South Africa v England, 5th ODI, East London February 9, 2005

Ability, but no bounce



Graeme Smith deserves all the runs and wins now coming his way, after the manner in which he has carried his side © Getty Images

The unofficial slogan of England's tour of South Africa has been "bouncebackability" - a nonsense phrase first coined by the Crystal Palace manager, Iain Dowie, and subsequently popularised by Sky TV's Soccer AM programme. It is a phrase that has encapsulated England's never-say-die approach on a tour in which they have struggled for fluency throughout, but have somehow held themselves together and more, thanks to a series of outstanding individual performances.

Today, that trend was all but continued thanks to a sensational 69-ball hundred from Kevin Pietersen. His aggregate for the series is now 338 runs, which is more than twice the tally of England's next-best performer, Michael Vaughan (156), and his pre-eminence is uncannily reminiscent to Andrew Strauss's towering efforts in the Test series. But for all of Pietersen's personal bounce, this time there was never a way back for England.

It is a testament to Pietersen's performance that the difference between the sides was considerably more than just the seven runs which it all came down to at the end. For the second match running, South Africa put together a magnificent and flawless team performance. It was launched by Graeme Smith's rasping century and undermined by an innings of quite unabashed violence from Justin Kemp, whose mild manner off the pitch is quite at odds with his at-crease persona. And yet, the scorecard suggests it was a cliffhanger. It's a funny old game.

South Africa are a side in the ascendancy at the moment, but that really isn't any surprise whatsoever. If five Tests in six weeks was an indigestible itinerary in itself, then seven more one-day games in a fortnight was a hardly a wafer-thin mint with which to wash it down. On Mike Atherton's 1995-96 tour, England lost the Tests and their demoralised one-day side was trounced 6-1 in the subsequent merry-go-round. For demoralised, read disinterested. The glory and the spark of the Test series flew home in Andrew Flintoff's hand-luggage. But for that Bloemfontein tie, an identical scoreline would be very much on the cards now.

That is not to denigrate South Africa's performance whatsoever, least of all the majestic Smith, who deserves everything that is now coming his way - runs and wins alike - after the way in which he has carried himself and his team throughout the summer. But there are too few players for whom these matches are a matter of life or death.

Steve Harmison never even made it onto the field; Matthew Hoggard did, but will wish he hadn't bothered, and as for Marcus Trescothick and Strauss, they have been on a gruelling 12-week schlep across three countries and 14 cities, and they can hardly be blamed for their wavering application. The players who performed today - on both sides - were those with the most to prove: Pietersen, a man who seems driven by an intoxicating and indefinable rage; Darren Gough, who is raging against the dying of the light to extraordinary effect, and Michael Vaughan, who as captain, hasn't exactly got much choice. For South Africa, of course, there was not a single man on the field who dared not give it his all, and there was the difference.

It would have been quite wrong if England had escaped with even so much as a tie in this match. On a pitch that looked more like a Wild Coast golf course, after huge expanses of bunker-shaped sawdust had been deposited on the outfield to help the mopping-up process, teeing off was the order of the day, especially seeing as the boundaries were very much of a par-three range. And yet, England's response to South Africa's 311 for 7 - the most runs ever made in an ODI at Buffalo Park - was to crawl to 59 for 1 in the first 15 fielding-restricted overs. It was negligence bordering on indifference, and ultimately it made the difference.

But we always sensed something like this might happen. There are now just four days of the tour remaining, and with two big performances, they may yet rescue a share of the series. Don't bet on it, though. Last week, Harmison opened Pandora's Box with his admission that he'd rather have failed a fitness test than have stayed out for this leg of the proceedings. One senses he is not the only one.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo.