Limited technique again exposed by limited overs

Robert Winder examines the odd tactics brought about by the special demands of the one-day game and the tourists' inability to master them
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The Independent Online
One-day tournaments are usually served up like a glass of fizz before the main meal, but the present round of limited-overs games between England and South Africa has been offered, instead, as an after-dinner treat.

Before the tour there were worries that the local audience, which during the years of isolation had lost the five-day habit, might not turn out for the Tests if it was already gorged on one-day thrills. So these were saved for afters. It has worked out well: the Test series was well supported, and the one-day games remain a crowd pleaser. Yesterday's attendance at Centurion Park was a record - 2,000 more than the capacity.

Both teams are using the games as practice sessions for the World Cup, so these contests have not been as highly charged as they might have been. Batting orders have been scrambled: at Bloemfontein and Johannesburg both teams sent out a bowler to get the ball airborne. Both sides were packed with ''all-rounders'', and non- throwers such as Robin Smith were left out.

Nothing, perhaps, exposed the peculiar nature of the game more clearly than the fact that Allan Donald did not take the South African new ball. Slower bowlers are what this type of cricket demands. Hansie Conje rarely turns his arm over in Tests, but is a leading bowler in one-day internationals.

Purists complain that it's just not cricket - and it isn't. As coaches search for a winning formula, the games become increasingly formulaic. A single over in the first contest at Newlands revealed the gulf between slogfests and the real thing.

Donald came on first change. Stewart dropped his first ball to short leg and scampered a quick single. Atherton edged the next ball low to slip, where McMillan almost caught it diving to his left. Then Donald found the edge again, at such pace that the ball flashed between keeper and slip before either moved.

Atherton sliced one through where gully would have been for another four, and that was that: nought for nine off the over - a disaster in one-day terms. But it was brilliant bowling: with Test match field- placings it might well have been a double wicket maiden.

One-day cricket, especially in its day-night disguise, is quite something. And the crowds in South Africa love it. They turn up three or four hours before play is due to start, eager to bag a good seat, set up the barbeque and paint flags on their faces.

On the field, it is starting to look as if coaches are monkeying around too much with the conventions of ordinary cricket. At Newlands, South Africa's attempt to begin in the grand manner was a near catastrophe: they lost three early wickets and were saved only by Pollock in the last half-dozen overs. England's desire for all-rounders led them, on the day, to pick the wrong Smith: Neil bowled just two overs, and England were left looking a batsman short.

It was noticeable that England's solitary success, on Thursday, had its roots in an expert innings by Atherton - sensible, well judged and free of wild gambles. Not long ago, Atherton was executed from England's one- day side out of a misplaced belief that the game required mere sloggers. Yesterday, Gary Kirsten did the same for South Africa.

Having twice failed down the order, he reverted to a familiar role and scored an excellent, match-winning 116. There is no substitute, even in a form of cricket that the players think of as a lottery, for good batting.

It is the same with bowling. In Cape Town, Donald rescued a game that was almost lost by taking three quick wickets. In Bloemfontein, he could not repeat the trick: Hick took 14 off his first over, and South Africa's chief gun had been effectively spiked.

In the modern one-day scene, bowlers concentrate on variety. They are supposed to bowl lots of slower balls and pitch on a full length to avoid getting whacked. In practice, they send down batches of full tosses and lose their rhythm entirely. A bowler who has given up any hope of taking wickets isn't really playing cricket: he is just the pull knob in a game of pinball.

As both sides use this series to experiment, there will be the odd faux pas, but so far as England are concerned, the most useful experiment would have been to find out what it is like to win. All-rounders are worth their weight in gold, but the English definition of an all-rounder at present, alas, is someone who is not quite a batsman and not quite a bowler.

Everyone knows the one-day game can get desperate - that's the fun of it - but the pantomime grows ever more freakish. One day, a losing team will look back and wish that they hadn't taken the bats and balls away from their best players.