First Cornhill Test

England v South Africa 1998

Myles Hodgson

Toss: South Africa.

For the second time in three Tests, rain denied England the chance of a victory, but their competitive and spirited display allowed new captain Alec Stewart to hope for better things to come. His batsmen were rewarded for their positive approach, while his bowlers willingly accepted the extra workload forced upon them when Gough broke a finger.

In everything but the result, England's performance echoed the corresponding Test in 1997, when national expectations were raised by Australia's comprehensive defeat. Even the loud, jingoistic and often drunken support, welcomed by the players but causing consternation among more serious cricket watchers, was much the same. Atherton, shorn of the responsibilities of captaincy, revelled in a return to the ranks with his first Test century in over a year, Cork marked his comeback with five wickets and Fraser continued his consistent Caribbean form to claim his 150th Test wicket.

England fielded seven of the team which lost the final Test at Antigua in March. Tufnell, Caddick and Russell were dropped and Headley was left out of the final eleven. Cork and Gough returned after injury, Croft was the solitary spinner, after playing just one Test in the West Indies, and Ealham was chosen for his first Test for 11 months. South Africa opted to play Rhodes in their middle order and Klusener to strengthen the seam bowling, excluding McMillan from their final line-up.

Cronje chose to give his formidable attack first use of Edgbaston's traditionally bowler-friendly surface. With Donald and Pollock both used to exploiting local conditions for Warwickshire, it was a toss Stewart had not wanted to lose. Yet, by the close of the first day, England had overcome a nervy, tense start to reach an imposing 249 for one, thanks to a 179-run opening stand between Atherton and Butcher. They enjoyed an inordinate amount of luck - Atherton estimated Pollock had beaten the bat about 30 times - and Butcher was very fortunate to get the benefit of the doubt from umpire Tiffin after a strong lbw appeal when he was 11. By the time Adams finally made the breakthrough, they had built the best opening stand in any Edgbaston Test, England's best in a home Test since Atherton and Graham Gooch put on 225 against India at Manchester eight years earlier.

On Butcher's demise, Stewart promoted himself to No. 3, as next batsman Hussain was answering a call of nature. Fittingly, that meant he was there when Atherton celebrated his first century in 24 Test innings. Even the unconventional manner in which Atherton brought up his hundred - an edge through the slips for four - failed to diminish his relief, signalled by a kiss of the England badge on his helmet. Atherton's six-hour innings ended without addition early the following morning, but he had galvanised England, who surged on to an imposing 462. There was a price, however: Gough, batting in fading light towards the close of the second day, was hit by a short delivery from Donald. Despite two examinations by Wayne Morton, England's physiotherapist, he continued to the end of the innings, but a hospital visit revealed a broken right index finger, which kept him out until the Third Test.

Cork and Fraser, forced to shoulder most of the workload in Gough's absence, epitomised England's wholehearted display. They bowled 67 overs and claimed nine wickets between them, dismissing South Africa for 343 to earn a 119-run advantage. Cork not only marked his return to the Test arena after 16 months by taking five for 93, but also recommended Derbyshire team-mate Ben Spendlove as Gough's fielding replacement. Spendlove claimed two catches close to the wicket - though he later spoiled the effect by dropping Rhodes on 64. Had he held the catch, South Africa would have been 248 for seven, still 15 short of saving the follow-on. Rhodes exploited his reprieve by hitting a lusty 95, before becoming Fraser's 150th Test victim, and shared a determined 104-run partnership with Klusener, which steered South Africa to comparative safety. Even their positive batting was eclipsed by England's adventurous second-innings strategy; they flayed the ball with the freedom of a one-day run-chase, trying to score quickly enough to give their tired attack time to force victory on the final day. At the close, they led by 289 with two wickets left.

However, as in Barbados three months earlier, when another promising position was washed out on the last day, heavy rain with the forecast of more to come forced the captains to agree no further play would be possible during the afternoon. England were left pondering lost opportunities, with South Africa thankful for their reprieve.

Man of the Match: M. A. Atherton. Attendance: 62,238; receipts £1,458,980.

Close of play: First day, England 249-1 (M. A. Atherton 103*, A. J. Stewart 28*); Second day, England 462; Third day, South Africa 192-5 (J. N. Rhodes 36*, S. M. Pollock 0*); Fourth day, England 170-8 (R. D. B. Croft 1*).

© John Wisden & Co