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December 11, 2004
Potchefstroom is a tranquil university town, 75 miles south-west of Johannesburg, and the sort of place that does exactly what it says on the tin. The local river Mooi (meaning "nice" in Afrikaans) is very agreeable thank you, while Sedgars Park, the regional cricket stadium, is a perfectly proportioned oval, with grassy banks all around to allow ample spreading room for the local cricket aficionados.
If the local steakhouses are anything to go by, that room for manoeuvre is an essential factor. This is a town where the portions are "man-size" and the men have accents as thick as cow-hide. But that's not to say that everyone is falling out of their belts as they wander down the street, however. Sport is far too big a factor in the local lifestyle for that, as the town's skyline makes abundantly clear.
There are no dreaming spires to adorn this university. Instead the key landmarks are a selection of towering floodlights, easily visible from the outskirts of town as you roll off the highveld, which mark the local rugby and cricket grounds, as well as the internationally renowned Fanie du Toit athletics academy.
It all seems a million miles from the high-walled hubbub of Jo'burg, with its malls and mayhem and undulating urban layout, and the hour-and-a-half journey between the two venues underlines that difference. Apparently, at any given moment, there is a thunderstorm taking place somewhere on the highveld, but rather like that old philosophical chestnut about the tree falling in the woods, one wonders if there is anyone living out there to witness them.
A smattering of homesteads line the arrow-straight N12 highway, which heads onwards and outwards into the vast, spacious interior of the Free State. Many of these offer the hungry traveller an opportunity to sample some authentic sun-baked biltong, South Africa's brand of beef jerky, but they are so few and far between that you are more likely to come across a lay-by stall selling hub-caps to Johannesburg's dispossessed motorists.
The motoring theme continues at the cricket ground itself. The Sedgars Park wicket is such an unforgiving strip of tarmac that it is known locally as "The Road" by North-West's disgruntled seamers, and the way Andrew Strauss climbed into the bowling on the opening morning of the match suggested that it would be a long hot day in the sun for South Africa A.
Strauss's deeds were greeted with appropriate glee by the small knot of England fans at square leg, the Barmy Army's expeditionary force ahead of the Port Elizabeth Test. Their anticipated influx has alarmed the United Cricket Board, which has been running adverts on the local TV channels, urging their fans to turn out in force for the Tests.
These ads have featured a rowdy England fan being silenced by the administering of a ripe grapefruit from point-blank range, under the slogan: "There are better ways to stop the Barmy Army." There certainly are, although not all of them involve the use of local vocal chords. It remains to be seen how many England fans will be present at Port Elizabeth, following the untimely collapse of the budget airline, Civair, which had been due to ferry them over en masse this week.
Such considerations were a world away at Potchefstroom, however, as the townsfolk dozed in the shade and England's batsmen tested themselves against their first meaningful opposition of the winter. It's been a long, slow build-up to this series, but with temperatures in the middle approaching 37 degrees, the heat is being turned up for England, one notch at a time.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following England throughout their Test series in South Africa.
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Bide your time, put your body behind each delivery, and play with the batsman's mind