ENGLAND go into today’s warm-up against South Africa A at Potchefstroom with just 12 fit players on the team bus. And the team coach is struggling too.
Andy Flower, the Cape Town-born Zimbabwean batsman in charge of England’s ailing tourists, finds himself under fire from the home side despite having conjured a 1-1 draw from a two-match Twenty20 series dominated by the hosts.
Their coach, Mickey Arthur, covets the England job and has been quick to offer advice. Their captain Graeme Smith has twice battered England’s bowlers after slamming rival Andrew Strauss for snubbing the shortest form of the game and their best batsman, AB De Villiers, has also waded in on Alastair Cook’s decision to give young Yorkshire spinner Adil Rashid just one over in Sunday’s crushing 84-run defeat at Centurion.
With the first of five one-day internationals looming at the intimidating Wanderers bull-ring on Friday, Flower came out fighting today, just like he used to as a tiny but significant batsman for Essex.
He said: “Yes, I’ll be analysing the opposition, but I won't be commenting on them. All I would say is that I have gone through my career as a player, and I will continue to do so as a coach, in as modest a fashion as possible.
"I have been asked repeatedly about some of the comments from the opposition coach. Perhaps their status as No 1 is encouraging them to react differently. But I am very comfortable about where we are as a team and I concentrate all my energies on us as a team.”
As a tactic, it wasn’t a bad way to put the South African trio in their place for speaking out of turn. Flower defended the Rashid decision with some gusto. Rashid only played because senior spinner Graeme Swann was out with a side strain. Swann twittered: “I’m stiff as a board, perhaps I’m getting too old for this,” and Rashid found himself slapped for four sixes and 25 runs before stand-in skipper Cook - later fined for a slow over rate - saw fit to turn to the part-time tweaking of Kevin Pietersen and Joe Denly.
But Flower pointed out: “Adil bowled six balls to two batsmen who were absolutely set. It was a flat wicket, it wasn't turning and it was a small outfield and he got punished in those six balls.
"I know Adil. He's a 22-year-old leg-spinner finding his way. He's very skilful, he's going to be a very good all-rounder. He's been doing some excellent work with Mushtaq Ahmed, our bowling coach. I'm not overly concerned about what happened yesterday. We obviously deal with the individuals in an appropriate way, regardless of comments from the opposition."
Rashid is set to play at Potchefstroom tonight in a side deprived of Swann, Paul Collingwood (back), Stuart Broad (buttock) and their only form bowler, Jimmy Anderson (knee). Asked about his injury problems, Flower laughed: "I'll have to get my note book."
But South Africa’s master-batsman AB de Villiers, hardly needed behind the opening assault delivered by captain Graeme Smith and self-styled “Bazooka” Loots Bosman in the Twenty20s, delivered a veiled joked aimed at the England casualties. With news of England’s injuries leaking, he said: "The likes of Broad and Anderson, they have quite a few good bowlers here.
"But our batters are aware of that, and we've analysed them pretty well. We've also played a lot of games against them in the last two years, so we know all about them and we're going to have to play very well. It's a big challenge for our batters."
De Villiers isn’t to be trifled with. In six Tests leading up to England’s arrival in his country, he has scored a 746 runs at an average of 49,73 with a high of 174. And now he’s looking forward to doing Rashid’s fragile confidence more damage.
He said of the decision to give Rashid six balls on Sunday: "We were actually talking about it when (Joe) Denly came on to bowl.
"I was sitting next to Mickey (Arthur) in the dugout, and he said 'what's going on here. Rashid is a class bowler - why are they bringing on a guy like Denly?'
"That's not mind games. That's just chatting about the opposition. I just think it's bad for a guy's confidence, especially a youngster just coming in, when you bring in a guy like Denly.
"He (Rashid) could have taken a wicket at any time. He's got a lot of talent and he's going to get a lot of wickets in the future."
With Strauss back in charge after the Twenty20s, De Villiers – who will bat at three in the ODIs, said: "He's a class captain. He showed it in the Ashes.
"To handle the last Test match the way he did, he´s obviously very, very good, and it's going to be a great challenge between him and Graeme Smith.
"They're both very strong captains. I've played under Graeme for the last six years and I think he's the best captain in the world at the moment.
"What is going to make the difference between them is the performance - I believe the one who performs better will have a bigger effect on the team."
Asked if he remembered Kevin Pietersen’s ton when he made his debut for South Africa in Bloemfontein in January 2005, De Villiers said simply: "I don't remember much I just remember we won the series 4-1."