Smith's failure worries England

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Cricket

JAMES ALEXANDER

reports from East London

England 218-4 v Border

The contrasting fortunes of three of England's batsmen were further emphasised here yesterday. Mark Ramprakash and John Crawley made runs and generally looked the part, while Robin Smith was out, third ball, for nought. He has scored just four runs in three first-class innings and Smith knows only too well it can be difficult for batsmen to emerge from troughs of poor form on tour. England want Smith in nick and in the side, but the dye is often cast in the opening month.

The liaison between Ramprakash and Crawley was seen by some as a head- to-head contest for the No 3 batting position. In reality, though, Ramprakash is comfortably ahead in that particular duel and Crawley's most realistic target is Smith's place. Ramprakash's innings was the more pleasing of the two. His half-century occupied 63 balls, exactly half that of Crawley, and his driving was elegant and effective. Ramprakash entered this tour on the back of a mighty sequence of scoring and everything points to his being able to maintain that form. After registering a pair in the second Test at Lord's and being dropped, Ramprakash piled up nine centuries including three doubles in 15 first-class innings. His scores have been 48, 89 not out and now 70 before driving to cover.

After heavy overnight rain had wiped out the pre-lunch session and Alec Stewart clipped a catch to midwicket, Ramprakash and Crawley put on 120 in 33 overs for the second wicket. However well they played - and they experienced few alarms - this must be put in perspective. The attack was undemanding and the pitch slow and low, quite a contrast from the expected lively surface for the first Test at Centurion Park in a fortnight. Ray Illingworth is unhappy England have played all their games on pitches which provide no sort of preparation for facing Allan Donald and his chums.

When Crawley was promoted to open the innings in Adelaide last winter, he made nought in each innings. His method now is to try to eliminate all errors, which does not make for exhilarating viewing. Crawley's 85 at Soweto occupied more than six hours, now he took 69 overs to make 87 not out. It would have been more if was as adept at piercing the offside field as he was the leg side.

Smith's runs, or lack of them, is now England's major concern. He shuffled half-forward and was lbw. Scores of 4, 0 and 0 - plus 12 and 33 in the one-day warm-ups - constitute a mini crisis for the highest-scoring international batsman in the party. Smith can consult television hypnotists and convince himself his mind is strong all he likes, but a pragmatist such as Illingworth is concerned only with runs in the book. If we can assume Ramprakash will bat at three, Crawley or Smith will perhaps be the most keenly debated batting choice.

Graeme Hick, after getting off the mark with a couple of resounding pulls, attempted a cut and was caught behind off the bottom edge. Meanwhile, Graham Thorpe, due to play in this match, has returned home to be with his wife, who has had to have an operation because of an ectopic pregnancy. Thorpe is expected to rejoin the squad next week.

(First day of four; England won toss)

ENGLAND - First Innings

J P Crawley not out 87

*A J Stewart c Kirsten b Ntini 11

M R Ramprakash c Cullinan b Fourie 70

R A Smith lbw b Fourie 0

G A Hick c Palframan b Cronje 18

R C Russell not out 16

Extras (lb4, w2, nb10) 16

Total (for 4, 69 overs) 218

Fall: 1-23, 2-143, 3-145, 4-184.

To Bat: D G Cork, D Gough, M C Ilott, R K Illingworth, P J Martin.

Bowling: Fourie 16-6-30-2; Ntini 19-2-58-1; Botha 9-0-29-0; Emslie 5- 0-31-0; Howell 8-0-33-0; Cronje 8-1-18-1; Pope 3-0-15-0; Strydom 1-1-0-0.

BORDER: P J Botha, F J C Cronje, P N Kirsten*, D J Cullinan, P C Strydom, S C Pope, S J Palframan, I L Howell, B C Fourie, P A N Emslie, M Ntini.

Umpires: D Orchard and R Noble.

n Curtly Ambrose, the West Indies pace bowler, has agreed a one-year contract to become Northamptonshire's overseas player next summer. Ambrose returns for a sixth season after being replaced by Anil Kumble last summer while he toured England with the West Indies.

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