After clinging tenaciously on to equality with South Africa through the first four Tests, England finally fell off the precipice at Newlands, where they were beaten inside three days with what later seemed like historical inevitability. The series was won and lost on the second afternoon when 18-year-old Adams, in his second Test, shared a last-wicket stand of 73 with Richardson to turn a low-scoring match.
Adams came to the crease when South Africa were 171 for nine, just 18 ahead on a pitch that no one trusted. He had faced only 16 balls in his entire first-class career, and was up against an experienced England attack armed with the new ball. But it was England whose nerve cracked.
After a tentative beginning, helped by four overthrows, eight leg-byes and a Chinese cut, Adams was soon playing impetuously, and then imperiously. Malcolm, the man who had destroyed South Africa in the final Test of the teams' previous series, performed ineptly and appeared to bowl himself out of Test cricket. The consequences of this one hour's play were immense. England's morale fell to pieces: they were slaughtered in the one-day international series that followed, and had a dreadful World Cup; the nation went into crisis mode about the state of its cricket and Ray Illingworth got into trouble for his remarks about Malcolm and ceased to be manager. In contrast, South Africa rejoiced and began to sense it had a Test team which could be ranked near the top of the world.
Adams's involvement gave the situation added piquancy. The match had started with a special presentation to Basil D'Oliveira, the man whose exclusion from South Africa when England picked him had precipitated South Africa's long exile. And D'Oliveira was able to watch a young man from his own Coloured community and his old club, St Augustine's, become the hero of the people who would once have spurned him just because he was not white.
The pitch, prepared by the former Edgbaston groundsman Andy Atkinson, caused endless discussion and, since the game went nowhere near the distance, it remained enigmatic to the end. It was much faster than anything seen before in the series and though England chose to bat first, believing it would deteriorate, they were in trouble from the start when Atherton failed (out in the seventh over without a run on the board) and his team-mates followed.
England went into the game with their attack reshaped yet again, and a batsman light: Malcolm, Watkinson and Fraser replaced Gallian and the injured Ilott and Illingworth. South Africa went in the other direction and had only four front-line bowlers, having preferred Kallis to Matthews. Encouraged by the surface, a packed house and fielding that lived up to South Africa's best traditions, Donald was at his most formidable. The only substantial resistance came from Smith, who batted more than four hours, defying the demons that afflict him whenever he is confronted by a top-class spinner, in this case Adams.
Cork gave England a little hope with two wickets before the close and next day they hauled themselves back into the match. After Kirsten and Cullinan had put on 60, South Africa lost seven wickets for 92. Their middle order all got established but never gained control against bowlers - Martin to the fore - who used the pitch's vagaries with the traditional skills of English seamers. Then, when the teenager came to the crease, their professionalism fell to pieces.
For England, there could be no recovery from that. Second time round, Pollock was the main destroyer, but England were so shot mentally they might have been blown down with a feather. The main resistance came from Thorpe, whose innings ended in extraordinary circumstances. He attempted a single off Adams but Hudson hit the stumps with a direct throw from backward square leg. Umpire Dave Orchard turned down the appeal. But the spectators in the hospitality boxes, who all had access to TV sets, watched the replay, which suggested Thorpe should have been given out, and began baying for Orchard to change his mind.
The South African captain Cronje approached Orchard, who consulted his colleague Steve Randell and then called for the TV replay, which confirmed the majority view. In a narrow, technical sense, justice was done, but this was perilously close to mob rule. Orchard, who was not a member of the international panel and standing only his second Test, was later quoted as saying he had momentarily forgotten the replay was available. The referee, Clive Lloyd, fined Cronje half his match fee for appealing to the replay, against ICC regulations. But he was not over-censorious and, like the South African coach, Bob Woolmer, said he thought TV decisions should be extended.
The incident can have made no difference to the result: South Africa's openers knocked off the runs with ease, leaving the huge contingent of English spectators more than two days to enjoy the beaches and a grumble. Some of the grumbling was not only about England's performance, but about the cramped and unshaded seats they were given. The main loser was probably Russell, who finished with 27 dismissals in the series and, given a full second innings, would presumably have overhauled Rod Marsh's world record of 28.
Man of the Match: A. A. Donald. Man of the Series: A. A. Donald.
Close of play: First day, South Africa 44-2 (G. Kirsten 15*, D. J. Cullinan 7*); Second day, England 17-1 (A. J. Stewart 4*, A. R. C. Fraser 0*).