Tide and time turn against England

FIRST TEST: Russell frustrates South Africa after Hick's long vigil but elements conspire to lengthen odds on victory for tourists
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reports from Pretoria

England 381-9 v South Africa

In the space of about 15 minutes yesterday, Centurion Park went from 6,000 feet above sea level to (at least in appearance) something like 6,000 feet below it. Maybe it is a trick of the memory, but it rarely seems to rain when England need it to, and this was one of those comparatively rare occasions when they most certainly did not.

After an electrical storm of frightening intensity yesterday afternoon, the sun will have to be up early this morning for the umpires not to be making their pitch inspection from a glass-bottomed boat, and England - decent position though they are in - cannot afford to lose any more time than yesterday's washed-out final session in the first Test.

This pitch is far too slow to make batting uncomfortable against anything other than the new ball, and some of England's batting yesterday, in contrast to Thursday's uplifting counter-attack, would have had some of the more senior South African spectators reminiscing about the timeless Test in Durban in 1938.

Resuming at 221 for 4, it was important for England to dig in for a while against the second new ball, but it was bit much for Graeme Hick to potter around for a further two hours and 35 minutes in adding 36 runs in 39 overs to his overnight 105.

Hick is a puzzling character, in that no one really knows what he is thinking, and there are times, one suspects, when he cannot have too much of a clue either. Having come close to demoralising the South African attack on Thursday, he batted yesterday as though he had celebrated with several pints of liquid valium.

It was certainly no thanks to Hick that the electronic scoreboard blew its fuses during the morning session, when it was able only to transmit the information that England were playing South Africa. Ordinarily this would not have been regarded as a piece of essential information but, with Hick and Robin Smith at the crease, some spectators would probably have needed reminding.

Smith was a good deal more aggressive than Hick (his first scoring shot was a square slash for six over gully off Shaun Pollock) but Pollock's riposte brought back nasty reminders of Smith's cheekbone injury whilefacing Ian Bishop last summer.

Having been told that another blow around the left eye socket might blind him, Smith added a grille to his helmet, and just as well that he did. Pollock hit (or would have done without the grille) the identical spot, and for perhaps the first time in his career, Smith might have preferred to be facing a spinner.

In a comparatively short career, Pollock has acquired a reputation for hitting more batsmen than even Allan Donald, and if he is to replace Donald at Edgbaston as Warwickshire's overseas professional next summer, many opposition batsmen will doubtless be earmarking the champions as the ideal fixture to start feeling a twinge from the hamstring.

Smith certainly gave the impression yesterday that he was happier facing Donald than Pollock, especially when hitting the senior bowler out of the attack with three rasping fours in four balls, although Donald did have the bad luck to see Brian McMillan miss a sharp overhead chance at slip when Hick was on 125.

When Smith was comprehensively bowled by McMillan shortly before lunch, Hick really ought to have taken charge, but instead he appeared happy enough (in the time before he was out leg before, playing across the line to a straight ball from Pollock) to leave this to Jack Russell.

Russell, having been abandoned by England for 14 Test matches in 14 months, made something of a point about his batting with his 91 against the West Indies in the final Test of the summer at The Oval, and on this tour he has looked in better form than most of the specialist batsmen. His value to the side is even more pronounced for the fact that in addition to scoring runs, he gets right up the opposition's nose.

His batting style is so frustrating - all shovels and deflections - that bowlers lose direction with everything bar the bad language. Russell's method of leaving the ball alone also involves what appears to be a stroke, and anyone not directly behind the arm would imagine themselves to be watching a total incompetent.

However, with England not getting anything like the runs they were expecting from the likes of Cork, Gough and Illingworth (Gough looking awful in an unwise attempt to curb his natural aggression) Russell's 50 not out was crucial to England's cause.

n Umpire Cyril Mitchley later revealed why he halted play. "I've never stopped play before because of the threat of lightning, but I have lost two friends to lightning strikes. One of them was killed while playing in a local league cricket match," he said. "I acted under Law 43 [which is non-existent] - common sense."

Australia's mixed day, page 28