First Cornhill Test


Matthew Engel

Toss: South Africa. Test debut: J. P. Crawley.

The first Test between the countries for 29 years began with the word historic being used to the point of monotony but ended with controversy engulfing the England captain, Mike Atherton, and threatening his future. The Atherton affair took over all discussion of the match and the genuinely historic outcome - a devastating South African victory - was all but forgotten amid the fuss.

Normally, England being bowled out for 99 on a sound wicket might have caused a great deal of anguish. However, everyone was preoccupied by the fact that Atherton, fielding on Saturday afternoon, was seen by the TV cameras taking his hand out of his pocket and rubbing it across the ball before passing it back to the bowler. He was called before the referee, Peter Burge, to explain what the official statement called his unfamiliar action and answer suspicions that he had broken Law 42.5 by using an artificial substance to alter the condition of the ball. Burge said he had accepted Atherton's explanation without saying what it was. But the following day, after further TV pictures were shown that looked even more sinister and England's batsmen had crumpled to a humiliating four-day defeat, Atherton admitted publicly that he had not told Burge the truth by saying that he had nothing in his pocket. In fact, he said, he had some dirt there that he picked up to keep his hands dry and prevent moisture getting on the ball while Darren Gough was trying to reverse-swing it; the second set of pictures clearly showed some of the dirt falling off it.

Ray Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, immediately fined Atherton £2,000 - half for using the dirt, though that was not a breach of any Law, and half for the lie. He hoped that would close the matter. But over the next 48 hours, there was a tidal wave of public emotion in which almost everyone from the cricket correspondent of the BBC to people who had never seen a match in their lives demanded Atherton's resignation. Illingworth and the TCCB remained staunch in their support, though. The umpires said the condition of the ball had not been changed and the South Africans made no complaint, except to grumble that their triumph had been ignored. Five days after the game ended, Atherton relieved the pressure by emerging from something close to hiding and calling a press conference at which he did not entirely explain away the pictures but stressed repeatedly that he had never cheated at cricket.

If Atherton was a cheat, he was not a very successful one. England's bowlers mostly failed, though not quite as humiliatingly as their batsmen. England had dropped both Such and Smith, who had been desperate to play against the country of his birth, and named two uncapped players in their 12: the Hampshire off-spinner Shaun Udal and the Lancashire batsman John Crawley. Udal was then left out of the team in favour of the leg-spinner Salisbury, the 12th man in the last Test against New Zealand. South Africa, concerned that both their spinners were below standard, named an attack entirely comprising right-arm seam bowlers.

The formalities included the officials being presented to Thabo Mbeki, the recently-appointed deputy president of South Africa, and reports of the almost as ritualised refusal-of-admission-to-the-pavilion: the victim was the Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who was out of uniform and not wearing a jacket. On the field, the first day consisted of South Africa winning the toss and their captain, Wessels, playing an innings that epitomised his country's approach to Test cricket: unflashy but utterly determined.

Wessels spent just under five hours scoring 105. His partnerships with his fellow left-hander Gary Kirsten, whose 72 was just as deadpan though it included some high-class cutting, and Rhodes gave the South African first innings its body. At the end of the first day, the game was evenly matched at 244 for six, but it was typical of both sides that South Africa's last four wickets were able to add 116. For no obvious reason, England then collapsed before Donald's pace and De Villiers's swing; no one played a substantial innings, though Hick yet again promised flickeringly before losing his way and then his wicket.

On the third morning, England avoided the follow-on after a brief counter-attack from DeFreitas, but Donald finished off the tail to take five for 74. South Africa began consolidating their lead of 177, a task which - but for the cameras and Atherton - might have been uneventful. Though no South African batsman played a long innings, the bowlers again failed to exercise proper control, except for the occasional off-spinner Hick, who bowled 21 consecutive overs for only 27. Gough looked something close to the spearhead England had been seeking, and apparently did manage to reverse-swing the ball on the fourth morning to york Peter Kirsten and Rhodes. But the overall performance of the attack, with DeFreitas out of sorts and Fraser weary, was below par.

South Africa declared at Sunday lunchtime, setting England 456 to win, which would have been improbable in any circumstances. It is difficult to assess the extent to which England were affected by the storm gathering over the captain, who had led his team out in the morning with his hands, insouciantly and provocatively, in his pockets. Atherton and Crawley were both caught in the slips; Hick received an unkind lbw decision from umpire Randell; then Stewart, after an unusually dogged innings, was caught behind and White was out first ball. On five, Gooch had passed Viv Richards to go fourth on the list of all-time Test match run-makers. But from 74 for three, England fell away to 99 all out, a score lower than all but two in the County Championship so far. It was England's lowest only since the 46 in the Trinidad Test less than four months earlier.

The new South African flag did flutter in the closing stages, despite MCC's earlier request to the team to obey their regulations banning all flags. The match throughout was played in extreme heat and some humidity, which helped the swing bowlers and, according to Atherton, explained why he needed the dirt to dry his hands. It may also have contributed to the air of frenzy that took over when the cricket finished.

Man of the Match: K. C. Wessels.

Attendance: 103,198; receipts £2,253,275.

Close of play: First day, South Africa 244-6 (B. M. McMillan 2*, D. J. Richardson 1*); Second day, England 141-7 (I. D. K. Salisbury 3*); Third day, South Africa 195-4 (P. N. Kirsten 40*, J. N. Rhodes 23*).

© John Wisden & Co