England, under the calm yet increasingly bold captaincy of Michael Vaughan, won an often thrilling Test series 2-1 and secured their first victory in South Africa for 40 years. Admittedly, it was only their third Test tour to the country since M. J. K. Smith's team won in 1964-65, but that should not diminish their achievement. Only Australia, twice, had previously won a series in South Africa since their return from sporting isolation in 1991-92. It is a very tough country in which to win.
England failed to reach the standards they established in their demolitions of West Indies and New Zealand in 2004, yet this was a hugely determined performance in the face of a savage and unprecedented schedule - no touring team in history had previously been confronted by five Test matches in 40 days without a game of any description in between. Even David Morgan, the chairman of the ECB, said England must never again agree to such an itinerary, regardless of the financial benefits. Vaughan himself described the result as his best as captain, which is saying something because he had already presided over England's first win in the Caribbean for 36 years and an unprecedented seven victories out of seven during the English summer. Vaughan's reasoning was that England won the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy without playing at their best, making it a triumph for mental resolve as much as for cricketing skill. Certainly, much of the excitement was generated because these were two flawed and often fatigued teams. England's weariness was obvious when they had to launch into a one-day series immediately afterwards without their star all-rounder, Andrew Flintoff, and lost it 4-1, though it was a series mainly notable for the stirring form of England's latest recruit from South Africa, Kevin Pietersen, who rode the boos from the fans he deserted to score three outstanding centuries.
By then, it was hard to remember this was a tour that started (after a couple of bunfights in Namibia) with England dragging themselves unwillingly on to a plane to Harare for a politically charged visit to Zimbabwe that was more or less unanimously unwanted. They nearly escaped when the Zimbabwean authorities banned an apparently arbitrary list of 13 cricket writers from entering the country, which appeared to give the ECB the excuse they needed to cancel the tour without reprisals from the ICC. The Zimbabweans backed down, to widespread regret, and, after the cancellation of the first one-day international, the visit passed off with less incident than feared. But it all added to the build-up of weariness for key members of the party.
Yet the players' spirit remained indomitable, at least until the final week of one-dayers. Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick with the bat and Matthew Hoggard and Flintoff with the ball were their major players, but Vaughan's team usually found someone to produce something significant in times of need. Whether it was Simon Jones's stunning diving boundary catch and four-wicket burst in the First Test, or Graham Thorpe's vigil in the Fifth, there were telling contributions from all departments. The only one-sided Test was in Cape Town, the one England lost.
Followers of South African cricket regarded it as their most exciting home Test series since their comeback to the international arena. For England, it was their first five-Test overseas success since they retained the Ashes in 1986-87, and the victory instantly and inevitably cranked up by several notches the expectations for their forthcoming home series against Australia. Yet Vaughan and the coach, Duncan Fletcher, knew better than anybody that Australia would be unlikely to allow England to keep clambering off the canvas as happened on this tour - South Africa had a first-innings lead in each of the middle three Tests and still lost the series. The best teams nail down the coffin lid and dump half a ton of bricks on top for good measure.
The series was effectively decided on the final afternoon of the Fourth Test, when South Africa, thought to be safe from defeat at the start of the last day, were bowled out after lunch by Hoggard, who conducted a masterclass in the art of swing bowling. He found a tantalising length, and arced the ball away from the right-handed batsman to take seven for 61 and finish with match figures of 12 for 205, the best for England since Ian Botham in the Bombay Jubilee Test a quarter of a century earlier. Yet just as important was Vaughan's belief at the start of the day that England could win, rather than simply avoid defeat.
For South Africa, Jacques Kallis matched Strauss's three centuries, and his 162 in Durban was the innings of the series. With his patience, appetite for runs and textbook technique, Kallis was always the prized wicket: it was no coincidence that, when England bowled out South Africa in less than 60 overs in Johannesburg, Kallis was out first ball. South Africa used 18 players to England's 13, including three wicket-keepers and three opening partnerships. They chose a better-balanced side as the series progressed and one that did not unduly offend the proponents of their unofficial quota system, although in truth they could never quite decide on their best team, and there were tensions between the captain, Graeme Smith, and the selectors that became more overt during the one-day games.
Proven performers such as the mercurial Herschelle Gibbs and the wicketkeeper Mark Boucher came back into the side, and both Gibbs and the tyro A. B. de Villiers went close to registering a hundred in each innings of a Test. De Villiers, versatile and athletic, provided perhaps their best news of the series. But this was the least convincing South African team England have faced since the fixtures were resumed in 1994; when they did exert pressure, their self-belief appeared to desert them. Nor were they ever able to solve the problem of the soft underbelly of their middle-order batting, despite several changes of personnel. Smith even dropped himself to No. 5 in the final Test, as much to bolster the middle of the innings as to escape Hoggard, who had dismissed him lbw three times. Smith's series aggregate of 269 was fewer than the 277 he made in one innings at Edgbaston 18 months earlier. With the ball, Shaun Pollock was as immaculate as ever, and the tireless Makhaya Ntini was South Africa's leading bowler with 25 wickets; his aggression, wide angle of release and liberal use of the short ball infiltrated the techniques of a number of England batsmen, Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff among them. To hook or duck, that was the question.
Yet neither Pollock nor Ntini managed a five-wicket haul, and South Africa struggled to find reliable support bowling. Charl Langeveldt did take five for 46 at Newlands but could not play again because his hand was broken while batting. The pantomime villain Andre Nel, all staring and swearing, hissing and booing, could not appear until the Fifth Test because of injury and he promptly took six for 81 in England's first innings. Kallis could not bowl in the First Test because of an ankle injury and was reluctant thereafter, which also diminished South Africa's options. While his all-rounder rival, Flintoff, sent down more balls than any other England bowler, Kallis took just four wickets in the series in 96 overs. It was a crucial difference between the teams. South Africa's bowlers also struggled with England's left-handers. While Strauss, Trescothick and Thorpe averaged 72, 44 and 35 respectively, the right-handers Robert Key, Vaughan, Flintoff and Geraint Jones managed only 841 runs between them at 28 apiece.
The South African camp was not harmonious. The transformation issue remained divisive - should they pick their best team or offer as much encouragement as possible to the non-white communities? - and there were mutterings of discontent between some senior players and the eccentric coach, Ray Jennings. Jennings had already raised eyebrows when, as coach of South Africa A, he removed the fridge from the dressing-room and said his players could crawl on their hands and knees to drink warm water from a tap. In the event, he turned out to be not quite the madman he was portrayed as before the series began, yet some of his ideas were unusual to say the least. He recruited a couple of young tennis pros to serve balls at his batsmen in the nets, reaching speeds way in excess of anything real bowlers could manage. Bowlers who no-balled were punished by being forced to do laps of the ground, and Jennings frequently belted hand-stinging catches at his players from five yards away. It was on one such occasion, during the Wanderers Test, when Smith thought the catching practice had finished, that Jennings hit his captain on the side of his head. The England team, meanwhile, identified Smith as a hate figure, privately accusing him of hamming up the effects of that blow at the Wanderers, even though he had neurological advice warning him as to the possible consequences of another whack. Smith had plenty to say for himself on the field but perhaps England's rather illogical dislike of the opposition captain was their way of staying mean and moody.
At times, mainly because of the unrelenting itinerary, the series developed into a war of attrition. Bodies were tested by the heat and sheer volume of high-intensity cricket. Injuries had little time to heal. Strength of mind was as important as physical fitness. Steve Harmison was troubled by a calf strain in the final two Tests, and the toll on Flintoff 's mighty body was enormous. Yet he still managed to withstand the soreness and crank up his pace to 90mph at times. Flintoff was always the bowler to whom Vaughan turned when he wanted control and to slow the scoring, so much so that he overbowled him at times.
The rescheduling which followed the cancellation of England's planned two-Test series in Zimbabwe left them with just one first-class warm-up match before the First Test, a game they lost heavily to South Africa A.
Chris Read, the reserve wicket-keeper, played just one day's cricket in two months; Gareth Batty, on tour a month longer, played four days. Coach Duncan Fletcher insisted claims that England were "undercooked" - the tour's buzzword - were not justified, because they won the opening Test in Port Elizabeth, but this had more to do with South Africa selecting an unbalanced team than any dynamic play on England's part. Indeed, the lack of coherent preparation affected some players throughout the series. Harmison, for example, was forced to try to discover his form in the Tests, instead of practice matches. He bowled far too short and seemed incapable of learning from the more probing length found by his new-ball partner, Hoggard. There was a technical flaw, too, with his left arm and shoulder pulling away too quickly in delivery, and Smith's pre-series claim that Harmison's confidence could be undermined proved startlingly accurate. Hyped as the world's No. 1 ranked bowler, who had taken 61 wickets in his previous 11 Tests in 2004, Harmison captured just nine wickets at 73.22 and finished it as No. 9. The old murmurings about his mental fragility and homesickness resurfaced, too. One factor could have been that his closest chum, Flintoff, had his fiancée and baby daughter with him for the entire tour and therefore had fewer chances to wrap a reassuring arm around Harmison's shoulder.
Apart from the usual Christmas and New Year family visits, the wives of Vaughan, Trescothick and Strauss also spent several weeks with their husbands. This was a new development. The tour of "no wives, no kids" to Zimbabwe and New Zealand in 1996-97 seemed a distant memory in these more liberated times. Mrs Strauss had plenty to applaud, too, because her husband was named man of the series and confirmed his emergence as a player with the technique and temperament to succeed at the highest level. Strauss made three centuries and top-scored in six of England's first seven innings of the series, before the game had its revenge and he fell to earth with two ducks in the final three. During the Newlands Test, he reached 1,000 runs just 228 days after he became a Test cricketer, the quickest man to the landmark in history. Strauss has a method - compact, playing within his limitations and scoring heavily with the square cut, the pull and off his legs - which works, and he did not attempt to change at any time. Even South Africa's initial belief that Strauss was vulnerable from around the wicket was not proved; indeed, they eventually realised he was more susceptible to the ball angled across him from over the wicket, and he was caught behind or in the slips in each of his final four innings. Strauss scored 126 and 94 not out in the First Test victory and followed with further centuries in Durban and Johannesburg, where he played his most fluent innings, just a few miles from the suburb of Bedfordview, his home until the age of six. Strauss's aggregate of 656 was the highest aggregate for England in South Africa.
Trescothick also reached three figures in Durban and Johannesburg. His opening partnership of 273 with Strauss at Kingsmead - England's highest first-wicket stand since 1960 - transformed an astonishing match after they were bowled out for 139 in their first innings. The memory of the bad light there, which prevented England forcing home their recovery with a victory, was a strong motivation for Vaughan's attacking instincts two Tests later at the Wanderers. It was Trescothick's most productive overseas tour. His handeye co-ordination was such that South Africa's bowlers were unable to exploit foot movement which occasionally made it look as though he was standing in a tray of treacle.
Mark Butcher flew home because of a wrist injury after playing the first two Tests and was replaced in the team by Robert Key of Kent. Neither made an unanswerable case to retain the No. 3 position. Vaughan reached double figures in each of his first six innings in the series but never exceeded 20 until his brace of half-centuries in the Fourth Test at Johannesburg. Too often he prodded at the ball outside off stump or, unsettled by Ntini's short stuff, attempted his favoured pull-hook before he was set. Vaughan was fined his whole match fee - calculated at around £5,500 in these days of central contracts - for criticising the umpires for inconsistency over the interpretation of bad light at the Wanderers. Even then, his words were finely calculated and, overall, his leadership was superb. His understated style and desire for players to express themselves elicited blanket respect from his team. Vaughan has a streak of steel and is fiercely ambitious; the idea, mooted when he succeeded Nasser Hussain in 2003, that he might be too soft to captain England was made to seem ludicrous.
Thorpe made a century in Durban and 86 in Centurion but, at the age of 35, was generally less convincing than in the past. Flintoff, so immense with the ball, was less productive as a No. 6 batsman, frequently tossing away his wicket with a wishy-washy waft outside off stump, until his watchful 77 in the Fifth Test. Like Flintoff, Geraint Jones made a couple of half-centuries and always batted in a selfless way. He dropped at least three catches, usually because he did not seem to know where first slip was. Ashley Giles was steady enough with his left-arm spin, although rarely threatening. Indeed, he made at least as important a contribution with his batting, notably when he kick-started Trescothick into action on the final morning in Johannesburg.
Simon Jones took at least one wicket in every innings in which he bowled. He was fast at times and straighter than before - he is a cricketer with the knack of making things happen. James Anderson replaced him at the Wanderers in England's only unenforced change but, so badly did Anderson spray the ball and so bankrupt was his confidence, the decision was reversed for the Fifth Test. Because of the itinerary, the other back-up players - Batty, Read and Paul Collingwood - were little more than enthusiastic drinks waiters, nets performers and, at the Wanderers, emergency ball boys. When a team is successful and settled, the reserves lose out, especially on a tour with an itinerary like this. But that is one of the problems of success and, boy, are England grateful to have some of those.
Match reports for
Nicky Oppenheimer XI v England XI at Randjesfontein, Dec 8, 2004
South Africa A v England XI at Potchefstroom, Dec 11-13, 2004
South Africa A v England XI at Kimberley, Jan 27, 2005
Match reports for
Match reports for
Namibia v England XI at Windhoek, Nov 21, 2004
Namibia v England XI at Windhoek, Nov 23, 2004