Report by Neil Robinson 25/08/03
The balance of this helter-skelter Series shifted back in South Africa’s favour as the tourists claimed a convincing 191 run win over England in the Fourth Test at Headingley. In a match packed with incident, some excellent batting by Gary Kirsten and Andrew Hall and a top class display of swing bowling by Jacques Kallis were the key to South Africa’s victory. But this was no one sided affair, at more than one point in the game England held the upper hand without ever managing to land the decisive blow. It is a flaw they must rectify quickly if they are to square the series two-all in the final Test at The Oval next week.
There was surprise and disappointment on the first morning when both sides bought into the Headingley myth and went into the match with five seamers and no front-line spinner. England gave a debut to Kabir Ali and recalled Martin Bicknell for his first Test in 10 years in place of Ashley Giles and Steve Harmison. South Africa had to manage without Shaun Pollock, absent for this match on paternity leave, and left out Paul Adams, bringing in Dewald Pretorius and the debutant Monde Zondeki. Gary Kirsten also returned in place of Boeta Dippenaar. Having picked a side suited to the notional seamer’s paradise, it came as a great surprise to most people then when South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith chose to bat first, reasoning that the cracked wicket might lead to uneven bounce later on.
It looked a strange decision at the time, and a dreadful one after an hour’s play during which South Africa crumbled to 21 for 4. Smith started the debacle himself with a wild slash at Kirtley’s fourth ball, Alec Stewart claiming a fine catch in front of first slip. At the other end, Bicknell’s decade of patience paid off second ball, when he produced the textbook outswinger which Gibbs could only nick to Stewart. An edgy Kallis soon drove Bicknell loosely to mid-off, then when Kabir Ali came on first change, he too claimed a wicket in his first over, Neil McKenzie edging a drive at a good swinging ball. South Africa’s mood at this point would not have been helped by the reflection that all except Gibbs had contributed to their own downfall.
But no South African side is ever finished before the last wicket falls, and Gary Kirsten typifies this never say die spirit more than most. Stubbornly refusing to play at anything he didn’t have to, waiting until the last minute to play ever ball under his nose and compensating for every last millimetre of movement, he was the immovable object which stood between England and a match-winning performance. Try as they might, they just couldn’t shift him. Jacques Rudolph was the first to give Kirsten the necessary support, scoring a skilful 55 and staying with him until an hour after lunch. It was never an easy task, batting under heavy cloud on a seaming pitch against some accurate English bowling and the partnership was a gutsy, rather than stylish affair. Having come in during the very first over, Kirsten had made just 44 by tea. But he had made just one error in that time, just before lunch when he lobbed up an easy catch to gully off a short ball from Flintoff, reprieved by the umpire’s call of no-ball. He had made just 28 at the time, it was a no-ball England would come to rue.
England looked to have gained back the initiative when Flintoff claimed the wickets of Boucher and Hall with successive deliveries either side of tea. South Africa were now 142 for 7 and in dire trouble. Nobody, not even his colleagues in the dressing room, knew what to expect when debutant Monde Zondeki strolled to the crease for his first Test innings. During a three-hour stand of 150 which brought him a fifty on debut and broke the hearts of England’s bowlers, Zondeki, christened “all-hands” by the England fielders, developed an endearing habit of staring up at the scoreboard and shaking his head in disbelief. The England players and a typically partisan crowd may well have shared this feeling, but his team-mates were too busy grinning with pleasure and gratitude.
Unsurprisingly, Zondeki received a real roasting from Flintoff when he first came to the crease. It was the fastest Flintoff has yet bowled for England, over 145kph, but the youngster stood firm, getting off the mark with a stylish on-drive for four, displaying a cool head and some elegant strokes. While at the other end Kirsten left the ball outside off-stump with exemplary judgement, Zondeki was keen to give the ball a whack. Perhaps there was an element of beginner’s luck, the ball either hit the middle of the bat or missed it completely and he must have played and missed at least once for every two runs he scored, but it was still a fine effort for his country and one warmly appreciated by the boisterous crowd.
Zondeki’s 59 finally ended on the second morning, a booming drive at Anderson flying low to gully. Kirsten, having reached a determined hundred on the first evening, fell trying to accelerate towards the end for 130, after a 7 hour, 38 minute masterclass in concentration and technique. But England’s sufferings didn’t end there as Makhaya Ntini blasted 32 not out at the death. South Africa’s final total of 342 was a far cry from the 180 or so England might have expected at 21 for 4 and 142 for 7, but the impression at this stage was the South Africa had dug themselves out of a hole, rather than England having let them off the hook.
At least the 200 added by South Africa’s last 3 wickets had shown what good batsmen could do on this supposed seamer’s paradise of a pitch and England started their reply in positive mood. They were unlucky to lose Michael Vaughan for 15 when a defensive stroke span back on to his stumps, but thereafter Butcher and Trescothick played with increasing freedom and some style. It has been a tough series for Trescothick, he came into it on a high following some destructive innings during the one-day series, but has struggled with the ball angled across him and the skiddy pace of Makhaya Ntini. His determination to reach his first Test hundred in more than a year was evident in his refusal to drive at anything outside off stump, restricting his scoring to cuts, clips off his pads and straight drives off middle stump. Butcher, meanwhile, continued to play as if in the form of his life, as he surely is, driving and cutting with more style than any English batsman since Gower.
For 45 minutes after tea, the two left-handers cut loose, adding another 54 to take the total to 164 for 1 as South Africa’s bowlers crumbled into disarray. Their length was far too short, cut after cut was sent skimming to the point boundary no matter how many defensive fielders were set to protect it, no-balls and wides were leaked with impunity and Smith looked by turns livid and dazed as his bowlers struggled to staunch the bleeding. In 2.5 overs 23 runs were scored, and then.....
When Umpires Simon Taufel and Billy Bowden got together for a chat, nobody on the ground could work out why at first, until the light meters came out. This was a surprise to most people, the light may have been poor by the standards of Perth or Auckland, but was no worse than below average for Leeds. But when the umpires actually offered it to the batsmen and, after a short discussion, Butcher and Trescothick turned and walked off, a wave of sheer incredulity swept across the ground. From that moment to the end of the game and beyond, this was the major talking point of the Test. Defending the decision in his Sunday newspaper article, Trescothick wrote, “If I found myself in that situation again, my argument would be the same.” Hopefully next time his partner will have the sense to cuff him round the earhole and tell him not to be such a silly arse. A subsequent comment from Andrew Hall perhaps encapsulates the moment best, “we couldn’t believe our luck when they accepted the offer of bad light.”
English views of this matter are probably coloured by memories of a similar occurance at last year’s Trent Bridge Test against India, when a decision to come off when England’s batsmen were dominant proved to be the turning point in the series, India going on to save the Test, win the next and square the rubber. The light on this occasion was certainly gloomier, but still, there England were, with a key opportunity to swing the match decisively in their favour, their opponents in disarray, not knowing where to turn, a full house roaring their approval and 25 overs left in the day. Instead, England lost their chance to cash in while the opposition was struggling, gave themselves an extra period in which they would have to play themselves in and gave South Africa a crucial chance to regroup. The rowdy, jubilant crowd was now confused, silent and angry.
Clearly the objective was to protect against any loss of wickets as the light drew in and come out in the morning only one down. But with so many overs remaining before the close it was always likely that further play would come and with it, the initiative having been handed over, a greater chance of losing wickets. Sure enough, 30 minutes later they were back out in only maginally better light, having to scratch around for a start once more. Sure enough, Trescothick soon popped back a return catch to a delighted Kallis for 59. Then Butcher perished 6 overs later driving at the same bowler and two new batsmen were at the crease in dubious light against an opposition once despondent, now revived and rampant. It was fortunate that the light closed in again soon enough, allowing England to go off and lick their wounds.
But England’s innings, and match, never recovered. The first ball of the third day found the edge of Smith’s bat and flew into Boucher’s gloves. Stewart hung on nervously for 90 minutes with Hussain before top-edging a pull off Pretorius, then Hussain himself was surprised by the part-time leg-spin of Rudolph and clipped the spinner’s second ball straight back to him. The tail was now exposed to the new ball, and never stood a chance. Flintoff struck a belligerent 55, to give some enjoyment to the crowd, but wickets fell continually and England’s final 307 was way short of what it should have been.
Sadly, one piece of unimaginitive, negative thinking had sabotaged England’s efforts in this game. The safety-first culture, so deeply ingrained in English cricket, had taken its toll yet again. Caution may be good sense in some circumstances, but when it becomes the position of first choice it is the enemy of self-belief and an obstacle to victory. The art of winning lies in dealing with setbacks when they arise, not in playing in expectation of them. Sometime soon, England are going to have to learn this lesson.
With the pitch now beginning to show increasing signs of unevenness, England’s one remaining hope was for some early wickets. Happily for them, Kirtley and Bicknell again obliged with a testing new ball spell, Gibbs and Smith both falling lbw with only 31 on the board. It might have been worse if Butcher hadn’t put down Kallis in the gully with the score 51, but Kallis survived and together with the obdurate, infuriating Kirsten, added a vital 97 with increasing confidence until Kirtley produced a beauty to have Kallis caught behind. Kirtley, in tandem with the off-spin of Vaughan, now produced an excellent spell of pressure building accuracy which bore more fruit when Kabir Ali came on to replace Vaughan and quickly nipped one back a long way to trap Kirsten lbw for an immaculately compiled 60. Then, as evening sunshine finally displaced the clouds for the first time in the match, Rudolph clipped Anderson off his hip straight into short leg’s hands to give England a very welcome fifth wicket.
South Africa, 164 for 5 at the close, now had a lead of 199 going into the fourth day. They had scope to add much more, but equally England felt that a few early wickets could wrap the innings up quickly and leave them with a gettable target. A repeat of the encouraging bowling of the third evening would have been ideal for them. Sadly, what transpired was one of the worst bowling performances by an England team in recent memory.
Running up to deliver the first ball of the day, Kirtley pulled out, apparently disturbed by the repaired footholds. Coming in for a second attempt, he seemed more concerned by where his feet were going than where the ball was, the resulting leg stump half-volley was dispatched to the boundary by a grateful McKenzie. This set the tone for the day. Kirtley was too full, Bicknell (whose 34 year-old body seemed to wilt under the strain of Test Cricket) too short, Anderson wandering around with stooped shoulders and drooping mouth, not sure where his next dot ball was coming from. Kabir Ali seemed stiff and wasn’t used until just before lunch, when his pace was well down on previous days and even Flintoff seemed below his usual high standards. How England missed a spinner. South Africa progressed at 5 runs per over. 23 boundaries were conceded in the session.
Flintoff alone improved as the day went on and had some early misfortune when Butcher had another aberration at slip, spilling an easy chance from McKenzie. McKenzie did fall soon afterwards, miscueing a pull to mid-on for a valuable 38, then Boucher’s even more praiseworthy 39 off 54 balls was ended by a nick to Stewart off the bowling of Flintoff. But again, South Africa’s tail proved even more obstinate than their upper order. Hall, arriving on a king pair, quickly went on the offensive and produced an innings of Flintoff-like aggression and excitement to help the last three wickets add 132. Of his partners, Zondeki contributed 7, Ntini and Pretorius 8 apiece.
If ever a man deserved a hundred for his efforts, Hall was that man. But having seen Pretorius stand by him for 38 minutes as he progressed to his highest Test score, he pushed a single to reach 99, leaving his partner to face the last two balls of a Kirtley over. The first was straight and full and sent Pretorius’s stumps flying. Hall, with every right to feel distraught, simply broke into a wry grin, accepted England’s generous congratulations and walked off with his arm around the shoulder of the disconsolate Pretorius. But there was little for South Africa to feel disappointed about. Their total of 365 had taken the match well beyond England’s grasp, setting them an unlikely target of 401 for victory. This was well beyond the 321 they had achieved against Australia here two years before, when Mark Butcher’s famous innings won the match. Only the 1948 Australians had made more to win a Test here, the small matter of 404, but ‘The Invincibles’ were helped by a small factor called Bradman.
It never looked a likely prospect. England came out to bat like Charles I going to his execution, dignified, composed, but beyond all hope. Trescothick quickly fell in customary fashion, on the wrong end of a superb ball from Ntini, Vaughan made his way to 21 before chasing an outswinger from Kallis and edging to slip. Hussain was unlucky to be adjudged lbw by umpire Taufel when he looked to have got his pad outside the line, but there was no doubt about the ends of Smith and Stewart, both driving wide of off-stump. At 95 for 5, Butcher and Flintoff came together for some fun in the evening sun and put on 70 before the close with some entertaining strokeplay. Some romantic souls were even dreaming of another Headingley miracle on day 5. But when the final day dawned cloudy and damp, the classic ‘bowler’s day’ in these parts, all such dreams were destined for disappointment. Butcher crashed his first ball to the square leg boundary, but edged his second to slip. Flintoff was able to bring up his fifty with a handsome square cut, but found the next ball to be unplayable except by the edge. Kallis produced a match winning spell of swing bowling to cut through the tail and claim figures of 6 for 54. The rest should be silence.
After the match Vaughan criticized the structure of county cricket for “not producing enough cricketers with the mental toughness for Test Cricket.” It remains to be seen exactly what he meant by this, or exactly whose mental toughness he was disappointed in. But it would be a harsh judgement if aimed at four bowlers with only 12 caps between them and a young batsman who has played two Tests on dodgy pitches and deserves a chance to play on a belter at The Oval. Comments like this are disappointingly common in the aftermath of defeats for England. From time to time they hit upon the odd salient point, but in general they are a sad reflection of the tendency for English cricketers to blame the system rather than themselves. ‘Mental toughness’ is probably a question of the character of the individual more than anything else. The mantra of “blame the system, not me” bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that trotted out by the convicts in The Shawshank Redemption when asked why they are in prison; “Lawyer f****d me!”
Graeme Smith had more positive things on his mind after the game. Collecting his players in a huddle on the field he told them, “no words can describe what we’ve done in this match.” It would be hard to put it better. The win was dedicated to the absent Shaun Pollock and his baby daughter Jemma. Pollock will return at The Oval, as, in all likelihood, will Paul Adams. England are likely to draft Harmison and Giles back in to form a more balanced attack and will probably have to find a replacement for Hussain, who had his left big toe broken by a Hall yorker in the first innings.
South Africa: 342 (Kirsten 130, Zondeki 59, Rudolph 55) & 365 (Hall 99*, Kirsten 60)
England 307 (Butcher 77, Trescothick 59, Flintoff 55) and 209 (Butcher 61, Flintoff 50, Kallis 6-54)
South Africa won by 191 runs.
Man of the Match
South Africa lead series 2-1.
The fifth Test begins at The Oval on Thursday September 4th.