England catches up

AFTER the run-filled Tests at Edgbaston and Lord's, the third match of the series was tense, taut and in doubt right to the last morning.

TED CORBETT

Man of the Match James Kirtley latches on to this return catch offered by Paul Adams in the second innings. Kirtley scalped six South Africans and bowled England to victory. — Pic. AFP-

AFTER the run-filled Tests at Edgbaston and Lord's, the third match of the series was tense, taut and in doubt right to the last morning.

England won it by 70 runs because they managed to put together 445 in the first innings before conditions deteriorated to the level of the absurd.

The South Africans will feel they were trapped on a Trent Bridge pitch which had been pumped full of water to compensate for the heat wave of the previous fortnight and which virtually collapsed by the final day when ridges and cracks filled its entire length and the shooter was the delivery that caught every batsman, no matter how skilled.

In view of the condition of the wicket it was not surprising that James Kirtley, making his debut in conditions which must have answered all his prayers, snatched eight wickets and the Man of the Match award. Even Kabir Ali, called into the squad for Leeds, said: "I would love to have bowled on that Trent Bridge pitch."

Only John James Ferris, who played for both Australia and England, has ever had a better return on his debut against South Africa although in 1890. But did Kirtley really merit the award?

I wish it had been given to one of the batsmen: Mark Butcher for his almost jolly innings on the first day, Nasser Hussain for his gritty century, Neil McKenzie for the sheer courage of his innings or — and I particularly admired this contribution — to Mark Boucher whose 52 out of the fourth innings of 131 was worth at least double.

Hussain, conquering the gremlins that had haunted him at Lord's after his impulsive resignation at Edgbaston, looked the master during his 116 and provided an exercise in self-control while making 30 in the second.

He was guiding England to a significant victory when he was out. No wonder his screams of anguish were heard all over the pavilion afterwards; and how gallant of him to say that this victory, Michael Vaughan's first in his second Test, gave him as much satisfaction as any to which he led England himself. Hussain's performance in this Test was outstanding considering the events since the first Test.

Hussain should have been Man of the Match; but that is to take nothing from Kirtley who, if fortune favours his brave effort, may be a considerable force in England in the next five years, even though at 28 he is old to be making a debut.

It was in Harare, playing for Mashonaland as an overseas professional that he first made an impact with seven wickets as England, in one of their worst tours, were rushed to defeat in 1997. But no sooner had his feat been noted than the experts began to ask questions about his whippy action.

He was examined, corrected and cleared but still the rumours persisted. Now that he is a star, there will be a renewed investigation. One or two South African batsmen appeared to have asked him if he was sure his bowling was legal and those kindly gentlemen from Australia will not hesitate to voice similar doubts if they have to face him. So far ICC approves his action. What the future holds remains to be seen.

In fact, after his long wait, Kirtley may have been lucky to get the nod. David Graveney, chairman of selectors, told me that there had been a long debate before he was preferred to Glen Chapple, another bowler who has been kept in the wings for a protracted period before being called into the squad.

The selectors had listened to the advice of the Nottinghamshire groundstaff who pronounced the pitch "ideal for Chapple, the right pick for this ground." In what was expected to be a low-scoring match, Chapple with two centuries in county games this summer was also the better all-rounder. We will never know what swayed the selectors to go for Kirtley but — and you may never see me write this sentence again — they got it right.

Chapple was sent back to Lancashire and injured his ankle while playing against Sussex at Hove. That kept him out of the Headingley Test and, as Richard Johnson, Chris Silverwood, Alex Tudor, Jimmy Ormond and even Andrew Caddick get fit, 29-year-old Chapple's big chance may have gone. So may South Africa's. Their tour has gone pear-shaped. Many pundits formed the opinion at the start of the first Test that England might find them easy pickings but as the length of the tour and the massive England reserve strength kicks in — not to mention the knowledge of local conditions — they will find the going harder.

Smith lost the toss and England stamped their mark on the game thoroughly on the first day. Butcher's century of style and grace as befits a man immersed in music and Hussain's rugged effort — capped with a fist shake towards his supposedly treacherous friends in the Press Box — set the tone.

Ed Smith, a professor's son with examination qualifications collected as some people gather air miles, made a calculated 64 and Alec Stewart romped to 72 and when, late on the second day, Andrew Flintoff forced Smith back on to his stumps so that he back-heeled them, England felt they had a hope of victory. Their tactics were based entirely on their experience of county cricket. Two slips and a gully, keep hitting the same spot around off stump and wait for the pitch to create the openings. Shooters were a commonplace, the rising ball a painful menace. But, for all Shaun Pollock bowled beautifully to join his father Peter and his uncle Graeme on the Trent Bridge honours board, it was the consistency of the England pack of bowlers that won the day.

At one time it looked as if England might even enforce the follow-on but McKenzie and Pollock scored incisive runs so that there was a margin of just 83 when England went out to face one over on the third evening.

What happened to the only ball, bowled by Pollock? Marcus Trescothick tried to play it and it certainly went off his thigh pad to short leg. There was an almighty appeal and Australian umpire Daryl Harper wandered a few yards towards the offside and suddenly put his finger in the air.

As the ball went through it may have run along the inside of Trescothick's hand, some TV expert suggested. There was also a noise, recorded on the snickometer, when the ball was two yards from the bat.

Some thinkers believed that a nightwatchman should have gone in for the one over but I know of no current cricketer who believes that would have been a valid tactic.

The next day England could collect only 118 runs but it was clear that 202 would be an uphill journey and when Kirtley dismissed Smith for five — he had hit the ball on to his pads but we will discuss the umpiring later — an impossible task faced South Africa on the final day.

They needed 139 with five of their best batsmen gone and when three of their talented lower middle order men left in 13 balls only the dreamers believed a victory was still possible.

I have to tell you that television showed that the deliveries that dismissed both McKenzie and Pollock were no-balls for stepping over the crease and that brings us to the key point in this game.Umpire Harper gave six out of eight lbw decisions and there was heated discussion about all of them. What is more there was even more heated debate about several other decisions he gave not out. It was that sort of pitch; requiring as much concentration from the umpires as from anyone else in the middle.

The whole game is in a state of flux about how to deal with the dilemma that is caused by new technology. Is it necessary? Does it add anything to the game? Is it bringing the umpires into disrepute?

No! No! No!

None of the batsmen gave more than a grimace to indicate they had any reason to doubt the integrity of either Harper or Darrell Hair which means that they see the sense of leaving such decisions to umpires until — and this is several years away — the technology is more reliable.

One day it will be perfect and then we can either get rid of the umpires altogether or ask them to use technology more often. But not yet. Wise men say the cameras and computers are not yet able to distinguish right from wrong and so long as batsmen and bowlers accept the umpires' decisions we must go along with the present system.

At Trent Bridge a wild wicket, some decisive umpiring and one or two high class performances produced a wonderfully tight Test with four full days and a third, 40 wickets around 370 overs — or a wicket every nine overs — and 1056 runs, including two centuries, a 90 and five other scores above 45.

It was dramatic, it was pure theatre and as two good sides battled it provided a result that meant revenge for England, a hint of hope for South Africa and high class entertainment for the spectator.

Creme de la creme.