South Africa A v England XI, Potchefstroom December 10, 2004

Butcher steals Key's thunder

Mark Butcher: up against the A team © Getty Images

After four days of unrepentantly gloomy conditions in Johannesburg, the sun finally shone on England's cricketers as they arrived in Potchefstroom ahead of tomorrow's three-day warm-up match against South Africa A. And the man with the sunniest disposition of all was Mark Butcher. He endured an injury-plagued home summer, but is all set to reclaim his No. 3 berth for next week's first Test at Port Elizabeth, after being named in a Test-strength XI ahead of his understudy, Robert Key.

In truth, it was a no-brainer of a decision for the England management. There is no substitute for experience, and until a series of freak injuries last summer, including a car-crash and a mishap with a cardboard box, Butcher had been one of England's most consistent performers over the course of three years and 42 consecutive matches. "It was injury that kept Butcher out of the side, not a lack of form," explained Duncan Fletcher, at a press briefing in Johannesburg, "so he's got to have some credit in the bank."

Though Key grabbed his opportunity against West Indies last summer, with a double-century at Lord's and a matchwinning 93 not out at Old Trafford, he had long been resigned to a place on the bench, even after top-scoring with a slap-happy 87 at Randjesfontein on Wednesday. As Fletcher explained, it is rare for South Africa's confidence to be as shaky as it currently is, and so the onus is on England to hit them as hard as possible come next Friday.

For that reason, the raw pace of Simon Jones has once again been preferred to the mercurial talents of James Anderson, who made a rare appearance in the Test side at The Oval last summer, but is now nursing a slight side strain and remains very much the fifth member of England's seam attack.

Jones, on the other hand, is hovering at something close to his best form according to his coach, and is ready to tear in against South Africa A. "Simon's lines and lengths were outstanding in Zimbabwe," enthused Fletcher, "although it was important that he held back and didn't go at it too quickly. But now that his confidence levels are up, it's time for him to up the pace as well."

If it appears that England are peaking at precisely the right time, the same cannot be said of their opponents. Defeats, disputes and dismissals have dogged the South African build-up to this series, although Fletcher fully expects their A team to provide proud and tenacious opposition over the next three days. "There are a few players in that side who want to prove a point," he warned, "and if they want to play for South Africa, they are bound to be determined opposition."

Few men will have more of a point to prove than South Africa's deposed wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher. After 75 consecutive Tests, he was deemed surplus to requirements for the recent tour of India, and though widely tipped for a recall at Port Elizabeth, he was again omitted in favour of Thami Tsolekile. It was a contentious boardroom issue that cost Omar Henry his job as convenor of selectors, and earned the coach Ray Jennings a rap over the knuckles from the board chairman, Gerald Majola.

"With his record against us, we certainly rate Boucher," admitted Fletcher, "although if South Africa's selectors believe Tsolekile to be even better, then we certainly can't afford to be complacent."

For the second match running, England's opponents will be led by Ashwell Prince. He takes over the reins from the injured HD Ackerman, who was recently sacked as captain of South Africa's provincial side, Highveld Lions, in a team that also includes the talented 20-year-old strokemaker, JP Duminy, and the opening batsman, Andrew Puttick, who was Herschelle Gibbs's replacement in Sri Lanka earlier this year.

But whoever the opposition, England's attack is fully focussed and ready to hit top gear over the coming three days. "It's all about building momentum," added Fletcher. "[Steve] Harmison looked pretty effective in the Oppenheimer match, and it will just take two or three sessions in this game, and they'll be ready for Port Elizabeth."

England 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Mark Butcher, 4 Michael Vaughan (capt), 5 Graham Thorpe, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Simon Jones, 10 Matthew Hoggard, 11 Steve Harmison.

South Africa A 1 Andrew Puttick, 2 Martin van Jaarsveld, 3 Ashwell Prince (capt), 4 JP Duminy, 5 Justin Ontong, 6 Mark Boucher (wk), 7 Albie Morkel, 8 Alfonso Thomas, 9 Charl Langeveldt, 10 Ethy Mbhalati, 11 Charl Willoughby.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo