reports from Johannesburg
England's cricket selectors meet tonight to pick a side for their first Test match in this country in 30 years, and the only certainty is that Raymond Illingworth will not end up with the team he wants.
This, though, has nothing to do with the pass-the-smelling-salts inference that England's chairman will hand over team selection to Michael Atherton - rather that, as Illingworth explained in the softly spoken, diplomatic phraseology for which he has become famous: "T'buggers can't be trusted".
"T'buggers" in question are England's specialist batsmen, and what Illingworth meant was that they can't be trusted to score enough runs to adopt his own preference for five batsmen, five bowlers, and the in-form Jack Russell at No 6.
"Jack's batting better than the lot of them at the moment," Illingworth said yesterday, as he watched with something less than undiluted pleasure as his six specialist batsmen struggled against England's own bowlers in the nets at Centurion Park.
Illingworth does not go in for in-depth analysis when asked for his thoughts on ticklish issues, and when asked whether he could put his finger on what was wrong with England's batsmen, he said: "Aye, they bloody well keep on getting out.
"I've certainly not seen anything to convince me that five of them will get enough runs, so we'll probably have to make do with four bowlers. The issue tonight, therefore, is which four?"
Ideally, England would plump for three seamers plus Richard Illingworth, but the idea of Devon Malcolm being backed up by only two other pace bowlers is enough to give the chairman an attack of the vapours. It may well be that England will consider their best option is no specialist spinner at all.
It would by no means be the first time that England selectors had got the wind up over the spin option on the eve of an overseas Test, and while this Centurion Park pitch is expected to assist the quicker bowlers to begin with before taking turn in the latter stages, it has, as a virgin Test venue, never been played on for five consecutive days.
Given England's tour record, it is a bit optimistic to think that this one will last five days either, but it is a bat-first surface, and England will have to consider the consequences of leaving themselves without any ammunition to exploit a turning pitch on Sunday and Monday.
It is, however, not beyond them. Before the first Test of the 1992 series in India, they were "definitely" going to play three spinners. Then they decided to play four seamers instead, and got annihilated by a home team who ended up taking 17 wickets with spin.
What it boils down to is that Malcolm and Illingworth will be named in a squad of 12, and that England will, whichever option they take, end up with a final XI they are far from certain is the correct one. It is a scenario which is by no means unfamiliar.
n Salim Malik is likely to be missing from Pakistan's middle order for this week's second Test against Australia in Hobart because he has a cut hand.Reuse content