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England is clear favourite

By Ted Corbett

PORT ELIZABETH, DEC. 16. England begins the five-Test series against South Africa on Friday as clear favourite even though it has lost both its recent away battles against one of the toughest sides in the world.

Since its re-entry into Test cricket after the apartheid era South Africa has only lost at home to Australia and England has not won here since 1964-65.

South Africa can only field a weakened side, rely too heavily on the trumpeting of captain Graeme Smith — "We expect to dominate this series," he says — for inspiration and might even end this series defeated by as wide a margin as 3-0. On top of the defeat in India last month, cricket is not at its best in the republic at the moment.

South Africa's woes

South Africa is hindered by injuries which will keep Herschelle Gibbs out at least until the third Test and the dropping of Mark Boucher, a wicketkeeper no longer, so it seems, welcome in the dressing room. Add to that the lack of pace from Shaun Pollock, the retirement of Allan Donald and the need for young Smith to complete his cricket education and the cracks are as obvious as those in a Pakistani Test pitch.

There is more. This year's decision to reduce the number of provincial sides from 11 to six — only KwaZulu-Natal remains on its own — has been extremely unpopular. The reshuffle means that top-flight cricket has disappeared from the famous ground in the diamond town of Kimberley, that between 70 and 80 cricketers have lost their jobs and that the traditionalists have even more reason to moan than usual.

Add those causes for discontent to the failure to find an adequate replacement for Gibbs and the selectors' insistence that Boucher's place should be taken by the inexperienced 21-year-old black wicketkeeper Thami Tsolekile and the idea of a wager on Smith's men becomes less attractive against one of the strongest England teams since World War II.

Boucher ranked high in the list of the world's fine wicketkeepers; Tsolekile played two Tests during the recent tour of India, took three catches and made 25 runs. Boucher has seven years experience in 76 Tests which have brought 290 victims and a batting average of 30.91, including four centuries; figures bettered only by batsmen-wicket-keepers like Alec Stewart. Tsolekile's selection fits in with the policy on affirmative action, one of the ideals of the Rainbow Nation but from a cricket point of view it makes little sense.

England is led by Duncan Fletcher, a coach who learnt his trade with Western Province. What Fletcher cannot learn about the South African players through observation or his connections will probably not be worth knowing. He has a unique insight into cricket in the Veld.

Record in sight

England needs one more Test win for a record eight in a row; not all under Michael Vaughan since Marcus Trescothick won the first while Vaughan was injured. Mark Butcher is back from injury, but the robust Robert Key waits in reserve after a successful summer and runs blackening the middle of his bat on this tour already.

My own feeling is that Butcher will not last beyond the second Test but he is a bonny fighter who turns poor starts into winning runs as he has proved against both Australia and West Indies in recent times.

Today the pitch was patchy and ugly, looking as if it might be up and down from the start, an advantage for England's pace trio of Steve Harmison, the world's top bowler of the moment, the precise Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff who strives so hard that some think he throws.

Backed by the tyro paceman Simon Jones and the slimmed down spinner Ashley Giles England has a more formidable attack than South Africa's while the top six batsmen ought to outscore the opposition particularly since Jacques Kallis is suffering from an ankle injury which may prevent him bowling and hamper his imperious batting.

That alone is a big loss to any side and it may prove disastrous to this South African team, weaker than at any time in the last dozen years.

The teams:

South Africa (from): Graeme Smith (Capt.), Andrew Hall, A.B. de

Villiers, Jacques Kallis, Boeta Dippenaar, Jacques Rudolph, Hashim Amla, Thami Tsolekile, Zander de Bruyn, Shaun Pollock, Dale Steyne and Makhaya Ntini.

England: Michael Vaughan (Capt.), Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss, Mark Butcher, Graham Thorpe, Andrew Flintoff, Geraint Jones, Ashley Giles, Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones and Steve Harmison.

Umpires: Darrell Hair and Simon Taufel (Aus). TV umpire: Ian

Howell. Match referee: Clive Lloyd.

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