Cricket: Catch 22: The week of playing dangerously

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SOME WEEKS just creep up on you from behind without warning and hit you over the back of the head with a bat. The one just ended has been a case in point. It started, if you want to know the truth, last Saturday afternoon, though it was too early to tell then what was about to unfold, and seemed destined never to end.

Things that day had been going well. I had reached 25 in England's first innings, felt as comfortable and as secure as I can be at the crease. I then attempted to hit a ball from Shaun Pollock off the back foot on the off side. Instead of hitting it square for four as I intended I edged it hard to slip and was caught. I hadn't seen anything yet. The week became a tale of catches.

Sunday: England have struggled with South Africa every step of the way. We have never actually put our noses in front but we still have a chance of coming from behind to win.

Jacques Kallis, South Africa's highly talented all-rounder, has not had a score in the series and here he is in their second innings at Port Elizabeth struggling to establish himself. He is pushing slightly at Phil Tufnell, he is clearly not feeling at home. Nasser decides on a fielding change. He moves me from conventional bat-pad on the off side to an extremely short gully. He tells me at the time it is a reaction position. It is an inspired piece of captaincy. It takes two overs to work.

Kallis pushes out uncertainly again. It flies off the edge, dropping quickly. The catch sticks on the index and middle fingers of my left hand by my bootlaces. I claim it immediately, the fielders round me go up. Kallis waits. The umpire, Rudi Koertzen, consults the square-leg umpire, Steve Bucknor. He isn't sure either.

Kallis doesn't move. The third umpire is consulted. The slow motion is inconclusive. Kallis, given not out, has some words for me. I have some back. But we laugh going off later, arrange to have a drink some time.

It is annoying for two reasons. England might have put themselves into a position from which they could have won, and Kallis will now go to Durban in much better heart and form. That catch is but the start.

Monday: England are batting to save the match. I go out in what is, in every way, a no-win situation. For almost an hour I survive, playing against my nature perhaps, but a draw depends on it. Hansie Cronje, South Africa's captain, who has never taken a wicket against England, is bowling slow, skiddy inswingers. I resist the temptation to give them the treatment.

Then he bowls another and I go to work it quietly away down the leg side. It comes through, hits my pad and balloons up. I think nothing of it. Nor does Jonty Rhodes, who takes the ball off my pad and says nothing.

Cronje launches into a loud appeal, almost imploring umpire Koertzen. It is the last ball of the over. Only eight overs left in the match, South Africa would probably have settled for the draw.

I shake my head at the umpire, indicating that I had not hit the ball. I walk to square leg, still not thinking too much of it. I walk back and the umpire's finger is going up. I shrug my shoulders disconsolately.

I do not want to leave the crease, I know I have no choice. I never like being out, but this is worse, this is a Test match. Rhodes hadn't appealed. Only Cronje did. It is a long, long walk back. And still the catches aren't over.

Tuesday: Golf with Graeme Swann. We're playing against Darren Maddy and Alec Stewart. I play off a 12 handicap, Swann is off eight. Maddy plays off 20, Stewart is off 22. In this round I play to 14 and Swann to 10. We still lose 4 and 3. Maddy and Stewart, the world should know, are handicap bandits. They also have 300 rand of my money. I've been caught again.

Wednesday: We have a choice on this second day off of golf, deep-sea fishing or sitting by the pool. I opt for the fishing. Within minutes of getting out to sea I'm queasy, seconds after that I'm out for the count. I spend the afternoon laid out on deck, feeling ill and being sick. I just want to go home. The others haul in shark and octopus by the bucketload. I catch nothing.

Thursday: Recovered. For a while. It's a long journey to a town called Alice for a one-day match. The ground is full but I'm afraid it is pretty poor. A mole keeps popping up at mid-off. I bat at No 3. Ten overs at the crease would do. A left-arm spinner is on. He turns one back into me, I get an inside edge. I'm bowled first ball, another new way to get out. Well, that caught me all right.

Friday: A day away from cricket. To clear my senses, to live to fight another day. And to tell you that whatever has happened we must always hope that cricket is adjudicated by the best umpires, not the best cameramen.

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