England to strive to alter trend of failure

 

If England are to beat South Africa in the final Test they must ignore history and reverse their failure to win a major series since retaining the Ashes in Australia more than a decade ago. If the game is played with the heart and the inches between the ears, then now is the time to demonstrate it. The team psychologist will have been earning his corn this week.

This is England's 15th series of five or more Tests since Mike Gatting's team beat a moderate Australia. It is arguably 30 years, when Colin Cowdrey's side beat Gary Sobers' West Indies, since England last won a series against a team regarded as the best around. South Africa are not the best but they are better than the 1986-87 Australians. To beat them would be a trumpet worth blowing.

Four times in the past eight years England have gone into the final match needing a win to secure a series victory, and every time they have failed. Three of these defeat have been dramatic and humbling, casting serious doubt on the capacity of English cricketers to raise their game when the chips truly were down.

In fact, one has to go back 27 years for the last time victory in the final Test secured a series win in a full Test series, and 43 years to find the last such feat on home soil.

Headingley always promises a good time but these days it is approached by Englishmen as if it were a booby-trapped funfair. New Zealand began a trend in 1983 by winning there and the run has now extended to nine defeats, two draws and only three wins, two of them Gooch-inspired.

Although the pitch was relaid some years ago to try to redress its reputation for unpredictability, cricket here still requires discipline. The conditions are the major factor: if it is sunny, the pitch can be sweet-natured, but let the clouds roll over and it can become a harridan. The word yesterday was that Leeds might be on the borderline between the baking weather predicted for the south and the cloudier north.

Even if the prognosis is for fine weather throughout, however, an all-seam attack could prevail. With the pitch looking relatively grassless and cracked, the chances are that it will keep low towards the end of the match and pace bowlers best exploit that. Only if the pitch is likely to break up, and if Ian Salisbury is trusted to cope with the absolute expectation that would be placed on him, would the leg-spinner play. Alan Mullally would most likely be jettisoned.

South Africa, for their part, have dispensed with Paul Adams and will select two of Makhaya Ntini, Steve Elworthy and the off-spinner Pat Symcox to accompany Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock.

Doland, who yesterday was fined half his match fee of £1,810 and given a one-match suspended ban for criticising umpire Mervyn Kitchen in the fourth Test, has been in inspired form. But Pollock has been disappointing, failing to adjust his length from the requirements of hard wickets abroad. If he gets that right here, he could be a major factor.

The umpiring, the focus for much discontent at Trent Bridge, will be in the hands of Peter Willey, who is certainly not a fellow with whom to tangle, and Javed Akhtar, now the senior Pakistani official, who will be umpiring his first international in England.

England (from): M Atherton, M Butcher, N Hussain, A Stewart, G Hick, M Ramprakash, A Flintoff, D Cork, I Salisbury, D Gough, A Fraser, A Mullally.

South Africa (from): G Kirsten, G Liebenberg, J Kallis, D Cullinan, W Cronje, J Rhodes, S Pollock, M Boucher, S Elworthy, M Ntini, A Donald, P Adams, P L Symcox, B McMillan.