The NatWest Series, 2003

Julian Guyer

A series against South Africa and Zimbabwe was never likely to set the British sporting public's pulse racing. But, after an uncertain start, England's cricket certainly did. Not only did they lift the trophy - always an important consideration however much talk there is of future planning - but the team enjoyed a number of individual successes that seemed to have helpful implications for the long run-up to the 2007 World Cup.

The dormant talent of Vikram Solanki came to life, while Andrew Flintoff indicated that nous was finally joining forces with natural ability. Meanwhile, Darren Gough and James Anderson cemented an effective new-ball partnership that had been established during England's NatWest Challenge triumph over Pakistan.

The compact format of the competition helped England too. There was not much time to brood on setbacks before a fresh challenge confronted Michael Vaughan's zestful side. England might have lost a leader in Nasser Hussain, who resigned after the World Cup, but somehow, under Vaughan, it always seemed as if a "glad confident morning" were just around the corner, a mood that, within weeks, would have profound implications for the Test captaincy as well as the one-day leadership.

Never was this new sense of optimism better demonstrated than in the second game of the series at The Oval, where, in Vaughan's absence, England faced South Africa just two days after losing to a weak Zimbabwe side. South Africa had made 264 for six, but England knocked off the runs in truly thrilling fashion, thanks to hundreds from Marcus Trescothick and Solanki. In 23 previous one-day internationals, no England batsman had scored a century against South Africa. Now, like the buses on the Harleyford Road, two came along at once.

Problems, however, remained. The absence of Paul Collingwood, who was injured, and Graham Thorpe, who was omitted, left the team short of a batsman who could finish an innings. Chris Read, whose wicket-keeping was uniformly excellent, was a gutsy contributor with the bat, but the middle-order experiments with Robert Key and Jim Troughton both failed.

By contrast, Jacques Kallis, the rock of South Africa's line-up, made batting look absurdly easy. He started the series with successive hundreds and might have had three in a row but for the excellence of Jacques Rudolph during a match-winning stand against England at Old Trafford. His competition tally of 329 at an average of 109.66 was 98 runs clear of his nearest rival, Trescothick. Kallis's performances were all the more remarkable for taking place against the backdrop of his father's unsuccessful battle against cancer back home in Cape Town.

But South Africa were less than the sum of their parts. They were newly arrived in the country, and their young captain, Graeme Smith, still seemed uncertain about the correct strategy in English conditions. Sometimes, it was as if he were talking his top order into failure. Herschelle Gibbs's return of 117 runs in seven innings - including an unbeaten 93 - summed up their problems, while South Africa's dismal total of 107 in the final was more reminiscent of a lopsided domestic showpiece in September than a one-day international in July. Eight of the nine completed matches were won by the side batting second, including - contrary to conventional wisdom - the two floodlit ones.

Zimbabwe's stirring victory in the competition opener at Trent Bridge offered hope of a genuinely three-cornered fight. This quickly proved illusory, although their captain, Heath Streak, never let his standards slip. His performance against England at Bristol, when he responded to his own side's score of 92 by taking four quick wickets, was typical, and his conduct in difficult circumstances was exemplary.

The same could not be be said for some of the tournament's arrangements. Once again, the two visiting teams were made to play on successive days, while England were not. ECB officials muttered darkly that England had been similarly ill-treated abroad, which had a certain playground logic about it.

Match reports for

1st Match: England v Zimbabwe at Nottingham, Jun 26, 2003
Report | Scorecard

2nd Match: England v South Africa at The Oval, Jun 28, 2003
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3rd Match: South Africa v Zimbabwe at Canterbury, Jun 29, 2003
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4th Match: England v Zimbabwe at Leeds, Jul 1, 2003
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5th Match: England v South Africa at Manchester, Jul 3, 2003
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6th Match: South Africa v Zimbabwe at Cardiff, Jul 5, 2003
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7th Match: England v Zimbabwe at Bristol, Jul 6, 2003
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8th Match: England v South Africa at Birmingham, Jul 8, 2003
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9th Match: South Africa v Zimbabwe at Southampton, Jul 10, 2003
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Final: England v South Africa at Lord's, Jul 12, 2003
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© John Wisden & Co