England's health still threatened by a collapsible heart

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A funny thing happened in England's second innings at Port Elizabeth. Nobody failed. The lowest completed score was 28, from Jason Gallian, which, by the recent standards of the No 3 position, has to go down as a triumph.

So England's batsmen came out of the game looking not too bad - and Mike Atherton is entitled to his evident satisfaction in this new-found aptitude for rescue operations. But in order to get yourself out of a mess you first have to get yourself into it. Although Ray Illingworth did his bit by leaving out two of our three best fast bowlers, and losing the toss did not help, the central fact is that, on a pudding of a pitch, in the tone-setting first innings, the batsmen steered England to 200 for 7.

That was the fifth England innings out of five in this series to incorporate something between a nasty wobble and an outright collapse. At Centurion Park they were 64 for 3 before recovering to 381 for 7. At the Wanderers they lost their last eight wickets for 91 in the first innings, and their first four for 70 (from 75 for no wicket) in the second. In Durban they were 109 for 5 when Dominic Cork joined Graeme Hick. On each occasion, the pitch was friendly, the bowling good but not outstanding.

This should have been the series in which England really cracked it with the bat. After the debacle at Edgbaston last July, they picked themselves up with first-innings totals of 437, 440 and 454 in the last three Tests against the West Indies. They finished the summer with five batsmen who had sat the sternest examination in cricket, and passed - Alec Stewart in the Caribbean, Graham Thorpe, Robin Smith and Hick at home, and Atherton wherever he laid his bat.

At last England appeared to have what Australia had had for years - a solid, imposing batting line-up, consisting of five gifted players, all established enough to survive the bad trot that can afflict any player at any time, unless his name is Atherton. The impression was reinforced by the Coopers & Lybrand ratings, the most accurate guide to individual standing. In October, England had five batsmen in the world's top 16 - more than any other country, even Australia.

So what went wrong? Three things. If you have five senior batsmen and a junior one, it stands to reason that the junior one goes at No 6. But there is a case for putting him at No 5, leaving an older head to marshal the tail; Steve Waugh, the current world No 1, was still at No 6 for Australia until this season. The one thing you do not do is throw your rookie in at No 3. Which is what England did. When it went spectacularly wrong, they did it again.

To make matters worse, two of the senior quintet have had a relatively poor patch at the same time - Stewart and Thorpe. The fact that both play for Surrey suggests that, being used to the pace and bounce of The Oval, they have suffered most from the torpid South African pitches. (Stewart has made stacks of runs in the minor matches, but that just shows that minor matches are no guide to anything.)

Add these two factors together and you have a team which, until Saturday, had to get by without a single fifty from Nos 2, 3 and 4. In the circumstances, you have to hand it to the rest of the batsmen - Hick, now within an inch of finally being his county self on the bigger stage: Smith, not in top form but doggedly consistent; Russell, a world-class pain in the opponents' neck; and above all Atherton, the man Allan Donald rates the hardest in the world to dislodge.

The final factor lurks below the surface. For a decade and a half, with the odd exception, England's batting has been less than the sum of its parts. Atherton is dragging them away from that tradition, and back to an older one - the bloody-mindedness of Barrington, Boycott and Bailey. When it comes to spreading grit, the England captain can give the most assiduous local authority a run for its money. But it takes time. Just because they have managed the uncharacteristic feat of six consecutive draws does not mean the tendency to collapse is no longer in England's blood. Luckily for them, and for the purposes of this contest, it seems to be in South Africa's, too.