August 17, 2003

England face their make-or-break moment

England v South Africa, 3rd Test, Trent Bridge, Day 4

Shaun Pollock: his just deserts at last

This is how it was meant to be all along - two ferociously well-matched teams, asking no quarter and giving none in return. Forget, if you can, those hopelessly one-sided encounters at Edgbaston and Lord's. The Trent Bridge Test has developed into a monumental series-deciding tussle.

England have a remarkably good track record in backs-to-the-wall encounters, and on this evening's showing, they will go into tomorrow's showdown as favourites. But the desire shown by Neil McKenzie and Mark Boucher has guaranteed that there will be one or two twists to come on a gripping final day. That same pair added 129 to transform South Africa's first innings, and England are using a ball that can only get softer. They cannot afford any sighters tomorrow morning.

Boucher, moreover, has the memories of South Africa's 1998 tour to drive him onwards, in particular his fateful drop off Allan Donald on this very ground. Donald, who was in the midst of a legendary duel with Michael Atherton, was unable to lift himself to the same heights after that mishap. Then - as might be the case now - England capitalised to draw level in a series that they had no right to poke their noses into.

Suspicions were raised about the Trent Bridge pitch as early as the second evening, so the loss of 14 wickets in 80 overs today should take no-one by surprise. In fact, had it not been for McKenzie's first-innings masterpiece - a performance which drew the sting of England's attack - a similar clatter of wickets could have been expected in yesterday's play.

There was no such durability from England today, although in Shaun Pollock, South Africa had a bowler tailor-made for the conditions. Pollock is a cricketer who has not been given his just deserts in recent times. He rarely exceeds 80mph these days, and astonishingly for a man with a Test average of 20.49, he had picked up more than two wickets in an innings just once in his last 20 attempts. But he remains a man from whom no liberty can be taken - just ask Andrew Flintoff and Ashley Giles, both of whom perished while attempting to force the pace. He is to miss the Headingley Test for the birth of his child, so his figures of 6 for 39 were the timeliest of gifts to the team.

But England bit back to stunning effect, much as they had done at Headingley in 1998 when defending a meagre 219. Despite - or more likely, because of - his injured calf, Steve Harmison bowled as well as he has ever done for England. He was obliged to throttle back and concentrate on rhythm, with every ball thundering down from eight feet and bouncing disconcertingly.

James Kirtley, on the other hand, showed the merits of a low-slung action on a dodgy track. His wicket-to-wicket deliveries, with more than a hint of swing, required a stroke to be played to every delivery, and must have raised a wistful eyebrow or two from Darren Gough, wherever he is watching from.

England's best moment, however, was the dismissal of Herschelle Gibbs, suckered by the positioning of a leg gully and holing out to mid-on. It was a trick straight out of Nasser Hussain's book of tight finishes, and you can bet that Hussain will be on hand with one or two more suggestions before this match is out. Vaughan wants 11 captains on his field, and tomorrow, 11 responsible men is precisely what England will require if they are to secure their victory.

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