Fourth Test Match

South Africa v England

Matthew Engel

At Johannesburg, January 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 2005. England won by 77 runs. Toss: England.

Most of the time, this Test resembled a well-run sightseeing tour (probably to a safari park, since this was definitely Big Game): it was always so varied and interesting no one objected that it seemed certain to lead them back exactly where they started. Then, just after lunch on the final day, the bus was hijacked by Hoggard, with a classical display of swing bowling. The draw all the shrewdies expected never happened, and England managed what eluded them in Durban. Once again, they found the onset of darkness harder to beat than South Africa, but this time they just managed it, and went 2-1 up.

It was their 12th Test win in ten months, and the most improbable of the lot. Vaughan's final-day declaration was a touch conservative, understandably so since his attack was in tatters: the spearhead Harmison had fallen so far that mid-match speculation suggested he might fly home; Flintoff seemed both wounded and distracted; Anderson had not played a first-class match since August, and it showed; even the spinner Giles was hurt. So Hoggard carried the team on his shoulders like Atlas. He bowled them to victory with seven for 61 and match figures of 12 for 205, England's best in 25 years.

It was an amazing and thrilling end to a match that often seemed four-sided. The two teams were contending against the ever-unpredictable Highveld summer weather, and the even more mysterious ICC regulations (copies almost unobtainable) and conditions of play. The pitch itself was a puzzle: Vaughan finally had some luck with the toss, but his response was not obvious. England expected the ball to swing, which explained the return of Anderson for Jones. (South Africa made another unforced wicket-keeping change, recalling Boucher and playing de Villiers as a specialist bat instead of Amla; Steyn replaced the injured Langeveldt.) Vaughan opted to bat, and was soon proved right: the bowlers quickly found themselves paying homage yet again to Strauss, who not merely scored his third century of the series but was England's top-scorer for the sixth time in seven innings - one extra boundary in Cape Town and it would have been seven out of seven.

Strauss's judgment and timing again looked flawless and, with hard-hitting support from Key, the ball kept racing along the fast outfield; England rocketed to 262 for two just after the new ball was taken. But during tea Ntini had been placed thigh-high in a barrel of ice by coach Ray Jennings to liven him up (it is thought he agreed to this) and it seemed to work. Strauss's departure, as the light declined, was not well timed; Thorpe quickly followed, and the middle order caved in when the next day dawned damp, Pollock and Ntini forming an alliance with the lowering clouds in two short early sessions to reduce England to 293 for seven. Vaughan was still there, grafting his way out of a mini-crisis for both himself and his team. In his first 129 minutes he only made 14, but his form and confidence gradually returned. After he had put on 82 in a rollicking ninth-wicket stand with Harmison, England were flying again.

The batsmen could see the ball all right but, with the floodlights on, the fielders were griping, apparently bothered by the light reflecting off it. The umpires gave in, and called the game off for the day just before a late burst of sunshine. Bob Willis, commentating on Sky TV, said umpire Bucknor, in his 98th Test, was "disgraceful" and should "sail off into the sunset". Vaughan said mildly: "All we ask for is consistency. We don't think it [the umpiring] has been consistent today." Referee Clive Lloyd couldn't fine Willis (though he later admonished South African commentators for not knowing the regulations). But he stamped on Vaughan by fining him his whole match fee, estimated at £5,500.

England declared overnight, expecting another damp day. In fact, the weather steadily improved, and large weekend crowds saw South Africa clamber back into the contest. Both Hoggard and Harmison were hopeless with the new ball: Harmison's figures were impressively economical, but that was mainly because the batsmen could leave almost everything alone. Then he damaged his calf and went off in mid-over. He came back on to the field later, but was evidently unfit to bowl even when it became legally possible, as Vaughan learned in an unusually public argument with the physio Kirk Russell (rough translation: "Can he bowl?" "No, he can't!" "Why the hell not?") with Harmison shrugging in the background.

Anderson was allowed to bowl, but had forgotten how. Luckily for England, Hoggard remembered, and began to work his way through the innings. At 184 for five, England were still in charge. But the South African batting order often seems bottomless, and Gibbs rediscovered his form, less traumatically than Vaughan, and eventually found an ally in the ever-perky Boucher, who was making it clear that, having regained his place, he intended to keep it. Anderson (in the course of a nine-ball over) somehow got rid of Boucher. Then came more drama: Jones, behind the stumps, damaged his left thumb and dropped both Gibbs and Boje in successive overs - the last on Saturday and the first on Sunday. Gibbs made another 25, Boje another 44, and a potentially useful England lead turned into a deficit of eight, with Gibbs making 161. By Sunday morning, England were so ragged that the occasional trundler Trescothick was used as first change with a still-newish ball. Yet the South African captain Smith's enjoyment of this was decidedly impaired: he had been concussed when hit during fielding practice.

England were still behind when Strauss finally failed, trying to drive Ntini's first ball. Trescothick, in his more accustomed role (all hands and eye, and no feet) and Vaughan saved them from meltdown. But on the final morning, they were only 189 on with half the side out; though the draw was hot favourite, a South African win seemed the most viable alternative. Trescothick put paid to that, charging on to 180, mainly supported by Giles, himself struggling with a right thumb dislocated when he had caught Rudolph two days earlier. Vaughan waited for Trescothick to get out before setting South Africa 325 in what seemed a notional 68 overs, because of the likelihood of bad light.

This was Hoggard's moment. He found the perfect length, swing in both directions and growing cracks in both the pitch and the batsmen's composure. Soon it was 18 for three, with Kallis nicking a slip catch first ball. Success re-energised England. Hoggard was dauntless; Flintoff gave staunch support; Harmison found enough inspiration at least to worry the batsmen, if not dismiss any. Gibbs, though, galloped to 98 in three hours through the gaps in the aggressive fields, and Smith shrugged off doctor's orders to march in at No. 8 and hold firm. England were anxiously scanning the clouds, and even sent out their spare players (most of whom had not set foot on a field in weeks) to act as ball boys in the absence of a last-day crowd. Twice the sun went in, and England groaned. Twice it came out again. At seven minutes to six, Hoggard induced a nick from last man Steyn. England had their first Test win at the Wanderers in 48 years, and one to rank among their most remarkable anywhere.

© John Wisden & Co