Malcolm in a quandary

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EVEN when the sun shines, as it has done for the past three days, Bloemfontein can be a dull place. Yesterday was no exception. England, unadventurous to the point of caution, failed to set an appropriate target and their match against the Free State, petered out into a tame draw.

After the rain that has blighted this tour, England, particularly the bowlers, needed a decent run about. They were not given one, with Atherton batting on well after lunch before declaring and setting the opposition a target 310 in a minimum of 59 overs. Never a realistic total with the bounce becoming lower by the hour.

The England skipper has made much recently of the importance of getting, and then keeping, the winning habit, but losing a game such as this with its dependence on three declarations, would have done little to stem rising confidence. After the game he claimed that England would have needed a whole day to have a realistic chance of bowling a side out. They will have only that time to bowl each other out in the one-day match on the same pitch today.

Perhaps, but a really testing contest for his under-employed bowlers would have been far more beneficial before the next Test, than losing out in a concocted run chase. In the event, none shone in the 39 overs bowled as the Free State accepted the offer of an early finish with their score on 109 for three. This does not bode well for Devon Malcolm's chances of making the side for Thursday's Test. After the wash out at Centurion Park, Raymond Illingworth went on record as saying that it was "up to Devon to roll up his sleeves and show us we must pick him". Well the sleeves were up but the tail stayed down as he struggled to generate a modicum of pace or rhythm in his nine overs.

Before the start of play, the England chairman had Malcolm out in the middle bowling off his full run. It appears that the recent obsession with making the big-boned fast bowler follow-through straighter has become something of a bugbear. Unless Malcolm is still feeling the effects of his recent knee surgery, the seed of change lodged in his mind has taken on cannonball proportions, and one which he appears to be dragging with him when he bowls.

It would be churlish to be uncharitable on such an unresponsive surface. Although Malcolm rarely hurried the batsmen, he still managed the scalp of Gerhardus Liebenberg, one of South Africa's most promising young bats, and one of the three victims to fall, all lbw.

But if the bowlers struggled to assert themselves, most of England's batsmen, bar Atherton and Robin Smith, who made a 30-ball duck in the second innings, have all found some form on this slow and undemanding pitch.

In fact the day started with the tantalising prospect of Crawley and Ramprakash taking on the Free State bowlers, but the anticipation was abruptly ended when Ramprakash was lbw to Nico Pretorius, eight short of his 50. With Illingworth having already stated that England will keep the same top six who batted in the First Test, Ramprakash showed no sign of his legendary temper after being shot out by the umpire Cyril Mitchley, the ball striking his front pad well down the pitch.

Crawley, who has struck the ball crisply and cleanly like a man in form, added 21 to his overnight score, before edging a wide slash behind to the wicketkeeper, Phillip Radley. He has not played like a man without hope and his 90 was an innings composed of powerful strokes, though most of these were played on Friday afternoon and not when an early declaration beckoned.

Crawley apart, Dominic Cork, with an unbeaten 67, was the only other England player able to force the bowling away, once Hansie Cronje had set a defensive field. Cork is full of hustle and bustle and though some of his more overt antics - such as standing astride the pitch with hands on hip after another gratuitous lbw appeal is turned down - are designed to get up the opposition's noses. It will be a shame if they should begin to mask what is clearly a formidable cricketing talent.

Apart from the unspectacular bowling performance, England's other problem at this stage seems to be an inability to pick up singles - none of the batsmen appear to be looking for them. The South Africans, however, are masters at it, and it will be of supreme importance against a hostile attack on a sporty Wanderers pitch.

After a most unsatisfactory day's cricket for player and public alike, England will not be overly reassured to hear that Shaun Pollock with five for 18, and his Natal team-mate Andrew Hudson, with a century, remain in form. Unless Angus Fraser and Darren Gough can show some penetration in today's one-day game, the rendition of Queen's "We are the Champions" that was blasted from the England dressing-room after the close of play, may be a tad premature.

l England's women endured a hard day in the field to leave the Second Test at Jamshedpur finely balanced at the halfway stage. India's Sangita Dabir hit an unbeaten 55 to revive India as they replied to the tourists' 196 all out. Dabir came to the crease with India struggling at 76 for four and saw them to 169 for six at the close.

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