Cricket Expert & Columnist
No time to be timid
Mike Atherton urges England to be bullish at the Wanderers if they want to seal a series win over South Africa.
Last Updated: 13/01/10 9:06am
It's fitting that one of the great amphitheatres of world cricket should stage the final act of this Basil D'Oliveira Trophy.
Centurion and Cape Town provided fights to the finish but having survived both and cut a swathe through South Africa in Durban, England know this is a series they cannot lose.
So the hosts have it all to do and if the imposing, high stands at the Wanderers are full there should be a terrific atmosphere in the 'Bullring'.
This is a venue that generally produces quite interesting cricket; the pitch has pace, bounce and carry and swing bowlers tend to do well here thanks to the thundery, humid conditions that often emerge throughout the afternoon.
Just ask Matthew Hoggard, whose 12-wicket return inspired England to a series-winning 77-run victory here on the 2004/05 tour.
As I write, it's raining here for the first time in a couple of days following an unusually wet December.
Despite that, the pitch didn't look any different from a typical Johannesburg strip when I went out in the middle. There is quite a lot of grass on it but that grass is rolled in.
Much has been written about South Africa's intention to prepare a result pitch but that's been overplayed in my view. Of far more interest are the overhead conditions.
If it's bright and sunny this pitch will be nice to bat on, if it's cloudy and overcast the ball should zip around much as it did on my last tour here in 1999/2000 when we collapsed to 2-4.
This England team is probably not as good as the side that won in South Africa in 2004/05, principally because the current attack lacks the pace and potency provided by Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff.
Moreover, it's hard to argue that England have been the better team this time around. South Africa have had the better of two Tests to England's one but they have been guilty of failing to take their chances.
By contrast, England have done well to hang on and their 1-0 lead is as much a tribute to their ability to tough out a result as it is to seize an opportunity.
Should Andrew Strauss' side leave these shores having won both the one-day and the Test series it will be a significant achievement and a splendid platform for this winter's Ashes given that when they arrived in November South Africa were the No 1 ranked side in both formats.
Given that they are 1-0 ahead and the players who were most under pressure (Ian Bell, Alastair Cook) are scoring runs, I don't expect England to change their side for the final Test.
Friedel de Wet's back injury means South Africa have to make at least one change but the inclusion of debutant Wayne Parnell will not weaken them much.
Left-armer Parnell is a pretty decent replacement because he offers a variety of angle with the ball and is handy with the bat; the downside for South Africa is that his follow-through marks will be perfect for Graeme Swann to bowl into.
The week-long gap between Tests has allowed both sets of players three days off before getting stuck back into training, a period that must have benefitted South Africa.
Had there just been two or three days between the draining draw at Cape Town and the start of this Test I think South Africa would have found it tough, physically and mentally, to get themselves up again.
Now the squad should be refreshed and focused on the task in hand - although I wonder if that's completely true for Paul Harris and Ashwell Prince.
I don't think the selectors will leave Harris out for this one (even if I'm sure they've had a quick think about it) but you could argue that the whole episode surrounding Imran Tahir's inclusion and subsequent withdrawal from South Africa's squad for the upcoming tour of India could have an undermining effect on the spinner.
This issue also suggests that South Africa are not the most organised set-up off the field. To be unsure if a player is qualified or not to play for your country smacks of more than a little incompetence to me.
As for Prince, well he is struggling. He's short of confidence and is a real worry at the top of the order, where he doesn't look like a natural opening batsman.
England feel they've got the wood on him, that this is an area they can exploit; if Prince does get through the new ball, then Graeme Swann is lying in wait and looks all over him too.
Nor did Prince cover himself in glory in the third Test when he called for a review despite being absolutely plumb to Swann in the second innings.
But, just to reassure Lancashire fans that the county hasn't got a duff buy for 2010, Prince is still a pretty good player! How South Africa need him to show it from Thursday.