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At Durban, December 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 2004. Drawn. Toss: South Africa.
The England players may not have been in the mood to agree as they waited in vain for the light to improve on the final evening, but this Test, as much as any in history, breathed fresh life into the cliché about cricket's glorious uncertainty. After two days, a South African victory seemed inevitable. Yet by tea on the fifth, England were favourites. For darkness to close in - with South Africa eight down and England itching to finish them off in the 15 overs that theoretically remained - was the final twist in a game grown dizzy with them.
The draw, confirmed at 4.45 p.m. beneath gloomy skies and the glare of the floodlights, ended England's run of eight wins, a national record that stretched back to May 2004 and victory over New Zealand at Lord's. It maintained their unbeaten record for 2004, and also local interest in a series which might have turned into a procession had England gone to Cape Town 2-0 up.
When Hoggard bruised van Jaarsveld's outside edge nine overs before tea, South Africa were 183 for seven, and England were eyeing victory. But Pollock joined de Villiers in a fighting 27-over stand, adding 85 largely irrelevant runs and taking the match deep into the final session. Simon Jones gave England renewed hope with a direct hit from mid-on to prise out Pollock, but 11 balls later the umpires consulted - and that was that. Under the regulations agreed by the teams before the series, they were obliged to offer the batsmen the chance to come off once artificial light superseded natural, loosely defined as the moment the fielders began to cast four shadows instead of one. Since the lights had already been on for 20 minutes, England had to accept the decision; Vaughan's only grumble was that he had not been given the chance to use his slower bowlers.
Vaughan felt South Africa had "got out of jail", but admitted his side had only narrowly escaped from Alcatraz themselves. When England, invited to bat first, were bundled out for a feeble 139 in barely two sessions, they would have gladly accepted a draw. It was their lowest first-innings score since making 134 in the famous comeback win against West Indies at Lord's in 2000. But that was on a bouncy, seaming pitch: this one began with some life but soon flattened out.
Still, three South African wickets before the close gave England a glimmer, and next morning the fringe middle-order players caved in. Van Jaarsveld, in for the injured Dippenaar, was bowled by Flintoff; Amla (replacing de Bruyn) hung in grimly for 42 minutes before receiving a brute of a ball from Harmison; and de Villiers, given the wicket-keeping gloves to accommodate the return of Gibbs, spooned Jones tamely to mid-wicket.
At 118 for six, the game was loitering in no-man's land. But Kallis was still there on 42, and set about batting South Africa into the ascendancy. Always seen as more of a run-machine than a crowd-pleaser, he now played an innings worthy of Lara. Cautious at first, he scored 83 in the first two sessions of the second day, before plundering a masterful 66 runs in 20 overs after tea - a spectacle which might have been designed to silence critics who said he had no fourth gear. In all, Kallis batted four minutes over six hours, faced 264 balls and hit 21 fours and a hooked six off Flintoff. He supervised the addition of 214 runs for the last four wickets. Humid Durban is no place for fielding teams that start wilting, and England - missing Giles who was resting after his back went into spasm - just flopped.
South Africa led by 193, but England's openers batted out an 11-over session that evening, and on the third day set about one of Test cricket's most vivacious fightbacks. The tone was set in a five-over spell either side of the morning drinks: Trescothick, all drives and sweeps, and Strauss, preferring cuts and pulls, battered 50 runs off Boje and Steyn, to bring up their fourth century stand in nine Tests.
At lunch, the partnership was worth 137; at tea 223. By then, England led by 30 and both men had their centuries, reached in successive overs. For Strauss it was a fourth hundred in his ninth Test: among England batsmen, only Herbert Sutcliffe (four hundreds in his first seven Tests) and Peter Parfitt (four in eight) had started their Test career with as much aplomb. He and Trescothick were set to bat for the entire day, against an attack that was visibly losing faith in itself, but had to settle for a stand of 273 when Trescothick nibbled at the second new ball. It was England's highest opening partnership since 1960, when Colin Cowdrey and Geoff Pullar put on 290 against South Africa at The Oval, and their fifth-largest in all.
Yet still the game remained up for grabs. England began the fourth day with a lead of just 88, lost three wickets for 33, and could easily have folded. But this just set up the sort of mini-crisis that Thorpe relishes. With the help of a commendably restrained Flintoff and Geraint Jones, he chipped and chivvied South Africa out of the game. And this time there would be no coming back. When Flintoff fell for 60, snicking a long-hop from Smith, Jones took over, carving an impish 73. Thorpe's 16th Test hundred, after scraping just one run in the first innings, typified England's topsy-turvy batting: 570 for seven was their third-highest second-innings total.
Set a notional 378, South Africa lost Smith that evening, and were four down by lunch the next day after loose off-side strokes from Gibbs and, more surprisingly, Kallis. Rudolph and van Jaarsveld steered them into calmer waters at 172 for four an hour after the break, before three wickets in five overs threatened to sink the ship. But de Villiers, who would complete a hard-earned maiden Test fifty, and Pollock held firm for nearly two hours, and the clouds came in. So England finished their golden year with 11 Test wins and two draws: only genius, in the form of Brian Lara's worldrecord 400 not out, and now the weather had denied them.
Man of the Match: J. H. Kallis.