reports from East London
Only eight days' first-class cricket separate England from the first Test and now the major players must start to hit the right notes. Yet Devon Malcolm, a proven if inconsistent match-winner, has made such a wretched start that he might now have only a peripheral interest in this tour.
Malcolm cut a solitary figure at nets yesterday, bowling on his own with no help or even encouragement from the management. He has been left out of the match starting against Border at their Buffalo Park ground here today, while Peter Martin, who has a broken right ring finger, will play.
Robin Smith is another whose early-tour form has caused concern, yet he is certain to be in the XI for the Test match. Smith is a curious contradiction. His brutal power with the bat suggests unlimited self-belief, yet in reality he is a man whose head churns round like a washing machine full of thoughts, theories and doubts.
He once wrote a book on the psychology of batting and is constantly searching for the mental equilibrium that will bring him even more runs for his adopted country. Now he thinks he might have found it. Smith has been consulting the hypnotist Paul McKenna who has also worked with the boxer Nigel Benn. McKenna has helped the Hampshire batsman to relax.
Smith explains: "My anxiety level has reduced, while my focus and concentration have improved. It has been absolutely brilliant. When I was out of Test cricket for nine months before being recalled this summer, I wondered if I had lost the big-match temperament. I was advised Paul might be able to help.
"I have had three or four sessions with him. He puts me into an hypnotic state. I'm not a zombie, but it allows him to talk to the subconscious half of my brain. As cricketers, we spend hours practising batting, bowling and fielding, but neglect the mental side - which I reckon is at least 50 per cent of being a successful sportsman.
Smith uses the word "focus" a lot and says he is focused more on his batting because he has cut down on his non-cricketing activities. Keith Fletcher, when he was England manager, once criticised Smith for allowing himself to be distracted by commercial ventures. Smith now acknowledges this was the case and believes 500 runs in the series is a realistic personal target.
A total of 49 runs in four innings is hardly the start he wanted, but Smith is happy with the way he has been batting in the nets. He is struggling to find his timing on the slow pitches in the matches, though, and was not pleased when told the East London track is regarded as the most funereal in South Africa. However, it might also draw the sting from Makhaya Ntini, just 18 and making his debut but one of the fastest young bowlers in this country.
ENGLAND: A J Stewart (capt), J P Crawley, M R Ramprakash, G P Thorpe, R A Smith, G A Hick, R C Russell (wkt), D G Cork, D Gough, R K Illingworth, P J Martin.
BORDER: P J Botha, F J C Cronje, P N Kirsten (capt), D J Cullinan, P C Strydom, S C Pope, S J Palframan (wkt), I L Howell, B C Fourie, P A N Emslie, M Ntini.