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Tim de Lisle
It is a requirement of thriller writing that the hero should be taken almost to the point of no return. At the end of the second act, he (or she) will ideally be clinging to a precipice, in a hurricane, by one finger, while the baddie takes leisurely aim, from a sheltered vantage point, with an automatic weapon. This is precisely the position in which the England cricket team found themselves on July 5-6, 1998.
They had followed one follow-on, at Lord's, with another, graver, one at Old Trafford: in reply to South Africa's 552 for five declared, they had scraped 185 all out - a third of the runs, for twice as many wickets. Sent in again by Hansie Cronje, England were soon 11 for two. In terms of competing, chairman of selectors David Graveney admitted, we're just not there. The players were not the only ones who were not there: Old Trafford was nowhere near full. The football World Cup was still raging and, even with England knocked out, the back pages belonged to men in shorts. It wasn't just the cricket team that appeared to be in mortal danger, but English cricket. An SOS went out: Save our Summer, perhaps even Save our Sport.
That second wicket brought together Alec Stewart and Mike Atherton, the new captain and his predecessor. When playing for pride, no one comes prouder than these two. They pooled all their dissimilar skills and similar experience to add 226, the highest of their nine century partnerships. Atherton stayed six hours, Stewart seven, and, with one fast bowler absent (Shaun Pollock) and another injured (Lance Klusener), England's supporters began to hope. But then Atherton and Stewart were caught on the long-leg boundary - captain hook following ex-captain hook. Two more wickets fell immediately. With four left, and only Mark Ramprakash to shield the tail, England were still half a day from safety.
Cometh the three hours, cometh the man. Robert Croft, wicketless all summer and virtually runless for a year, chose this moment to stand up and be counted, to fend off the straight ones and dig out the yorkers, to punch the wide ones through the covers and waft only at anything that was too good for him to get a touch. When Ramprakash was out, there were still nearly two hours to go, but Darren Gough, Croft's soul mate and fellow under-achiever with the bat, also rose to the occasion. At twenty to six, Gough fell to Allan Donald, and the precipice beckoned again: England were still two runs behind. Donald thudded a yorker into Angus Fraser's lower shin. If umpire Cowie's finger had gone up, England could not have won the series. The finger stayed down. Fraser survived 13 balls, and even laid a bat on one of them. Stewart, who had apparently started the recovery with a dressing-room speech on Sunday morning, reserved his most stirring rhetoric for the media: "I'd rather be one down than two down."
To say that England never looked back would be overstating the case, but the corner had been turned. Their in-house psychologist, Steve Bull, noted that the result, on paper a losing draw, felt like a victory. The next Test, at Trent Bridge, was just as dramatic. Croft was left out, but Gough took five wickets and Fraser ten, to leave England needing 247 to win. Donald hurled himself at Atherton like a man who had taken 24 wickets in the series and had just worked out that he could still finish on the losing side. An irresistible force met an immovable object, and the consequence was one of the great duels in Test history. Atherton was plainly out, caught behind off his glove, for 27, but was not given. Donald pressed even harder on the accelerator. The two men exchanged world-class stares. Eventually, Atherton escaped to the other end, and Donald induced a snick from Nasser Hussain. Mark Boucher, the young wicket-keeper who had made a habit of fumbling only when it didn't matter, dropped the catch. Donald let out a great wounded roar, of the kind normally heard only by tourists to South Africa. Within five minutes, he had composed himself to the extent of trotting up from fine leg in mid-over to give Boucher a forgiving pat on the backside. If ever a visiting cricketer deserved to win a Test series, this man did.
Atherton went on to 98 not out, depriving himself of a hundred, happy to let Stewart turn a slow march into a waltz. It was 1-1, but the tide was with England. In the Fifth Test at Headingley, as if to emphasise how well-matched they were, the teams held a sort of collapsing competition, assisted by a trigger-happy umpire from Pakistan named Javed Akhtar. South Africa were left to chase 219 in five sessions; they needed only a good start, but after an hour Gough and Fraser had them reeling at 27 for five.
Jonty Rhodes, not far behind Donald in the Men Who Did Not Deserve To Lose stakes, mounted a counter-attack, putting together a stand with Brian McMillan that lasted two and a half hours. By the close, South Africa required only 34 to win with two wickets left. It was then that Donald, whose work with the ball was done, finally put a foot wrong. With the England bowlers weary, the South Africans could have benefited from the extra half-hour. But they failed to ask for it before the umpires called time.
England came out on Monday morning charged up like a mobile phone. Fraser lured Donald into the edge that Donald had not been able to lure him into five weeks earlier. Finally, just before 11.30 a.m., Gough had Makhaya Ntini leg-before. It was the tenth lbw in the match and the eighth to be given against South Africa, but that counted for no more in the heat of the moment than it would in the cold print of the scorebook. England had won a big series for the first time since Australia in 1986-87, when Atherton had yet to play first-class cricket. Joy was unconfined, or confined only to the extent that the market for cricket had shrivelled during the years of drought.
The prize that had eluded Atherton, through the longest captaincy stint in England's history, had gone to Stewart at the first time of asking. This was not necessarily an indictment. To a degree, Stewart was reaping what Atherton (once best-known for having earth in his pocket) had sown: a tougher team, better-drilled, still brittle and inconsistent, but no pushovers. What Stewart added was a spark, a dynamism, an old-fashioned directness. By making him wicket-keeper as well as captain and No. 4 batsman, the selectors were asking for trouble, and it was revealing that he passed 50 only after the two follow-ons, when he had had a proper rest. But the decision did help him to impose himself, because it made him the hub of the team as well as its driver. At 35, Stewart was, by his own admission, a much better captain than he had been as a young man at Surrey, trying to cement his Test place. He gave more interviews, more willingly, than any captain in England's history, and carried his good PR out on to the field, showing for more fluency in body language than Atherton or Graham Gooch. The tone was set in the First Test, when he led a charge to set up a target of 290 on the last day. Rain swept away both sides' chances, but Stewart had at least thrown down the gauntlet, as perhaps only a wicket-keeper/captain can.
Around him, Team England continued to grow like grass in this damp summer. Two appointments had a clear impact on the field. Steve Bull had meetings with the players on the long Tuesday afternoons, two days before a Test, and earned some of the credit for Fraser's second comeback of the year. Halfway through the series, Fraser's bowling had fallen back in line with his facial expression - tried and unemotional. Then Bull said something that possibly no one had ever dared say to the old metronome: why not try a few variations? (Interesting that this came from the psychologist. Perhaps the coach was too busy discussing Jung with the batsmen.) The difference was marginal, but it was enough to propel Fraser from six wickets in the first three Tests to 18 in the last two. England also hired a fast-bowling coach, Bob Cottam, who got Dominic Cork's out-swinger working again, and knocked some consistency into the attack.
Good generals need luck, and Stewart had more of it in a month than his predecessor was granted in five years. Above all, he had what Atherton had been denied for the previous year: runs from Atherton himself. There was media talk of not even selecting him: Darren Maddy of Leicestershire was being written up as the new Atherton. Stewart would have none of it. All the same, Atherton walked out to bat on the first morning of the series with the odds stacked against him. The toss had been lost, the Edgbaston pitch was green, the air was dank, his partner was the unproven Mark Butcher, and they had to see off two top-class bowlers on their home-from-home ground. He played and missed a few times, as anyone would have in the conditions, but his balance was back and he despatched the loose balls to the square boundaries with such authority that Stewart addressed him a couple of times as Skipper. At the close, he was on 103 out of 249 for one. All summer, he batted, and looked - and wrote, in his Sunday Telegraph column - like a man released from prison.
And then there was the umpiring, which became the most talked-about aspect of the series. The South African papers seethed at the injustice of it. It was certainly true that fortune favoured England in the last two Tests, and umpire Steve Dunne's little shake of the head when Atherton gloved Donald may well have been critical. But in a series as tight as this, you can pinpoint almost anything as having made the difference: a survey by Lawrence Booth in Wisden Cricket Monthly suggested that England had actually lost more wickets to contentious decisions than South Africa had, by ten or seven - and, where there is doubt, the umpire is more at fault if he raises the finger than if he keeps it down. It was just that all seven of the controversial South African dismissals occurred in the last two Tests. In the end-of-series interviews, which lasted longer than the final day's play, the South Africans had ample opportunity to complain about the umpiring, and didn't. Donald had made a few remarks after Trent Bridge, but only after Mervyn Kitchen himself had been quoted as owning up to his error, which made the fine slapped on Donald look silly.
What was not in dispute was that the umpiring had been too erratic for comfort. Again and again, television viewers knew beyond reasonable doubt there had been a miscarriage of justice. It was clear that something would have to be done. Since the viewers could not suddenly be offered less information, the umpires were going to have to be offered more.
Perhaps it was not just diplomacy that prevented Cronje from complaining, but a sneaking realisation that he had let the series slip through his fingers. He was a formidable captain in nearly every way - commanding, mature beyond his 28 years, clear-thinking, and the most consistent batsman on either side, with five major contributions in successive innings. But his strategy was narrow and too often defensive. He gave Jacques Kallis, a speedy but green fourth seamer, 30 overs per Test, with instructions to bowl eight inches outside off. The idea was to bore England into submission. It worked spectacularly well at Lord's but, in the other Tests, Kallis collected only six wickets for 274 in 134 overs. The ploy failed to stop Atherton and Stewart scoring at something like their normal rates, 34 and 51 respectively per 100 balls. It put the brakes on Hussain and Ramprakash, who out-tortoised Atherton with 32 and 30 respectively, but they gutsed it out and England were never made to pay for their sedateness.
South Africa, by contrast, had one great opportunity to pile up a crushing total, when they batted first on a belter at Old Trafford. To say that they blew it would be unkind, since they cruised to 552 for five. But that was just the problem - they cruised. Gary Kirsten took 525 balls to make 210. Daryll Cullinan, a more natural talent, needed 235 balls for his 75. Cronje felt unable to declare until nearly noon on Saturday. It was his team's bad luck that a second fast bowler went lame, but they had contributed to it in a way that would be hard to imagine from, say, a recent Australian side. In the field, as England teetered on the brink, Cronje seldom had a third slip, and a couple of edges duly went there. He was apt to handle his team as if they were the underdogs, and in the end they were.
We should not be too hard on him. South Africa are a team of limited resources, shrewdly exploited by Bob Woolmer, and unlimited grit, personified by Cronje himself, intense, brooding, thunder-browed. They may have been simply too tired. The South African board, so enlightened in many ways, seems incapable of turning down an invitation. Rare is the triangular or quadrangular tournament that does not include South Africa. Probably the only person who has done more touring than Cronje in the past few years is Bob Dylan. How many roads must a man walk down, before you give him a break?
Many things are out of a captain's hands and one of them is his strike bowler's radar. Nine times out of ten, Donald and Pollock would have skittled England on that first day of the series. Instead, they sprayed the ball around like a couple of Englishmen. While Atherton found his old self at one end, Mark Butcher found his feet at the other, coming solidly forward to spank the half-volleys, rocking back to cut the long-hops. Butcher came on so rapidly that England barely noticed the absence of Graham Thorpe, restricted by a bad back to 63 runs in the series. Injury also kept Butcher out of two Tests, yet he was the find of the summer. He and Atherton added 435 runs in six opening partnerships, while South Africa's openers scraped 104 from eight. And Butcher's maiden hundred arrived when it was most needed, in the first innings at Headingley, where the next highest score was Cork's 24.
South Africa's main supplier of timely runs was Rhodes. He had some tuition in footwork from Graeme Pollock and his batting was as twinkle-toed as his fielding. He arrived in a crisis at both Edgbaston (125 for four) and Lord's (46 for four), though you would never have known it from the way he danced to scores of 95 and 117. Edgbaston was a rearguard action but, at Lord's, once Rhodes had broken the shackles, South Africa set the pace. Their total of 360 was enough to push England's batsmen back into their old ways. Donald and Pollock came back strongly from their Edgbaston embarrassment, as Glenn McGrath had a year earlier, and England capitulated to 110 all out. As Atherton, Hussain and Stewart did their best to play catch-up, Cronje played sit-back, or aggressive containment as Woolmer oxymoronically called it. Their fast bowlers outdid England's for discipline as well as pace (South Africa had five of the six men in the series who averaged more than 80 mph on the new public speedometer, and the sixth, Gough, missed this match). England's second innings lasted 120 overs, 12 more than South Africa's first, but they made 96 fewer runs. The visitors, rising to the Lord's occasion as visitors usually do, had simply bowled to their field: or rather to their star fielder. Lord's wheeled out its new Hover Cover, but no mere piece of state-of-the-art equipment could hover like South Africa's cover.
In a squad that was short on charisma, Rhodes alone had the ability to light up some of the less glamorous tour fixtures. Donald and Pollock were handled so carefully by the management that they bowled only 106 first-class overs between them outside the Tests. The explosive Klusener went home early with a bad ankle, the exuberant Pat Symcox failed to get a Test, and the agreeably aggressive McMillan was virtually pensioned off: he suffered the indignity of being left out of the side while Gerry Liebenberg, an opener of exceptional haplessness, was repeatedly included. In selection, as in most areas, the teams were well matched: the England selectors did well to persist with Butcher and rehabilitate Cork, but they too had their Liebenbergs. Graeme Hick, recalled on the strength of his hundredth hundred, stuttered to his umpteenth Test flop. Their spinners sent down 153 overs for a single wicket. Ian Salisbury's new-found accuracy evaporated in the face of a calculated onslaught from Cronje, who had seen too much of Shane Warne to take an English leg-spinner seriously. For the second summer running, England's various No. 7s were united only by their inefficacy. After three Tests, Mark Ealham and Cork, bowlers who were supposed to be able to bat, gave way to Andy Flintoff, a batsman of beefy promise preferred to John Crawley on the grounds that he could bowl. He took one wicket and made 17 runs, to take the grand total of the designated No. 7s to 48 runs and three wickets.
Unlike any previous tourists to England, South Africa had to play two one-day tournaments on top of five Tests. The first was the final Texaco Trophy, in which they had little trouble ending England's four-year run of victories. England were captained for the first time at home by Adam Hollioake, who had done badly in the West Indies but well enough in Sharjah to be preferred to Stewart. Compared with South Africa (and most other countries), his team were hugely inexperienced, and they showed it by buckling in the second match at Old Trafford when they were in sight of levelling the series. They then won an irrelevant match in some style.
Three months later came the Triangular Tournament, the first in England since 1912, and a good workout for England against two teams that lead the world in one-day cricket (and are both in England's World Cup group). The tournament was too compressed to gather much momentum (the administrators will not make that mistake again), but it had its moments. One was when England's 12th man, Fraser, shuffled round the Tavern boundary at Lord's with a drink for Alan Mullally, and got a standing ovation which made him the most acclaimed waiter since Manuel in Fawlty Towers.
That was a comment on England's series. A comment on South Africa came a few weeks later, when several of them were in Kuala Lumpur, winning gold medals in the Commonwealth Games. Next, they were winning the Mini World Cup in Dhaka. They are not quite the best team in the world, but they may be the most resilient.
W. J. Cronje (Free State) (captain), G. Kirsten (Western Province) (vice-captain), P. R. Adams (Western Province), A. M. Bacher (Gauteng), M. V. Boucher (Border), D. J. Cullinan (Gauteng), A. A. Donald (Free State), M. Hayward (Eastern Province), J. H. Kallis (Western Province), L. Klusener (Natal), G. F. J. Liebenberg (Free State), B. M. McMillan (Western Province), M. Ntini (Border), S. M. Pollock (Natal), J. N. Rhodes (Natal), P. L. Symcox (Natal), R. Telemachus (Boland).
Telemachus was injured in practice on the second playing day of the tour and returned home; he was replaced by S. Elworthy ( Northerns). Later, M. J. R. Rindel ( Northerns) joined the party when Bacher and Klusener also returned home injured.
Manager: S. K. Reddy. Coach: R. A. Woolmer.
Test matches - Played 5: Won 1, Lost 2, Drawn 2.
First-class matches - Played 12: Won 3, Lost 2, Drawn 7.
Wins - England, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire.
Losses - England (2).
Draws - England (2), Sussex, British Universities, Durham, Derbyshire, Essex.
One-day internationals - Played 5: Won 3, Lost 2. Wins - England (3). Losses - England, Sri Lanka.
Other non-first-class matches- Played 10: Won 8, Lost 1, No result 1. Wins - Duke of Norfolk's XI, Kent, Minor Counties, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Holland, Ireland, Essex.
Loss - First-class Counties XI. No result - Ireland.
Match reports for
1st ODI: England v South Africa at The Oval, May 21, 1998
2nd ODI: England v South Africa at Manchester, May 23, 1998
3rd ODI: England v South Africa at Leeds, May 24, 1998
1st Test: England v South Africa at Birmingham, Jun 4-8, 1998
2nd Test: England v South Africa at Lord's, Jun 18-21, 1998
3rd Test: England v South Africa at Manchester, Jul 2-6, 1998
4th Test: England v South Africa at Nottingham, Jul 23-27, 1998
5th Test: England v South Africa at Leeds, Aug 6-10, 1998
1st Match: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Nottingham, Aug 14, 1998
3rd Match: England v South Africa at Birmingham, Aug 18, 1998