Report by Neil Robinson 19/08/03
One-nil down in the series, plagued by injuries to most of their senior bowlers and facing a strong and confident opposition, England arrived at Trent Bridge for the Third Test desperate for a slice of good fortune. They got it when the coin landed the wrong way up after South African skipper Graeme Smith’s call and Michael Vaughan chose to bat first on a threatening looking pitch covered with a mosaic of cracks.
Given first use of the pitch, England’s batsmen made the most of the relatively easy conditions to forge a match-winning total, but South Africa fought defiantly to the end, and it was only a well-timed demonstration of potential by the hosts’ young pace attack in the final two sessions which sealed the game for England.
Both sides made two changes from Lord’s. England reacted to Darren Gough’s retirement by granting James Kirtley a long-awaited Test debut and drafted in Kent’s run-machine Ed Smith in place of the unfortunate Anthony McGrath. South Africa were pleased to welcome back Jacques Kallis following his father’s funeral, Dewald Pretorius making way, but were forced to bring in Neil McKenzie in place of Gary Kirsten, who was struggling with an elbow injury picked up in training. Surprisingly, of the four newcomers, the classy Kallis was the one to make the least impression on an enthralling game.
Conditions for batting may have been easiest on day one, but facing Shaun Pollock with a new ball in his hand is never exactly a cakewalk and England were soon looking vulnerable when Vaughan edged to slip with only 7 on the board. Soon afterwards, it was 29 for 2, Andrew Hall’s memorable summer continuing when he had Trescothick caught behind by Boucher. Even this early in the match, there was plenty of seam movement available for the accurate bowler, but the experienced Mark Butcher and Nasser Hussain held on with some ease to take England to a position of safety, Hussain issuing a personal statement of intent by driving his first ball handsomely through cover for four. It wasn’t until after tea that the third wicket fell and by that time 189 had been added.
In many ways the partnership was a mirror image of Hussain and Butcher’s second innings stand at Lord’s, Butcher all charm and timing, stroking the ball through the off-side with effortless grace, Hussain solid and uncompromising, refusing to give an inch of ground, wordlessly demanding an apology from those pundits (myself included) who judged after Lord’s that he no longer possessed the strength of will to play Test Cricket. I stand corrected. The difference from Lord’s was that neither batsman cracked and gave his wicket away, that South Africa, instead of seeming as dogged in their pursuit of wickets throughout the stand, seemed fretful and uncertain of how to make the breakthrough, that the breakthrough, when it came, was greeted by relief rather than jubilation. Both men made their way to well deserved hundreds, Butcher’s warmly greeted by a public which always relishes high quality strokeplay, Hussain’s met by the kind of ovation which is reserved for efforts of true significance, for triumphs of personal endeavour over the forces of circumstance, history and fate. It was more than two minutes before he was allowed to lower his bat so that the game could continue.
In the end it was a good ball from Ntini, slanted across Butcher and seaming away towards the slips, which found the crucial edge. Ed Smith strolled to the crease for his maiden Test innings at 218 for 3, to be greeted by some friendly verbals from Paul Adams at short-leg. But the tall right-hander with the Prince William looks and the double-first mind remained impressively unruffled, meeting the ball with a broad bat and classical high elbow to keep out the early forays from Pollock and Ntini. He stayed with Hussain until the close, then pushed on with him in the morning, bringing up a worthy debut 50 before edging a Kallis outswinger for 64.
Smith’s innings showed the benefit of picking a man for his debut when in prime form, a concept successive generations of England selectors have found strangely hard to grasp. He defended beautifully against Pollock and Ntini when new to the wicket, then when they returned with the new ball, he swayed back to the first delivery and unleashed a fierce, short-arm pull which sent the ball fizzing to the boundary. His strokeplay and working of the ball was encouraging, but most impressive was his solidity in defence. His back-foot defensive stroke, moving back and across his stumps and playing the ball out towards mid-on, was pure Stephen Rodger Waugh.
Hussain fell shortly before Smith on the second morning, trapped lbw by a Pollock nip-backer, then Flintoff hung around for a prolonged half-hour duck, ended by a fine delivery from Hall which he nicked to slip. The newish ball and overcast morning skies made batting a far trickier business, a theme which was to be significant for the rest of the match. Stewart and Giles battled through without making much headway, until a loose comeback over from Ntini fed Stewart a couple of boundaries just before lunch. It was a curious error, getting Stewart into his stride and reinvigorating an innings which had looked stagnant. Why Smith failed to use Adams when Stewart was fresh at the crease is hard to understand.
England’s last four wickets added a total of 98 runs, the backbone of which was Stewart’s fine, chanceless 72. Giles made another uncomplicated contribution of 21 in a stand of 41, and the rest of the tail all did their bit, especially Harmison, who moved from joking with the close fielders when he blocked his first ball with the middle of the bat to lofting Adams over mid-off for four and hooking Ntini sweetly to the midwicket boundary. England’s total of 445 was competitive in most circumstances, on a crumbling pitch it was absolutely priceless.
But, first England had to find their way past South Africa’s prolific openers, Smith and Gibbs. They seemed set for another record breaking partnership as they eased their way past 50 without trouble, seeing off the wayward Anderson and blunting the accurate Flintoff and Kirtley. But Harmison, bowling fast and straight in his finest spell yet for England, again found the inside edge of Gibbs’ crooked forward defensive and leaped for joy as the ball cannoned onto off stump. Ten runs later the impossible happened and Smith was out cheaply, treading on his stumps as he worked Flintoff into the leg side.
The match seemed well poised overnight with South Africa on 84 for 2, but within five minutes of the restart it looked to have taken a decisive turn in England’s favour. The debutant Kirtley, bowling a full length and moving the ball both ways off the seam took two wickets in the first over of the day, finding the edge of Jacques Rudolph’s bat then jagging one back to trap Boeta Dippenaar in front with consecutive balls. In his next over he found the edge of Kallis’ bat too, but Stewart, standing very close to compensate for the slow pace and low bounce of the pitch, couldn’t hold on to the catch.
Kallis never looked comfortable. With the pitch now showing increasing sings of uneven bounce, he took several raps on the knuckles and seemed unsure whether to play forward or back. But he hung on for an hour and a crucial hour it was, for by the time he misjudged one from Anderson which jagged back to rip out his off-stump while he shouldered arms, the ball was that little bit softer, the weather that little bit brighter, the uneven bounce beginning to level out to a degree. The exemplary techniques of McKenzie and Boucher saw them through to lunch, then for the second day out of three, on a pitch strongly criticized by Graeme Smith the night before, we saw two batsmen bat undefeated through the afternoon session.
When Kallis fell, with the score 132 for 5, South Africa were still well short of the follow on and looked dead for all money. Twenty-four hours later, the visitors were in the box seats having turned the match on its head in a stunning display of skill, determination and self-belief. Prominent among their key performers was McKenzie, whose four hour 90 was filled with gutsy resistance and well-judged strokes. Where Butcher and Hussain had combated the slow pace of the pitch by batting well outside the crease, McKenzie chose to counteract the occasional low bounce by getting well foward at every opportunity, even to balls where instinct would have told him to play back.
Mark Boucher, following an improved display behind the stumps, was equally impressive in a partnership of 129 which took South Africa past the follow-on target. McKenzie deserved a century, but fell 10 short thanks to the sudden return to form of James Anderson. After all his struggles since being warned for following through down the pitch by Umpire Venkat at Edgbaston, Anderson suddenly rediscovered his outswinger just after tea on day 3. After one over of playing and missing, McKenzie finally attempted a drive at what he thought was the inswinger, only to edge the ball into Stewart’s gloves. Boucher fell soon after, trapped lbw by Flintoff, but Pollock did for South Africa’s tail what Stewart had done for England’s, the last four wickets adding a total of 101 before Pollock mis-hit a pull off Anderson to mid-on to end a delightful 62. England were happy that the rejuvenated Anderson had picked off the tail to end with 5 for 102, but the lead of 83 was less than they would have hoped for.
Soon, it looked even less than that. With England’s openers left to face just one over at the end of day 3, it was inevitable that the slightest hint of a chance would lead to an almighty appeal from the South Africans. So when Pollock’s first ball popped up off Trescothick’s thigh-pad into the hands of Adams at short-leg, it was hardly surprising that the whole fielding side turned to Umpire Daryl Harper with raised arms and screaming voices. Harper, hearing two noises he took to be a nick from bat onto pad, raised his finger. TV replays showed bat scraping pad before ball thudded into thigh pad. Such misfortunes tend to even out over time, but sometimes it’s not so much about what as about when. As the players trudged off, it was the side 83 ahead with 9 wickets in hand which did so in despair.
It got worse the next morning. The deadly combination of new ball, uneven bounce and morning cloud saw England lose four wickets before lunch to a peerless display of accuracy and hostility from South Africa’s bowlers. Vaughan edged Pollock to slip again, Butcher lost his off-stump to Hall, Smith followed up his debut 64 with a first ball lbw, Stewart could only touch a Kallis outswinger to the keeper. It was truly outstanding stuff from the tourists. And it didn’t end there. This time there was no afternoon lull as South Africa bagged another five after lunch to wrap the innings up for just 118, Shaun Pollock following up his fine work with the bat to bag 6 for 39 on the same ground where his father Peter had taken a haul of 10 wickets in 1965 and his uncle Graeme had struck a memorable 125 in the same match. There was little to blame in England’s batting, especially in Hussain’s fighting 30, save for a suspicion that they might have used McKenzie’s method of pushing forward more often, but even the South Africans were having trouble with the demons in the pitch now.
South Africa needed 202 to win and all the smart money was on them. The story of the series so far had been all about English bowlers struggling to cope against the South African onslaught, even the first innings here had done little to alter that perception. But all the time the pitch was slowly deteriorating, the excessive movement, both vertical and horizontal, making it a testing game for Umpires Hair and Harper as well as the batsmen. To cap it all, South Africa suddenly found themselves facing an English attack which at last had found it could match the efforts of its South African counterparts blow for blow.
The first wicket fell at 22, and again it signified a change in the extraordinary luck of Graeme Smith. After treading on his stumps in the first innings, this time he was adjudged lbw to a Kirtley inswinger despite a fine inside edge. But if there was a question about the validity of that dismissal, there could be no doubt about the one which followed, Rudolph absolutely plumb in front to a similar delivery from Kirtley for a duck. Now the pressure was well and truly on. Gibbs and Dippenaar subjected to a concentrated barrage of line and length bowling from all four of England’s seamers. Kirtley was the model of the accurate English seamer, Anderson a changed man, back to the threatening fast swing bowler of the winter, Flintoff exactly what we have come to expect, denying the drive, cramping the batsmen for width, Harmison, strapped up and breaking through the pain barrier to bowl a brave and testing spell.
Three more wickets were to fall before the close, making a total of 14 for the day. First, Gibbs found himself frustrated once again by Harmison, tempted into a suicide pull which lobbed gently to Giles, then Dippenaar crazily chipped Anderson to Smith at midwicket. Finally, Kallis, tormented by the demons he’d encountered in the first innings, pushed tentatively forward to Anderson and chopped the ball on to his stumps. Now it was McKenzie and Boucher hanging on again, every run gained a major operation, every ball survived an achievement in itself. But hang on they did, and South Africa went to stumps on 63 for 5, still needing 139 to win.
There was still hope for South Africa on the final morning, but they needed to keep wickets in hand until the ball became softer and the uneven bounce correspondingly less pronounced, but by now the pitch was a minefield, and England had the plan and the luck to take advantage. Twenty minutes of grim defence ended when Kirtley got one to jag back and keep low, McKenzie could only watch as it slipped through to hit his off-stump. His 11 runs had taken 73 balls. Nine runs later, Pollock got an even worse ball from Flintoff, which ran straight along the ground under his bat to bowl him. When Andrew Hall flashed at a wide one from Kirtley and Trescothick grabbed a sharp slip catch, South Africa were 81 for 8, and England were closing in on victory.
However, this was a match which twisted like a Chubby Checker retrospective and for the next hour Paul Adams blocked soundly while Mark Boucher somehow eked out a run a ball in another vital knock for his side. A sizeable crowd, tempted in by free admission and not disappointed, sat silently on the edge of their seats unable to move, speak, or think as South Africa edged towards what seemed an impossible win. In the end, though, Vaughan pulled off the masterstroke by bringing back the tireless Kirtley who produced extra bounce from the Pavilion end to hit Adams’ splice and grab a return catch. Left with only Ntini for support, Boucher tried the expansive route and edged to Stewart, Kirtley had 6 for 34 on debut and England had won by 70 runs.
Few would deny that this was far from an ideal surface for Test Cricket, but what a fine match it produced. Good batting and good bowling was rewarded, both sides showed sufficient quality in both departments. James Kirtley had waited long for his chance, found an ideal surface for his talents and made the most of it with a superb performance which earned the man of the match award. He was the third England pace bowler to make his Test debut this summer, all three grabbing five wickets on debut. England selector Rod Marsh, who once derided England’s bowlers as ‘pie throwers’, must find that a heartening statistic, critics of county cricket may find it hard to explain that one away.
But credit also must go to South Africa. To have batted second on that pitch and come so close to upsetting the odds was a magnificent performance by any standards. Graeme Smith hit the nail on the head after the match when he paid tribute to the “immense character” shown by his team. For the next Test at Headingley, starting on Thursday, they will have to cope without Shaun Pollock, who is returning home on paternity leave for a first glimpse of his new daughter (men’s cricket teams 20 years hence may be glad of that little quirk of nature), but if that lowers the overall skill level of their team it is unlikely to hit their spirit. England for their part will probably have to cope without Harmison, whose calf strain looks unlikely to recover in time, a pity since this was a particularly impressive performance from the tall Durham boy. In the spirit of the England seamers’ injury crisis, the most obvious choice of replacement, Lancashire’s Glen Chapple, 12th man here, picked up an ankle injury in his county game for Lancashire. Quelle surprise! Instead, the selectors have gone for two separate replacements, Worcestershire tyro Kabir Ali, fresh from an 8-wicket haul at Scarborough, and Surrey’s veteran Martin Bicknell, who played two Tests against Australia in 1993 and remains one of the most skilful and consistent swing bowlers in the country. The option is there to play a five-seamer attack.
With the series now level with two to play, England will hope to take advantage of the absence of Pollock and the expected result wicket at Headingley to take a 2-1 lead into the final Test at The Oval. But if this excellent series has taught us anything at all, it’s that we shouldn’t have a damn clue what to expect!
England 445 (Hussain 116, Butcher 106, Stewart 72, Smith 64) & 118 (Pollock 6-39)
South Africa 362 ( McKenzie 90, Pollock 62, Boucher 48, Anderson 5-102) & 131 (Kirtley 6-34)
England won by 70 runs.
Man of the Match: