England's chances slip away

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The Independent Online
IT IS the rainy season on the high veld where this Test is being played. Violent thunderstorms that you can set your clock to build up, shedding their torrential rain in the late afternoon. One such storm thwarted England's push for more runs on Friday, but it was five inches of persistent frontal rain that wiped out not only the local soccer league, but yesterday's cricket without a ball being bowled.

Apart from the local farmers, it was Hansie Cronje who would have felt most relieved. With England 381 for nine, South Africa's captain was in danger of seeing his crass decision of asking England to bat turn into a blunder that may well have cost him the series. Having failed to bowl England out in a day, the cul-de-sac down which England's batsmen had cut, pulled and driven Cronje's side, has suddenly developed a muddy slipway.

With the pitch having been under covers for over a day, England are hoping the surface will sweat enough to help the seam bowlers, should the rain relent and allow them to have a crack at South Africa today. "If we bowl really well," Illingworth said, "we can still do some damage. Bowling them out for under 200 could have an effect for the rest of the series."

It was hard to tell the exact level of disappointment from the inscrutable face of the England captain, when he dragged himself from his game of bridge with the England chairman to inspect the sodden outfield just after lunch. Atherton has been feeling the pressure, not least because of his side's poor record overseas and the overwhelming belief in some quarters that after their successful summer, England are favourites to win out here. Never an easy man to coax from the crease, Atherton put his familiar obstinacy on full show in his dour innings of 78, and Illingworth paid him due praise when he acknowledged that it was indeed the captain who had "made it all possible".

Struck three times on the helmet - Atherton says he is having difficulty making the split- second decision of whether to duck or hook - he was rarely on top of his game, but his unflinching resilience clearly inspired the rest of his team. Considering England were 63 for three at lunch on the first day, the solidity of his mood allowed Graeme Hick the freedom to attack and complete what is his most significant innings for England so far. "It was really a matter of getting his head right," said Illingworth. "When he's batted at No 5 before and we've been 30 for three, he's found it difficult. So we've told him to go out and play his own game."

Hick's century was all the more impressive as it was made against the kind of aggressive bowling that has so often been his undoing in the past. He plundered rather than stole runs off a bewildered South African attack, who erred too often on the sluggish pitch. It was only the bizarre 36 runs that Hick added to his first-day 105 that puzzled.

Taking just over two and a half hours, it meant that the England innings lost its momentum and, but for a robust half-century from Jack Russell, South Africa may well have stayed in touch. Hick may well have been acting under orders for the second new ball had just been taken, and Robin Smith had gone for 43, but there is a feeling that England, caught up in the propaganda over pacy pitches, would be more than happy to go into the tour's coastal leg not having lost either of the first two Tests.

Although the rain has now made the whole issue redundant, England have appeared to pull the killer punch. It is a dangerous habit against this opposition, who will have learnt much from their lacklustre efforts with the ball. But while Allan Donald and Brett Scultz failed to live up to billing, a 22-year-old debutant, Shaun Pollock, bowled with a focused aggression that belied his rookie status.

The flame-haired Pollock surprised many of England's top- order batsmen with his sudden changes of pace and a lethal bouncer. With his high gather and equally high bowling arm, he delivers the ball from close to the stumps. It is a combination which, apart from making his length difficult to pick, means there is little room to manoeuvre when the throat ball is delivered.

Only a year ago, Pollock was thought to be no more than a promising medium- pacer. But time spent with Natal's bowling coach, Malcolm Marshall, has seen marked improvements not only in pace but in thinking batsmen out. Unlike his more experienced partners Pollock did not waste his opportunities against the new batsman, andHick and Smith needed good fortune to ride the testing starts given them by this gangly firebrand. If his improvement continues, it will be England's batsmen who will have to ride out the storms.