Tourists face up to pace

Surrey batsman reflects on a successful Test series that has simplified the selectors' task of choosing the winter party; Derek Pringle says the squad for South Africa must cater for any injuries
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The Independent Online
IT IS 30 years since England's last official expedition to South Africa. Although there has been the small matter of being ex- communicated from international cricket for just over two decades, it was the last time the Springboks - or Proteas as they are now known - lost a series at home.

Their emotional readmission to the world stage has served only to strengthen their resolve. As the world's rugby nations discovered recently, the lean years of isolation have, if anything, given South Africa an even greater appetite for world domination.

It is a daunting prospect, and one that Ray Illingworth and his captain, Michael Atherton, will be acutely aware of when they sit down with their fellow selectors tomorrow to pick the winter's three touring parties, including a World Cup squad of 14 and an England A team to tour Pakistan.

Of all the Test-playing countries, South Africa presents the greatest climatic diversity to touring teams. The First Test, which begins at Centurion Park in Northern Transvaal, is roughly 6,000 feet above sea level, as is Johannesburg, the venue for the second. But by this time both lung-burn and breathlessness should have eased.

The tour then heads for the heat and humidity of Durban before winding its way round the Cape via Port Elizabeth to Newlands in Cape Town with its famous vistas of Table Mountain. The itinerary is curiously kind, however, and leaves England plenty of time to acclimatise.

Infinitely less varied than the ambient conditions will be the pitches, which will either be flat (should South Africa take an early lead in the series) or quick and grassy (should they not). The home side do not have a spinner worthy of the name, and unless they suddenly find one in the more remote regions of the Karoo, their sole bowling strength will stem from the express pace of Allan Donald and Brett Schulz. The seam and swing of Fanie de Villiers, Craig Matthews and Brian McMillan will be there to back them up.

The only problem another series of remorseless pace bowling would bring to England's batsmen is further injury. Presuming that those injured during in the summer will be fit to leave on 18 October, the selectors' biggest problems will be to choose the best back-up.

After a superb summer, five batsmen - Atherton, Stewart, Smith, Thorpe and Hick - pick themselves, but with Stewart's digit having incurred so many breaks that it is close to passing into snooker folklore, one of the other two batting places must go to an opener. That would seem to leave a straight choice between Nick Knight and Jason Gallian. The Warwickshire opener will probably clinch the place, not least because the South African bowlers do not appear to enjoy bowling to left-handers.

The other batting spot will be less easy to fill, though not because of a lack of worthy candidates. Both John Crawley and Mark Ramprakash are having brilliant seasons for their counties, yet neither has really impressed in the Tests this summer. Another player who is enjoying a good year is Nasser Hussain. All are young and potentially brilliant, but despite brief flickers of class, none has been entirely convincing at Test level.

The bowling, too, could attract lengthy discussion once Fraser, Gough, Cork, Malcolm and Illingworth have been inked in. Apart from ensuring that Atherton's mobile phone has his home and away numbers programmed into it, Illingworth's only other insistence has been to play five bowlers. To accommodate this, both Stewart and Craig White have taken on duties of all-rounders, though neither has been able to fashion a starring role from his respective duties.

That means Jack Russell, who batted so well against the West Indies, will keep the gloves, and that Mark Ilott, Mike Watkinson and one of Richard Johnson, Peter Martin, Tim Munton or Andy Caddick should make up the remaining bowling places. Either Alan Wells, or, if not selected for South Africa, John Crawley, should captain an England A side that must include Ronnie Irani, while Neil Fairbrother and Warwickshire's Dermot Reeve and Neil Smith all have a chance of making the World Cup next February.

Probable 16 for South Africa: Atherton, Stewart, Smith, Thorpe, Hick, Cork, Russell, Watkinson, Illingworth, Gough, Fraser, Malcolm, Illot, Knight, Ramprakash, Johnson.