Report by Neil Robinson 29/07/03
All good Test matches deserve a little drama on the last day. The first match of the England v South Africa series at Edgbaston seemed well set up for this at the close of day four, with England still 21 shy of saving the follow on and only three tail-end wickets in hand. But some fine batting by Ashley Giles saw the hosts past this danger point, whereupon the slow, flat pitch and a little more help from the weather (which had already sawn off a good seven hoursí play), frustrated South Africaís efforts to force home their advantage. The players left the field in fading light for the last time with victory still distant for South Africa by 9 wickets and for England by 221 runs. The game lingered at deathís door for a while longer, umpires and captains hanging on for the moment when they could decently call it off. It seemed a disappointingly undramatic end to what had been, for the most part, an enthralling Test Match.
It was then that the drama began. Word passed through the press-box that the usual post-match ceremony would be followed immediately by a press conference by the England camp at which the team for the Lordís Test (beginning on Thursday) would be announced, followed by another announcement of unspecified nature. Speculation now ran rife. Could it be that Darren Goughís disappointing return to England colours would be followed by his immediate retirement? Such was one of the more popular theories doing the rounds. A clear pointer emerged soon afterwards when the post-match ceremony took place with the customary interview of South African captain Graeme Smith, but no sign of his opposite number. At the press conference which followed, the truth quickly emerged. At Lordís on Thursday England would field an unchanged eleven, but under the leadership of a new captain, Michael Vaughan. Nasser Hussain had, entirely of his own volition and to the great surprise of all, chosen to stand down.
It is entremely rare for a change of England captain not to come in the wake of some catastrophic defeat, or after a prolonged media campaign for change. Hussain had been subjected to neither of these. True, this particular match had not contained one of Englandís more memorable performances under Hussainís leadership, and the captain himself had seemed a strangely subdued and peripheral figure during Englandís long toils in the field as South Africa assembled their massive total of 594 for 5 declared, but no real blame had been attached to Hussain for this. Chairman of selectors David Graveney paid tribute to Hussain as an ďoutstanding leaderĒ whom it had been ďa privilege to work with.Ē Few would have doubted his sincerity or disagreed with his sentiments.
Explaining his reasons, Hussain spoke of English cricket entering a new era, particularly with the retirement of Alec Stewart at the end of this series and Michael Vaughanís successful captaincy in the recent one-day series. ďVaughan has shown over the last few months that heís a very capable leader. Weíve got a lot of young guys coming through who I think will play well under him. The last thing theyíll want is a tired leader.Ē Tiredness was a theme which ran strongly through all Hussainís words as he went through the difficult ordeal of explaining his decision. It was written all over his face.
ďItís not a knee-jerk reaction, Iíve been thinking about it since the World Cup,Ē he went on, ďa lot of things happened on and off the field last winter. At the time I didnít feel I was the captain England needed.Ē The endless wranglings over Zimbabwe and death-threats which hung over Englandís World Cup campaign and the tail-end of their Ashes tour were at the time clearly something Hussain felt to be beyond his remit as captain of a cricket team. The weariness and dejection he felt were clear for all to see then, now it seems his appetite for captaincy was mortally wounded.
Having handed over the reigns of the one-day side after the World Cup, it seems his return to claim them again after victory under Michael Vaughan in the NatWest Series proved more difficult than he imagined. Hussain spoke of having noted how well the young team responded to Vaughanís relaxed leadership during the one-dayers, then feeling stale and bereft of ideas during that long first day in the field here at Edgbaston. After four years of gut-wrenching effort, trying, not without success, to pull round the fortunes of the England team, of living and breathing every ball his team played, the well had finally run dry and Hussain was spent.
For anyone who has watched English cricket closely over the last six months it was hard to avoid the impression that Michael Vaughan was a man whose time had come, and that Hussain was a man whose time had nearly passed. Hussain took over four years ago a side packed with individual talents who had never worked together as a team. He pulled them up by their collars and whipped them, almost literally, into shape. His was a tough regime, which brought the best out of some chronic underachievers and spotted some special talents where few others would have looked. It also left some roadkill along the way, as the likes of Northants spinner Jason Brown might testify. Vaughanís more laid-back style, emphasising individual responsibilty over authoritarian control, may prove more suited to a young, confident side with its best years ahead of it.
It would have come as no suprise had Hussain reached the end of this series and chosen to make his exit along with Alec Stewart at The Oval. They made their debuts together in Jamaica in 1990, so it would have been a nice touch. What comes as such a shock, however, is that he should have chosen to abdicate in the middle of a series, with the teams still level and his successor having just two days to adjust to the thought of leading his country in a vital Test match on the most historic stage of all. Personally, I can only put it down to Hussainís innate honesty. He has always been a man to wear his heart on his sleeve, this is what made him such a passionate, committed leader, such a dynamic presence on the field. I would suspect that the thought of leading out his team in the four remaining Tests and having to go through the act of cajoling and roaring at his team like the slavedriver of old, when his heart was no longer in the job, would have appalled him. Worse, the team would almost certainly have seen through it and reacted badly. What could seem like a selfish and inconvenient act was almost certainly one calculated to give England their best chance of winning this series. It is not the first sacrifice Hussain has made for his country.
Not long ago, Hussain talked of his desire to beat Peter Mayís long-standing record of leading England to 20 Test victories. He has now fallen short by a creditably narrow margin. From his 45 Tests as captain he has taken 17 wins, 13 draws and 15 defeats, and left the England team in a far better state than that in which he found it. This was not so much a resignation as a ďstanding downĒ, not so much an expression of failure or disappointment as a handing over of the baton to a new generation. For now, he will continue in the side as a batsman, but even of this he sounded curiously equivocal about his future, saying he hoped to remain in the team ďas long as Iím hitting them. But if the selectors call me up and say Iím no longer needed then Iíll go off and do something else.Ē It was a downbeat response to a question about his recently stated ambition to play in 100 Tests.
And so a statement by one captain came to overshadow a Test Match which was largely seen as a statement by another. South Africaís captain Graeme Smith, stung by suggestions that he was too young and inexperienced for the job, by his teamís crushing defeat in the NatWest Series and by vague media rumours of dissent in his camp, set out to inform the world and his wife that he was very much in charge, and not just in name. He succeeded in the most spectacular fashion. Winning the toss and batting first, Smith and his opening partner Herschelle Gibbs inflicted upon the England bowlers the kind of torture rarely seen outside of Ashes encounters. In a partnership lasting over five hours, they put on a massive 338 before Gibbs holed out to deep midwicket off the part-time off spin of Vaughan. It was the highest opening partnership ever recorded against England and made the two young South Africans the first pair in Test history to record two triple century opening stands, following their 368 against Pakistan earlier this year. Twice in the space of a few months, and on different continents against vastly different attacks, an England attack, moreover, which had held complete ascendency over them during the one-day series. It was a truly remarkable performance.
Neither Gibbsí nor Smithís was an innings which could match for elegance and sheer easiness on the eye the one with which Vaughan later saved Englandís bacon, but each was chock full of character. Gibbs, so easily tempted into indiscretion during the one-dayers, began by stoutly refusing to play at anything outside off-stump. Englandís bowlers, soon frustrated by this tactic, began to drop short and both batsmen took full toll with cut and pull. 100 for 0 by lunch, they accelerated to 265 for 0 by tea and until Gibbs fell for 179 off 236 balls they looked certain to match Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor at Trent Bridge in 1989 by batting undefeated through the whole first day. Throughout the stand, Smith played second fiddle to the racier Gibbs, but his strokeplay was no less crisp, the clip through wide mid-on off Gough which brought up the 300 was as good a shot as was seen all match.
All of the second day was lost to the rain, but Smith resumed on the third morning with an unusually free-flowing Gary Kirsten and continued to batter Englandís broken bowlers. Their stand reached 100 before Kirsten was strangled down the leg-side off Giles. Dippenaar and Rudolph provided brief support, but all eyes were on Smith as he pushed on to a tremendous total of 277. It was the highest ever Test total by a South African batsman. Another record could have fallen to him as he pummelled another swift 85 in search of a declaration on the final afternoon, but his dismissal left his fledgling Test career stranded on 999 runs. One more would have got him to 1000 quicker than any other South African player, now he will have to settle for drawing level with Eddie Barlow in his twelfth match, at Lordís. As it was he had claimed the highest ever match aggregate by a South African as well.
South Africaís declaration came as a relief to Englandís bowlers if not their batsmen. Conditions were far from easy for them on day one. A blustery wind made rhythm difficult to attain and negated any possibility of swing. The pitch was flat and slow, three edges in the first session all fell short of slip. By far the best of the bowlers was Giles, regaining much of his old zip and confidence, worrying the left handers, even Smith, when bowling into the footmarks. Flintoff and Harmison bowled well in spells, poorly in others, Anderson was wayward, having easily his worst day in an England shirt. Well, that probably wonít do him any harm in the long run. Gough, on his long awaited return, looked heavy-legged and weary. Whereas the white ball in the one-dayers had provided good swing and seam for him, the red ball came through dead straight. He was accurate, but innocuous and looked some way off the pace. He may soon decide that Test cricket is a bridge too far for him now, but such judgements can wait until he has bowled on a more friendly surface than this one.
For Englandís much vaunted seam attack it was a timely reminder that their reuptation is as yet built more on promise than achievement. They didnít bowl especially well, but should probably reflect that sometimes in Test Cricket you end up bowling on a flat pitch against batsmen who are in prime form and nothing goes your way. That happens to everyone from time to time. How you come back from it is what matters.
England faced a tricky short session before tea, but survived to go in on 25 for 0. Rain then came to wash out the evening session and leave South Africa needing to dismiss England twice in two days in order to force the win. That they failed was largely down to the brilliance of Michael Vaughan. Without his scintillating innings of 156, England would have been in dire trouble.
South Africa, led by the masterly Shaun Pollock, unquestionably used the ball better than England. To be fair, by Sunday the pitch had deteriorated and was beginning to offer uneven bounce and increased seam movement. The weather too was warmer and more humid, far better conditions for swing. But Pollock and Ntini bowled a fuller, better length than the Englishmen, and reaped increased rewards in return. Ntini, troubled by his run-up on Saturday, found his rhythm again to bowl Trescothick for 31 with a superb yorker. Butcher and Hussain both fell lbw playing no stroke to leave the hosts tottering at 133 for 3, but gutsy support from McGrath and Stewart helped Vaughan as he continued on his merry way. Batting was easier against the support bowling, Dewald Pretorius looked strong and wholehearted and came back well to remove Vaughan, Stewart and Flintoff before the close, but both Charl Willoughby and Robin Peterson looked out of their depth.
A desperate shooter removed the impressive Flintoff for 40 in the final over of the day to leave England hanging on nervously, 21 short of the follow on target. But on the final morning Ashley Giles struck cleanly to wipe off the deficit in just 9 balls and effectively save the game. South Africa smashed a rapid 134 for 4 off just 26 overs in the hope of putting England under pressure, but as the weather closed in England cruised to 100 for 1, and all hope of a dramatic end seemed to be extinguished.
South Africa 594 for 5 dec (Smith 277, Gibbs 179) and 134 for 4 dec (Smith 85)
England 408 (Vaughan 156, Ntini 4 for 114, Pretorius 4 for 115) and 100 for 1 (Trescothick 52*)
Man of the Match: