Toss: England.

At the end of an epic Test, the hardest-to-please audience in the cricketing world gathered, thousands strong, beneath Headingley's balcony to watch the England players dousing themselves with champagne. The game's rulers, pausing in their planning for an uncertain future, could be forgiven for joining the faintly delirious rejoicing. On the way to winning their first major series for nearly 12 years, England had, it seemed, conquered the public cynicism bred during an era in which humiliation followed hope as routinely as day turned into night.

Almost six weeks earlier, on the first day of the Third Test, Old Trafford had been half-empty. Yet, on the last day here, around 10,000 turned up for what, it transpired, was a mere half-hour's cricket. Admittedly, Headingley threw open its gates and, in these parts, getting summat for nowt still has its appeal. But four days of gripping, finely balanced, hand-to-hand combat had created an unmissable climax. In an atmosphere that changed by the second from deathly silence to roaring expectation, South Africa, 185 for eight overnight, set out to get 34 to win. They never looked like making it. In the sixth over, Fraser lured Donald into waving a catch to Stewart. In the next over, last man Ntini was hit on the pad by Gough and Pakistani umpire Javed Akhtar made the last and easiest of the decisions that had brought him four days of painful notoriety.

Resentment over umpiring mistakes lingered on from the previous Test. Even while the South Africans were having their pre-match net, Donald was fined half his match fee (about £550) for claiming in a radio interview that umpire Mervyn Kitchen made a few shockers at Trent Bridge. Referee Ahmed Ebrahim, a judge of the Zimbabwe Supreme Court, considered an immediate one-match ban, but instead suspended it for a year.

That allowed South Africa to field an all-pace attack, to drop left-arm spinner Adams, give 34-year-old McMillan his first Test of the series and restore Ntini in place of Elworthy. England stayed with the same eleven. This time off-spinner Croft was not even called up, but Salisbury was included ahead of pace bowler Mullally, a misjudgment that might have had far more serious consequences. The theory was that Salisbury's wrist-spin might be useful in the last innings. In fact, it was irrelevant throughout. The wicket was slow and two-placed, and the bounce grew ever less predictable.

The highly hyped return bout between Atherton and Donald never got beyond them promising a good, clean fight. Atherton stayed 18 overs, but faced only six balls from Donald before he was caught at slip, setting Ntini on his way to Test-best figures of four for 72. By then, Butcher had decided on bold action, which brought him a maiden Test century and, ultimately, the match award. England's faith in him encouraged Butcher to play the brave, opportunistic, less-than-perfect style that comes naturally to him. He struck 18 fours in his 116, some of them apparently hit for sheer pleasure without a thought for survival. By coincidence, his father made a comeback for Surrey the same day. Alan Butcher froze in his only Test. Mark was determined never to follow suit.

When he swung once too often at Pollock and edged into his stumps, England went into steep decline and raging controversy. They lost their last six for 34 - a feat they repeated exactly in the second innings - and left the television cameras re-examining several dismissals with slow-motion, magnification and something approaching paranoia. Did the ball brush Hussain's thumb on the way to wicket-keeper Boucher? Did Boucher take Ramprakash's edge on the half volley? Did Flintoff's bat make any contact when the ball flew to Liebenberg at short leg? Sometimes, even the camera could not believe its own eye.

The only unarguable fact was that England's 230 was inadequate. South Africa were not able to exploit that because, yet again, Fraser bowled with intelligence and impeccable accuracy. He took five wickets for the third successive Test innings, giving South Africa their obligatory bad start by removing Kirsten and Liebenberg for only 36. Slowly, the middle order rebuilt, with a mixture of grit and good luck. Though Ramprakash took a spine-twisting catch to get Kallis for 40, England dropped three easier ones in 22 balls. Cronje was put down by Hussain at slip, Rhodes by Ramprakash at square leg and Hick at slip. Inevitably, Fraser cleared up the mess by having Cronje leg-before for a four-hour 57. Fraser can never be as tired as he looks, but he was close to exhaustion when he drove himself into a last-hour effort to take three in 11 balls.

A lead of only 22 disappointed South Africa, but the bounce was becoming more eccentric and their slender advantage looked priceless on the third morning, when Atherton was leg-before to Donald's first ball. Had Hussain not chosen this moment to play what was mentally the toughest and physically the most courageous innings of his Test career, England would have been finished. Donald and Pollock, tearing at the innings like lions fighting over a fresh kill, shared the ten wickets. But Hussain stayed the rest of that day and when, on the next, he pushed Pollock's slower ball to mid-off, he had been there seven hours. He was six short of a century and walked off, head down, wiping away the tears, oblivious to the standing ovation.

Donald demolished the rest of the innings, leaving South Africa to aim for 219. On another day and another ground, it would have been well within their scope. Here, though, the crowd was hostile and the opposition rampant. Within 15 overs, they were 27 for five. Gough, so often unbalanced by Headingley's adulation, was this time inspired. He got three of those five for only ten. It took the bouncy Rhodes and the bear-like McMillan to cool the temperature. They reached 144 for five before McMillan, who made 54 in two and a half hours, top-edged his swing at Cork and lobbed a catch to Stewart. Minutes later, Rhodes's superb 85 was over and Gough was celebrating his 100th Test wicket, as were the zealots on the Western Terrace. With their alcohol rationed by an anti-hooligan campaign, they had got steadily drunk on success.

Many of them were there next morning when Gough finished off South Africa to collect his best Test analysis, six for 42. Stewart, having led England positively and sometimes adventurously in his first series as captain, was not slow to realise that this new, precious rapport with the public had to be preserved. The presentation ceremony was droning on when he cut it short, demanded the Cornhill Trophy and brandished it, Cup final fashion, before the crowd. They had waited long enough.

Man of the Match: M. A. Butcher. Men of the Series: England - M. A. Atherton; South Africa - A. A. Donald. Attendance: 60,035; receipts £1,102,334.

Close of play: First day, South Africa 9-0 (G. Kirsten 4*, G. F. J. Liebenberg 4*); Second day, England 2-0 (M. A. Butcher 0*, M. A. Atherton 1*); Third day, England 206-4 (N. Hussain 83*, I. D. K. Salisbury 4*); Fourth day, South Africa 185-8 (S. M. Pollock 24*, A. A. Donald 2*).