First Test

England v South Africa

Richard Hobson

At Birmingham, July 24, 25, 26, 27, 28. Drawn. Toss: South Africa.

After their emphatic victory in the NatWest Series final, England went into this game convinced they were strong favourites to add greater success in the Tests. But the turnaround could not have been swifter or much more severe. Smith and Gibbs dominated the opening proceedings with a record first-wicket partnership of 338, and Hussain felt so powerless to stop them that he resigned as the England captain as soon as the match was over. Vaughan, having struck his eighth Test hundred in 14 months, was duly installed as his successor. He had only two full days to impose a semblance of authority before the Second Test at Lord's.

In a game of three captains, both Hussain and Vaughan were forced to defer to Graeme Smith, leading South Africa at the age of 22 going on 35. If he was a little cautious on the final day, when he could have shown more urgency to press for a positive finish, the rest of the proceedings were a personal triumph. His 277 in the first innings, spanning 373 balls and a minute over nine hours, with 35 fours, was the highest individual Test score for his country. He and Gibbs became the second pair to build two triple-century stands at the highest level: Bradman and Ponsford managed it twice against England in 1934. And his match aggregate of 362 runs was South Africa's biggest-ever, passing the 309 amassed by Bruce Mitchell at The Oval in 1947.

Hussain's opinion that South Africa were "there for the taking" was made to look extremely unwise. His comments only served to rouse the touring side, all too happy to be cast as underdogs. They had made purposeful use of the 12 days after the one-day final, drafting in a sports psychologist to re-establish positive thought and adjusting their methods in a pair of first-class matches. England, meanwhile, missed the youthful vigour that had made the limited-overs tournament such a breeze. As soon as the squad assembled in Birmingham, Hussain - who had ceded the one-day leadership to Vaughan after the World Cup -realised that things had moved on. It was no longer his team.

The man who had spent the previous four years barking out instructions presented an uncharacteristically timid, even cowed figure as Gibbs, having taken 25 balls to get off the mark, and Smith began to dominate. They struck 165 during a balmy and barmy afternoon session alone. Duncan Fletcher suggested that the England bowlers were still in one-day mode -an open goal for those who felt the coach should have allowed Flintoff and Anderson, both contracted players, to appear for Lancashire in a Championship game at Blackpool the week before. For Anderson, the new boy wonder with his red mohican haircut, it was a particularly chastening experience: his 13 overs on the first day cost six runs each. But he was not alone in feeding Smith's strengths through the leg side or allowing Gibbs to swing his arms.

Gough, too, endured a torrid return in his first Test appearance for nearly two years. That he was here at all spoke volumes for the character which underpinned his recovery from a career-threatening knee injury. But the old spring in his delivery was missing and it fell to Vaughan to split the openers after more than five hours. Gibbs, having survived three sharp chances, succumbed to a cunning trap when he pulled a long hop - his 236th ball - to deep mid-wicket. Just a few minutes earlier he and Smith had overtaken the previous best opening partnership against England, 329 by Mark Taylor and Geoff Marsh for Australia at Trent Bridge in 1989. To complete a harrowing day for the hosts, Trescothick fractured the tip of his right index finger while fielding at slip.

Even by the standards of the frenetic modern game, a total of 398 for one by the close represented some achievement, and the rate of scoring meant that South Africa were not completely disheartened by the loss of the entire second day to rain. It meant a total refund of £547,000 for the 18,000 would-be spectators, though the ECB reclaimed the money on insurance. Sadly, there was no similar recovery mechanism for the bowlers. Smith, strong-shouldered and ruthlessly efficient, simply continued on the third morning where he left off on Thursday night, completing his second double-hundred (in his 11th Test) and then taking fresh guard, intent on grinding the bowlers to dust. He was entitled to feel fatigued when he eventually slogged Giles to the leg-side boundary. The declaration arrived not long afterwards, leaving England 395 to avoid the follow-on. They made it, but only just, and thanks largely to Vaughan. Becalmed on 12 for 62 minutes and 41 balls during a compelling personal battle with Pollock, he went on to drive and pull with the style and sure judgment of length that had elevated him to the ranks of the world-class batsmen in Australia the previous winter. His 156 came in 415 minutes from 286 balls. Hussain, though, seemed distracted in shouldering arms to Pollock and too many batsmen chipped in instead of providing lengthy support.

England were still 21 short of their initial objective on the final morning, with three wickets remaining, yet a touch of aggression from Giles meant just ten balls were needed to ensure that South Africa would have to bat again. When they did there was little urgency from anybody bar Smith - 85 from 70 balls - and no promotion for a Boucher or Pollock to add gusto. England were never likely to attempt a nominal target of 321 from 65 overs and South Africa lacked the penetration to make sufficient inroads before rain and bad light curtailed proceedings. Hussain, by then, had come to his decision.

Man of the Match: G. C. Smith. Attendance: 57,029; receipts £1,338,247.
Close of play: First day, South Africa 398-1 (Smith 178, Kirsten 26); Second day, No play; Third day, England 25-0 (Trescothick 14, Vaughan 4); Fourth day, England 374-7 (Giles 9).

© John Wisden & Co