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Five unpredictable and action-laden Test matches, all squeezed into less than seven weeks, gave South Africa's third series in England since readmission an almost non-stop rush of excitement. The buzz started when South Africa scorched to 398 for one on the opening day of the First Test, and finished with England completing a staggering comeback in the Fifth. There was scarcely time to pause for breath.
Although South Africa dominated large chunks of the series they will ultimately judge their tour as one of frustration and lack of fulfilment, if not exactly failure. Undoubtedly they played the more consistent cricket, and the final result - a 2-2 draw - gave little clue as to how the matches actually unfolded. More revealing was the number of runs each team averaged per wicket: 44.30 for South Africa, but just 35.81 for England. Graeme Smith, at the age of 22 and on his first major tour as captain, was left to ponder how his side failed to win the rubber by a convincing margin.
Rain probably deprived them of a win in the First Test, although they achieved a victory of sorts when the opposition captain, Nasser Hussain, decided to resign immediately afterwards. They won the Second overwhelmingly, but England drew level after winning a crucial toss in the Third. In the Fourth, at Headingley, South Africa hauled themselves to an unlikely victory after England surrendered at least three positions of superiority, prompting Hussain's replacement, Michael Vaughan, to criticise his players for a lack of ruthlessness. Going into the last match, South Africa could easily have been leading 4-0 rather than 2-1.
Instead, Vaughan and England were somehow able to level the series in an astonishing match at The Oval. At 345 for two shortly before the close on the first day, South Africa's position seemed unassailable. But, perhaps because of their own complacency and certainly because of English skill and resolve, the balance of power in the game swung to such an extent that England eventually won by nine wickets.
So South Africa's tour, like their previous two, ended without victory in the Test series, though they were ahead every time. They were also thrashed by England in the final of the one-day NatWest Series (a triangular tournament, with Zimbabwe the makeweights). But despite failing in their principal objective, the tourists made many friends. Their Test squad was more demographically representative than any since their readmission, with six non-whites among the 16 originally chosen. They also played more adventurous cricket than much of that offered by recent South African teams, and they certainly succeeded in their stated aim of embracing the public and being more accessible. Smith and the coach Eric Simons wanted the squad to have greater pride in representing their country, and to take on a more ambassadorial role. Consequently, players were often to be seen signing autographs half an hour after the end of play, none more frequently than Smith himself.
Smith, who succeeded Shaun Pollock as captain in the wake of South Africa's ignominious, mathematically challenged exit from the World Cup, became the towering figure of the tour. Alec Stewart, who had been around a bit and was old enough to be Smith's father, described him as "the most impressive 22-year-old I have ever seen". Few would disagree.
His influence was felt even before the squad left home when, on his personal recommendation, the popular all-rounder Lance Klusener was omitted. Popular, that is, in most places except the South African dressing room. Smith regarded Klusener as a divisive influence and had the confidence to go public with his views. Among those to criticise the decision was the former South African coach Bob Woolmer, and Klusener himself was so incensed that he threatened legal action. But Smith remained firm.
Indeed his single-mindedness was awe-inspiring. Even as a young teenager, Smith had made no secret of his ambition to captain his country, and while most teenagers might pin up a picture of the latest pop princess, Smith stuck a list of his watchwords to the family fridge in Johannesburg: "Brave. Strong. Calm. Confident. Enjoy." This was a young man with a sense of destiny and his thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. He read books about leadership and newspaper clippings about his opposite number; he sought out Mike Brearley and they had dinner together. However, their methods were completely different: the cerebral Brearley brought to the job the mind of the trained psychoanalyst; Smith was all about pounding handclaps, meaningful stares and plenty of verbal intimidation.
|Vaughan had not been thrown in at the deep end so much as tossed into the Pacific without a life-jacket. He discovered he was being given the job while chomping a bacon butty in a downcast Edgbaston dressing-room|
Smith also used a British sports psychologist, Michael Finnigan, and was not afraid to admit his importance. While many teams are secretive about such men, as though their presence suggests mental weakness, Smith asked Finnigan to sit alongside him at two press conferences. This captain was anything but mentally weak, publicly criticising England for "arrogance" after their one-day victory. When Hussain referred to him during a media conference before the Edgbaston Test as "wotsisname", he first expressed irritation, then imposed an authority so crushing that no one on the field in the first two Tests is likely to forget his name as long as they live. Smith scored 277, 85 and 259.
At the time, only Don Bradman (three times), Walter Hammond (twice) and Vinod Kambli of India had scored double-centuries in successive Tests. On the eve of the series, Smith had taken his batsmen out for dinner and came up with the maxim "Never Satisfied". Hundreds were not enough; he wanted big ones. However, after treading on his stumps for 35 in the first innings of the Third Test, he failed to reach 20 in the rest of the series. Perhaps those who questioned his technique and said the face of his bat was too closed for success in international cricket had a point after all.
But it would be wrong to portray South Africa's tour as a one-man show. When available, their experienced major players all made telling contributions. Gary Kirsten followed a century at Lord's with one at Headingley which, on a malevolent pitch, was arguably more important than either of Smith's double-hundreds. When an arm injury kept him out of the match at Trent Bridge (played on an even more awkward surface) South Africa were beaten. Jacques Kallis also missed games - the first two Tests - after he returned home to be with his dying father. Kallis had scored prodigiously in the NatWest Series and although his batting never hit those heights when he returned, he swerved and swung England towards defeat at Headingley, ending with a second-innings six for 54, his best in Tests. That performance was well timed because Pollock, who would surely have been devastating in the conditions, had travelled home for the birth of his first child. In the four Tests he played, Pollock was, as usual, the most economical bowler on either side, as well as playing a couple of major innings. Meanwhile, Makhaya Ntini added firepower, removing five of England's top seven with the short ball during the victory at Lord's, and taking ten in the match. But the various absences meant South Africa's strongest team did not take the field until the decisive last Test when, ironically, they produced their sloppiest performance.
Herschelle Gibbs, who also fielded brilliantly, completed an intimidating top three and book-ended his series with dazzling centuries in the first and last Tests. And wicket-keeper Mark Boucher averaged nearly 39 at No. 6 or 7 (his keeping was untidy and he often fumbled the ball - except when a batsman had actually edged it). But in between they struggled: South Africa's middle order was an area of distinct vulnerability throughout. Jacques Rudolph, for instance, played in all five Tests but endured a wretched time.
But the lower order regularly made up the deficit, most notably at Headingley, where Monde Zondeki scored 59 on his debut and, in the second innings, Andrew Hall, the closest to a like-for-like replacement for Klusener, plundered 99 not out from No. 8. Hall had a curious summer, constantly nipping off to help Worcestershire reach the C&G Final (he had signed for the county after initially being left out of the Test squad), and sandwiching his one telling innings between four disasters. But his Headingley rampage knocked the spirit out of England and helped put South Africa 2-1 up.
England's bowling that Sunday morning was nothing short of disgraceful and their morale visibly disintegrated. Their eventual defeat at Leeds prompted the usual cries for the restructuring of domestic cricket and plenty of self-analysis. Marcus Trescothick and Mark Butcher were widely condemned for going off for bad light on the Friday evening when they had been pummelling the bowling. Typical of the cautious, old pro, don't-risk-what- you've-got mentality, echoed the critics. Then, after the match, Vaughan was attacked by several officials from the shires for suggesting the county game was the reason English Test players lacked ruthlessness and mental toughness. England were in a mess and there was much talk of how the momentum (a watchword of the series) was with South Africa as they approached the decisive Oval Test.
At 345 for two, that momentum seemed unstoppable. But Vaughan's side, in common with many recent England teams, rallied when at their lowest ebb. He was the latest captain to discover England's infuriating capacity for lurching from ineptitude to brilliance on an almost daily basis. He was not the only one flummoxed: the Cricket Reform Group - an assortment led by Bob Willis, Mike Atherton and Michael Parkinson - were left launching their manifesto for dismantling the current format of county cricket at the very moment England were heading towards a historic win. Plenty of journalists, whose pens had been dripping with vitriol four days earlier, were forced into some serious back-tracking. The England team do that to people.
Vaughan had not been thrown in at the deep end so much as tossed into the Pacific without a life-jacket. He discovered he was being given the job while chomping a bacon butty in a downcast Edgbaston dressing-room and, in these days of back-to-back Tests, had little more than 48 hours to prepare to lift his side at Lord's. He failed. Although he had proved a popular and effective leader in the one-day series, at times he looked overawed by the demands of Test captaincy and allowed the game to drift without sufficient intervention or animation. His relaxed, unflustered demeanour certainly contrasted with Hussain's Mr Angry, heart-on-the-sleeve style. But Vaughan insisted he would not change, and rejected all suggestions that he was too soft for a job the Prime Minister described as harder than his.
After making 156 in the First Test, when Hussain was still in charge, Vaughan's form with the bat dipped alarmingly. Others did their best to make up: five more England batsmen hit centuries. Hussain, who kept his place despite suggestions that his wallow in self-pity at Lord's disrupted the rest of the team, scored a redeeming and warmly received hundred in the next match, at Trent Bridge; Butcher was England's most consistent batsman (but dropped five catches); and Trescothick was chiefly responsible for the heart-lifting win at The Oval. In the same match, Thorpe made a hundred in his first Test for 14 months. Andrew Flintoff, with a strong-arm century in a lost cause at Lord's, a brace of fifties at Headingley and, most importantly, a pulverising and wholly demoralising 95 at The Oval, showed he is at least the batting half of becoming the new Ian Botham.
Flintoff also bowled most overs for England, but his wickets cost 59 apiece. And he was not the only one who lacked a cutting edge. Eight fast bowlers who were or could have been chosen were injured for all or part of the series. A debutant, James Kirtley, and a stopgap, Martin Bicknell, took advantage of helpful pitches but otherwise England's best bowling average was 39.86 from James Anderson, who took just 15 wickets in five Tests. At times, as Smith and Gibbs marched on, a run-out looked the best hope of a breakthrough. And Darren Gough, who had bust a gut (not to mention a knee) to grab wickets on flat pitches in the past, through force of personality as much as anything else, retired from Test cricket after two ineffectual matches.
Alec Stewart also said goodbye, having announced before the First Test that he would retire from international cricket at the end of the summer. He kept his place despite averaging just 22 with the bat and was therefore granted his wish of a valedictory tour of the English Test grounds. He finally departed, aged 40 years and five months, collar up and bearing jaunty, on his home patch at The Oval, at the end of a match that provided a mind-boggling conclusion to a series full of wild fluctuations and engrossing cricket.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Ireland v South Africans at Dublin, Jun 18, 2003
Sussex v South Africans at Hove, Jun 20, 2003
Northamptonshire v South Africans at Northampton, Jun 22, 2003
Tour Match: Sir Paul Getty's XI v South Africans at Wormsley, Jun 23, 2003
Worcestershire v South Africans at Worcester, Jun 25, 2003
Somerset v South Africans at Taunton, Jul 15-17, 2003
India A v South Africans at Arundel, Jul 19-21, 2003
Kent v South Africans at Canterbury, Aug 7-9, 2003
Derbyshire v South Africans at Derby, Aug 28-30, 2003
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