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A unique and totally unexpected victory in the Fifth and final Test against South Africa - albeit subsequently devalued - could not mask another disappointing overseas trip by England. The South Africans were much too strong and confident, and the revenge they sought for their series defeat in England in 1998, when they believed fate conspired against them, was obtained more comfortably than the 2-1 margin might suggest. England's status as one of the weakest teams in the world did not improve, despite the new stewardship of Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher.
The tour took place against a background of political unrest in South African cricket, which was promoting a policy of "affirmative action". Provincial unions were expected to field teams of mixed colour, making allowances for the degree of ability. It was a thorny issue, and a few consciences were pricked when an all-white Northerns/Gauteng combined eleven was named to play England before the First Test. Displeasure turned to outrage when it was discovered that Geoffrey Toyana, a black batsman from Soweto, had been replaced in the original squad by Sven Koenig, a move prompted by the United Cricket Board president, Ray White. Although injury to David Townsend subsequently allowed the Board to bring in Walter Masimula, a black fast bowler who played at the expense of Townsend's original replacement, Rudi Bryson, this eleventh-hour decision smacked of tokenism and the row rumbled on. It ended with White's resignation during the one-day triangular tournament that followed the Test series.
The political brouhaha did not improve the demeanour of South Africa's captain, Hansie Cronje, often a brooding figure, unhappy with his masters and his own form. Already disgruntled at starting the series with a short-term appointment for two Tests only, subsequently extended to cover the remaining Tests and the one-day games against England and Zimbabwe, he reportedly offered to drop himself before the Third at Durban because he strongly opposed the selectors' decision to leave out Jonty Rhodes. Throughout, Cronje was widely criticised for being too cautious tactically, yet at the end he was again a national champion, hailed both for the series victory and for his initiative on the last day at Centurion Park.
Within months, however, his career, possibly his life, was in ruins. His captaincy of South Africa had become a source of national shame rather than pride. In April, following allegations of match-fixing by the Indian police - South Africa toured there after England's visit - Cronje confessed to accepting a bookmaker's money in return for "detailed information and forecasting" on the one-day series between India and South Africa. He was immediately stripped of the captaincy, and South Africa set up an inquiry into match-fixing, the King Commission, which heard in June that Cronje's involvement with bookmakers went back to 1995.
Not even the history-making Fifth Test escaped untarnished. After rain for three and a half days, this match at Centurion had appeared destined for a watery grave, the fate it suffered when England played in the inaugural Test there in November 1995. With South Africa still in the first innings of the match on the last morning, Cronje approached Hussain about a contrived finish, suggesting they each forfeit an innings to make a contest of it. Permitted in domestic competitions in similar circumstances, the forfeiting of one innings, let alone two, had never been seen in Test cricket before. At the time the Laws, subject to local playing conditions, allowed the forfeit only of a second innings. After some bartering, a deal was struck and England chased 249 to win in 76 overs, a target they reached with two wickets and five balls to spare.
Defeat ended South Africa's unbeaten sequence of 14 Tests since Headingley 1998, and some traditionalists held up their hands in horror at the "cheapening" of the five-day game. But most agreed, including match referee Barry Jarman and the travelling England supporters who had endured three miserable days without play, that Cronje's enterprise was to be applauded. What subsequently emerged at the King Commission hearing was that Cronje's initiative had been motivated by a Johannesburg bookmaker, Marlon Aronstam, who rewarded the South African captain with 53,000 rand (around £5,000) and a woman's leather jacket. As the odds favoured a draw, a win by either side was the most satisfactory result for bookmakers.
At the time, it seemed Cronje had little to lose, having taken the series. England, in contrast, had arrived in South Africa ranked bottom of the Test nations after their home defeat by New Zealand. They came with a new management team and an experimental squad of 17 players, eight of whom had nine caps between them. Four of those - Michael Vaughan, Chris Adams, Gavin Hamilton and Graeme Swann - had still to make their Test debut. Left at home for a variety of reasons were experienced players such as Graham Thorpe, Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick.
By the end of what was England's longest tour for nine years - 122 days including four one-day internationals in Zimbabwe - they had called up 26 players and made little progress, despite the optimistic reports from Hussain and Fletcher. Two players were the victims of injury and both were costly losses. Fast bowler Dean Headley suffered a stress fracture of the back before the Test series started, and Andrew Flintoff, having set aside early concerns about his back, broke a toe during the Fourth Test, just as he was beginning to look a genuinely exciting all-rounder. Chris Silverwood was drafted in from the A tour of New Zealand as cover for Headley and Flintoff, then stayed on when Headley returned home. Craig White left his winter employment, also in New Zealand, with Central Districts, to replace Flintoff for the one-day tournament. Ramprakash was denied Christmas at home when he was called up as temporary cover for Vaughan, who had bruised a finger, but was not needed and returned for his cold turkey without having faced a ball. The rest of those wearing England shirts were the one-day specialists, flown out for the triangular tournament in South Africa and the series in Zimbabwe at the end. If somewhat spurious in the context of a major tour, the visit to Zimbabwe did give England the opportunity, by winning 3-0, to correct the embarrassing imbalance that existed between the sides in one-day international results. The most encouraging aspect of the tour was Hussain's impact as captain. Appointed the previous summer after the World Cup, he stamped his authority impressively on a team containing his two predecessors, Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart. His batting flourished with the extra responsibility, and he was by some distance his team's best player. Often regarded as a confrontational character, intense about his personal success, Hussain handled his players with thoughtful attention to detail. Tactically, he outplayed Cronje and, off the field, he proved more adept at public relations than any England captain since Tony Greig.
Coach Fletcher, another summer appointment, made a contrasting figure. Quiet, undemonstrative and camera-shy, he none the less won the respect of the players with his knowledge and organisational skills. Zimbabwe-born and bred, well-versed in the methods of Southern African sport, he was a stickler for punctuality and self-discipline; as a few players discovered, he was not to be crossed. Phil Tufnell and Swann both ran into trouble for missing early-morning buses, while Flintoff was left in no doubt about the fitness levels expected of him.
Fletcher and Hussain, the two tour selectors, soon made up their minds about the Test team, whereupon the rest of the squad became peripheral figures. Swann, only 20, played just two first-class games, in which he took one wicket and had one innings; he did make his England debut against South Africa in England's first match of the triangular tournament, but that was his last appearance. Little more was seen of the reserve wicket-keeper, Chris Read, before the one-dayers, while Alex Tudor, Darren Maddy and Hamilton failed to make the impact hoped of them. Consequently, and worryingly for the long term, it was left to the old hands to make England competitive, something they achieved in the Second and Third Tests before South Africa finally asserted themselves at Cape Town.
England's batting was held together by Hussain, Atherton and wicket-keeper Stewart, with Stewart finishing 1999 as the world's leading run-maker of the decade, having scored 6,407 in his 93 Tests. Other than them, no one managed a Test half-century until Vaughan's 69 on the last day at Centurion, and this was England's biggest failing. South Africa could always rely on someone - Lance Klusener's 174 in the Second Test, batting at No. 7, being a spectacular example. If England's main three did not produce, the innings crumbled. Mark Butcher had another torrid time as Atherton's opening partner and Adams was not up to the challenge of Test cricket, averaging only 13 despite being given the chance to play in all five. Of the newcomers, only Vaughan returned home with his reputation enhanced.
South Africa outbowled England in every department. Andrew Caddick was England's best by some distance, but he and Darren Gough were never as effective as Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock as a new-ball pair. South Africa's newcomer, Mornantau "Nantie" Hayward, was quicker and more successful than England's novice, Silverwood, and even in spin, which played a pitifully small part in the series, Paul Adams's left-arm wrist-spin posed more threat than Tufnell's conventional finger-spin.
The First Test was won by Donald and Pollock, who took 19 wickets between them on a substandard Wanderers pitch. England, having prepared well for a month, felt they had been ambushed, and few could blame them. For Donald, however, out of form and injured before the series, the match was a triumph: his 11 for 127 brought him closer to becoming the first South African to take 300 Test wickets. He started the series on 268, but any prospect of reaching his target against England disappeared when he withdrew on the morning of the last Test with gout, and 290 wickets to his credit.
That England regrouped and fought back so keenly in the Second and Third Tests owed much to Hussain's leadership and his batting. In Port Elizabeth he inspired the fightback, then ensured safety; in the Christmas Test at Durban, where England shocked a nation by making South Africa follow on for the first time in 73 Tests, since January 1967 against Australia at Cape Town, Hussain was the architect with 146 not out over ten hours 35 minutes. It seemed a marathon until Gary Kirsten batted more than two days to save the match.
Several days later at Cape Town, for what was called the Millennium Test, the toll of that Third Test on the England players became apparent. A good start was squandered, Daryll Cullinan and Jacques Kallis exploited the weariness of the bowlers, and England, the ship holed and down to ten men, ran up the white flag. It meant that, for the first time since the West Indies in 1993-94, they went into the final Test of a tour with the rubber decided. While there was cheer in the final hour at Centurion, there was little consolation or convincing evidence that any corner had been turned.
Match reports for
4th ODI: Zimbabwe v England at Harare, Feb 23, 2000
Match reports for
Tour Match: Nicky Oppenheimer XI v England XI at Randjesfontein, Nov 1, 1999
Tour Match: Easterns v England XI at Benoni, Nov 2, 1999
Tour Match: Combined Western Province-Boland XI v England XI at Cape Town, Nov 5-8, 1999
Tour Match: Free State-Griqualand West Combined XI v England XI at Bloemfontein, Nov 12-15, 1999
Tour Match: Gauteng-Northerns Combined XI v England XI at Centurion, Nov 18-21, 1999
Tour Match: Gauteng Invitation XI v England XI at Johannesburg, Dec 1, 1999
KwaZulu-Natal v England XI at Durban, Dec 3-6, 1999
Tour Match: Combined Eastern Province-Border XI v England XI at Alice, Dec 16, 1999
Tour Match: Combined Eastern Province-Border XI v England XI at East London, Dec 18-21, 1999
Tour Match: South African Invitational XI v England XI at Port Elizabeth, Jan 9-11, 2000
Tour Match: North West v England XI at Potchefstroom, Jan 20, 2000
9th Match: England v Zimbabwe at Centurion, Feb 9, 2000