CAPTAINING ENGLAND'S cricket team is one of the most demanding jobs in sport requiring both steel and a peculiar sense of humour. Fortunately Nasser Hussain needed only the first to save the second Test against South Africa. He will play better innings, but as far as his brief tenure in the hot seat goes, his unbeaten 70 here was easily the most important.
Set 302 runs to win, but realistically needing to bat a minimum of 79 overs on the last day, England were 153 for 6 when hands were shaken with two overs left to bowl. This was only the third ever draw at St George's Park since 1877, and England have been involved in all three of them. It was a deserving result and it would have been an injustice had four bad umpiring decisions, three of them by home umpire Rudi Koertzen, delivered South Africa a late victory.
Afterwards Hussain refused to comment publicly about the umpiring. England can in theory object to Koertzen standing in the fifth and final Test but that is unlikely; he did add the rejoinder that he would be mentioning it in his captain's report to the International Cricket Council.
The captain's contribution which lasted just over six hours, was his second significant knock of the match, following his 82 in the first innings. Curiously, both innings followed the same pattern, with Hussain playing shots at the start - he again hooked a six, this time off Nantie Hayward before he had reached double figures - to establish himself, before settling down.
But whatever the method, both were captain's innings. What is it about being in charge of England that makes players find more in themselves than they ever did as members of the rank and file? Michael Atherton did it when he was skipper as did Alec Stewart. Fortunately for England, Hussain appears to have followed in that tradition.
It was not quite a lone battle and after his side found themselves 5 for 2 in the sixth over, he was accompanied for two-and-a-half hours by Michael Vaughan who made 28.
Vaughan, who bats with the unhurried air of the old amateur, has impressed so far, and appears mentally complete if a little light of scoring shots. Mind you, their task, on a sluggish but gradually deteriorating pitch, while full of heart and skill, was abetted by the negative outlook of Hussain's opposite number, Hansie Cronje. Not only did Cronje bat on for a fairly pointless 32 minutes on the final morning, but he went into this game without a specialist spinner.
If you rely entirely on pace you need to give yourself at least 20 overs with a second new ball which is only due every 80 overs. South Africa had 79 all told and it was a glaring oversight for a captain of Cronje's experience. Indeed, his apparent reluctance to pursue victory until all possibilities of defeat have been extinguished is an Achilles heel against robust sides like Australia.
It may yet prove to be against this England side, who can take heart from this match. "We're not the sort of side to go away celebrating draws," said Hussain, "but I'm very pleased with the way a group of young lads, who got blown away at Johannesburg, came here and recovered like that."
For once, though, Atherton was not at the centre of the rearguard and getting caught on the crease, Shaun Pollock beat his tentative prod to flatten the opener's off-stump. The ball itself did little and probably owed its potency to a ball Atherton received in Pollock's previous over that had burst the top of the pitch and struck him a nasty blow on the glove.
His early exit lifted South Africa and they struck again immediately when Mark Butcher was lbw in Hayward's first over. It was not an exceptional ball, but then neither was the decision from umpire Koertzen and TV replays showed that it pitched outside leg-stump.
Butcher got a bad one in the first Test as well, but if he can gain some satisfaction from the fact that the laws are with him, he must ask himself why he is not getting a bat on deliveries most left-handers would relish.
It could be that his confidence is low and after his first innings century in the Brisbane Test a year ago, he has made just 267 runs in 19 Test innings at an average of 14.05. It is an abysmal record and England will surely consider his position before the third Test due to start on Boxing Day.
Vaughan has what it takes to open and after an admirable display of defensive technique, he was unfortunate to be given out to Jacques Kallis, bowling his first spell of the series, after umpire Koertzen had felt the ball had flicked his glove as it passed down the leg-side. To be fair, had it hit anything it could only have been glove, but TV replays suggested it touched nothing.
After a partnership of 45, Alec Stewart went lbw to Pollock for 28, a decision by umpire Steve Bucknor that was arguably the worst of the day. As Koertzen's next victim, Chris Adams would probably disagree and after clearly missing a ball from Cronje that cannoned off his pad to Jonty Rhodes in the covers, he was given out caught.
Every one has bad days and Koertzen, one of two South African umpires on the international panel, is highly respected. At least there was no controversy with his next decision as Andy Flintoff edged a low catch to Mark Boucher off Kallis, a dismissal that made Boucher the quickest wicket-keeper ever to 100 dismissals, a world record he takes from his predecessor Dave Richardson.
With Andy Caddick helping Hussain make the game safe, England can move on to Durban a different team. A draw is what usually makes cricket impenetrable to most people. For an England team striving to compete with South Africa it will be a welcome boost to confidence and self-esteem.
ST GEORGE'S PARK SCOREBOARD
Final day; England won toss
SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings 450 (L Klusener 174, D J Cullinan 58, J N Rhodes 50; P C R Tufnell 4-124).
ENGLAND - First Innings 373 (M A Atherton 108, N Hussain 82; M Hayward 4-75).
SOUTH AFRICA - Second Innings
(Overnight: 189 for 4)
J H Kallis not out 85
357 min, 260 balls, 4 fours
J N Rhodes not out 57
175 min, 145 balls, 6 fours
Extras (b4 lb11 w1 nb9) 25
Total (for 4 dec, 376 min, 92.5 overs) 224
Fall: 1-5 (Kirsten) 2-17 (Gibbs) 3-50 (Cullinan) 4-98 (Cronje).
Bowling: Gough 19-6-52-1 (nb4) (5-4 -5-1, 2-0-6-0, 2-0-10-0, 6-0-16-0, 4-2- 15-0); Caddick 18-4-29-2 (nb3) (8-2-13-1, 6-0-10-1, 4-2-6-0); Silverwood 10-1-24-0 (w1) (3-1-6-0, 3-0-11-0, 4-0-7-0); Tufnell 35-9-71-0 (nb1) (12- 5-16-0, 2-0-4-0, 21-4-51-0); Vaughan 2-0-9-0 (nb1) (one spell), Flintoff 8.5-2-24-1 (4-1-9-1, 2-0-4-0, 2.5-1-11-0).
ENGLAND - Second Innings
M A Butcher lbw b Hayward 1
26 min, 20 balls
M A Atherton b Pollock 3
20 min, 14 balls
*N Hussain not out 70
303 min, 211 balls, 9 fours, 1 six
M P Vaughan c Boucher b Kallis 29
147 min, 108 balls, 2 fours
A J Stewart lbw b Pollock 28
71 min, 55 balls, 4 fours, 1 six
C J Adams c Rhodes b Cronje 1
51 min, 32 balls
A Flintoff c Boucher b Kallis 12
16 min, 19 balls, 2 fours
A R Caddick not out 4
8 min, 6 balls, 1 four
Extras (lb2 nb3) 5 Total (for 6, 324 min, 77 overs) 153
Fall: 1-5 (Atherton) 2-5 (Butcher) 3-80 (Vaughan) 4-125 (Stewart) 5-137 (Adams) 6-149 (Flintoff).
Bowling: Donald 13-4-37-0 (3-3-0-0, 6-1-23-0, 4-0-14-0); Pollock 17-8- 18-2 (nb3) (6-3-6-1, 6-3-3-0, 5-2-9-1); Hayward 20-8-55-1 (6-1-25-1, 2- 2-0-0, 5-2-17-0, 4-2-6-0, 3-1-7-0); Kallis 7-1-22-2 (1-0-7-0, 4-1-7-1, 2-0-8-1); Klusener 14-9-17-0 (6-3-8-0, 6-4-9-0, 2-2-0-0); Cronje 6-4-2- 1 (3-2-1-0, 3-2-1-1).
Progress: Fifth day: 200: 352 min, 86.4 overs. Declaration at 11.03am. England set 302 in a minimum of 79 (64 + 15) overs to win. Lunch: 46-2 (Hussain 26, Vaughan 14) 18 overs. 50: 99 min, 21.3 overs. Tea: 98-3 (Hussain 50, Stewart 12) 48 overs. 100: 206 min, 49.5 overs. 150: 323 min, 76.4 overs. Match called off at 5.36pm with two overs of final 15 remaining.
Umpires: S A Bucknor (WI) and R E Koertzen.
TV Replay Umpire: D L Orchard.