IT has taken 31 years - longer even than President Nelson Mandela's imprisonment - and cut coldly through several generations of Test-calibre cricketers. And the glaring gap in Wisden's 'England in South Africa' Test history section is illustrated by the fact that Warwickshire all-rounder Neil Smith is on the tourists' standby list for the one-day part of their adrenalin-awakening 1995-96 tour - it was his father, M. J. K. (Mike) Smith who led the last official visit in 1964-65. Since then, with South Africa's minority government the party-spoiler until its extinction last year, all sorts of intriguing duels on the sub-continent's soil have been sacrificed. It is the stuff only, alas, of our imaginations . . . picture the early '70s: a fresh-faced Clive Rice and maybe that expert partnership-breaker, Eddie Barlow, trying to dislodge a stubborn John Edrich and Dennis Amiss at Newlands . . . 1980: Packer World Series sensation Garth Le Roux testing truculent upstart Ian Botham against the bouncer at the Wanderers 'bullring' . . . the early '80s: spin's wise old shepherds Phil Edmonds and John Emburey engaged in a patience-testing duel with strokeplayers Peter Pollock and Kenny McEwan on a St George's Park turner . . . Yet the time is now; a sad chapter closed. The Barmy Army, more familiar with the licensed establishments of Adelaide and Port of Spain than those of Durban and Port Elizabeth, are assembling, a plethora of package tours have been dispatched, and, appropriately, a truly tantalising five-Test series lies in store - the first at Centurion Park, Verwoerdburg, from next Thursday. It is proving a journey largely into the unknown for many in the England party, although consolation comes in the assurance that South Africa just about guarantees a user-friendly tour. There is sunshine, few calls for the stomach settlers, good-natured crowds and, if they don't go solo walkabout in central Johannesburg after dark, there will be limited reportage of damage to purse or limb. The timing of the series could barely be better, with both countries bidding for status among Test cricket's 'elite' (its only two incumbents, arguably, Australia and West Indies, with prior powerhouse Pakistan having crashed to a 'mid-table' position with the home fiasco against Sri Lanka). Both teams look stronger than when they shared a three-Test series in England last year. Certainly, in the batting department, England have a steelier look than the hosts. South Africa confirmed, even in the mostly satisfying 'warm-up' Test against Zimbabwe in Harare recently, that their batting is questionable. In Brian McMillan, however, may lie the key to the series. Whereas England look compelled to go into the Tests with six batsmen plus wicketkeeper Jack Russell and four bowlers, the South Africans can feasibly employ the classy all-rounder at six - or even, as speculated, first wicket down - if, as rumoured, they want to try to blitz England with a five-strong seam battery. England, quite simply, have no answer to McMillan, who is in brilliant domestic form, in the all-rounder stakes. Batting brittleness acknowledged, the temptation by South Africa to go for broke and exploit their pace bowling strength to the utmost must be positively overpowering. An attack made up of Allan Donald - fresh from a career-best Test haul of eight for 71 in Harare and, by all accounts bowling better than ever - left-arm slingshot Brett Schultz, Fanie de Villiers (when fit again), Craig Matthews and McMillan must be the envy of most countries. Flame-haired 22-year-old Shaun Pollock (son of Peter, and remembered for a lively performance at the recent Sixes) has his chance in De Villiers' absence. Schultz, like McMillan, could have a critical role. With his high action and soil-scattering follow-through, the Eastern Province speedster puts enormous strain on a cumbersome physique and it is hardly surprising that his relatively short career has already been punctuated by lengthy absences. But psychological factors do not all favour South Africa. The Oval last year remains a horribly recent memory for Hansie Cronje's troops and, more specifically, De Villiers' folly in denting Devon Malcolm's helmet. 'You're history, mon', the Derbyshire express is reputed to have warned as he readjusted his headgear and, nine wickets and a few short hours later, not even Nostradamus could have quibbled with that. One forecast that should not prove fallacious is that spin will seldom play an influential role in this series. England have chosen conservatively, perhaps, in naming Mike Watkinson - an honest trier, who won't move Table Mountain - and Richard Illingworth, a containing force, as their spinners. Hell-raiser he may be, but Phil Tufnell is a more prodigious turner of the ball than either and South Africa's batsmen do not have a great track record against authentic spin. A chance missed, maybe . . .