Malcolm on the brink of honour or obscurity

SECOND TEST: Relentless rain clouds difficult England bowling selection. Martin Johnson reports from Johannesburg
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The most common noise in Johannesburg at the moment is a very loud bang, which is likely to be caused by any one of three things. They are, in ascending order of likelihood: a) a car backfiring b) someone being shot (there is a murder here every half an hour) and c) an extremely violent electrical thunderstorm.

There are also two distinct mysteries about this city, which are, in ascending order of importance to England's cricket team: a) why does stopping at a red traffic light invariably lead to a knock on the window and an invitation to purchase a set of plastic coathangers, and b) how did the United Cricket Board of South Africa come to arrange two Test matches here bang in the middle of the stormy season?

England have now been in South Africa for the thick end of six weeks, and have played one day and two sessions of international cricket. Pretoria, about half an hour's drive from here, was wrecked by the weather, and the meteorological portents are not much better for the second Test starting at The Wanderers ground today.

Having decided to avail themselves of the better net facilities at Pretoria's Centurion Park yesterday morning, torrential overnight rain left them unable to do anything bar a few lengths of breaststroke. Not surprisingly, they then returned to The Wanderers, and were just able to fit in their final practice before the place was lit up like Castle Dracula on a bad night.

There has been enough sunshine in Kimberley and Bloemfontein for England to feel that their trip has not been an entire waste of time, but another watery grave here would leave them less than buoyant before heading off further west for the coastal leg of a thus far anti- climactic tour.

As Raymond Illingworth said yesterday: "There is a good spirit in this side, but it does get hard to keep building them up when they are being buggered around by the weather. I thought we took away a slight psychological advantage from the first Test, and all we can hope for is five full days' play here."

England have selected an unchanged squad of 13 for this Test match, but although it was only ever going to be a question of which two seamers to be left out in Pretoria (Devon Malcolm and Mark Illott) there will be substantially more thought given here to omitting their specialist spinner, Richard Illingworth.

Both Illingworth senior and the captain, Michael Atherton, are reluctant to embrace this concept, particularly as pitches are prone to deteriorate here, and last year's Test against New Zealand yielded eight wickets in the match for the New Zealand left-arm spinner Matthew Hart.

On the other hand, the blades on the groundsman's mower had not been set too low when Illingworth peered at the pitch yesterday, and the surface (hardly surprising given the amount of rain they've had) was far from dry. "It depends how it looks before the toss," Illingworth said, "but I'm not ruling out four seamers."

If so, which four? The case for Malcolm is that there should be more pace than there was at Pretoria, and the case for Illott is that the ball often swings here. The case against Illott is that he is a very friendly pace if the ball isn't doing anything, and the case against Malcolm is that Illingworth - who was recently pining for a plate of rice pudding - would currently be inclined to whistle up someone other than Malcolm if he wanted the skin knocked off it.

Illingworth's jaundiced view of Malcolm is not universally shared by those around him, but the England manager is not daft, and would hardly leave a potential matchwinner inside the dressing-room purely on the grounds that Malcolm appears to reach for the deaf aid when the manager is handing out advice.

It may be that Malcolm, at the age of 32, simply hasn't got it any more, but if he does not play in this Test, Malcolm may disappear more completely from this tour than Johannesburg did yesterday afternoon under the kind of storm that might have made Noah's resemble a passing shower.

Not too many sunny intervals have flickered across Raymond's face either when it comes to discussing the current form of Robin Smith. "He's definitely a worry," Illingworth said yesterday."He's not in good form, but we're still backing his big-match temperament."

Atherton was more upbeat ("he has the best Test average of anyone on either side, and has all the fighting qualities I personally like in a player") although both manager and captain were keen to take the pressure off the top-order batsman with the worst Test average on either side, Mark Ramprakash.

"He's a good player, but it takes some people longer to acclimatise to this level - Mike Gatting was one - than others," Atherton said. "The lad has bags of ability, and needs one big score to get him going," Illingworth concurred.

However, if neither performs well here, John Crawley will undoubtedly play in the third Test in Durban, and we may not have to wait beyond this series either to see Jack Russell at No 6. Illingworth will not take the risk just yet, but with a bit more batting consistency from the likes of Dominic Cork and Darren Gough, Illingworth would then feel able to pursue his own idea of balance, and play five bowlers.

South Africa are not without their own worries, notably because their plan to overwhelm England with firepower has had to be slightly reappraised. Brett Schultz is injured, and while not too much should be read into Allan Donald's disrespectful treatment in Sunday's one-day match, the "Bloemfontein bullet", as he is known in these parts, looked more like a man trying to hold up a bank with a water pistol.

More good news for England is the absence of the injured Fanie de Villiers, who has not been sighted out here apart from as one of the judges for the Miss World contest, and advertising something called a Fanie-burger on the windows of various Wimpey Bars. As long as we end up with a cricket match, and not a canoeing slalom, England might yet achieve the rare feat of drawing first blood in a series.