July 23, 2003

More questions than answers

Paul Coupar

Will Nasser Hussain still be leading England in the winter?

Examinations come in many shapes. If Zimbabwe, the weakest tourists since Fred Trueman blitzed the 1959 Indians, were the cricketing equivalent of ten words to learn overnight, the five-match npower series against South Africa will be a much sterner test. Forget about their embarrassing slump to 107 all out in the NatWest series final: South Africa can't beat Australia (who can?) and lost two series convincingly in 2001-02, but leaving those aside, their record is formidable. Since losing 2-1 to England in the summer of 1998 they have lost only three Tests in 43 and have won 14 series from 15.

England have played two Tests already this summer, but begin the five-match series with more questions than answers. Not for the first summer, but almost certainly for the last, one of them concerns Alec Stewart's role in the side. On Tuesday, Stewart announced his intention to retire after the Fifth Test at The Oval. But if the series is decided before then, England's selectors might make a selection decision of the red-in-tooth-and-claw variety, and unveil Stewart's replacement for the final Tests.

Another question mark hangs over Darren Gough. The Edgbaston Test will be his first in 23 months. England are convinced the talent and the Falstaffian spirit are still there: whether his dodgy knee will hold up long enough to allow him to shine as he did in the NatWest series is less certain. But Hussain is prepared to take the risk. On an Edgbaston wicket that looks drier than normal, spinner Ashley Giles looks certain to join Steve Harmison, James Anderson and Gough in the England attack. Traditionally Edgbaston pitches have offered bounce, and James Kirtley's skiddy fast-medium looks likely to be surplus to requirement.

South Africa's team selection is a more complicated jigsaw. Losing Jacques Kallis - at home mourning his father - is like losing a No. 3 batsman and a first-change bowler in one go. Despite Kallis's astounding form - 329 runs at 109.66 in six NatWest series innings - the hole in the batting looks the less worrying of the two. The line-up - with Mark Boucher at No. 7 and Shaun Pollock at 8 - looks solid, even with Boeta Dippenaar or Neil McKenzie replacing Kallis. The bowling, by contrast, looks pedestrian. Pollock remains metronomic but is now a stock rather than strike bowler and only Makhaya Ntini looks like offering a real cutting edge. With Robin Peterson's left-arm spin likely to be included, Monde Zondeki looks favourite to fill the fourth bowling spot. He is quick but raw, with no Test caps. Charl Willoughby is the safety-first option but his left-arm medium-fast is unlikely to have England's batsmen quivering in their sponsored footwear.

By the end of the series, we will have a clearer answer to perhaps the biggest outstanding questions: are England on course to achieve their goal of becoming the world's best side by 2007? And will Nasser Hussain be their captain when they fly to Bangladesh in November?

England (from) 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Michael Vaughan, 3 Mark Butcher, 4 Nasser Hussain (capt), 5 Anthony McGrath, 6 Alec Stewart (wk), 7 Andrew Flintoff, 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Darren Gough, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 James Anderson, 12 James Kirtley.

South Africa (from) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Herschelle Gibbs, 3 Gary Kirsten, 4 Jacques Rudolph, 5 Boeta Dippenaar, 6 Neil McKenzie, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Robin Peterson, 10 Makhaya Ntini, 11 Dewald Pretorious, 12 Monde Zondeki, 13 Charl Willoughby.

Paul Coupar is Assistant Editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.