THERE ARE reasons - more than might have been expected - to imagine that England's cause in South Africa this winter is far from being hopeless. Considering that the last time they appeared in a Test match this was a heady category into which only their mothers might have elevated them, optimism ought still to be restrained.
Indeed, those taken with the idea that their progress both spiritually and physically so far in South Africa has made England a well-drilled unit had their ardour considerably dampened at Centurion Park yesterday afternoon. A good start was thrown away in a few minutes of ill-discipline against bowling that would not have been out of place in happy hour down the local. It marred, if it did not entirely spoil, a happy evolution on this trip, geared to priming a new side for Test cricket.
When England were overwhelmed by New Zealand on that August afternoon at The Oval, Nasser Hussain stood on the balcony and pronounced himself proud of his players. As his side's resistance had fallen somewhere between abject and non-existent, it seemed the action of a general handing out medals to deserters.
Hussain was perhaps misguided, or had his judgement clouded by defeat, but it demonstrated his passion for his team. That element of his promising leadership was again handsomely apparent as he spoke about England's prospects for the Test series which begins at the Wanderers ground in Johannesburg on Thursday.
He adopted a more realistic stance which paid respect to the achievement of the opposition, who have won nine consecutive Tests and resemble a Manx cat in having no tail, but he also lent a balanced view of the England team, which is not always prominent in the observations made by their more strident critics.
"We will stand up and be counted," he said. "If they look us in the eye we will be looking straight back. We will not be shying away." The body language in the first session, he thought, would dictate to an enormous degree what ensued. If England were among them with bat or ball the South Africans would know they had the kind of battle on their hands that has marked all three rubbers between the sides since the end of the republic's isolation.
If England were to be judged only by their previous achievements, which have been conspicuous by their complete absence, the bookmakers' clinical odds of 8-1 England, 2-9 South Africa and 9-2 a drawn series, would be fair. But there is a mood in the England camp, provoked by Hussain and the new coach, Duncan Fletcher, which, for the moment at least has injected a renewed measure of self- belief and, quite as importantly, self-esteem.
The new faces have helped to fashion this. In addition, the old sweats, if they may be so termed since men like Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart look as cool as cucumbers, have responded with smiling, indulgent enthusiasm. Atherton is in princely form, seemingly pacing his path to Johannesburg and beyond, each of his finely tuned runs another step along the way to his return to the Wanderers where he made his inestimable 185 not out in 1995. Any worries about Stewart's batting are probably not shared by the fellow himself.
When England lost their opening friendly match on this tour, a game which was supposed almost an exhibition, there were the usual knowing hoots of derision, which doubtless found echoes as wickets tumbled yesterday. …