There was a deep suspicion barely four weeks ago that they might never again be so adorned. The improbable draw at Old Trafford after following on, succeeded by the epic triumph at Trent Bridge after falling behind, have changed all that for now. We should, of course, have known the places where Test cricket was capable of taking us but we must still hope that the sequel to The Great Escape was not A Bridge Too Far (and naturally that at Leeds it is All Quiet On The Western Front).
It is anticipated that there will be a positive outcome at Headingley, for it is the result pitches' result pitch, is it not? Well, yes and no. There was a draw there in the match against Pakistan two years ago, a contest which never took shape, and although a similar conclusion in 1994 had been the first draw there for 14 years, and the first not influenced by rain for 26 years, it happened to be between England and South Africa.
Its reputation is of a pitch that seamers would die for but Yorkshire have had no trouble accumulating big scores at Headingley recently. In all four of their 1998 Championship matches there, the last in mid-June, they have made more than 300 in the first innings and are averaging a commendable 40 runs for each wicket. In all, there have been seven centuries. Surely, however, it is out of the question in this endlessly damp season that Leeds, of all places, can come up with a run-scoring paradise. The likelihood is that a pitch marginally favouring bowlers will help to produce a winner.
England, presumably a different unit after their collective effort in Nottingham, must now conjure with the delicate conundrum of whether to change a winning team. It is not an enviable task and if, strictly speaking, some tinkering is necessary it may not come to pass. The personnel of the top six batsmen will be unaltered.
Graeme Hick's return to the colours may not have been a riproaring success but the pull he played to Allan Donald's short ball on Saturday morning was the right shot. That he made a Horlicks of its execution is unfortunate but it would be a nonsense to omit him for the climactic match. A look at the batting averages would hardly assist the selectors in finding a replacement. Only three of the leading ten are Englishmen (four are South Africans) and of those one is uncapped, one has been recently discarded by England and the other is a 38-year-old who played the last of his four Test matches in 1989. Headingley this time is no place for the recently prolific Mal Loye, for the in-form, classy John Crawley, who scored his maiden Test century there in 1996 but has somehow never yet looked the complete part in the big time, or for Kim Barnett.
Much of an amenable and no doubt excitable discussion will be commanded by the number seven and eight positions in the order, as filled in Nottingham, on paper anyway, by Andrew Flintoff and Ian Salisbury. First, the selectors have to decide what batting strength they need. The tail is already fragile despite the presence of Dominic Cork and Darren Gough, who should both be scoring more runs or at least displaying more intransigence.
Flintoff's returns on his debut did not prove conclusively that he was born for Test cricket but, whether batting or bowling, he looked unaffected by it all. The question for now is whether he is able to get enough runs at seven or, more significantly, enough wickets to earn his place in a game on which the rubber depends. The answer to both questions is probably not. But, what the heck? Freddie Flintoff is going to be a Test cricketer, no mistake, and he may as well learn to do it now while he still has the exuberance of youth. It would be pointless to recall the worthy Mark Ealham or indeed to go knocking on Ben Hollioake's door yet again.
Salisbury was completely undermined on his return but England will need a spinner, as they discovered to their cost in Yorkshire two years ago when they could not finish off Pakistan. Unfortunately, the spinning barrel is pretty dry. Salisbury has never played more than two Tests in succession but for his and the team's sake it may be necessary to restrict his present run to one. If not him, then who? Robert Croft, valiant but wicketless, or that man Tuffers (Phil Tufnell) again, eight wickets to the good against the Championship-chasing Yorkshire last week. This amounts to an embarrassment of poverty, which is likely to be of more significance in Australia this winter than Leeds in the late summer.
England will probably discuss the merits of Warwickshire's Ed Giddins again and include the left-armer Alan Mullally in the squad. The other left-arm seamers who are crowding round the national averages will not get much of a nod, though Jason Lewry of Sussex has devilish late swing. Sadly, left-arm seamers have never done well for England.
South Africa will not be beaten easily. They are a team of strong will and some outstanding players. There exists a misconception that they lack flair, whatever that is, but they have contributed enormously to what has, at last, turned out to be a marvellous series. Headingley must not be a let-down. Why, England can reach for the sky.
Possible squad: A J Stewart (capt), M A Atherton, M A Butcher, N Hussain, M R Ramprakash, G A Hick, A Flintoff, I D K Salisbury, D G Cork, D Gough, A R C Fraser, R D B Croft, A D Mullally.Reuse content