Ramprakash facing stiff competition from Crawley

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Cricket

MARTIN JOHNSON

reports from Bloemfontein

It is now one month and five days since England arrived in South Africa, and the sense of achievement is a touch short of overwhelming. If time really does fly when you are having fun, then England, mentally at any rate, are still in the Heathrow departure lounge.

Washed out in the opening Test match, and with little meaningful match practice behind them, England filled their time yesterday with about three hours fielding practice (the nets were waterlogged), about 30 seconds ticking off a list of interesting things to do on a grey afternoon in Bloemfontein, and the rest of the day waiting for bedtime.

Today, weather permitting, they find themselves with a medical condition almost unknown in modern professional cricketers - desperate for a game. Or in this case (the need to keep everyone involved having prompted them to alter the fourth day of the match against Orange Free State into a separate 50-over bash) two games.

The loss to the weather of three consecutive Test match days, thought to be unique in South Africa, means that England will not be thinking too much about altering their side for next week's second Test in Johannesburg, particularly as their bowlers have yet to send down a single delivery in the series.

However, the problematical No 3 batting position is again under scrutiny after Mark Ramprakash's failure in Pretoria, and while Raymond Illingworth is a man of many virtues, patience is not thought to be among them. In which case, the longstanding tradition of giving a player at least two chances may not necessarily apply here.

John Crawley, like Ramprakash, has not exactly seized the chances that have come his way, but he has had fewer of them, and there are also grounds for suspecting that, of the two of them, Crawley might just have the greater big match temperament.

Ramprakash arguably has more talent than any batsman currently playing English cricket, but he averages less than 18 in the same number of Test matches, and while he has been unfairly treated in terms of continuity, not even Australia are prepared to wait indefinitely for a fruit to ripen. Runs for Crawley in Bloemfontein may, therefore, be bad news for Ramprakash.

There are, though, two different arguments over Crawley's temperament. He came in to join Mike Atherton in the Sydney Test last winter with England, having lost the opening two matches of the series, in another dire mess at 20 for 3, and made 72 in a life-saving 174 partnership.

On the other hand, having been initially passed over last summer for the likes of Ramprakash and Jason Gallian, Crawley was recalled for the final two Tests against the West Indies, and twice lost his off stump offering no stroke to Courtney Walsh.

Crawley, having followed the same path as Atherton through Manchester Grammar School, Cambridge and Lancashire, was not so long ago touted as Atherton's natural successor as England captain, but he probably only made this tour on a split decision in selection.

His urge to succeed, though, is no less than the hyper-dedicated Ramprakash. Since being identified in Australia as only slightly more mobile in the field than a sumo wrestler, Crawley has shed almost three stones in weight (largely on a coffee and fags diet) and has worked hard to extend his range of shot beyond the on-side bias which made him a comparatively easy batsman for a top-class attack to tie down.

Illingworth would ideally like to play only five specialist batsmen in this series, with Jack Russell at No 6, which would leave no place for either Ramprakash or Crawley. However, as Illy cannot yet quite bring himself to trust his top five to make enough runs, Bloemfontein is a pivotal match for both of them.

The next three days may also go some way towards deciding whether Devon Malcolm's role on this tour will eventually extend to something more meaningful than the team mascot. South African cricket officials are hoping for Malcolm to become an inspirational role model for young blacks, but so far you can almost hear the young blacks saying: "We already know how to pour drinks for white people, so maybe we'll stick to soccer."

There may be something for Malcolm in the Springbok Park pitch, which is generally good for batting but also rewards the quicker bowlers with a bit of bounce, and Allan Donald - who is not playing here - has dented more than a few helmets on his home ground.

First of all, though, the electrical storms having followed the England team here from Johannesburg, the tourists need some harder evidence that Nelson Mandela re-named South Africa the Rainbow Nation for its newly enlightened politics rather than the fact that he spends most of his time wading around in galoshes.

ENGLAND (v Orange Free State, Bloemfontein; three-day game starting today and one-day 50-over game on Sunday): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart (wkt), M R Ramprakash, G P Thorpe, R A Smith, J P Crawley, D G Cork, P J Martin, M C Ilott, R K Illingworth, D E Malcolm.

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