Fourth Cornhill Test

England v South Africa 1998

Hugh Chevallier

Toss: England. Test debuts: A. Flintoff; S. Elworthy.

This was the match English cricket desperately needed. In a summer of endless televised sport, previous Tests had been heavily overshadowed by the football World Cup, fuelling talk of a game in crisis. Now, though, a window in the sporting calendar gave Test cricket the chance to hog the limelight. It grabbed the opportunity, producing a spectacle that, for passion and controversy, was every bit the equal of a penalty shoot-out. The drama mounted steadily until the fourth afternoon when, with England chasing 247 for victory, Atherton and Donald, two giants of the modern game, fought out a titanic battle. One of the largest fifth-day crowds for many years, 11,000, then saw Stewart exuberantly lead his team to an emphatic victory - his first as Test captain. The win set the series alight: one-all with one to play. As Atherton hit the winning runs, the Headingley switchboard was besieged by requests for tickets for the final Test. Amid the euphoria, talk of a crisis evaporated.

The day before the game, Sir Garry Sobers had opened the elegant £7.2 million Radcliffe Road stand. Some claimed that, by blocking the breeze from the Trent, it encouraged swing. With two wickets in the last two Tests, Fraser was rumoured to be making way for left-armer Alan Mullally, who might have been better able to take advantage. But Fraser survived, repaying his selection with ten wickets. Hick, in for the injured Thorpe, and Salisbury, replacing Giles, were given the opportunity to resuscitate flagging Test careers. Butcher returned after a hand injury and 20-year-old Andrew Flintoff - recently in the headlines for walloping 34 in an over - made his debut. South Africa recalled Pollock, back to full fitness, and gave Steve Elworthy, 13 years Flintoff's senior, his first Test; Klusener had gone home with an ankle injury and Ntini had a bad heel.

The pitch was green enough for Croft, Manchester's batting hero (but without a wicket in three Tests), to be left out. Critics believed Stewart's decision to bowl was coloured more by fear of Donald and Pollock than faith in his attack. He vehemently denied this, later claiming that fielding first was a major factor in the victory. Nevertheless, the English bowlers struggled to find the predicted swing. Gough had pace enough to force Liebenberg and Kirsten into false shots, Fraser had his trademark accuracy and Flintoff youthful enthusiasm. But runs flowed steadily; wickets fell slowly. Cronje, in his 50th Test, and Kallis put on a stylish 79 before Flintoff claimed a notable first Test scalp - his eighth in first-class cricket - with one that jagged back at Kallis. But by then Cronje had demolished Salisbury's confidence in a calculated assault; after an initial maiden, Salisbury's next eight overs cost 57. South Africa moved from 100 to 150 in just 49 balls.

Shortly after Cronje had reached his sixth Test hundred - his first in 29 matches - South Africa were well set at 292 for five. Before the close, though, Fraser found enough lift and movement with the new ball to remove Pollock, for a lively 50, and Boucher. When Cronje was caught at second slip next morning, Fraser had taken five in a Test innings for the 11th time. But there was still enough loose bowling around for Elworthy to hit 48 from 52 balls.

In the hands of the South Africans, the ball noticeably swung and seamed, but Atherton and Butcher went for their shots, going on to their third century partnership. After failures by James and Knight, Butcher emphasised his value as Atherton's opening partner, with an innings of great aplomb. A century seemed to be his but, in the first of several debatable decisions, umpire Dunne ruled him lbw to Donald, bowling round the wicket from wide of the stumps. The middle order stuttered, though Flintoff's 17 was a cameo of power and impetuousness. But Ramprakash doggedly hung around for four and a half hours to reduce the deficit to 38.

South Africa made a poor start to their second innings and, for once, the tail could not rescue them. Cullinan and Cronje, who became the second South African, after Bruce Mitchell, to score 3,000 Test runs, took the total from 21 to 119. Thereafter, batsmen departed to poor shots or to questionable decisions from umpire Kitchen. Kallis and Rhodes were both aggrieved when deemed to have edged Cork to Stewart. Rhodes left shaking his head in incredulity. On the fourth morning, with Gough nursing an injured toe, Fraser bowled an 11-over spell, relentlessly hitting the ideal line and length and ultimately collecting another five wickets. Cork, rediscovering his swing, took four, all caught behind.

England's target was 247 in a day and a half, a total which, amazingly, they had not reached in the fourth innings to win a home Test since The Oval in 1902. Donald began at a furious pace, frequently registering 88 m.p.h. or more. But only Butcher got out. Atherton and Hussain fought on, punishing the rare loose ball. Then came a passage of play to rank with the greatest cricketing duels. Cronje, desperate for a wicket, brought back Donald. With England 82 for one, Atherton, on 27, gloved the umpteenth vicious short delivery to Boucher. The celebrations were loud, but short-lived. The batsman stood his ground; umpire Dunne was similarly unmoved. Donald was first incredulous, then livid. The next ball shot off the inside edge to the boundary. The bowler, now incandescent, snarled at Atherton, who stared impassively back. Channelling all his fury into an unremittingly hostile spell, Donald refused to let the pressure drop. Physically bruised but mentally resilient, Atherton was relishing the battle. Hussain, when 23, having weathered much of the same storm, was eventually beaten; but to Donald's utter disbelief, Boucher dropped the catch. At the close, England, on 108 for one, were within sight of victory.

By lunch on the last day, England needed 57. Then Donald belatedly got the wicket he deserved when Kallis pulled off a spectacular catch at second slip to dismiss Hussain. Stewart signalled his intentions by sweeping his first ball, from Adams, for four. His uncompromising approach - he hit another eight boundaries from his next 33 balls - left Atherton stranded on 98. Stewart offered him the chance of a century but Atherton said that victory, rather than a personal landmark, was the aim. Soon after the end of the game, the two teams, Donald and Atherton included, were sharing a beer.

Man of the Match: A. R. C. Fraser. Attendance: 49,820; receipts £1,313,041.

Close of play: First day, South Africa 302-7 (W. J. Cronje 113*, S. Elworthy 0*); Second day, England 202-4 (M. R. Ramprakash 4*, I. D. K. Salisbury 1*); Third day, South Africa 92-3 (D. J. Cullinan 41*, W. J. Cronje 32*); Fourth day, England 108-1 (M. A. Atherton 43*, N. Hussain 25*).

© John Wisden & Co