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Sluggish wicket England’s hope

England spent Friday afternoon cruising the Shamwari game reserve 50 miles outside Port Elizabeth. But if they went to see Africa’s big five of lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino, they would surely swap the experience for an even briefer glimpse of Australia’s top five of Gilchrist, Hayden, Ponting, Martyn and Lehmann on Sunday when the teams meet in what is almost certainly a win or bust situation for Nasser Hussain.

If it is bust for the England captain, it will almost certainly be his last one-day match for his country. He should be joined by Alec Stewart, though the wicketkeeper, 40 in April, will probably not go of his own accord.

Meanwhile, Nick Knight, suffering from a ganglion on his left knee, will play his 100th one-day International, a milestone that will no doubt be celebrated in some style should England win.

Hussain, who is having a lean trot at present, has brought tenacity and pride to the job but when you have not seen your own bed for 135 nights — longer if England get through to the Super Sixes — you begin to question the sanity of it all.

Next year, those England players good enough to be involved in both forms of the game will play 16 Tests and 23 one-day Internationals. Such a workload is madness and will reduce the quality and the length of a player’s career. Unless the authorities running the game are careful, cricket will become little more than visual wallpaper to fill vacant television airtime.

Sunday’s game is not the least bit decorative, at least not for England. They last beat Australia in Sydney four years and 13 matches ago, and judging from the form shown by Ricky Ponting’s side out here, the latest being Glenn McGrath’s World Cup record of seven for 15 against Namibia, there is not much to suggest it will be any different this time.

“We’ve got steadily better and better against them as the winter has progressed,” the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, said Friday. “You always worry when it becomes a vital game to win, but I am a great believer that something has to turn — I only hope it is here.”

Australia’s monopoly, but for the demon seed of non-believing that infests England teams Down Under, should have twice been ended during the recent VB series there. That failure has not, however, prevented two reconstructed Aussies, Mark Taylor and Ian Healy, from touting the theory — somewhat optimistic — that England’s winter in Australia had hardened them to the point where everyone else would seem easy meat. Unfortunately, India destroyed the hypothesis at a stroke.

A day game, the toss should not be crucial as in their last two matches under lights, though the wicket looks slow and cracked enough to suggest bounce could be variable. Fletcher believes a sluggish surface may just suit England more than Australia, whose players are used to faster pitches.

“The St George’s pitch is unique to South Africa,” Fletcher said. “This is a Boland-style pitch (a dry area of Cape Province towards the Karoo) which can be slow and low and it may not suit them if the ball doesn’t come on.”

The coach might also have mentioned that Brett Lee could also be nullified. But while he is right to find positives, he will also be aware that England were twice beaten recently on turgid Sydney pitches by Australia A and New South Wales.

If it is slow, taking pace off the ball, as Namibia did here with spin and slow-medium pacers, will be vital in keeping run-rates down. Judging from the amount of sweep shots being practised by England’s batsmen in the nets on Friday morning, they are clearly expecting to get 20 overs of spin from Brad Hogg and Darren Lehmann; maybe more, if Andrew Symonds is called upon to tweak his off-breaks.

England could play two spinners as well, with Ashley Giles returning for Ronnie Irani and Ian Blackwell, who bowled well in Australia, coming in for Craig White, who is again troubled by his side. White had a cortisone jab on Thursday and did little at Friday’s nets. Cortisone needs 48 hours to be effective and providing the needle hit the spot, Fletcher reckons to have a full complement to choose from.

Apart from Knight, who ran himself out so wastefully against India, Fletcher will be hoping Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan play a major innings, something neither has done in one-day cricket for a while.

“Marcus has made a few adjustments to his game, something I felt he might get caught on,” Fletcher said. “But it’s difficult to change things when important cricket is going on and while he had been batting so well.”

While Trescothick’s problems linger, Vaughan’s inability to dominate could be down to nothing more than the frustration of being a world-class Test player, but a relative novice when it comes to the one-day game. “Give him another 10-15 games and he’ll be a world-class one-day player as well,” Fletcher said.

Unfortunately for Vaughan and his teammates the champagne moments have to be now, against a team who have been their nemesis too often.

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