England v South Africa - End of series review

As the dust settles ...

Rob Smyth

September 9, 2003

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Batting performance of the series
It's hard to ignore those two double-hundreds by Graeme Smith, but they came in more innocent times. When Gary Kirsten rolled up his sleeves at Headingley, the series was long past its watershed. The pitch was grubby; South Africa were 2 for 2, then 21 for 4, then 142 for 7 - it was the first occasion they had been behind in the series. It was time for the real men to go to work. Kirsten scored 130 in the first innings, then 60 in the second. As South Africa won by 191 runs, he could technically have bagged a pair and it wouldn't have mattered. Technically.

Bowling performance of the series
The odd couple of Martin Bicknell and Steve Harmison were outstanding at The Oval, but in the supposedly devastating absence of Shaun Pollock at Headingley, Jacques Kallis - to use the phrase beloved of his countrymen - stepped up to the plate gloriously. What made it so special was that his bowling has been in decline for a couple of years; this was his Goodfellas, a last reminder of his (bowling) pomp after years of mediocrity, and when it mattered the most too. He even started bowling at the stumps.

Shot of the series
The defining shot was the Smith whip; even a sadist would have winced at the frequency with which England offered themselves up for punishment during the first two Tests. The tastiest was the Herschelle Gibbs pull, washed down with an artistic swoosh that ended with the bat perfectly vertical. But the shots that sent shivers down the spine came from Andrew Flintoff, and nothing brought on the goosebumps quite like his driven six over long-off off Makhaya Ntini at The Oval. Now, finally, Flintoff was treating some of the world's best bowlers with the thrilling contempt he affords county bowlers. It was the moment you knew the new Botham really had arrived. The batting half, anyway.

Ball of the series
The most unplayable deliveries were the performance-enhanced (and thus disqualified) grubbers at Trent Bridge. But with an honourable mention for Andrew Hall's lethal loosener, the Ntini short ball at Lord's had more impact than any other. It made a sucker of five of England's top seven batsmen (remember Nasser Hussain's cry of anguish?), and made them think twice about the most fundamental of shots. Rarely have so many young English males been so sceptical about going on the pull.

Catch of the series
A surprisingly spartan field, but there was nothing wrong with the winner - Gibbs's stunning effort to nail Marcus Trescothick at Headingley. He did well enough to get anything on the edge as it died on him; to then clasp it with his left while on all fours was outrageous. It was pure reflex; a microcosm of the pure, raw sporting talent Gibbs possesses. Nobody else on either side would have got near it.

Drop of the series
Step forward Mark Butcher. Like his near-namesake Mark Boucher, Butcher's work with the bat and in the field could hardly have been more polarised. His worst drop was the most symbolic: Neil McKenzie, on the fourth morning at Headingley, when England still had an outside chance. Before it South Africa had struggled to make 194 off 70 overs in their second innings; after it they zoomed to 171 off 30, and England were toast.

Revelation of the series
Three: the Channel 4 commentary team in England, the most balanced attack in world cricket; the magnificent Simon Taufel, who made umpiring as perfect a science as it will ever be. And of course Smith. It's hard to imagine a more impressive character of any age (he's only 22, you know), even harder to believe this hulk of a man could be so new to adulthood. Fridge notes, booming handclaps, firm stares; it all seemed almost clich├ęd, but it was bloody effective. The new Steve Waugh had arrived.

Letdown of the series
Jimmy Anderson, who came into the series with a big reputation and a nice red streak, but whose graffiti bowling - a half-volley here, a half-tracker there - was panned pretty much from start to finish. The future's still his but, sporadic jaffas aside, he bowled like that other Beckham wannabe, Dominic Cork, on a bad day - only without the bluster and the Alice band. Sexy cricket it was not.

Comeback of the series
He's got a nose like Rowley Birkin QC, but Bicknell added a priceless dose of sobriety to England's bowling, interrogate the batsmen with some good old-fashioned English seam bowling: never mind the speed-gun, feel the swing. Bicknell has played the same number of Tests as Ed Giddins, fewer than Chris Silverwood: anyone who has selected an England team over the last ten years should hang their head in shame.

Best moment of the series
The dewy-eyed denouement at The Oval was lovely - the sort of dignified ending you only get with a drawn series - but nothing encapsulated the mood of the majority of the series better than the giddy disbelief when Smith trod on his wicket at Trent Bridge. You would have thought England had slain Goliath. It showed what a monster this man, this 22-year-old, had become in English eyes, and what a hold he had over them. It was a turning point, too: having posted at least 50 (and usually 200 or so more) in every innings before that, Smith would not reach 20 again in the series.

Worst moment
Two, each symbolising all that is wrong with England cricket. Nasser Hussain's resignation was an ugly, unnecessary affair, precipitated by petty media carping. He deserved an awful lot more. The second was the infamous bad-light walkoff at Headingley, seemingly done as much out of habit as any rational appraisal of where the momentum of the match lay. It got what it deserved.

Stat of the series

Graeme Smith v James Anderson

Runs Balls Wkts Avge  RpO
NatWest Series  53  47 3  17.67  6.77
Test series 157 174 1 157.00  5.41

As in The Matrix, Mr Anderson won the opening salvo. But in the sequels Smith turned the tables, and how.

Find of the series
Hall, who wasn't even in the Test party at the start, had a huge impact from the moment he skinned Hussain and Anthony McGrath in his second over at Lord's. Skiddy, brainy and bristling with the ball, voracious in the slips (most of the time), and the definitive hit-or-miss merchant at No. 9 - he hardly scored a run all series apart from the scalding 99 that sealed the Headingley deal - Hall's warrior qualities gave the team exactly what they missed so crucially when their Zulu went walkabout in 1998.

Quote of the series 1
"At the crease he looks a million dollars, which is probably what he has got tucked away somewhere." Mark Butcher captures the titter-happy mood of the cricket fraternity over Ed "Double-first from Cambridge" Smith's intelligence.

Quote of the series 2
"I'm crap at talking to girls." James Anderson captures the portfolio-driven mood of the cricket fraternity before the series. In the end, there was time for a bit of cricket.

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