First Test Match

South Africa v England

At Port Elizabeth, December 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 2004. England won by seven wickets. Toss: South Africa. Test debuts: A. B. de Villiers, D. W. Steyn.

Two made-to-measure innings from Strauss - the first painstaking, the second emphatic - carried England to an unprecedented eighth consecutive Test victory, as they eclipsed the seven in a row last achieved by Percy Chapman's team in 1928-29. Strauss's eight-Test career had now encompassed the entire record-breaking run and, by scoring 126 and an unbeaten 94 on his maiden appearance overseas, he became the first player to score centuries on debut against three consecutive opponents, after his performances against New Zealand and West Indies in the summer. Fittingly, he hit the winning runs as well, outscoring his partner Thorpe by 43 runs to eight as England surged to victory under rain-bearing skies on the final morning.

Though the margin of victory was convincing, the manner in which it was achieved was less so. England were never less than in control against a South African side in the throes of transition but, having entered the match on the back of a four-month break from Test cricket, they were not the same battle-hardened side that had played so gloriously in the summer. "Shoddy" was captain Michael Vaughan's word, particularly to describe their loss of the initiative on the third afternoon, when a collapse of four wickets in 16 balls allowed South Africa to claw themselves back into the game. It was a lapse that a stronger side might have seized upon.

With Kallis unable to bowl through injury, and Gibbs, Boje and Boucher all missing for a variety of personal and political reasons, South Africa's hopes rested on their captain, Smith. In England in 2003, Smith had set the agenda for the series with scores of 277, 85 and 259 in his first three innings. This time, however, Strauss caught him for a second-ball duck off Hoggard, and, after losing the toss on a blustery day, England instantly had the wind in their sails. One moral victory quickly became two when Harmison, who lacked rhythm throughout the match, somehow bowled Kallis with a low full-toss. With their two best hopes out for nought, South Africa might have folded, but Rudolph, with an eye-catching 93, and Dippenaar, who ground out a dour 110, added 112 for the fourth wicket. However, the decision to include Tsolekile ahead of Boucher meant South Africa's normally vestigial tail was significantly longer, and neither batsman ever quite dared dictate terms: South Africa's eventual total of 337 was a good 80 below par.

After their chastening defeat by South Africa A, England began cautiously too, as Strauss and Trescothick set about playing themselves in for the series with an opening stand of 152. The patient approach suited Strauss fine: he saw off a testing spell from Pollock before cashing in off the back foot as South Africa fed his favourite shots. Trescothick, however, was less settled and, after scratching around for over three hours for 47, he whipped across the line to give Steyn a memorable debut wicket. Raw, rapid and only 21, Steyn looked to have a big future. But he also bowled 16 no-balls in the innings, out of a team total of 35 - freebies South Africa could ill afford.

At 227 for one overnight, England were two good sessions from impregnability, but on the third day complacency quickly took hold. Strauss fell early to his only false stroke of the match and, after Thorpe was bowled round his legs by Smith's part-time off-spin, Ntini wrecked the middle order with three wickets in four balls. That included Butcher, playing his first Test since June, for 79 - an innings that began watchfully, ended with an impatient waft, and might have been a symbol for his team's general wastefulness. Had it not been for some lusty tail-end hitting, England would barely have secured a lead.

A total of 425 was a dominant position squandered, and by the close South Africa were right back in the game: they led by 11 with eight wickets standing, and Smith and Kallis - hungry for runs after their first-innings failures - at the crease. When Kallis was badly dropped next morning on 28 by Butcher at cover, South Africa's hopes soared, but the match soon lurched decisively back in England's favour, thanks to an inspirational sprawling catch at fine leg from Simon Jones. Diving full-stretch to remove Smith for 55, it was Jones's most committed moment in the field since his gruesome knee injury at Brisbane two years earlier, and the confidence instantly rubbed off on his bowling. After lunch he rediscovered his natural length - full, fast and reverse-swinging - and South Africa's last six wickets folded for 28. Jones's personal contribution was four for 14 in 40 balls, including Kallis for 61 and Pollock, given out caught behind off his pad, first ball.

England's target was 142 but, under heavy skies and with Pollock making the ball talk, they lost Trescothick, to the first ball of the innings, and Butcher, both for ducks, before Steyn detonated Vaughan's off stump with an unplayable leg-cutter to make it 50 for three. A feature of England's success in 2004, however, was their peerless batting in the fourth innings - this would be their ninth successful run-chase in 11 victories. And once the menace of the new ball had passed, South Africa's lack of a genuine spinner proved costly. Thorpe had his moments of unease against Smith, but Strauss was once again in utter command, as England rushed to within 49 runs of victory when bad light postponed their chase. After an anxious glance to the heavens, that requirement was ticked off in only 58 balls on the final morning.

Man of the Match: A. J. Strauss.

© John Wisden & Co