It was another long and losing tour by England, their fourth in a row, and third under Mike Atherton's captaincy. But it was the first of those three in which they had gone with a fair chance of winning the Test series, which ultimately made their defeat more disappointing than the preceding reverses in the West Indies and Australia. Following their excellent summer, when they held West Indies to 2-2, England would have moved into the upper half of the unofficial table of Test-playing countries if they had beaten South Africa. As it was, they competed on more or less equal terms for the first four Tests, only to disintegrate and lose the series 1-0 and the subsequent one-day internationals 6-1.
The correlation between the length of the tour and the losing made for some debate. The United Cricket Board of South Africa had initially proposed four Tests, and nine internationals to pay the bills. The nine would have been far too many, but the extra Test was a mistake for England. Without it, their players could have had a longer rest after the most demanding home series of recent times, followed by more preparation, and need not have left until November. Instead, the TCCB successfully argued in favour of five Tests and the players left in mid-October, only to run out of steam in the second of the back-to-back Tests, at Cape Town. The South Africans, apart from Hansie Cronje, Daryll Cullinan and Allan Donald, who had been engaged in county cricket, were fresh after a six-month respite from playing, and had prepared in camps organised by their coach Bob Woolmer, with the help of numerous specialists.
The summer was the wettest in South African memory, and the series so curtailed that there were only 17 and a bit days of Test cricket out of the 25 scheduled (however, the total attendance of 249,000 was only 26,000 less than the UCBSA had budgeted for). Another consequence of the rain was that England could not keep all of their original 16 players in match practice, or sometimes even 11. This was most serious when they sent South Africa in to bat in the Second Test: only Dominic Cork was in a condition to justify a decision that went in the face of all precedent at the Wanderers. Cork was outstanding in the series as England's penetrator, always swinging the new ball away and sometimes reverse-swinging the old one in. So intense, though, were the demands on his bowling that he could not make the runs of which he was capable.
After the First Test at Centurion Park had been washed out (an unfortunate debut for the world's 76th Test ground), the dominant feature of the series was South Africa's pace bowling, which might not have matched the West Indians' for technical skill but had a vigour and often a passion of its own. Although Fanie de Villiers had a complicated hamstring injury which ruled him out for the whole Test series, and Brett Schultz broke down, having started the First Test unfit, the South Africans still had an array of high-quality quick bowlers. They enjoyed fine slip-catching support from Cullinan at first slip, Brian McMillan at second, and Andrew Hudson, who was flawless at third slip or gully. South African bowlers hit the stumps 12 times in the series, while England's bowlers did it twice, and they were Donald's stumps on both occasions. When the pitch was lifeless, and Cronje set defensive fields, his bowlers were more difficult to get away: overall England scored at 2.40 per over to the home side's 2.77.
For his bowling, Donald was chosen as Man of the Series, by a short head from several rivals. His last-wicket stand at Durban was significant too, for Atherton had secured the upper hand for England by his great innings at Johannesburg, in the previous Test, and South Africa were wilting at 153 for nine when Donald joined his partner. That partner, 22-year-old Shaun Pollock was the find of the series. From his debut in the First Test he immediately looked the part, and his cricket combined some of the best features of both his famous relatives, uncle Graeme and father Peter. He regularly shored up the later order with cool thirties, and bowled close to the stumps with a springy bounce and sharp pace. He bowled straight, whereas Donald, from a shortened run bowled from wider in the crease, and angled the ball in. On the four occasions that Donald dismissed Atherton in his opening spell, England did not get beyond 200. But of all the South African players, England were most envious of McMillan, not only for the balance he gave the side but for his competitiveness.
None of these three, though, could shift Atherton and Jack Russell on the last day at Johannesburg, when their 277-minute partnership went straight into the game's folklore. Russell also set a new Test record of 11 dismissals in this match, on his way to an England record of 27 dismissals in the series (effectively, for him, four Tests); but he kept even better at Port Elizabeth. There, England had their one real chance of winning, when South Africa were 69 for six in their second innings and Cork was still inspired as he neared the end of a 20-over spell. England had continually to be aware of bowling him into the ground, but at that moment it was a risk worth taking.
Unfortunately for England, when Russell was promoted to No. 6 for the deciding Test, and for once five bowlers were selected, it was the one time he and Atherton failed with the bat in both innings - and another South African last-wicket stand prospered. Dave Richardson, who maintained his record of taking part in all of South Africa's Tests since re-admission, and Paul Adams, half his age, ended in an hour the equilibrium which had hitherto prevailed. Although Devon Malcolm was made the scapegoat for bowling too gently at Adams, England's other bowlers - and the fielders - also wilted at the crucial moment. None the less, this marked the terminal breakdown in relations between Malcolm, who believed he was being treated unfairly, and the England management, who believed he had been carrying an injury when the party was selected, and would not listen to technical advice. The slanging between Malcolm and the manager, Ray Illingworth, continued in print and led to both being hauled up before the TCCB: Malcolm was reprimanded and Illingworth fined £2,000, later rescinded. The whole business apparently hastened the departure from Test cricket of both of them.
England's batsmen arrived to much fanfare, but only Graeme Hick got on top of South Africa's bowling, and then only once, in the washed-out Test at Centurion Park. Three times England were dismissed in fewer than 70 overs, while South Africa - thin though their batting looked on paper - were never bowled out in under 100. The sides suffered from similar deficiencies, such as an opening batsman who never got going (i.e. Hudson and Alec Stewart, whose footwork became minimal); and neither had a consistent No.3. There Cronje, like Hudson, failed against England for the second series running, not entirely at home against the short ball and perhaps - under the pressure of captaincy - too intense, like his counterpart in the first two Tests, Mark Ramprakash. It was a major mistake by England's selectors to have expected the Middlesex player, his Test average 17 after as many games, simultaneously to establish himself in the side and to fill the No. 3 position, when only six hundreds had been made there for England, by six different batsmen, since 1987. Adding to England's weakness at the top of the order, Graham Thorpe had to go home for a week because of his wife's ill health and never got going until Cape Town.
When John Crawley pulled a hamstring in the Third Test, Jason Gallian was flown in from the England A tour in Pakistan to try the No. 3 position, and offered studious defence. An injury which worked in England's favour occurred before the tour began, when Richard Johnson had to withdraw with back trouble. He was replaced by Peter Martin, who added a pinch of pace to his out-swing and was England's most improved player. Darren Gough, disturbed by a leg injury, never found his rhythm until the one-day internationals.
While Illingworth would have preferred warm-up matches against the stronger provincial sides on the Test grounds, the party recognised the political desirability of playing in Soweto on a new pitch, and carried out other requests by the United Cricket Board without fuss. Indeed it was a cheerful England squad, at least until the last month. The contrasting combination of the forthright Illingworth and the emollient assistant manager, John Barclay, worked very well. The mood changed even before the party was chopped around for the one-day internationals, when the wives and families flew in for Christmas and the party grew to more than 60. Illingworth believed this was highly disruptive and it was a factor in his growing disenchantment with his responsibilities. Among the 60 were the first doctor England had taken on a Test tour, the conscientious Philip Bell, and the BBC scorer Malcolm Ashton, who was controversially chosen by Illingworth ahead of any county scorer but fitted in well.
The appearance of Adams for the Fourth and Fifth Tests, and the disappearance of rain, were the sparks which the series wanted. At 18 years and 340 days, and after five first-class games, in which he had taken 32 wickets, Adams became South Africa's youngest Test player, and he was not overawed. Bending his head before delivery so that he looked down at the ground, and without any follow-through, he put enormous strain on his right knee, but his impact on the imagination was also profound. He was not only a left-arm wrist-spinner who rapidly extended his range from a stock googly to a quicker chinaman; he also heightened the interest in cricket which had traditionally existed in the Cape Coloured community, as it had among the Indians of Natal. To create from scratch an interest among the African population was the next challenge awaiting the energetic South African board.
Match reports for
Nicky Oppenheimer XI v England XI at Randjesfontein, Oct 24, 1995
Easterns v England XI at Springs, Oct 25, 1995
South African Invitational XI v England XI at Soweto, Oct 27-30, 1995
Border v England XI at East London, Nov 2-5, 1995
South Africa A v England XI at Kimberley, Nov 9-12, 1995
Free State v England XI at Bloemfontein, Nov 23-25, 1995
Free State v England XI at Bloemfontein, Nov 26, 1995
Boland v England XI at Paarl, Dec 7-9, 1995
Boland v England XI at Paarl, Dec 10, 1995
South African Students XI v England XI at Pietermaritzburg, Dec 20-22, 1995
Western Province v England XI at Cape Town, Jan 6, 1996