Fast track to a winter for firebrands

England in South Africa: Tourists' hopes of success depend on dealing with their hosts' hail of pace and aggression; Derek Pringle believes that the series will be won and lost by the bowling attacks
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The Independent Online
SUCH is the extraordinary faith at home, locals believe South Africa will have beaten England by Christmas. By then only three of the five Tests will have been played, so such predictions - the majority, no doubt, emanating from the taverns of Transvaal - may seem parochial. But such is the strength of their bowling attack, the signs are that England may be in for an even more torrid time than their bruising summer against the West Indies.

Since their return from exile four years ago, South Africa remain unbeaten over a Test series. It is a remarkable record of which they are justly proud, and one that owes much to the quality of their pace bowlers. Most countries - excluding the West Indies - would regard themselves fortunate to count two among their number; South Africa have had three or four to call on.

Their near seamless international re-entry owes something to the rebel tours of the 1980s, which eased the impact of isolation. But if some of the hapless Sri Lankan and England sides proved of little use beyond providing a parade of mercenaries with which to defy international opinion, it was the West Indian rebels, with the likes of Sylvester Clarke and Ezra Moseley, who allowed South Africa a glimpse of standards on the outside, in particular the value of fast bowling.

It was a lesson they heeded, and today, when both Allan Donald and Brett Schultz are fit and firing, South Africa can boast one of the quickest new-ball attacks. Add the fast-medium of Fanie de Villiers, Craig Matthews and the beefy bustle of all-rounder Brian McMillan, and the line-up is impressive. Only injury and the lack of a high-class spinner make them vulnerable, and only then when they venture abroad.

The South African strategy will be simple: their bowlers will try to blow away England's batting with their pace. It is chillingly direct and England must quickly settle on a batting line-up, with John Crawley or Mark Ramprakash filling the problem No 3 spot. A fully fit complement would also help their cause. The early breaks in this series could go to the side which stays free of injury, though given the dominant role expected of pace, the side with the most reliable hands at slip will probably be the one to prevail.

If the first three Test pitches are fast and bowler-friendly then the series' main talking point may be the contest between the quicker bowl- ers. By neatly pairing off the opposing pace men, comparisons and assessments can be made.

Donald, having recently terrorised the neighbours up in Harare with career-best figures, is in fine fettle after his Championship-winning valediction for Warwickshire. Malcolm is only 80 per cent fit following a knee operation less than a month ago, and will need to rebuild his confidence and rhythm. Looking back will help, and Malcolm must make sure the memory of his greatest hour at the Oval, when he took nine for 57 last year against South Africa, stays fresh.

When everything clicks, as it did for Malcolm, and for Donald more recently against Zimbabwe, both can wreak devastation, though the pair can be equally profligate when off-kilter, as Donald proved in his last series against England, when he went for more than four and a half runs an over. Still, Donald is the one firing live rounds at the moment, and Malcolm has urgent work to do before the First Test.

Until recently, that is not a match either Schultz or Darren Gough might have been in contention for, given that injury has forced the pair to remodel their actions - Gough with stress fractures to the foot and Schultz to both knees. Both are in need of early success, which could see them leave their calling cards on the series providing their bad habits do not exceed the remit of the team's game plan.

Schultz in particular has a delicious, indefinable appeal. A headstrong bowler capable of swinging the ball both ways at great pace, he is a draw card on his own, and early reports of his comeback suggest tough times for England. Gough, too, needs to reassert himself. As long as his journey from pedestal to plaster cast has tempered the naivety that threatened to stunt his development, then he and England will be better for it.

Though not as sharp as those mentioned, de Villiers is as smooth and functional as an old Singer sewing machine. Rated by Allan Border as South Africa's best bowler, he swings the ball away from the right-handers, a delivery few of them relish, especially when the movement is late. His tight control and stamina when the fast bowlers are resting make him an essential component of the Proteas' attack.

His potential equivalents in the England side are Mark Ilott and Peter Martin. Both have the ability to swing the ball. Like de Villiers, Martin tends to move it towards the slips, whereas Ilott's left arm tries too hard to bring the ball back into the right-hander. Unlike the South African, neither has yet sat comfortably at the higher level, though Ilott displayed good form on the A tour to South Africa two years ago.

To many, no England line-up would be complete without Angus Fraser. Without ever looking like running through a side, Fraser's indomitable nature and spirit under pressure have been a captain's dream. It is a trait he shares with Craig Matthews, a medium-fast seamer whose action and hairstyle appear equally unflappable and whose line and length are as unerring as a road through the Karoo.

Unless conditions suit, neither moves the ball around a great deal. However, their inability to bore themselves means batsmen will often risk all in a bid to enliven proceedings. It is a tactic tried and trusted by both teams, yet either may find themselves forced out should the other side begin to forge ahead in the series, their tight control sacrificed for the urgent need for something more gung-ho.

The need for extra aggression is not something that needs to be prised out of Dominic Cork, England's find of the summer. The Derbyshire all- rounder comes at a batsman from ball one, believing anything to be possible and trying the combinations to prove it. It is the kind of approach that has paid dividends for Brian McMillan, who like Cork has a habit of getting under the opposition's skin. The beefy South African all-rounder does not swing the ball or have quite the verve or strike rate of his young opponent, who, if he can to cut his output of bad balls, could end the series as England's premier bowler.

Provided the toss does not prove overly crucial, the balance of bowling power is finely poised, even if South Africa have the edge in pace and preparation. But much depends on good beginnings. England on tour have not always been able to get into their stride early on, especially when starting out in the provinces. But if Atherton's men are to continue the momentum begun in the summer, then their bowlers must start fired up.