Back in 2003, South Africa came to England a team in transition, not least because they’d recently appointed a new captain – in the burly shape of Graeme Smith – who, at the time, was the third youngest Test captain ever and had played just eight Tests. The squad still included Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini, in addition to some ageing has-beens named Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher.
Back in the early noughties, things were ordered correctly and lasted a decent number of games; the NatWest Series was played in June and July and served as a warm-up for the five match Test series. Despite losing to Zimbabwe in the opening match, England qualified for the final and went on to beat South Africa. No doubt thoughts were turning to the World Cup 2007 and the inevitable victory. Regardless, the ODIs demonstrated that a) Jacques Kallis was a mighty fine batsman (329 runs at 109.66) and b) new one-day skipper Michael Vaughan had something to offer in terms of captaincy and was the future for English cricket.
England’s performances during the 2000s peaked and troughed regularly, the latter mostly coinciding with Ashes series. As with most eras, particularly those of intermittent success, the team wasn’t really a snapshot of its time, but a mix (some might say a mish-mash) of generations and styles. This series included the final Tests of both Darren Gough and Alec Stewart; Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe too were both in the twilights of their career. They played alongside a new breed, a young, vibrant set who grew up under Duncan Fletcher and with central contracts, some of whom would be at the forefront of English cricket for the next quinquennium or longer (and some of whom most certainly would not).
England had not only won the NatWest Series, but had also hammered Zimbabwe in the early summer series, winning both games by an innings, partly thanks to debut performances from James Anderson (5-73) and Richard Johnson (6-33). Therefore there was some confidence ahead of the first Test, so much so that captain Hussain was able to call his counterpart “Wotsisname” and say his opponents were “there for the taking” with no fear of retribution.
At stumps on day one, South Africa were 398/1.
Wotsisname had 178*, Herschelle Gibbs had already fallen for 179.
Mercifully for England day two was completely washed out, but on the third Smith kept going. His 200 came off 285 balls; he was eventually dismissed by Ashley Giles for 277 – his country’s highest ever individual score. With 594/5d on the board, South Africa were left with a race against time to beat both England and the weather. They weren’t helped by the home side making 408 against an attack that featured Dewald Pretorius, Robin Peterson and Charl Willoughby supporting Pollock and Ntini (Kallis was away on compassionate leave at this point), although Michael Vaughan’s 156 was the only score in excess of 50. On the final morning England were still 21 shy of their follow-on target, but they added enough.
South Africa set about attacking with the bat: Smith again was imperious with 85 from 70 balls. However his team-mates were unable to dominate and by the time of the declaration (134/4), England trailed by 321 with 65 overs remaining. Marcus Trescothick made 52* as the match limped to a disappointing, wet and dark conclusion. The feeling was very much that England had escaped with a draw and that their attack (which in this game comprised of Anderson, Gough, Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and Ashley Giles) had underperformed.
It was the captain who fell however. It is often, if not always, difficult for a captain once he has relinquished the role in one form of the game, and in Vaughan England had a ready-made replacement who was thriving with the bat. Technically, the series was all-square, but psychologically, South Africa were winning by a distance.
Although Hussain had resigned the captaincy, he stayed on as batsman; indeed England were unchanged as South Africa replaced Peterson with Paul Adams and Willoughby with Andrew Hall.
It was not a good start for Vaughan. In fact, it was atrocious. England collapsed to 118/9, with Ntini bagging a five-for. Just about every wicket fell to hooks or pulls as the batsmen showed almost a complete and collective inability to play the short ball. Some biffing by Gough took England to 173. By stumps South Africa were 151/1.
Whereas at Birmingham it was Gibbs who supported the captain, here he made ‘just’ 49, leaving Gary Kirsten (108), Boeta Dippenaar (92) and Mark Boucher (68) to contribute. But the star man was again Smith. His 259 – having been dropped by the hapless Hussain on eight – was not only the highest score by a foreign batsman at Lord’s, but also only the fourth occasion on which a batsman had scored double centuries in consecutive Tests – the others being Bradman, Hammond and Kambli. Such was Smith’s dominance at this point in time that in a drunken debate at a local bar (shamefully it was Brannigan‘s with the strapline “Eating, Dancing and Cavorting”) this correspondent concluded that Smith was the best sportsman in the world at the time, rivalled only by Serena Williams. This correspondent has never cavorted since.
This time around, South Africa had time on their side. The declaration came on day three, with a lead of just 509. Mark Butcher (70) and Hussain (61) made decent scores, but when the latter, Stewart and Anthony McGrath (no, really) fell within the space of six balls, England tottered at 208/5.
Enter Flintoff: at last something for England fans to cheer. His first Test century on home soil may have involved some slogging in the face of certain defeat, but by scoring 142 (from 146 balls) he at least carried England to an almost respectable 417, dominating each partnership and demonstrating his worth to the side. But notwithstanding Freddie, South Africa still won by an innings with a day to spare. Oddly, the Man of the Match award was shared between Smith and Ntini (who added 5/145 in the second innings to his 5/75 in the first).
Darren Gough (1-215 from 53 overs) retired from Tests immediately. As great as he was at his peak, by 2003 he was knackered, built from mostly second-hand parts and so far over the hill that he had only three more years in ODIs left in him. That, and a career in advertising, bad radio and cavorting.
By now, South Africa looked like they were batting on concrete against blind schoolboys. So what did they do? They picked a sixth batsman in the shape of Neil McKenzie and then welcomed back a man named Kallis who, it was understood, was quite good.
England also had an ace up their sleeves though, as well as Ed Smith who replaced McGrath. Cometh the hour, cometh James Kirtley.
After losing both openers early, Butcher and Hussain showed their merit as they compiled a 199-run partnership, both making centuries. More surprisingly, Smith made an accomplished 64 on debut and the veteran Stewart added 72 as England reached 445. Although Pollock was economical (1.80 runs per over), this was offset by Ntini’s 2/137 from 33 overs. Maybe he spent his man of the match cheque on chips, or on lessons from Darren Gough.
In the South Africans’ first innings, no doubt to huge sighs of relief/cries of delight, Smith was dismissed for just 35 (hit wicket off Flintoff’s bowling). It was McKenzie with 90 and Pollock (62) that enabled the visitors to get within 100 runs of England, but 362 looked far too few as Anderson replicated the sort of performance he’d put in against Zimbabwe, taking 5/102.
Despite these fairly high scores, the pitch looked troublesome; Stewart should have caught Kallis which would have given Kirtley three wickets for zero runs, having just removed Rudolph and Dippenaar. The pitch continued to deteriorate and England struggled second time around. Only Hussain, Flintoff and Giles reached double figures, as Pollock took 6/39 in another fine display. England were bowled out for 118, with a lead of 202 which, despite the conditions, didn’t install much confidence in onlookers’ minds.
Then on the fourth evening, Kirtley bowled beautifully, taking the wickets of Smith and Rudolph as South Africa slumped to 65/5. The next morning he continued in the same fashion, swinging the ball both ways and making the most of the conditions. He added four more wickets, finishing with 6/34 and the man of the match award. All out for 131, South Africa lost by 70 runs and somehow were drawing the series. The performances of both debutants gave the selectors – and metaphorically county cricket as a whole – something to smile about as the teams headed up the M1.
We don’t like to resort to cliché, but it’s hard to mention Headingley Test matches without using ‘traditional England seamer’ in the same sentence. So England gave a debut to Kabir Ali in place of Giles and astonishingly recalled Martin Bicknell rather than play Steve Harmison. This was Bicknell’s third Test, just ten years and 115 matches since his previous (hence why Kabir Ali is still hoping to feature in the 2013 Ashes). Unfortunately for South Africa, Pollock had headed home for the birth of his child, so they added Pretorius and the debutant Monde Zondeki to their XI (South Africa not being known for their spin strength at the best of times, let alone at Leeds).
Their 342 featured a typically resilient 130 from Kirsten (who always seemed to score heavily against England), 55 from Rudolph and a surprising 59 from Zondeki (Wisden records that he played and missed 33 times); their last three wickets added a combined 200 runs.
Conversely, England collapsed in their innings, from 239/4 to 307 all out. Butcher continued his fine form with 77, Trescothick made 59 and Flintoff 55, but Ntini and Hall did the late damage. A mention too for Rudolph and his bowling figures of 2-1-1-1, his first wicket in Tests being a Mr Hussain of Chelmsford.
But the main talking point of the innings was the ludicrous decision of Trescothick to cease play due to bad light: he and Butcher had just added 54 from 10 overs, Zondeki was injured and at 164/1 England would not have been more comfortable if they were sitting in a hammock reading The Da Vinci Code and listening to Clocks by Coldplay (as was very much the fashion in 2003).
With a first innings difference of 35 runs, the match was delicately balanced midway through day three. Kirsten’s 60 helped South Africa to just 164/5 at stumps. The next morning, following the dismissal of McKenzie, Boucher cut loose and scored a prompt 39. But he was outpaced by Hall, who kept on going through to the end of the innings, helped by the tailenders hanging around just long enough for him to reach 99 from 87 balls and in 126 minutes – if this had been Flintoff, the English media would still be raving about it today. Sadly for Hall, the final wicket fell with him still stranded short of his hundred, with the team on 365.
Thus England were presented a target of 401, with more than a day and a half to go: achievable, but very, extremely, highly unlikely.
Sadly for the English, the only fairytale was the grim and sad bit, not the happy ending. This was the batsmen getting beaten by the wicked stepmother, or locked up in a castle, or bowled out by a rampaging Kallis. His 6/54 gave him nine for the match (making up for his disappointing scores with the bat). England’s score of 209 befitted a team going through the motions, as if they knew 401 was out of reach before they began. Butcher top scored again with 61 and not even a frenetic Freddie Flintoff fifty could put a smile on English faces. The 191-run defeat, in a game that not long before had looked winnable, was a glaring, taunting margin that gave South Africa a 2-1 lead.
There was a recall for Surrey’s Thorpe (Hussain absent with a broken finger). Surrey’s Bicknell was on his homeground. Surrey’s Alec Stewart was playing in his final match. It was all set to be a Surrey spectacular, hopefully not like the one last week when they were 8/5.
But at stumps on day one, South Africa were 362/4.
This time, it was Gibbs who dominated the England attack, plundering 35 fours and a six on his way to 183. Kirsten (again) batted for hours, scoring 90 in the process. Although Smith failed for the fifth time in a row, Kallis made 66, Pollock contributed 66* and South Africa finished on 484; perhaps not as many as they would have hoped, but certainly a sufficient total to defend at the Oval.
But at stumps on day two, England were 165/2.
Vaughan and Butcher had set out quickly, both scoring at a rate of more than 85 per 100 balls. Although they both fell after good starts, this only bought together Trescothick and Thorpe. For a change, England batted quite superbly. Thorpe’s 124 was one of his finest; Trescothick’s 219 may have contained 34 boundaries, but it spanned nine and a half hours and was probably the innings that he truly came of age as a world-class Test batsman, three years after his debut. Of course, sadly, it was also just three more years until his final international appearance. He was dismissed with England ahead by five runs; it was another blossoming player who then took England into the stratosphere with 95 from 104 balls, including four sixes. Step forward
Ed Smith Flintoff again – he added 99 in partnership with Harmison who contributed just three. With the declaration coming at 604/9 before lunch on day four, Flintoff having scored 85 that morning alone, it was debatable whether Vaughan had created a chance for victory or whether the match was inevitably heading for a draw. What was certain was that those additional runs gave England enough of a lead to make South Africa somewhat worried.
But everyone was surprised when the wickets then began to fall regularly: South Africa were 185/6 at close (i.e. 65 ahead), with no player having reached 50. It was a similar story on the fifth day, with England now resurgent. Harmison bowled viciously, taking 4/33 (at the time, his career best), whilst Bicknell utilised the home soil perfectly on his way to 4/84. South Africa were dismissed for 229, unbelievably presenting England with a target of 110 for victory.
There was to be little drama on that final afternoon, no twist and turn. It was a glorious victory, not one of uncertain hours giving way to a tense, anxious ending. England romped home, led by Trescothick’s scintillating 69* from 66 balls. They reached 110/1 in just 95 minutes, at 4.92 runs per over. It was a remarkably easy win, and an incredible result.
Alec Stewart left the field for the last time, draped in a St George’s Cross. So many matches, so many defeats, but one last memory for one of England’s finest. His county colleagues Butcher and Thorpe had a little more left in their tanks, but they too would soon make way for younger blood.
The series, which was South Africa’s from the first few overs at Edgbaston to the fourth day at the Oval, was perhaps emblematic of both teams in this decade. South Africa were at times awesome, but lacked the completeness that the very best sides have. It’s not right to resort to the chokers cliché in this instance, but more often than not they failed to deliver the results they should.
And for England? Well they were clearly a work in progress, with an aged batting line-up that wouldn’t truly excel until younger players came through. The bowling attack around this time was changing frequently, an inevitable part of the transition from the Caddick and Gough team. As well as Kirtley and Bicknell played, Matthew Hoggard was absent injured and Simon Jones had only played twice. Yet with the improving Flintoff and Harmison, there was a sign of what was to come. Even the Ashes triumphs that followed (at least prior to 2010/11) were matches where tenacity, strength, luck and selection miracles were at the helm of the successes; the defeats were humiliating. That too was the case in 2003; on paper and in the spreadsheets, South Africa were by far the better team, but on the field, eventually, their results were matched by England. And it is on the pitch that the classic series are played – and ideally across more than three measily matches.