Cricket: Hapless return of old England

Second Test: Ramprakash awaits referee's verdict as the headquarters hoodoo tarnishes new age of Stewart

NO sooner are New England put on public inspection than Old England insist on stealing the show. The habitual intruders were on their favourite stamping ground at Lord's yesterday and performed an impeccable job of putting the side facing not so much defeat as imminent humiliation. Almost before it was possible to blink - and the speed at which Allan Donald bowled permitted little time for that - South Africa had secured an unassailable position.

England's total of 110, compiled during a riveting spell of play on a day which was never less than captivating - although a meagre 175 runs were scored in the day's 87 overs - was their lowest for the first innings against South Africa in 112 Tests between the sides, and extras was their top scorer for only the fourth time in all Tests. The figures were grim enough, the spectacle was grimmer. The ball might have swung more than Alexander's Ragtime Band but England's riposte was to bat like Alec's Ragtag Army.

They followed on 250 behind and if their defiance in the afternoon at last made the visitors something less than irresistible the damage already looked terminal. After the early departure from the second innings (and perhaps, sadly, from Test cricket) of the late debutant Steve James, the second wicket pair of Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain batted until five overs from the close. They had put on a face-saving, if hardly match- saving 94, when Atherton, who had batted for 197 minutes and had continued after receiving a painful blow on the right hand in Donald's third over, got too adventurous against Paul Adams and was caught high at square-leg. Dean Headley survived as nightwatchman, the second time he had played the role in the day but a long, long road lies ahead.

England were 145 behind at close. Hussain, making amends for his earlier shortcomings, had batted 204 minutes for his unbeaten 50. History might beckon, but it is more likely to be England's seventh defeat at Lord's in 15 matches - of which they have won three. What might beckon for Mark Ramprakash is punishment from the match referee, Javed Burki, who decided to sleep on what action he should take about the England batsman's reluctance to leave the crease when adjudged caught behind.

The prototype of the latest New England, one with similar components but a new chief engineer, had been unveiled at Edgbaston where it did not have to go the distance. For a brief time at Lord's it continued to look promising and then parts started flying off all over the place. In little more than a day it went from something gleaming to match the new Grand Stand, to a contraption assembled by Heath Robinson. Old England.

When play began in the morning there was as much cloud cover as humidity. England were 40 for 3 overnight but had South Africa not been 46 for 4 on the first afternoon and gone on to a score beyond the realms of respectability? What followed was thrilling. If England were to emerge from their difficulties the first hour was essential to the cause. The ball was only 13 overs old and given its condition and that of the skies, vast movement seemed a certainty.

Donald bowled at excitingly high pace and while his partner Shaun Pollock was not as rapid he swang the ball excessively. England proceeded to play attacking shots, not an unattractive response but still potentially suicidal. There is a case for saying that the rot set in with Hussain.

He had already driven handsomely a time or two without either making contact, except on one occasion when he sliced through the slip cordon for four, or moving his feet. After 25 minutes Donald bowled him a widish one of good length, which was always moving away and Hussain could not stop himself from launching at it.

Mark Boucher, the young wicketkeeper, flew to his right in front of slip and held the second of six catches. How South Africa catch. One run later Headley played away from his body and also edged behind. Pollock was regularly beating the bat, nobody touched it. He was desperately unlucky but Donald was in his pomp, even to the naked eye much quicker than anybody else (the measuring machine reached 90 mph) and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Donald's opening spell was 2 for 6 in six overs (while Pollock went for nine in seven) and he finished with his 12fth five wicket haul in Tests. Jacques Kallis removed Graham Thorpe with his second ball. Although the Surrey left-hander played a firm, legitimate flick to leg it went in the air and Adam Bacher at short-leg took a smart catch characteristic of these tourists. Ramprakash and Mark Ealham consolidated a while and if they were strokeless that was more acceptable than being stroke-happy.

Then Ramprakash, who had taken 41 balls to get off the mark, played a shot to point. He seemed to call Ealham - who seemed to be coming - for a single. Both changed their minds, then went anyway and Gary Kirsten delivered the throw to the striker's end with Ealham well short. Ramprakash, having batted for 98 minutes, might (or in his opinion might not) have got an inside edge to Donald. He stood his ground, shook his head all the way to the Long Room and for all we know possibly through it.

The tail followed obligingly. New England then emerged again, but it is probably too late.

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