Proteas lose the plot in the final

FIRST let us get rid of the myths. England won the NatWest tri-series against South Africa and Zimbabwe because they were the strongest team.

TED CORBETT

The triumphant England team, which crushed South Africa in the NatWest Series final.-Pic. CRAIG PRENTIS/GETTY IMAGES

FIRST let us get rid of the myths. England won the NatWest tri-series against South Africa and Zimbabwe because they were the strongest team. South Africa, who played so badly in the final, turned out to be a much weaker side than generally supposed and Zimbabwe, beset on every side by politicians back home, by retirements and by their own inexperience, won only one match out of their six.

But none of this should be used to denigrate England's achievement. The selectors had chosen a new captain, Michael Vaughan, whose own one-day international background was limited, and in the first team alone there were six players of such limited top-level cricket knowledge that it was clear that there might be a disaster. In fact, Vaughan's very naivete, added to the quiet nature that is his most noticeable characteristic, worked perfectly. His young side appreciated his approach and, so I hear, it was the happiest of dressing rooms.

He was given two remarkable lieutenants, both men from his own county Yorkshire, and both, like him untutored in the ways of international leadership. As the two stars of the tournament were from Lancashire, where Vaughan was born, there was a natural allegiance as he bridged the gap between the old rivals.

To Darren Gough, by far the most hardened of all the bowlers, he gave the job of encouraging the young fast bowlers, both by example and by word of mouth; from Anthony McGrath he asked no more than a quiet word of advice.

Both Yorkshiremen have the reputation of being light-hearted. Gough is rarely without a joke on his lips; he is hail fellow well met, let's all have a nice chat, can't we have a drink to finish our debate. Until now few have taken him seriously as a cricket philosopher, much less a great tactician.

Yet it was his backing that brought out the best in James Anderson, the Lancashire fast bowler who has only been in the England camp for the last six months, who has not yet celebrated his 21st birthday and who had been playing third team Lancashire League cricket at one stage of last summer.

Anderson's rise to the top, inevitably compared to that of Brian Statham, another man of Lancashire, 50 years ago, has been one of the greatest incentives to England this summer.

He has already been through the mincer in a typical series of England near catastrophes in Australia, in the World Cup and at the start of this tri-series.

But however you look at him, whatever statistics you consider in weighing his performances, he is a young lad. His bright red streak of dyed hair, mocked by his elders, is a sign of his youth; his lovely, easily repeatable action, without strain but full of natural pace and one that suggests it will not lead him to serious injury is exactly what England have been waiting for all through the 1990s as they prayed that some day, some lad would step out of the shadows and suddenly be their saviour.

Anderson did not win the man of the series award but those will come in plenty over the next few years. He was the promise of the series, the start of something new, the England hope for the future.

Instead that award went to Andrew Flintoff, also from Lancashire, now a fined down, fitter, stronger, more robust, wiser and still learning all-rounder; another sign that all may be well in England's tomorrow.

His bowling was consistent, his fielding verged on the brilliant as seen in the catch that rid England of the worry that Jacques Kallis might produce a third century of the series in the key match at Edgbaston and his batting was more restrained, yet often decisive as it was at the Oval where his hammer blows rammed home the early work done by Marcus Trescothick.

His often repeated comment that "I always look to be positive'' gave this sporting cliche a new meaning. For "positive'' read "brutally attacking'' and you have a better idea of the fear that this talented batsman brings out to the middle.

It was Trescothick's batting in the first half of the series that confirmed his return to form. He had been a contender for the captaincy and it would not have been a shock if, in his disappointment at coming second to Vaughan, he had not performed.

Instead he laid about him like a giant and exposed the South African attack for what it was: a force too heavily reliant on Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini. (Zimbabwe were even worse off. They had just one man to bowl them to victory; and how magnificently Heath Streak, solo bowler, assertive batsman and captain performed. I have called before for a special award for this man. In other circumstances a shrewd politician back in Harare might see the value of such a medal but in the turmoil that is Zimbabwe at the moment we cannot expect him to be treated as a hero. More's the pity).

The tournament developed strangely. England lost, rather than Zimbabwe won, the first game by four wickets to the batting of Grant Flower, who was otherwise a disappointment, but the defeat added a strengthening of steel to the young men and enabled the selectors to see who of their newcomers had the ability to rise above the ordinary.

Kallis made his first century at the Oval but Trescothick overshadowed this innings with 114 off 125 balls; while Vikram Solanki from Udaipur by way of Worcester and a failure in South Africa four years ago first offered support and then a blaze of 17 fours before Flintoff sent England to victory with six wickets and four overs in hand.

Another Kallis hundred, another South African win over Zimbabwe; rain at Headingley but the first hint that Vaughan was regaining the touch of greatness that had been put into cold storage this summer and victory at Old Trafford for South Africa and an undefeated 82 from Kallis, taking his run aggregate to 314 for once out.

Kallis made only five more runs in the series and then went home on compassionate leave to be with his father who is seriously ill with cancer. Every one of his runs was dedicated to his dad and he wore the number 65 on his back and touched it at every significant moment in his innings.

Kallis's batting bore testimony to his greatness yet it will always be a bitter sweet memory but no son could have shown more respect for his father nor given a parent a finer farewell.

He took three wickets in the routine win over Zimbabwe at Cardiff, in front of the only poor crowd of an otherwise closely followed tournament, but the game was won before he could make an effective contribution with the bat.

At Bristol Zimbabwe were bowled out by Gough and Flintoff and the viewers of Sky TV, given the chance to choose the man of the match, erred by voting for Flintoff even though it was Gough's superb four for 26 on a helpful pitch that smashed Zimbabwe down for 92 in 24.5 overs. Flintoff was batting — or should that be battering — as they voted; 47, including a sequence of 4 4 6 4 as England won in 18 overs and Streak, bowling like the wind and with huge heart, snatched all four wickets.

By now the final was settled but at Edgbaston Vaughan batted as we will always remember him in Australia; full of authority, flicking that Gordon Greenidge pull to deep square leg, crashing the ball through the offside; and another fifty from Flintoff, a formidable sight coming to the wicket even if the score is 30 for three.

The most remarkable performance came from Anderson. His first over, too full or too short, went for 19; he was rested after two overs costing 24; and then came back and finished with four for 38 in 10 overs. No advice, no helpful captaincy, no rough words, can produce a spell of four for 19 after such a wretched start. That comes from within where Anderson has plenty left to offer, provided he is carefully handled, and I do not mean with kid gloves, but rather by thinking men who judge each moment on its merit.

The final had no merit. South Africa upset their staunch supporters, ''lost the plot completely'' according to one saddened elder statesman and were bowled out for 107, the precise score with which Kallis, who made nought, began the series.

Once again Solanki, judging the tempo nicely, sealed victory; ironically Trescothick, the other heavy bat of the series, also made nought.

Now the attention switches to the five Tests and the spotlight is on the selectors. Can South Africa find a stronger middle order? Will young Graeme Smith, an impressive man but not yet a fully developed leader, take a giant step forward? Dare England go full on for youth, leave Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart behind and hand the captaincy of both Test and one-day internationals to Vaughan?

I suspect they will be cautious and leave change to the autumn when trips to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka offer an easy ride and a chance for a young team to bond.

Good old British compromise again. The scores: League matches: Trent Bridge, June 26

England 191 for eight in 50 overs (Marcus Trescothick 38, Andrew Flintoff 53) lost to Zimbabwe 195 for six in 48 overs (Grant Flower 96 not out, Stuart Matsikenyeri 44, Richard Johnson three for 32).

The Oval, June 28

South Africa 264 for six in 50 overs (Jacques Kallis 107, Mark Boucher 55, Flintoff three for 46) lost to England 265 for four in 45.5 overs ( Trescothick 114 not out, Vikram Solanki 106, Flintoff 32).

Canterbury, June 29

South Africa 272 for five in 50 overs (Kallis 125 not out, Jacques Rudolph 32, Andrew Hall 56) beat Zimbabwe 226 for nine in 50 overs (Dion Ebrahim 40, Travis Friend 82, Grant Flower 27, Hall three for 38).

Headingley, July 1

England 81 for four in 16.3 overs (Michael Vaughan 35 not out). Zimbabwe could not bat owing to rain. The 25-over match was abandoned.

Old Trafford, July 3

England 223 for seven in 50 overs (Trescothick 60, Anthony McGrath 52, Chris Read 30 not out, Makhaya Ntini three for 38) lost to South Africa 227 for three in 47.3 overs (Hall 29, Kallis 82 not out, Rudolph 71 not out).

Cardiff, July 5

Zimbabwe 174 for eight in 50 overs (Grant Flower 26, Heath Streak 54, Kallis three for 47) lost to South Africa 175 for one in 34.2 overs (Graeme Smith 58, Herschelle Gibbs 93 not out).

Bristol, July 6

Zimbabwe 92 in 24.5 overs (Matsikenyeri 26, Darren Gough four for 26, Flintoff three for 13) lost to England 95 for four in 17.5 overs (Flintoff 47 not out, Streak four for 21).

Edgbaston, July 8

South Africa 198 for nine in 50 overs (Smith 45, Martin van Jaarsveld 45, Paul Adams 33 not out, James Anderson four for 38) lost to England 199 for six in 39 overs (Vaughan 83, Flintoff 54, Ronnie Clarke 37).

Southampton, July 10

Zimbabwe 173 for eight in 50 overs (Ebrahim 27, Streak 50 not out, Ntini four for 45) lost to South Africa 174 for three in 35.2 overs (Smith 69, Rudolph 69 not out).

Final: Lord's, July 12

South Africa 107 in 32.1 overs (Anderson three for 50) lost to England 111 for three in 20.2 overs (Solanki 50, Vaughan 30).