July 24, 2003

Gibbs and Smith put South Africa in complete control

Close South Africa 398 for 1 (Gibbs 179, Smith 178*) v England

England's cricketers have always been prone to choking on their own hubris, but today's debacle at Edgbaston was astonishing even by their extreme standards. Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith - out of form, and in Smith's case, out on a limb as captain - put their problems behind them to score a pair of magnificent centuries. In the process, they became the first opening partnership to pass 300 twice in Tests.

Piling on the agony: Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith return to the pavilion at tea with South Africa on 265 for 0

Their magnificent stand of 338, completed in less than 75 overs, utterly dominated the opening day of the first npower Test. By the time Gibbs holed out to Mark Butcher on the midwicket boundary, he had flailed 29 fours and a vast six off Darren Gough, and was unrecognisable from the shambling, shuffling figure who mustered 17 runs in four innings against England in the NatWest Series.

Gibbs eased through the gears throughout the day, and for the last part of his innings he was at his jack-in-the-box best. He enjoyed some luck, and was dropped three times in the day, but when at his best, the audacity of his strokeplay more than compensates for his occasional looseness. He was dropped by Anderson on 94 - a sharp return chance - but responded by belting consecutive fours to bring up his hundred, and by the time he had raced past 150 shortly after tea, all his early tour uncertainties had been banished, seemingly for good.

In the eyes of many pundits, Smith has not yet done enough to warrant a regular place in the side, let alone hold the captaincy. But today, he demonstrated that his will is made of granite. By the close he was still there, unbeaten on 178, and his authority was stamped clean across the match, the series, and most importantly, his team.

Less flamboyant than Gibbs, but no less effective, Smith had taken his time to gauge the pace of the pitch in a tentative morning session. But once he had established that it held no demons, there was no stopping him. His innings was studded with compact drives and well-timed clips, and he reached his hundred by lofting Giles back over his head for four.

For Nasser Hussain, returning to the England captaincy for the first time since early June, it has been a sobering day. If the pre-match hype was to be believed, his mere presence should have been enough to send Smith, a mere whippersnapper at 22, cowering into the corner. Instead, his dream-team new-ball partnership of James Anderson and Gough had the whiffiest of off-days, and despite the tenacity of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison, the only bowling highlight was to be found in Giles's sexy new hairstyle.

Darren Gough feels the strain

Flintoff, who hadn't played a Test since the Headingley match last August, was the best of a subdued attack. Pitching the ball up half a yard more than is his customary length, he induced a thick edge from Smith that fell short of Butcher at second slip, before seaming one past the inside of the bat and through to Alec Stewart.

Harmison bowled with pace, hostility and impressive control, but continued his unfortunate habit of inflicting injury on his own team-mates. Marcus Trescothick was forced to leave the field with a fracture in his right index finger, after failing to gather an awkward ball at slip.

If this had been the first day of an Ashes series, it would have an utterly depressing premonition of doom. Given that it is not, England's players will hardly know whether to laugh it off, or cry themselves to sleep.

Click here for the Wisden Verdict

England 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Michael Vaughan, 3 Mark Butcher, 4 Nasser Hussain (capt), 5 Anthony McGrath, 6 Alec Stewart (wk), 7 Andrew Flintoff, 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Darren Gough, 10 James Anderson, 11 Steve Harmison.

South Africa 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Herschelle Gibbs, 3 Gary Kirsten, 4 Jacques Rudolph, 5 Boeta Dippenaar, 6 Mark Boucher (wk), 7 Shaun Pollock, 8 Robin Peterson, 9 Charl Willoughby, 10 Makhaya Ntini, 11 Dewald Pretorious.