By Peter Deeley at Chelmsford
First day of three: Essex (13-0) trail South Africans (406-5 dec) by 393 runs
SOUTH AFRICA'S uncertainty over the selection of an opening partner for Gary Kirsten for the final Test would appear to be good news for England.
The poor form at that level of Gerhardus Liebenberg has added importance to the tourists' final Vodafone Challenge Series game. Liebenberg has scored only 32 runs in four Test innings and the team originally named for this fixture had Brian McMillan at the top of the order, suggesting that he might be due for his first and only Test appearance of the summer.
But it was Liebenberg who walked out with Kirsten after Essex had put the visitors in to bat. Hansie Cronje, the South African captain, later confirmed that consideration had been given to trying out McMillan here but it was felt that he only had a ``slim chance'' of opening the batting at Headingley and that the occasion could be put to better use by giving Liebenberg a further opportunity.
Liebenberg once again showed his taste for the kind of attacks counties are fielding these days against the tourists. He used the day profitably, scoring a careful 96 in four hours and taking his run total in first-class matches - excluding the Tests - on tour to 569 runs at an average of more than 71.
Little can be learnt from these statistics in relation to Liebenberg's possible Test pedigree, however, when counties persist on putting out weakened sides.
This Essex side contain only four regular first-team men, a disappointing attitude that has been repeated wherever the tourists have gone. It has been the same story in each of their six first-class county contests - despite the imprecation from the England and Wales Cricket Board to provide worthwhile opposition - and on only two occasions have clubs fielded their overseas player.
There is the outside possibility that Mike Rindel, who arrived this week as replacement for the injured Adam Bacher, might step into the breach. He scored a half-century opening in the one-day game here and will be playing a club game this weekend.
When Liebenberg was dismissed four short of his hundred, sweeping at Paul Grayson and firing a top edge to fine leg, McMillan eventually reached the crease in mid-afternoon.
He hardly looked the part of a top-order batsman, let alone opener, which may be partly due to the fact that his talents have been under-utilised on this trip. McMillan scratched his way to 29 in 85 minutes and was leg-before offering no shot to Danny Wilson when the second new ball was taken.
He left without emotion, unlike Daryll Cullinan, who was out in exactly the same way to Mark Ilott. Cullinan showed a marked reluctance to depart, perhaps feeling there were still many more runs for the taking than the 157 he had already scored.
Animal life on the nearby River Can could paddle in safety with his departure. Cullinan smote Peter Such into the river for a six which plunged into the water, narrowly missing a mother duck and her brood.
It was the second time Cullinan had almost scored a duck in the day. Before opening his account, he edged Neil Williams to second slip but Grayson put down a straightforward chance.
After Kirsten was bowled by Ronnie Irani trying to drive through midwicket, Cullinan and Liebenberg put on 217 in 200 minutes.
Day 3: Cronje plans to keep faith with S Africa
By Peter Deeley at Chelmsford
Third day of three: S Africans (406-5dec and 27-0) drew with Essex (215)
DESPITE South Africa's Trent Bridge defeat, their captain, Hansie Cronje, promised last night there would be ``no drastic changes'' for the final Test against England at Headingley on Thursday.
``We will not be panicking just because we lost one game,'' he said. ``The team was disappointed not only because of Nottingham but about the failure to win in Manchester, but we have put all that behind us.
``We are not here just to draw a series so we will be going for a win at Leeds. The possibility of a result will depend on the attitude of the teams. If that is similar to Trent Bridge then there will be a win - for someone.''
Cronje believes the overhead conditions at Leeds will ``play a big part in deciding the outcome.'' He indicated that the tourists will probably go in with four seam bowlers, suggesting a return for Makhaya Ntini, and that a fifth place might go to another seamer or a spinner - Pat Symcox rather than Paul Adams after his showing in this match.
What emerged from this game, in which one day's play was lost to rain, was that Gerry Liebenberg is likely to retain his place at the top of the order despite his poor form in three Tests.
Nor is Brian McMillan likely to be a contender for a place since he was given only four overs. Cronje's explanation for this was that it was ``difficult'' to give everyone a bowl. But he was pleased Shaun Pollock looked to have found his rhythm.
The game got under way after lunch only with the assistance of the fire brigade, who pumped water from the outfield into a nearby river.
Essex took umbrage at the suggestion they fielded a side comprising only four regular first-teamers. They produced a sick-list, which revealed that captain Paul Prichard ``spent two hours with his still injured leg in an oxygen tent.''
After Bob Woolmer's comments about what he called ``a series of poor decisions'' at Trent Bridge, it was Allan Donald's turn yesterday to speculate on what might have been in the fourth Test. The fast bowler, rested here, said umpire Merv Kitchen had ``a couple of shockers that affected the course of the Test. He seemed very much under pressure to me, like we all are, and I suppose there comes a time when you decide you have had enough.''
Donald went for a check-up while in Chelmsford to test acid levels after first suffering gout two years ago. Although the results are not yet known, he appears to have no concerns.