South Africa v England, 1st Test, Centurion, 5th day December 20, 2009

England keep Tests interesting ... too interesting


The ICC should be very grateful to England. They certainly make Test cricket interesting. Whether it's winning, losing or drawing, it's rarely dull. Five months after their great escape in Cardiff, their repeat performance at Centurion almost turned into the great cock-up. Instead it was left to the final pair of Paul Collingwood and Graham Onions to survive the final 19 balls.

On the fourth evening of this game, Jimmy Anderson had recalled the Cardiff Houdini act, when he and Monty Panesar blocked out the last 69 deliveries to save a match that proved critical to their summer's success. But he hadn't banked on his team-mates taking his recollections as an invitation for a repetition. And yet, once again it was left to the last man - this time Onions - to help save the day. At least for Collingwood, who made a critical 74 back in July, it allowed him to have some control over events rather than watching from the balcony as happened against Australia.

"It's fair to say Cardiff was in the back of my mind most of the time," Collingwood said. "It's very satisfying when you walk off and know you've done something for the team and seen it through - and it's nice to adapt your game to those situations. The best players in cricket can do that. But I don't really like getting in those situations at all - and I hope we don't get in too many in the future."

Test cricket, we are told, is on its last legs but recently we have seen New Zealand and Pakistan share the honours in an absorbing contest and the stirring efforts of West Indies in Australia. Of course some games won't engage the emotions in the same way, but the wonderful aspect of the five-day game is its inherent ability to surprise, thrill and entertain, and pull drama out of nowhere. Even Andrew Strauss had to admit this was a great match, although he doesn't fancy too many more.

"I was going to say we have been fortunate to be in that situation a few times in the last 12 months, but I don't think we are fortunate to be," he said. "It was an outstanding Test match, full of ebbs and flows and both sides had opportunities to get on top. It was great to see the crowd here completely enthralled by what was unfolding, and we hope there will be more games like that to come in the series."

Strauss's emotions came close to being very different. England were one wicket away from adding to their list of overseas embarrassments which, from recent years, include the famous demises at Adelaide and Kingston. Unlike Cardiff, where the feeling was one of pure joy at having somehow repelled Australia through that final day, on this occasion the overriding emotion was one of relief. "I hate it when No. 11 batsmen have to get us out of jail," Strauss said. "It's not their job to do that. But it says a lot for the individual."

And yet, the titanic climax to the final day shouldn't really have come as a surprise. Back in 2007-08, when England batted out the final against Sri Lanka in Colombo for just three wickets down, Michael Vaughan commented how it was rare to see the team save a game so easily. Doing it the white-knuckle way is the more normal course of events.

The drama began when Kevin Pietersen undid more than three hours of fine batsmanship, and a stand of 145 with Jonathan Trott, by trying to run a single to the bowler, Friedel de Wet. The fact that it was shortly after an interval may have had something to do with it, as Pietersen likes to keep his energy levels veering towards the hyperactive. Whatever the reason, it was a mad attempt at a single.

"I won't be blaming anyone," Strauss said, although he may have though differently had Onions not survived. "Those misunderstandings happen in cricket all the time. It was a shame - those two were going very well together - but I'd rather focus on their outstanding partnership in a pressurised situation. Days like this are opportunities for guys to really show something special, and I think both of those two did today."

Almost as soon as Pietersen trudged off, however, thoughts turned back to Antigua in 1997-98 when Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe were guiding England to a fairly comfortably draw. Then there was a horrible mix-up which left Hussain run out and England duly subsided in the fading light, losing seven wickets in the final session alone. It brought the curtain down on Mike Atherton's time as captain and while Strauss wouldn't have faced the same fate if the tenth wicket had fallen on this occasion, he would still have had to sit through a sombre Christmas.

However, the collapse didn't really hit top speed until Trott was undone by a brute of a ball from de Wet. It was the latest example of how, almost at the click of the fingers, a collapse can overwhelm a batting unit, and it brought back memories of Jamaica earlier this year when England were humbled for 51 by Jerome Taylor and Sulieman Benn.

On that occasion England were a fractured and dispirited rabble still in the immediate aftermath of the Pietersen-Moores debacle. The side has changed immensely since that time and they are now a cohesive unit with strong fighting qualities. But they still retain that irrepressible skill to make life exceedingly tough for themselves and, boy, did they do that here.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Satish on December 21, 2009, 18:39 GMT

    EVH316, you have summed it all up quite well :-)

  • Geoff on December 21, 2009, 17:31 GMT

    I was fascinated by the use of the referral system in the SA vs England Test. Did anybody keep a record of the statistics? How many referrals were there? How many were upheld, how many were rejected, how many proved the umpires right (and wrong) with their initial decisions? I bet the umpires - who were superb - got it more right than wrong.

    And on the matter of Hawkeye showing the ball hitting the edge of the stumps or the bails; if the margin of error in Hawkeye is 6 mm, why not reduce the diameter of the "ball" - as shown in Hawkeye - by 12 mm? That way, if it still shows as hitting the wickets, then it's out. Or make it 24 mm just to be sure. And then the decision would agree with what we see on the TV screen.

  • Michael on December 21, 2009, 14:50 GMT

    I think that the fact that England do not do so well in the first match of away series is down to 1 major factor-the fact that there are not enough proper warmup fixtures. It is not just us who have this problem. In the past teams went on tour and played around the place before the Tests etc. After modern starts the result is often having to play catch up, which is demoralising. Proper warm up fixtures( at least 2x 4 day matches) ought to be in place between 22 players only. An this is only because no-one seems to want 3x 4 day fixtures,which given that teams go abroad to win seems odd. Another subfactor in all this is that many england tours start late October so there has not been enough proper rest, so essential. England tours in Jan Feb are usually more successful than the earlier ones and where tours carry on in the New Year, that often serves as a panacea. Here in South Africa at least we can go to Durban level after 1 game, but long term these issues need adressing.

  • Samuel on December 21, 2009, 14:09 GMT

    I fail to see how defeat in this match would have added to our "overseas embarrassments" as you call them. I think that's disrespectful of the South African and hugely underestimates how difficult it is to play against the world's best test team in their own back yard, especially after mistakenly putting them into bat.

    But then again, this sort of anti-England stuff is pretty much the common currency of Cricinfo these days, so I am not sure why I am still disappointed by it.

  • Dhaval on December 21, 2009, 13:12 GMT

    Since Jan 2001, this was JUST the 6th test match played in South Africa that resulted in a Draw. Thats great for Test Cricket. It was a fantastic finish. I wished Makhaya had got Onions out in his 100th match.

  • Amol on December 21, 2009, 11:57 GMT

    I'm an Indian and find Tests in India boring. I SIMPLY LOVE TESTS and Test are going nowhere. They are here to stay. But it's a FACT that Tests in India are killing Bowlers when infact there should have been balance between bat and ball. I guess more money-making is behind the current pathetic scenario. BTW. England is going to be thumped in the Boxing Day Test, WHEN DALE 'STEYN GUN' RETURNS. England won't even reach the 3rd sesion on the final day to make it interesting. Mark my words. The only interesting thing is who will be dropped to make place for Steyn-Gun - Morkel or Ntini ?

  • Amol on December 21, 2009, 11:47 GMT

    England survived on the last wicket even Steyn was not on the ground. Most probably Boxing Day Test will see Steyn back in the team. Then I can't imagine England even reaching the 3rd session of Day-5. Let alone survive and make Tests interesting.

  • Simon on December 21, 2009, 11:25 GMT

    I think any of the India supporters who take offence to any of the comments are reading too much into them, and might even be guilty of being a little precious - do you really think any England fans mind who is number one??? It`s never an issue that will concern us when we have the ability to turn a nailed-on draw into a nail-biting avoidance of defeat! The point is that it LOOKS like most other countries have been enjoying hard-fought, low-scoring, tense encounters and the India v. Sri Lanka games seem to be more batsmen-friendly. I`m an England supporter but in no way have any problem with India being number one - they normally beat England, who beat Australia, who beat SA (in SA) all makes sense. Kudos to India, you are worthy of the No. 1 spot. Would love to have some of your players. Also, well done England - the fascinating blend of tigerish excellence and incompentent boobery ensures they have never won, or lost, any Test they are involved in right until the last ball.

  • Prabhjot on December 21, 2009, 8:00 GMT

    TO Hoggy_1989..... mate Indian people love test matches thats why All the test matches ARE SOLD OUT... if people didnt like them they wouldnt be going to them you just cant hack it...... Australia - did u see the crowds????? Indians love all sort of Cricket be it T20, ODI or Test matches even the Champions leagues with unknown teams crowds still came to WATCH CRICKET, you dont understand the Soil in india. the bounce is low due to water under the earth which none other countries have.. which does not provide with bounce needed, Mohali pitch has the bounce because of its built on hill.... fact is australians have lost interest in test matches because they are not NO. 1 westindies gave you a Damn good fight, lost ashes again lost to SA at home...

  • Satish on December 21, 2009, 7:47 GMT

    Wow, aren't people insecure or what!! Hammering away at India and the subcontinent about test cricket. Sticks in the craw, doesn't it when India is No.1!!

    Hoggy_1989, two of the finest cricket pitches ever made were Kanpur against South Africa in 2008 and Mumbai against Australia in 2004. THAT is test cricket. Where the finest skills of batting and bowling were on display and the sissies were separated from the men!!

    Not this pathetic game yesterday where a sub-standard England couldn't even draw a game on a flat belter without first setting their bums on fire.

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