August 24, 2003

A question of desire

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England v South Africa, 4th Test, Headingley, Day 4



South Africa: they want it more

This evening's resistance notwithstanding, England are sliding headlong towards another comprehensive defeat. On paper, these teams have been well-matched, but in practice South Africa have held the high ground throughout the series. Given a touch less rain at Edgbaston, and a touch more luck with the toss at Trent Bridge, Graeme Smith could have been sizing up a 5-0 whitewash come the final Test at The Oval.

Instead, England will go to The Oval with an outside chance of levelling the series, although it will require a sea-change in mentality for South Africa to be denied their first series win in three attempts since readmission. The painful memories of 1994 and, especially, 1998 have been writ large in their determination on this tour, and poor old complacent England have been unable to respond in anything more telling than cameos.

In short, South Africa have wanted it more. "Yield not to evils, but attack all the more boldly," wrote Virgil (the poet, that is, as opposed to the England captain), and he was someone who knew a thing or two about men on missions. There have been evils in this Headingley wicket, all right, but not once have South Africa taken a backward step. From Smith's bullish decision to bat first, to Gary Kirsten's self-denial at 21 for 4, to Andrew Hall's brutally dismissive 99 this morning; everything about them has reeked of desire.

England, by contrast, have been defined by diffidence. The unique case of Martin Bicknell aside, only Andrew Flintoff will be able to look back on this match with any lasting pride. He has attacked with verve with bat and ball, and had England been chasing anything approaching a par target, there would have been a case for promoting him up the order to do to the Pollock-less South Africans what Hall had done to England.

Mark Butcher, on the other hand, has had the type of match that sums up England's efforts. He has played two of his most fluent innings of all time, and given the miracle he performed here in 2001, England's diehard optimists won't be tuning out just yet. But Butcher's lasting memories of this Test are likely to be somewhat less palatable. Twice, he has allowed England's momentum to disappear down the plughole - firstly with that half-baked decision to accept the bad light offer on day two, when he and Marcus Trescothick had South Africa on the run; and then this morning, his decisive drop off Andrew Flintoff, just when England could least afford another lapse.

Butcher, at second slip, pounded the ground in despair, and little wonder. England had been clutching at straws at the start of the day's play, but even that was a vast improvement on clutching at thin air. The fight instantly went out of England's attack, and serious questions have to be asked of several members ahead of the fifth Test, which is sizing up as England's most crucial finale since the 1991 decider against West Indies.

England went into that match, again 2-1 down, with a (then) revolutionary line-up. Alec Stewart took over from Jack Russell behind the stumps, and an underachieving new boy (Graeme Hick) was jettisoned in favour of an old warrior with a thirst for a scrap - Ian Botham.

England have been scrappy, not scrappers, in this Test. The case for Graham Thorpe's return has never been more urgent.

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