England v South Africa, 2nd npower Test, Headingley, 1st day July 18, 2008

Series catches light with controversy

Did he or didn't he? Michael Vaughan takes a tumbling catch off Hashim Amla, but the decision was turned down by the third umpire © Getty Images
Spectators watching the final two days of the first Test at Lord's could easily have drifted off to sleep, with England managing three wickets as South Africa ground their way to a draw. Headingley, though, doesn't deal in dull cricket and the series came to life. Thirteen wickets tumbled, Andrew Flintoff made his comeback, Darren Pattinson, a 29-year-old unknown was handed a debut, and there was more than a dash of controversy.

It takes a lot to overshadow Flintoff - who bowled a hostile 10-over spell - while Pattinson's selection will go down has one of the most mind-boggling of any year, but not for the first time this summer it was the controversies that left the major talking points. During England's innings AB de Villiers claimed a catch at third slip off Andrew Strauss, which was clearly dropped when viewed on TV. Then late in the day Hashim Amla was reprieved after being told to stay in the middle by his team-mates, following a catch by Michael Vaughan at mid-off.

Peter Moores, the England coach, wasn't impressed by the de Villiers incident, calling it "disappointing." "I think the [two] incidents are quite different. One catch was dropped and de Villiers has to decide whether he knew that or not. It was fairly obvious from the screen that it bounced."

Mickey Arthur, his South African counterpart, said that Vaughan had expressed his view to de Villiers during lunch, in no uncertain terms. However, Arthur defended his player and said de Villiers wasn't feeling good about the incident. In a neat twist, it was then Vaughan who was the catcher involved late in the day against Amla.

"AB apologised and it's fair to say he took a lot of criticism at lunch time from some of the England players and from Michael Vaughan himself," said Arthur. "And it's amazing that there's a lady up there called Mother Cricket who doesn't sleep, and I think it came back to haunt Michael later in the day.

"AB is an honest guy and not for one minute would he consider claiming a catch that he didn't think was out. He thought it had gone from one hand to the other hand, but it clearly hadn't, and on the replays it looked pretty ugly. He felt pretty bad about it. He's a real solid young guy who plays the game in the right spirit and he did feel particularly bad about it. Maybe rightly so, it did look bad, but he apologised to Andrew [Strauss]."

Moores was quick to stress that he didn't lay any blame at Amla's door for his part in the second incident. After getting a leading edge low to mid-off, he had almost made it across the boundary rope when Andre Nel, Graeme Smith and Arthur told him to stay in the middle. Moores said that Vaughan, himself, had suggested the catch be sent to the third umpire.

"I've nothing against Amla, if your team-mates are telling you to stay you have to wait for the umpires decision," said Moores. "The only thing I'll say is that Vaughany thought it was clean. When he was in the huddle there was a commotion and it was Vaughan who said maybe you should refer it. But he said he thought it was a clean catch, and still does."

There are precedents for players getting signals from the dressing, and it happened in another England Test, against India at Lord's, last year. Mahendra Singh Dhoni claimed a catch off Kevin Pietersen, who was two thirds of the way back to the pavilion when he stopped and the decision was overturned. It again questions what role the off-field players, or coaching staff, should have for matters on the pitch, but Arthur was adamant he was within his rights.

"Hashim did have some thoughts. He walked off and Ashwell [Prince] questioned the umpire at the time as he felt it bounced," he said. "Then I felt I was well within my rights to tell one of our key batters, a man in form, to stay on the ground so that the correct decision can be made. I'm 100% sure it bounced."

Both teams could have had an official referral system in place for this series, but instead it is being trailed in the forthcoming Sri Lanka-India contest after England objected. South Africa were in favour of using the new technology, but the home side had concerns about the referral procedure involving the players.

"I've always been a coach who has advocated technology," said Arthur. "If the ball bounces it is not out. For me, if we can get a correct system, then it has to be good for the game. I think it is muddied [at the moment], but the referral system takes away the grey area."

Moores, though, wants the pressure taken away from the players. "The referral system has been talked about a lot. We support referrals but didn't want the players doing the referring, we felt it should be the umpires," he said. "We made it pretty clear that we felt certain things should be referred and others shouldn't, but we think the umpires should take responsibility. In a team sport like this, the decisions should be taken on by the umpires."

The tension clearly grew out in the middle during the closing overs as Flintoff peppered Amla with a succession of short balls. England-South Africa contests have a history of getting spicy (Headingley 1998 being a classic example with Javed Akhtar's umpiring) and the tension levels have been lifted a few notches.

"It's a proper Test, which is good," said Moores. "It's played tough as it should be and it's been an interesting day's cricket." This match may not last five days, but it will be compelling viewing throughout.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo