Fifth Test Match

South Africa v England

At Centurion, January 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 2005. Drawn. Toss: England.

For the second time at Centurion, a rain-affected match involving England was given a fresh lease of life on the final afternoon by a tempting South African declaration. But whereas Hansie Cronje's gamble in 1999-2000 had been motivated by greed, Graeme Smith's was born purely of desperation. Trailing 2-1 in the series, South Africa's hopes of levelling the series by conventional means had not been helped by a first-day washout and, with England requiring only a draw for victory in the series, it was always going to take something remarkable to force a result.

To achieve that aim, Smith announced South Africa would "go for broke". In Nel, a combative, in-your-face fast bowler who took six wickets in his first appearance of the series following a back injury, and de Villiers, their fearless young strokemaker who hit 201 runs in the match, he had two men who responded magnificently. But for all their bold ambitions, South Africa ultimately fell short of the necessary resolve, and by dallying on the final morning when a declaration could have been a few lusty blows away, they allowed themselves just 44 overs in which to pull off a miracle. As if to highlight the extent of the missed opportunity, England then slumped to 20 for three. But Vaughan stood firm for over two hours for an unbeaten 26 to secure England's fourth series win in a row, and his fifth out of seven as captain. It had been his hardestfought yet.

The blame for South Africa's reticence was pinned on their senior campaigner, Kallis - perhaps unfairly, given that he had carried their batting all series. His third century in four matches was another technically supreme performance that took his series tally to 625 runs - over 250 more than any of his team-mates - but he seemed not to share his captain's optimism on the final day that a result was still attainable. After reaching three figures, he added only 34 more in 16 overs by the declaration, as a succession of colleagues came and went in a frantic attempt to lift the run-rate. If Kallis was the scapegoat, then South Africa's other centurion, de Villiers, was their silver lining. Restored to the opening berth after his mid-series dalliance with the wicket-keeping gloves, he let a maiden Test century slip through his grasp in the first innings but, to the delight of his home crowd, made amends second time round, as he and Kallis cashed in on England's lack of urgency to add 227 for the third wicket. Aged 20 years and 11 months, he was South Africa's third-youngest centurion, behind Graeme Pollock and Tuppy Owen-Smith. Between them, de Villiers and Kallis helped turn a deficit of 112 into a target of 185, but there was too much at stake for England even to contemplate a shot at glory. Since readmission in 1992, only the Australians (twice) had managed to win a series on South African soil, while England had not been victorious there since M. J. K. Smith's team won 1-0 in 1964-65. Afterwards, Vaughan rightly hailed the achievement as the best moment he had known as captain.

Admittedly, England's task had been eased by the loss of the first day to the weather - their seventh blank day out of 11 in three Tests on the ground - although the Centurion groundstaff seemed to have done their bit for the cause. Presented with a vivid green wicket that had sweated for an extra 24 hours under the covers, England contemplated giving the Gloucestershire seamer Jon Lewis (flown out as emergency cover after the hard pounding at the Wanderers) a surprise debut, but in the end put their faith in the quartet that had carried them through the first three matches, recalling Simon Jones in place of Anderson. By the close of the first day, England had taken control of their destiny, although not in the expected fashion. The greenness of the wicket turned out to be the reddest of herrings; still, from 114 for one South Africa slumped to 247 for nine - which became 247 all out two balls into the next day - as Flintoff bent his back heroically on an unforgiving surface. He flew home immediately after the match for surgery on his troublesome left ankle but, in removing the cream of South Africa's line-up at a cost of 44 runs, he showed not a sign of his discomfort.

The weather remained in England's favour. Two spectacular thunderstorms limited the third day's play to just 46 overs, but England did their best to keep the contest alive. They donated three wickets for two runs to the new ball, and then lost Strauss shortly before the close with lightning striking all around. But by lunch the following morning the match seemed all but safe. Flintoff and Thorpe batted with supreme caution in a 141-run partnership, with Flintoff 's half-century coming from 123 balls, the slowest of his international career. Nel, whose constant histrionics masked a skilful and controlled return to the side, finished with a career-best six for 81. By then, however, South Africa had conceded first-innings lead and, when Flintoff grabbed two quick wickets with the new ball, they looked in danger of losing the match as well. Kallis and de Villiers soon forced England to readjust their ambitions but, when it came to forging ambitions of their own, South Africa were unable to back up their words with deeds.

Man of the Match: A. B. de Villiers. Man of the Series: A. J. Strauss.

© John Wisden & Co