Natal struggle on rain-marred first day

Durban: Natal battled to 136 for five on a rain-marred first day of their four-day match against the English tourists at Kingsmead on Friday, with John Kent and Ross Veenstra keeping them afloat when play was called off at 3.30 pm.

With rain delaying the start of play by an hour and Natal fielding an under-strength side, the few fans that braved a murky Kingsmead did not have much to enthuse about. The highlight of the day was the 74-run fourth-wicket partnership either side of lunch between captain and Test hopeful Dale Benkenstein and the highly promising former SA under-19 star, Kent.

With Andy Caddick producing the same quality bowling that went cruelly unrewarded in the first Test, England were always in control, although the stand between Benkenstein and Kent, which came off just 124 balls, threatened to change that.

Benkenstein, after a shaky start, had gone fluently to 45 before the erratic Alex Tudor won an lbw decision from umpire Wilf Diedericks when he cut a short delivery back into the home captain's pads. It was left to the 20-year-old Kent to soldier on to the close, reaching his 50 two balls before an early tea, from which the players never returned, was taken.

After electing to bat first, Natal had earlier had their top-order blown away in the first nine overs with just 23 runs on the board. Mark Bruyns and Doug Watson, such a successful opening partnership this season, were separated in Caddick's second over, the in-form Bruyns's defensive stroke sending a steep lifter from Caddick to third slip.

Ahmed Amla (4) lasted just seven balls before he edged Tudor to first slip and Caddick then removed Watson (12), shouldering arms on length, to go into lunch with the excellent figures of two for five from seven overs.

Benkenstein and Kent took Natal into the break on 44 for three and the hour after lunch saw the elegant pairing on top. With the pitch offering bounce and pace, the England bowlers tended to overdo the short-pitched delivery and Benkenstein capitalised by pulling and hooking very well, his innings including seven fours.

After the captain's dismissal, Caddick returned to the attack and had young Hashim Amla caught low at second slip, giving the tall paceman the day's best figures of three for 25 from 16 quality overs.

Kent, who drove handsomely, and Veenstra had added 26 before the close, but with wicketkeeper Duncan Brown and spinner Kevin Pietersen, both playing their first four-day games for Natal A, all that is left in terms of reasonable batting skill, they will need to extend that by some way on Saturday if they are to prevent England from celebrating a successful warm-up for next week's second Test.

Natal have omitted inexperienced paceman Jomo Mbili from their starting line-up in favour of wrist-spinner Goolam Bodi, leaving their seam attack rather thin and no doubt influencing Benkenstein's decision to bat first when overhead conditions certainly favoured the bowlers.

Even though the first day was limited to just 50 overs, this imbalanced Natal team already find themselves with their backs to the wall.

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