Rarely has anything seemed more pre-ordained in South Africa’s post-isolation history than Kepler Wessels and Allan Donald earning themselves a place on the Lord’s Honours Board during the 1994 tour of England.
The captain chiselled his way to 105 with a determination bordering on obsessive while Donald, by then a Warwickshire veteran, claimed 5-74 as the tourists won comfortably by 356 runs, bowling England out for 99 late on the fourth evening.
That evening the media were joined in the bar of the Westbury Hotel by Wessels and his young deputy, Hansie Cronje, where we drank several Castles and even poured a few over each other, too. Even Kepler. Those were the days. SAB was in the habit of ensuring the team always had a few dozen cases in the team room, the players had not yet learnt to be suspicious of the newspapermen – and we all stayed in the same hotel! None of that applies any more.
By today’s standards it was an epic tour spanning 11 weeks and an eye-watering 14 fixtures outside the three Tests and three Texaco Trophy one-day internationals. Pat Symcox, destined not to play any of the Tests, helped himself to almost 50 first-class wickets against the counties: “They’re not very good, are they?” he asked rhetorically of the Englishmen.
Series between these two nations have never been dull. There are enough highlights to write a book, and enough lowlights to write another. 38-year-old Peter Kirsten scored his only Test century to save the second Test in fading light at Headingly but there was no stopping a fired up Devon Malcolm (9-57) at the Oval as England stormed back to level the series.
Michael Atherton, vilified in equal measure by his manager and the media for the ‘dirt-in-the-pocket’ ball tampering episode at Lord’s, claimed the right sort of headlines in South Africa 18 months later with his match-saving and career-defining 185* at the Wanderers but the hosts still clinched the series 1-0 with victory at Newlands. In a low-scoring match, it was the 10th wicket stand of 76 between Dave Richardson and Paul Adams which made the difference. Malcolm was obsessed with intimidating the teenaged Adams instead of dismissing him the resulting leg byes off his ribcage and shoulder got the partnership off to a flying start. Fast bowlers…!
Javed Akhtar is the name which springs first to mind from the ’98 tour despite Gary Kirsten’s double century at Old Trafford, a match saved in thrilling fashion by Robert Croft and Angus Fraser against a rampant Donald. There were 13 lbws in the deciding Test at Headingly, 11 of them given by the umpire from Pakistan – seven of them dubious and three absolute stinkers. Still, England deserved to win the series.
2003 – the year of Graeme Smith, or ‘Whatsisname’ as England captain Nasser Hussain called him the day before the first Test of the series at Edgbaston in which the new Proteas captain scored 277 and 85 and was only denied victory by a day of rain. He was at it again at Lord’s with a mind-boggling 259 and, this time, Makhaya Ntini’s 5-75 and 5-145 ensured the win.
One of best Protea fightbacks of the last 25 years occurred at Headingly in the third Test when Gary Kirsten found himself joined by Monde Zondeki with the scoreboard reading 142-7. Unsure of the young bowler’s batting pedigree, the veteran opener said: “It’s not that bad, stick around – you never know what might happen.” So he did, for what was to remain comfortably his career-best score of 59 while Kirsten made 130 during a stand of 160 which led to victory by 191 runs.
South Africa believed they were invincible in the final Test of the series when they reached 345-2 shortly before the close of the first day. With a 2-1 lead, a glorious series victory beckoned. Then Herschelle Gibbs played a ‘glory’ shot two overs before the new ball was available and three further wickets crashed before the close of play and the tourists were dismissed for a disappointing 484 on the second morning. But still…it was 484!
Marcus Trescothick’s 219 was one of those innings so good, and so pure, that everybody had to admire it, if not enjoy it. Even South Africa’s bowlers admitted, afterwards, that they had had occasionally been in awe of the left hander’s consistent power and timing. Facing an entirely unexpected deficit of 120, the South Africans imploded to 229 all out and lost on the final day by nine wickets to share the series.
The 04-05 series was tied at 1-1 heading into what became the decider at the Wanderers where Matthew Hoggard (7-61) produced a career-defining final day of swing bowling to win the series – but not before a concussed Smith appeared at number eight in the batting order and smashed an unbeaten 67 in a brave but vain attempt to pull off an extraordinary win.
2008 was yet another epic series with Neil McKenzie, Smith and Hashim Amla all making centuries to save the first Test at Lord’s before Ashwell Prince (149) and AB de Villiers (174) set up a clinical victory at Headingly. It was nothing compared to the drama which followed at Edgbaston where Smith’s unbeaten 154 was one of the greatest run-chase innings of all time. It prompted Michael Vaughan’s resignation as captain, just as his 277 had persuaded Hussain to step down four years earlier. And there was another to come four years later when Andrew Strauss decided he’d had enough.
It’s not a position any number 11 wants to find himself in but, if you can survive to save a Test match, you’re an instant hero. Very few number 11s have done it twice, never mind in two out of three Tests but that’s exactly what Graeme Onions achieved at Centurion and Newlands in the 09-10 series. The South Africans mocked his fist-pumping celebrations and told themselves that celebrating a draw was the action of a loser, but, with innings of one from 12 balls and nought from 11, he did as much as any other Englishman to ensure a 1-1 series draw.
In 2012 it was world number one against number two with the ICC Test mace at stake. It may have been an unofficial World Test Championship, but it felt – and looked – very much like the real thing. Hashim Amla’s national record 311* and his partnership of 377 with Kallis (182*) set up Dale Steyn (5-56) to win the opening Test at The Oval. With second Test drawn, everything was at stake in the final match at Lord’s where the soon-to-be-retired Vernon Philander shone with bat and ball scoring 61 and 35 before claiming 5-30 in the fourth innings to clinch a 51-run win.
Kagiso Rabada crushed the tourists with 13-144 at Centurion three and a half years ago but it led to a consolation victory after the tourists had won at Kingsmead and the Wanderers. The last series between these two sides since ’94, in England in 2017, was the only one-sided affair in 25 years with England winning comfortably 3-1 – the only occasion on which there has been more than one match between them.
The odds strongly suggest another nail-biter this time around!
Happy Festive season to you all!
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