It takes one to know one
England v South Africa, 4th Test, Headingley, Day 3
Nasser Hussain: toppled off the tightrope at the unlikeliest moment
God bless Headingley. It is as grey and foreboding as an East German suburb, and forever wary of the advancing claims of younger, trendier venues. But almost without fail, its grim northern conditions produce an absolute nugget of a Test match. Forget that aberration on Trent Bridge's crumbler - what you see is what you get at Headingley, and after three days of intensely hard labour, South Africa have all but ensured their rightful share of the series.
It takes one to know one, and in Gary Kirsten, South Africa have a batsman completely in tune with the venue, the game and himself. Not since Steve Waugh's twin centuries at Old Trafford in 1997, has there been a performance that has so singlehandedly decided the destination of a match against England. Kirsten himself was denied his own double, but the manner of his dismissal in the second innings - nailed lbw by a shooter - epitomised the demons he had overcome.
Even Graeme Smith's fabulous efforts have been outdone. Both Smith's double-hundreds were painted on blank canvasses, and with equal partners - in Herschelle Gibbs and Kirsten himself - to share the burden. Kirsten, on the other hand, rescued South Africa from 21 for 4 in the first innings, and it wasn't until the third afternoon, when Jacques Kallis joined him at a jittery 31 for 2, that he found a partner of comparable technique and resolve. Together they squashed the new ball, and squeezed England's prospects into the margins.
There was one man in the England team who could have matched Kirsten - and indeed bettered him - but crucially, he toppled off the tightrope in a moment of rare carelessness. Nasser Hussain has rarely looked in such formidable touch as he has since resigning the captaincy (if "touch" is the right word for someone who commutes every ounce of his rage and injustice into every stroke). While he was seeing off South Africa's second new ball, that vital first-innings lead appeared a formality. But the part-time legspinner, Jacques Rudolph, struck with his second ball in Test cricket, and England's lengthy tail was exposed.
There was one man who raged against the dying of the innings. Andrew Flintoff has no fondness for Headingley. Four innings had yielded four ducks over the course of five years, and from the moment he steamed to the middle at the fall of Alec Stewart, one sensed his would be another all-or-nothing affair.
So it proved - Flintoff's opening gambit was a furious cross-batted heave for two off Makhaya Ntini (never mind the fact that a similar stroke had just accounted for Stewart), and by the time he missed a straight one from Ntini he had clubbed 55 vital runs. It was proof that a positive attitude pays dividends on even the dodgiest of surfaces, but England need more than just wishful thinking to turn this one around.