine temperatures of Kimberley, it is no longer possible to boil a kettle on the pavement, but the top of the chairman's head would be a passable alternative. Raymond Illingworth is not a happy man, and spent most of last night saying so at a team meeting in the England hotel.

If a Test series equates to a horse race, England normally have only one leg inside their jodhpurs by the time the opposition is cantering towards the home stretch, and no one knows better than their captain how crucial it is to get away to a decent start.

Michael Atherton has previously been on four overseas tours with England, (Australia 1990/91 and 1994/95, India 1992, West Indies 1993) and on no occasion has he arrived at the venue for the third Test match with the scoreline reading anything other than 0-2.

In fact, when he made his debut against Australia in 1989, he came into the side with England losing 0-3 after four Tests. That was at Trent Bridge, when another current player making his debut was singled out for special praise by Ted Dexter after taking 1 for 166. Malcolm Devon, as he was known then, also got things back to front in Kimberley, and entertaining though his 48 not out might have been, his bowling lacks any spark.

Apart from Angus Fraser's impressive performance in South Africa A's second innings, it was pitiful to see - despite the extreme heat - a so- called international attack unable to bowl to its field, and keep the ball consistently on one side of the wicket.

On good batting pitches, this is as essential as top-order batsmen making sure they cash in after getting a start. England's, to a man, failed to do so, and the batting and bowling in Kimberley mirrored the lack of discipline which has betrayed so many recent England sides. When the going gets tough, England's toughest head for the hammock.

It is enough to make you wonder whether there is any point in England going on tour with batting and bowling coaches. John Edrich virtually had to be gelignited from the crease when he was playing Test cricket, yet during a moment of crisis last Saturday, Graham Thorpe's stumping gave the impression that he had not so much been paying attention to Edrich, as studying charging rhinos at a South African game park.

If it seems a little premature to start fretting before a single Test match delivery has been purveyed, it is because we have seen this script all too often before. If England require an incentive to get their act together, they need only look at the itinerary and try to imagine how much fun the match against Combined Universities at Pietermaritzburg is going to be if they have made a hash of the first three Tests.

Meantime, talking of fun, England are billeted in several square miles of armed fortress known as Sandton City. Complete with 24-hour armed security patrols, closed circuit TV, searchlights, intercoms, and everything bar moat and portcullis, it is a bit like something out of Mad Max.

This place has sprung up because there is nothing more mad than venturing into Johannesburg itself, especially after dark, and entire business complexes are being moved out to Sandton. There, inside one of the hotels, you only have to make a cup of tea in your room to remind yourself why this country is in such a state. Thoughtfully provided, possibly as a hangover from the old days to make the drink more socially acceptable, are sachets of something called "beverage whiteners."

Pakistan routed, page 27

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