Smith's ambition threatened by chinaman

Martin Johnson reports from Kimberley on the mood in the England camp on the eve of their final pre-Test warm-up
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England's final warm-up game before next week's opening Test in Pretoria gets under way here today. And for one member of the touring party at least, scoring runs against South Africa A would represent the biggest relief in this part of the world since Mafeking.

Robin Smith has long nursed a burning ambition to play Test cricket in the country of his birth, but unless he makes a decent score here, his tour could well disappear into the equivalent of Kimberley's most notable landmark, a derelict diamond mine known as The Great Hole.

In Afrikaans, this translates into "die Groote Gatt", although after a sightseeing trip there on Wednesday, England's players remain as unconvinced that it is anything like large enough to be named after the Middlesex captain as the selectors will be about picking Smith ahead of John Crawley unless the Durban-born batsman gets himself back into form over the next four days.

South Africa's A side represents comfortably the strongest opposition England have faced thus far, and when Smith propped up the Diamond Fields Advertiser over his morning Cornflakes yesterday, he was not amused to find himself reading that an 18-year-old wrist spinner is about to have him for breakfast.

Smith's preference for quicker bowling, notwithstanding the fractured cheekbone he sustained against Ian Bishop last summer, is well known, and he now finds his Test place under threat from an 18-year-old left- arm chinaman bowler from Western Province with a whirring action that has been likened to a cross between a discus thrower and a frog in a food- mixer.

Paul Adams described himself as "stunned" by his selection for this game, but his confidence will certainly not have been harmed by taking an aggregate 8 for 190 in 60 overs in WP's Castle Cup victory over Northern Transvaal earlier this week, and he will not be left waiting for a bowl any longer than it takes for Smith to emerge from the pavilion.

Smith, however, like the rest of England's batsmen, will be encouraged by the prospect of the first pitch of any pace they have so far encountered on tour. The theory that the South Africans have deliberately been preparing pitches with the consistency of a fresh cow-pat is not subscribed to by Raymond Illingworth, who reserves all his suspicions of a conspiracy for South African hotels.

As a long-time winter resident in Torremolinos, the England chairman has not heard so much banging and drilling since the early days of Spanish package holidays, although it would be a rare noise indeed to drown out Raymond when proffering his opinion on various matters, whether confronting a hotel manager or a reporter's notebook.

When it comes to Illingworth making remarks of a less than complimentary nature, there has not been much to choose between South African hotels and Devon Malcolm, and Smith is not the only England player regarded as a certainty before the tour began to find himself playing for his place in this match.

In the recent list of England chairmen, Peter May tried hard to say nothing at all, Ted Dexter was prone to lapse into riddles, while Illingworth's preference for saying precisely what he thinks without pausing to consider the consequences means that the area between cranium and larynx can fairly be described as the Pudsey By-Pass.

If the bag carried by the team doctors contains a phial of smelling salts, it is a fair bet that Malcolm was reaching for them on Tuesday when Illingworth paid him a rare compliment, but with the chairman now having given up on the amusing notion that he could turn Malcolm into a model of line and length, Malcolm will have to do something more than an adequate performance in this game to secure his place in Pretoria next Thursday.

So far he has bowled only 24 overs in South Africa, and his only wicket came in the equivalent of Arundel's cucumber sandwiches' match against Nicky Oppenheimer's XI. Derogatory comments from the management have probably had the opposite effect on Malcolm's morale to the one intended, and Malcolm's best bet over the next four days may be to imagine that he is bowling to a helmetless Illingworth.

Otherwise, morale is generally sound, and the second honeymoon between Illingworth and Michael Atherton now extends to partnering each other over the bridge table. This, of course, will last just as long as Atherton does not go four down in three no-trumps with Raymond's rand on the table, and there is also the usual cautionary note that England's morale on overseas tours rarely survives the opening Test match.

England are not quite fielding their putative Test side here given that Dominic Cork is taking the game off - Cork's form being regarded as good enough to allow England to look at all their remaining pace bowling alternatives before the opening Test.

Malcolm's Test selection has, on this of all tours, a good deal more hanging on it than a mere game of cricket. Described by Nelson Mandela as the "destroyer" early on the tour, and a role model for thousands of black youngsters, the sight of Malcolm pouring the drinks for his fairer- skinned team-mates will not do much for township development over here.

Photograph, page 31