Cricket: Hick's sense of history averts crisis

FIRST TEST: Atherton gives valuable solidity as England offer hope for the series after recovering from another depressing start
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The Independent Online
England 221-4 v South Africa

When it came to making history yesterday, the fact that the last TV pictures of an England-South Africa Test match were broadcast in black and white was a reasonably strong contender, but compared to England failing to make a total porridge of the first day of a Test series, it was not really in the same frame.

Twenty-four hours into most recent series, England have effectively been history themselves, but after initially threatening to disappear down the same depressing plughole, Graeme Hick and Michael Atherton provided hope that England's batsmen versus South Africa's fast bowlers will not be the one-sided contest many people feared.

Atherton, whose long-standing back trouble may be partially due to the amount of times he has carried his team on it, made a typically stoical 78 before splicing the second new ball to gully, while Hick, whose expression range normally runs from blank to deadpan, was so delighted by a wonderfully positive fourth Test match century, that he only just stopped short of a series of handstands.

These two rallied England from a precarious 64 for 3, and if Atherton - who had grown visibly more weary during the afternoon - had managed to hang on until the close, it would have been an even more satisfying day. As for South Africa the only real bonus was a highly impressive debut from another fast bowling Pollock, Shaun.

As England, having preferred Richard Illingworth to Devon Malcolm, would have batted first by choice had they not been invited to, their first Test match toss against South Africa for 30 years was something of an irrelevance. They will also have been relieved that the pitch was a long way from the trampoline that was forecast, even though Atherton - hit twice on the helmet and once on the shoulder - ended the day with a bruise and a headache.

The history of the occasion was slightly lost on the South African public, who turned up for the first Test between these two countries in three decades in something closer to dribbles than droves. On top of which, if there was one black face in the crowd of 9,300, it was hard to spot among all the white and red ones.

Why this should have been is hard to say, although the fact that this match is being played in the mainly white region of what used to be called Verwoerdburg might have had something to do with it. A place with that kind of name would hardly have had blacks queuing up outside the estate agents' windows.

More likely, though, is the fact that the Test match culture was all but lost to the instant variety during the years of isolation, and a one- day froth society will need a bit of weaning back on to solids. Whether yesterday will have helped is a moot point, in that South Africa's attack is one-dimensional to the point of utter tedium.

However, their fielding is probably even more brilliant than Australia's, and the diving catch at backward square-leg to dismiss Alec Stewart off a full-blooded pull was close to unbelievable. What was even more remarkable was the fact that the fielder, Craig Matthews, spilled a relatively simple return catch offered by Hick on 67.

The fall of England's second wicket, at 36, did nothing to remove the suspicion that Mark Ramprakash has developed some kind of mental block at this level. It was a ghastly poke outside off stump at Donald, and in his 18th Test, Ramprakash managed to knock another small percentage off a miserable average of less than 18.

England's problems continued when Graham Thorpe, who for one reason or another had barely spent any time at the crease before this match, snicked a catch behind to provide young Pollock with his first Test wicket. England lunched at 64 for 3, and might easily have been driven into a shell of strokelessness.

The fact that they were not was gratifying for more than one reason. Centurion Park's electronic screen was in danger of exploding from gimmick overload every time a boundary was struck, and the idea of signalling a four with a cartoon of a woman removing her spectacles and then putting them back on, is certainly a novel one.

As spectators were also invited to perform the tiresome Mexican wave (happily without success) by a moustachioed character in a sombrero, with the word WAVE flashed up in capital letters, this might provide some idea of South Africa's idea of subtetly.

Neither was there much subtlety about the way South Africa bowled to Atherton and Hick in particular, but while Atherton battled away in largely heroic defence for five and a half hours, Hick was unrecognisable as the timid character he often looks when cricket balls are fizzing past his visor.

Allan Donald and Pollock were always a handful, but Hick was imperiously dismissive of the distinctly undangerous back-up team of Brett Schultz, Matthews and Brian McMillan. Hick's first delivery, a no-ball from Pollock which he pawkily spliced out on the leg side, gave no hint of the spanking he was about to deliver.

Hick's ability has never been in question, merely his character. This was the first time he has done it for England in a crisis and, to give the man his due, it was not far short of brilliant.