ENGLAND'S summer has started predictably. Not as winners of the Texaco trophy, which until their second successive defeat on Saturday had been the norm for the last six seasons, but as a side who save their best for after the big event. Whoever captains them, and their storming win over South Africa at Headingley yesterday was just the latest example, England are a side who specialise in making the futile gesture.
Many of course would argue all sport is meaningless. If it is, this win would still have had a frisson of satisfaction about for England's beleaguered players, coming as it did with seven wickets and 15 overs to spare. On a pitch offering something to all bowlers, South Africa's total of 206 was made to look woefully inadequate as both Alistair Brown and Nick Knight put on 114 for the first wicket.
Brown, as he has often threatened, but rarely achieved, played the pinch hitting role to perfection. With fast hands and an expansive follow-through, he flayed everything South Africa could throw at him. Unless injury prevails, he can now book a berth for the triangular tournament later in the summer, something not guaranteed his Surrey team-mate Adam Hollioake, who must now wait to see if his tenure as England's one-day captain is to be continued.
Dropped once by Jonty Rhodes - one of three difficult catches the fielder spilled in the course of the mayhem - Brown's 50, which came from just 31 balls was the fastest in the 15-year history of this trophy. Remarkably it was not the quickest by an England player, an accolade that belongs to Chris Old, whose half-century against India in 1975, was made from 30 balls.
After the disappointment of England's timid displays in the first two internationals, it was stirring stuff. At one stage, the unthinkable even happened, as South African heads began to droop. Not for long though as another brilliant piece of fielding to run out Brown, this time by Jacques Kallis, momentarily stalled the slaughter.
Knight, less combustible than his partner, kept up his remarkable record in this form of cricket by again passing 50. With a one-day average of 40, Graham Thorpe may be Mr Reliable in the middle order, but Knight's average of 46 is the best in the current squad. Not bad for a batsman who takes a risk with almost every ball he faces.
With a momentum the All Black scrum would have been proud of, England continued playing their shots, despite Knight's departure. After a brief but feisty hack from Matthew Fleming, it was left to Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain to knock off the deficit. Hussain played some mighty strokes, twice depositing the off-spin of Pat Symcox into the stand at the Kirkstall Lane End.
One-day cricket is a fickle game and South Africa, fielding an unchanged side despite their already having won the trophy, will no doubt shrug the loss off. Less clear, is what England's selectors will make of it the lone victory.
If some of the selections were, as claimed, an experiment, they left it until the last match to get come up with the right formula. Even then, with South Africa having the comfort of a series win behind them, no-one can be sure if any subsequent conclusions can be trusted. As a test, the series is best considered a false positive, with selectors knowing not who, but who not, to pick.
What was obvious, after Hansie Cronje had won the toss and batted, was that Angus Fraser made a better partner for Darren Gough than Chris Lewis, who withdrew with a sore hip.
The old fashioned, but largely extinct virtues of line and length, choked the visitors' opening batsmen and Fraser finished with figures of 2 for 23, the most abstemious of the series. Who knows, but for muddled selections in the first match and timid captaincy from Hollioake in the second, England may not have relinquished their fine home record.
Yet South Africa deserved to win the series. They are well drilled and play efficient cricket, squeezing their opponents into submission, rather than slaughtering them. Unlike many of the England side, including several old stagers, their players have disciplined and unmuddled minds.
Under pressure, South Africa's players invariably take the right option, which means they tend to win the important skirmishes as well as the close ones.
When it mattered, the only right options Hollioake took under pressure, were when he was batting, which he did rather well, scoring 32 and 46 at crucial moments. Providing he can get back to his unreconstructed ways, he should continue as captain for both the series later in the summer as well as the tournament in Bangladesh.
Already saddled with the tasks of Hercules, the last thing Stewart need is more responsibility, or indeed a trip to Bangladesh in October. Instead England's Test captain needs to get his team playing cricket of sustained intensity in the forthcoming series this summer and again in Australia later in the autumn. Something Gough's lively return - he was named as England man of the series despite 0 for 57 yesterday - should go some way towards achieving.
Although their timing is lousy, and their unflappability under pressure suspect, today's win shows that England at least have the means to beat good sides. All they need is the self-belief and consistency to make it a habit. In other words, the same old failings.
Saturday's Texaco Trophy match
at Old Trafford
England won toss
G F J Liebenberg lbw b Ealham 39
131 min, 75 balls, 2 fours
G Kirsten c Adams b Gough 2
10 min, 11 balls
J H Kallis c Stewart b Gough 9
16 min, 15 balls, 1 four
D J Cullinan lbw b Ealham 14
22 min, 18 balls, 3 fours
*W J Cronje c Stewart b Lewis 35
57 min, 44 balls, 4 fours
J N Rhodes lbw b Croft 41
59 min, 46 balls, 2 fours
S M Pollock lbw b Croft 3
12 min, 13 balls
L Klusener not out 55
69 min, 49 balls, 5 fours
M V Boucher b Gough 6
21 min, 14 balls
P L Symcox b Gough 2
9 min, 7 balls
A A Donald not out 6
13 min, 11 balls
Extras (b2, lb6, w3, nb3) 14
Total (for 9, 214 min, 50 overs) 226
Fall: 1-6 (Kirsten), 2-24 (Kallis), 3-42 (Cullinan), 4-103 (Cronje), 5-130 (Liebenberg), 6-143 (Pollock), 7-166 (Rhodes), 8-189 (Boucher), 9-200 (Symcox).
Bowling: Gough 10-0-35-4 (nb3, w1) (7-0-22-2, 3-0-13-2); Lewis 10-1-42- 1 (w1) (5-1-22-0, 3-0-14-1, 2-0-6-0); Ealham 10-0-34-2 (5-0-21-1, 5-0- 13-1); Fleming 8-0-51-0 (w1) (5-0-25-0, 3-0-26-0); Croft 10-0-43-2; Hollioake 2-0-13-0 (one spell each).
Progress: 50: 59 min, 83 balls. 100: 102 min, 143 balls. 150: 154 min, 220 balls. 200: 199 min, 281 balls. Klusener's 50: 67 min, 47 balls, 4 fours.
N V Knight c Boucher b Donald 34
61 min, 49 balls, 5 fours
A D Brown c Rhodes b Klusener 13
24 min, 15 balls, 1 four
A J Stewart run out 52
113min, 75 balls, 5 fours
N Hussainc Boucher b Donald 1
11 min, 8 balls
C J Adams lbw b Symcox 3
18 min, 14 balls
*A J Hollioake lbw b Pollock 46
70 min, 63 balls, 5 fours
M A Ealham b Cullinan 12
27 min, 16 balls, 1 four
M V Fleming c Kallis b Cullinan 5
18 min, 13 balls
C C Lewis not out 10
29 min, 17 balls)
R D B Croft run out 7
7 min, 7 balls
D Gough c Rhodes b Donald 2
5 min, 6 balls
Extras (lb2, w7) 9
Total (196 min, 46.4 overs) 194
Fall: 1-30 (Brown); 2-77 (Knight), 3-83 (Hussain), 4-90 (Adams), 5-143 (Stewart), 6-169 (Hollioake), 7-169 (Ealham), 8-182 (Fleming), 9-190 (Croft).
Bowling: Pollock 8-0-28-1 (nb2, w1) (6-0-20-0, 2-0-8-1); Klusener 9-0- 58-1 (w1) (4-0-35-1, 3-0-14-0, 2-0-9-0); Symcox 10-0-34-1 (w2) (one spell); Donald 8.4-0-32-3 (w3) (6-0-22-2, 2-0-8-0, 0.4-0-2-1); Cullinan 9-0-30- 2; Kallis 2-0-10-0 (one spell each).
Progress: 50: 42 min, 58 balls. 100: 102 min, 143 balls. 150: 150 min, 217 balls.
Stewart 50: 109 mins, 70 balls, 5 fours.
Umpires: R Julian and D R Shepherd.
Man of the Match: L Klusener (SA).
SOUTH AFRICA WON BY 32 RUNS
Yesterday's Texaco Trophy match
South Africa won toss
G Kirsten b Fraser 19
29 min, 31 balls, 3 fours
G F J Liebenberg lbw b Ealham 13
99 min, 57 balls
J H Kallis run out 1
5 min, 4 balls
D J Cullinan run out 13
52 min, 44 balls, 2 fours
*W J Cronje c Stewart b Ealham 35
55 min, 41 balls, 3 fours
J N Rhodes c Stewart b Ealham 6
8 min, 7 balls, 1 four
S M Pollock b Fleming 60
91 min, 64 balls, 5 fours
L Klusener c Stewart b Fraser 14
22 min, 25 balls
M V Boucher not out 26
36 min, 29 balls, 3 fours
P L Symcox not out 1
3 min, 1 ball
Extras (lb9, w5, nb3) 17
Total (for 8, 204 min, 50 overs) 205
Fall: 1-26 (Kirsten), 2-29 (Kallis), 3-57 (Cullinan), 4-68 (Liebenberg), 5-78 (Rhodes), 6-118 (Cronje), 7-146 (Klusener), 8-198 (Pollock).
Did not bat: A A Donald.
Bowling: Gough 10-2-57-0 (nb2) (6-2-17-0, 2-0-21-0, 2-0-19-0); Fraser 10-1-23-2 (nb1, w2) (8-1-15-1, 2-0-8-1); Fleming 10-1-41-1 (w1) (8-1-25- 0, 2-0-16-1); Ealham 10-0-44-3 (w1) (5-0-20-2, 3-0-16-1, 2-0-8-0); Croft 10-0-31-0 (one spell).
Progress: 50: 82 min, 118 balls. 100: 128 min, 185 balls. 150: 175 min, 260 balls. 200: 203 min, 302 balls.
Pollock 50: 88 min, 58 balls, 4 fours.
N V Knight c Rhodes b Donald 51
95 min, 79 balls, 6 fours
A D Brown run out 59
73 min, 40 balls, 11 fours
M V Fleming b Donald 18
34 min, 17 balls, 2 fours, 1 six
A J Stewart not out 26
59 min, 45 balls, 3 fours
N Hussain not out 33
46 min, 39 balls, 2 fours, 2 sixes
Extras (b4, lb2, w3, nb10) 19
Total (for 3, 155 min, 35 overs) 206
Fall: 1-114 (Brown), 2-139 (Knight), 3-148 (Fleming).
Did not bat: *A J Hollioake, M A Ealham, M V Fleming, R D B Croft, D Gough, A R C Fraser.
Bowling: Pollock 7-1-34-0 (nb4) (2-0-17-0, 2-0-14-0, 3-1-3-0); Klusener 6-0-45-0 (nb5) (3-0-21-0, 3-0-24-0); Donald 7-0-35-2 (nb1, w2) (2-0-16- 0, 5-0-19-2); Symcox 9-1-51-0 (4-1-20-0, 5-0-31-0); Cronje 6-0-35-0 (2- 0-19-0, 4-0-16-0).
Progress: 50: 31 min, 45 balls. 100: 58 min, 84 balls. 150: 116 min, 154 balls. 200: 152 min, 214 balls.
Knight 50: 92 min, 76 balls, 6 fours. Brown 50: 52 min, 31 balls, 9 fours.
Umpires: J H Hampshire and G Sharp.
England won by seven wickets.
Man of the match: A D Brown.
Men of the series: J N Rhodes (SA) and D Gough (Eng).
SOUTH AFRICA WIN SERIES 2-1