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February 6, 2005
There's something about Newlands that simply doesn't appeal to England's cricketers. Perhaps they spend too much time gazing at the glorious scenery, and not enough on the task at hand, because in eight appearances in Cape Town (three Tests, five ODIs), they have now succumbed to seven defeats, the vast majority of which have been depressingly comprehensive.
In 1995-96, they were trounced by ten wickets in the decisive fifth Test before unravelling spectacularly in the closing stages of the subsequent one-day international, and five years later they were even humiliated on this ground by Zimbabwe, for whom Henry Olonga took 6 for 19. England's solitary victory came against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup, courtesy of an inspired performance from James Anderson, and as if to prove the point about the scenery, the crucial moments of that game came under the floodlights, by which stage the splendours of Table Mountain were but a looming silhouette.
Tonight, however, they will be too busy navel-gazing to notice the view from their coach window. England's eight-week tour of South Africa has been one of the most evenly-contested in history, but despite having an apparent edge throughout, there have been just two unambiguous hidings in nine matches - both have come at Cape Town and neither have resulted in an England win. With three games to come, South Africa are now one big performance away from at least a share of the one-day series, and on today's evidence, few would bet against them achieving it.
This was a consummately professional performance from South Africa. By degrees in this series, they have found their form and rediscovered their confidence, and they are now reaching a peak of team performance that England have not once come close to emulating. Steve Harmison's return to the colours summed up a series in which England's big guns have been spiked at every turn - his first five overs were walloped for 44 runs, and maybe the management now wishes that they had done as Harmison desired, and sent him home to lick his wounds in Ashington.
Each of South Africa's big players, by contrast, is now playing at something approaching his best. Herschelle Gibbs had never before scored more than 28 on his home ground at Newlands, but today's hundred followed hot on the heels of his half-centuries at Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, and proved that he is utterly at home in the middle-order after years of opening the batting; Jacques Kallis once again provided precisely the ballast that the innings needed, and though Graeme Smith was unable to emulate his century in the previous match, Justin Kemp more than compensated for the ponderous start by the top-order. By clobbering 57 from 36 balls in the closing overs, he lived up to local claims that he is the new Lance Klusener, and even chipped in with a couple of inexpensive overs as well.
Throw into the mix the late-innings knowhow of Mark Boucher and a bowling attack that revolves around the many and varied merits of Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel, and it is clear that South Africa were fully worthy of their win, and fully capable of much more. England, by contrast, had only the hard-hitting Kevin Pietersen to salvage some pride. The prospect of he and the absent Andrew Flintoff uniting in the middle order is a thrilling one indeed, but for the time being, there are more pressing issues for England to contemplate, not least the form of their captain.
Michael Vaughan started the series well enough with a brace of 40s, but after missing the Port Elizabeth game with a stomach bug, he returned to the fray with a sixth-ball duck, and questions will once again be asked about his suitability for a form of the game in which he now averages less that 28.24 in 63 matches. Not even his predecessor fared that badly. Nasser Hussain was perpetually under pressure during his one-day career, but he averaged a more-than-comparable 30.28 from 88 games, despite an attritional style that was manifestly less-well-suited.
Despite winning the toss today, England chose to field first, not least because of doubts about the ability of their attack to defend a target. Kabir Ali has impressed in patches in this series while Darren Gough continues to defy the doom-mongers, but trying to cobble together a fifth bowler out of Paul Collingwood, Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan is always destined to be a lottery. What Vaughan and England really need is some of the certainty that Flintoff provides, but then again, that has been their problem all winter. Where South Africa are playing as a team (a feat that has transcended their peculiar selection policies), England are still over-reliant on individuals.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo.
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