August 18, 2003

Imperfect pitch sets up a perfect result

England v South Africa, 3rd Test, Trent Bridge, Day 5

James Kirtley: the best return on debut for England since John Lever in 1976-77 ... but questions remain over his action

It's a result which has set up the series beautifully: after a few anxious moments on the final morning at Trent Bridge, England scraped home and levelled the series. It's one-all, with two to play. There must be a certain déjà vu feeling hanging over the South African dressing-room. Five years ago England levelled the series at Trent Bridge, and clinched it at ... Headingley, where the fourth Test starts on Thursday.

James Kirtley, who took 6 for 34, outpollocked Shaun Pollock, bowling briskly and straight and letting the pitch take care of the rest. His skiddy action meant the ball was even more likely to shoot along the ground. It was even sweeter for Kirtley after those four successive Tests where he was packed off as excess baggage on the first morning.

Kirtley's match figures of 8 for 114 are the best for an England bowler on debut since John Lever's 10 for 70 against India at Delhi in 1976-77. Lever's fine achievement was tainted by suggestions that he put Vaseline onto the ball to help it swing. And it's Kirtley's misfortune that those persistent whispers about his bowling action are destined never to go away.

There will be much debate about whether this was a fair pitch for a Test. It wasn't a great track - today's bounce was sometimes so low that Hawk-Eye could have done with a periscope and a conning tower - but it did produce a great match, which everyone who turned up on the last couple of days will long remember. And it seems churlish to complain about a nailbiting Test match. But expect a few pointed remarks in the papers over the next few days. It's probably a relief for Steve Birks, the Notts groundsman, that the next Test follows so quickly. All eyes will soon be on Headingley, where South Africa will be without the peerless Pollock.

What won it for England was their disciplined first-innings batting when it mattered. Mark Butcher's hundred was one of his best, while Nasser Hussain's silenced his critics as well as the opposition. South Africa batted extremely well to make as many as they did in the first innings, but even they couldn't manage it twice.

In fact South Africa have never chased well in England: if you exclude 1998, when they only needed 15 to win at Lord's, the only time they have overhauled a fourth-innings target to win was back in 1955, when they crept to 145 for 7 at Old Trafford. And at Johannesburg in 1956-57 South Africa were set 204 to win by England, and crashed to 72 all out (for Kirtley read Bailey - Trevor - who took 5 for 20).

Michael Vaughan didn't have the best of games with the bat at Trent Bridge, and his field-placings weren't always spot-on, but he did one thing right - he won the toss. If he hadn't, you can't help thinking that England would now be 2-0 down and gone for all money.

Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.

The Wisden Bulletin