Questions, questions, stark questions

Published : Sep 06, 2003 00:00 IST

THE questions will not go away. How does a side, reeling at 21 for four and 142 for seven, make 342? How does Monde Zondeki, a lad of 21 with just 15 first-class games to his name and batting at No. 9, make 59 on his Test debut?


THE questions will not go away. How does a side, reeling at 21 for four and 142 for seven, make 342? How does Monde Zondeki, a lad of 21 with just 15 first-class games to his name and batting at No. 9, make 59 on his Test debut?

How does the other side turn 169 for one into 307 all out? How does the first side turn a second innings score of 160 for five into 365? And then go on to win by 191 runs, a vast margin.

And how, in the name of sanity, of common-sense and good cricket practice, can two batsmen who have scored 23 in 17 balls, accept an offer of the light and so lose all the momentum that has been building up for the last hour?

At the end of the fourth Test between England and South Africa at Headingley, the home of shrewd cricketers, a place where players were taught to think first and act later, a ground that gave careers to such clever men as Ray Illingworth, Brian Close, Brian Sellars and Geoff Boycott, South Africa had a 2-1 lead in the series.

Not even the South Africans could believe they had won and especially by that margin.

Michael Vaughan, the England captain, had two answers. "They played smarter cricket," he said. "County cricket does not produce players who are tough enough for Test matches."

Yes, Michael, they did play smarter cricket but that is nothing to write home about. I bet that at the Priestley Cup final — the cup competition for Bradford League clubs being held that same week-end just a few miles down the road from Headingley — there was smarter cricket than England played.

It was not just the size of the defeat. The truth about this game is that on a pitch built for their seamers, under cloud cover that might have been requested for their swing bowlers, and with a good start to their own bowling and batting performances, England could not put up a fight.

They had the initiative from the third Test victory at Trent Bridge which finished only 72 hours earlier. They had unlimited numbers of reserves while the South Africans had their puny party of 15. South Africa were without their first new ball bowler Shaun Pollock and made a virtue of his absence.

Worst of all, Graeme Smith pulled off the one stroke of sheer genius when he called up his leg spinner Jacques Rudolph just after lunch on day three and had Nasser Hussain caught and bowled.

Not only did Smith pull that rabbit out of the hat, but he was focussed enough, ruthless enough to send Rudolph straight back to cover point and never look at him again. Having made the breakthrough with a batsman bowling his first over in Test cricket, he threw the ball back to his regular bowlers and ordered them to finish the job.

That was certainly smarter than any trick Vaughan and his committee — he said when he took over this series that he wanted 11 captains on the field — contrived.

You will think at this point that I am blaming Vaughan for this defeat and you could not be further from the truth.

My feeling at this point is that we may never know how good a captain Vaughan is. The manner of his appointment, on the rebound from Hussain's decision to quit when he felt that he was no longer the commander his troops wanted, gave him no chance to prepare and, what is worse, gave the selectors no opportunity to decide their strategy for the Vaughan era.

So a month after his ascent to the throne Vaughan must feel that he is in charge of a runaway carriage. Outwardly he is as calm and collected as ever. Inwardly he must curse the day he was given this England side in such bizarre circumstances.

He speaks to some of the cleverest cricketers who ever lived about his problems but there is nothing they can do to help him establish his authority over the team which has already used 15 players in his three Tests as captain. If England want to get the best out of him they need a decent result in the fifth Test at the Oval, a sensible team to tour Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and a bit of luck.

As for South Africa they will go away from this series with at least a draw and then prepare for their assault on Australia, the Holy Grail of cricket warfare at this time. They certainly showed their ability to bounce back in this match.

England had brought in Martin Bicknell, the straight as a die, pitch it on a sixpence, classical English medium paced seamer so beloved to the myths and legends department. One hears all the time of the feats of Derek Shackleton of Hampshire and Tom Cartwright of Warwickshire and Somerset. These two, if you believe everything you read about them, never bowled a long hop, may have sent down one full toss a season and gobbled up county wickets.

That may be true but in Tests you need something more. Shackleton, for instance, played in only seven Tests and his 18 wickets cost 42.66. Cartwright played five Tests and took 15 wickets at 36.26.

Hardly Kapil Dev, is it?

So too with Bicknell who has not played for England since 1993. Perhaps he should have done but on the evidence of this match he was no better and no worse than any of the 40 or so seamers tried in the meantime. He took two of the four wickets that fell in the first hour of the match, but could not make a second breakthrough, even when the new ball became available after 80 overs, and grabbed only two more wickets in the second innings.

His total match performance was 49-14-125-4; much the same as Shackleton and Cartwright 40 years ago, even on this custom-built pitch.

Hardly Ian Botham, is it?

From four for 21 it was all Gary Kirsten with support from Rudolph and Zondeki and a casual 32 not out thrown in by Makhaya Ntini. By the time he was batting for almost an hour the England team were tired and dispirited; but all that misery was thrown away when Butcher and Trescothick became established.

Butcher's 77 was a delight. He plays guitar and sings in a rock band and on this day you could see the rhythm even if you did not appreciate the fact that he hits the ball with a broad sweep of the bat, and gets the middle of a full face of the bat on to the ball. His timing is exquisite, his ability to pick the gaps is high class and his runs come at a fair lick.

Trescothick was cumbersome but only in comparison with Butcher's quick feet and they added 142 in 38 overs. At that point we thought 500; we thought a 10-wicket win; we thought England might never have trouble again. Oh, dear.

About an hour from the close, at 166 for one, one light appeared on the scoreboard and the two Southern Hemisphere umpires offered the batsmen the chance to go off until the light improved. Don't blame the umpires. They are used to a sharper light so the diffused smog that is called light in Leeds was not what they accepted as good enough for batsmen.

To the astonishment of one and all Trescothick, who would be vice captain if there was one, accepted. Soon afterwards there were two lights but in general terms there are usually three alight before the umpires suggest it might be too dark.

We did not know it then, but the match finished at that point. Soon after they came back both batsmen were out. The next day Hussain who had fought and fought and been so badly hit on the toe that it was broken was out during the only 12 balls of spin sent down by the South Africans in 150 overs and only Andrew Flintoff's blunderbuss 55 carried England beyond 300.

Another 60 to Kirsten, the man of the match despite strong competition from Kallis, and 99 slugger's runs from Andrew Hall — in two hours, off only 87 balls — meant England had to make 401 to win, the highest score of the match.

On the fifth morning England still needed 236 but Butcher and Flintoff had put on 70 and we thought that another Headingley miracle, in the mode of Ian Botham and Bob Willis in 1981, might happen.

But no. Only 44 more runs came and the dream died in the first 50 minutes of play.

Afterwards Smith gathered his men into the sort of circle that their forefathers' wagons used to form when the Zulu attacked and told them: "Relish the moment. You have earned this moment of triumph." With many more to come I guess.

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