Lifeless pitches neuter nervous captains

Cricket: South Africa 428 & 162-9 dec England 263 & 189-3 Match drawn
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reports from Port Elizabeth

South Africa 428 & 162-9 dec England 263 & 189-3 Match drawn

As Michael Atherton gazes out into Table Bay from his Cape Town hotel this morning, nursing his first hangover of the year, he will probably see Robben Island, a forbidding place where the vision of a new South Africa was first dreamed by those kept there against their will.

That dream is fast becoming reality, although the change from the old apartheid regime to a new South Africa has not been without its pitfalls and problems. A few years ago, for instance, the wildlife department brought in some bushveldt elephants from the Kruger Park, to breed with a single forest one they had discovered still padding around its shrinking habitat near Knysna, on the south coast.

Curiously, the liaison failed to produce the expected results, and it wasn't until someone discovered that the experts had in fact mis-ascertained the sex of the lone jumbo, that the mistake could be rectified, by which time the project had run out of money.

As spectacular cock-ups go, even that pales besides the one that has gone on throughout this deadlocked series - the preparation of slow, flat pitches.

In a country virtually defined by its addiction to sport, it is about as close to committing a treasonable offence as there is, and if Hansie Cronje, the South African captain, wants to contribute anything remotely positive to the series, he should insist on an inquiry. After all, South Africa arguably possess the world's fastest bowler in Allan Donald, as well as Brian McMillan and Shaun Pollock, neither of whom are slouches when it comes to getting batsmen to "sniff the leather."

And yet their best efforts have failed to turn two promising positions into a win. In the fourth Test that finished on Saturday at St George's Park, even the first outing of Paul Adams' fizzing wrist spin could not break the deadlock after yet another bland surface allowed England once again to extricate themselves from an unpromising situation of their own creation.

Atherton, fed up with England's capacity for collapse in the past, has never apologised for drawing matches he does not think his side can win. This Test was no exception, despite the disagreements voiced by some sections of the South African press, who branded Atherton as a spoilsport; accusing him of killing the spectacle by putting up the shutters on the final day and deliberately instructing his bowlers to fire the ball down the leg- side on the fourth evening when England began to tire.

So far both captains have been accused of having shortcomings in the imagination stakes. This is undoubtedly true compared to the great novelists and composers. However, purely in the terms of this series, Cronje is easily the more culpable, having by far the richer of the two seams of bowling available. In any case, imaginative batting at Test level is the domain of the gambler and neither side has many of those.

Alec Stewart is one of the few who seems to have a punt - and a swish - with the bat. Like all risk-takers, he had probably convinced himself that his poor run as an opener (16 innings without a fifty) was simply a poor run which was bound to come to an end sooner or later without a change in his approach.

He may have been right, but on the evidence of his match-saving 81 on the final day in Port Elizabeth, his usual airy extravagance with the bat was overcome by an almost studied caution.

It was a fine effort and one completely out of character. In the past Stewart has always looked to dominate the bowler and score quick-thrill psychological points. By contrast, his opening partner Atherton looks to dominate in the long term, and is always looking towards the next session.

That is not to say he remains detached and aloof when at the crease. Now that the bolder gestures have been outlawed on the field - though those off it still appear to be treated with leniency - the eyes seem to have it.

At one point during Atherton's three-hour long 34, there was some particularly fine ocular interplay between McMillan and the England skipper, which was every bit as macho as the marvellous glowering between Clint Eastwood and Lee van Cleef in the cemetery scene during The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

It is a pity the St George's Brass band didn't think to play the opening bars of Ennio Morricone's famous score. Instead they treated those present to some rousing and extended jams of Stand By Me and Shosholoza, an old immigrant mineworker's song which was banned when it was adopted by the ANC as their anthem in the 1960s.

But if the band made it a joyful Test match, the debut of Adams, made it a joyous occasion throughout South Africa. Quite apart from the four wickets he took, his presence will have envigoured all those who still believe their colour holds them back.

For an 18-year-old, who was not even discovered in time to go on last summer's Under-19 tour to England, Adams' rise to prominence has been phenomenal. He has gone from being a teenager known as "Gogga" (a catch- all term for an insect) in Grassy Park in the Cape Flats, to a Test cricketer seen in millions of homes in less than three months. He is a clear indication that change can happen quickly, and already he will have become an inspiration to others.

However, his was not the only bowling display worthy of praise. Once again, with Mark Ilott absent through injury, Dominic Cork had to shoulder the donkey work and, despite bowling 20 overs unbroken, he still managed to rip the heart out of the South Africa's middle-order. He has bowled exceptionally well throughout this series and England will once again be heavily dependent on him at Newlands when the final Test begins tomorrow.

As this series has progressed, both sides have gradually removed the chance of error from their play. The result has been a stalemate which threatens to provide only the fifth 0-0 draw in a five-match series. It is time surely for England to wheel out Devon Malcolm, the man Nelson Mandela calls the "Destroyer." With the Cape Doctor at his back, he might yet lift this series out of the doldrums.

(Fifth day; South Africa won toss)

SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings 428 (D J Cullinan 91, D J Richardson 84; D G Cork 4-113).

ENGLAND - First Innings 263 (M A Atherton 72, G A Hick 62).

SOUTH AFRICA - Second Innings 162 for 9 dec (G Kirsten 69).

ENGLAND - Second Innings

(Overnight: 20 for 0)

*M A Atherton lbw b Matthews 34

(172 min, 137 balls, 3 fours)

A J Stewart c Hudson b Donald 81

(339 min, 261 balls, 13 fours)

J E R Gallian lbw b Adams 28

(145 min, 104 balls, 4 fours)

G P Thorpe not out 12

(49 min, 34 balls, 2 fours)

G A Hick not out 11

(29 min, 23 balls, 2 fours)

Extras (b9, lb8, w1, nb5) 23

Total (for 3, 369 min, 92 overs) 189

Fall: 1-84 (Atherton) 2-157 (Gallian) 3-167 (Stewart).

Did not bat: R A Smith, R C Russell, D G Cork,R K Illingworth, P J Martin, M C Ilott.

Bowling: Pollock 10-4-15-0 (nb1) (2-0-4-0, 4-3-1-0, 3-1-6-0, 1-0-4-0); Donald 19-4-60-1 (nb2, w1) (2-0-9-0, 7-1-30-0, 6-2-11-0, 4-1-10-1); Adams 28-13-51-1 (3-2-4-0, 9-2-25-0, 14-8-18-1, 2-1-4-0); McMillan 14-6-16-0 (nb3) (2-1-3-0, 7-3-4-0, 3-2-1-0, 2-0-8-0); Matthews 19-10-29-1 (7-3-12- 0, 7-6-4-1, 5-1-13-0); Kirsten 2-1-1-0 (one spell).

Progress: 50: 79 min, 18.3 overs. Lunch: 80-0 (Atherton 30, Stewart 41) 37 overs. 100: 197 min, 48.2 overs. Tea: 134-1 (Stewart 67, Gallian 14) 68 overs. 150: 302 min, 74.2 overs. New ball taken at 166-2 after 84 overs. Match ended: 5.02pm.

Stewart's 50: 185 min, 130 balls, 8 fours.


Man of the match: G Kirsten.

Umpires: S A Bucknor (WI) and C J Mitchley.

TV replay umpire: R E Koertzen (SA).

Match referee: C H Lloyd (WI).

First Test (Pretoria): Match drawn. Second Test (Johannesburg): Match drawn. Third Test (Durban): Match drawn. Fifth Test (Cape Town): 2-6 January.