It was a humdinger of a Test match. Not only did England win from behind but they recaptured the attention of a nation. If some of the individual contributions were imperishable the team performance was also exceptional. England claim never to have lacked self-belief but at Trent Bridge they really pulled together. Their tenacity as the sessions went by was admirable, they put cricket back in the headlines and now have a fighting chance of winning their first full home series for 13 years. This is how it unfolded:
THERE is a greenish tinge to the pitch and Alec Stewart, England's captain, considers it sufficient to defy precedent once more by inserting the opposition. If it is meant to be a cunning ploy it quickly falls into line with all the other similar cunning ploys perpetrated down the years.
England have asked South Africa to bat on eight previous occasions and have not won since Lord Hawke led the lads to victory at Cape Town 102 years ago. Three early wickets prove cruelly deceptive and if the pitch soon loses its spite it does not do so as quickly as England's bowlers.
By the end of the first day Hansie Cronje, South Africa's captain, has crafted a commendable hundred, his first for 29 Tests. "It's the first century I've got since I got married so I'm blaming it on that," he reports. "The selectors deserve some credit for keeping faith with me and the coach has backed me up all the way."
Before those listening can start wondering how England's selectors would perform in the keeping- faith department, Cronje adds tellingly: "Every time I have got a hundred we have always won and I am hoping that will continue." Not the least of England's difficulties is the dismantling of Ian Salisbury. The Surrey leg-spinner was recalled on the strength of his remodelled bowling. Cronje remodelled it some more, launching a ferocious assault which yielded 41 runs in seven overs.
Two late wickets at the end of the first day just keep England in touch. Both fall to Angus Fraser who goes on to take five in the innings for the 11th time in Tests. But a total of 374 after being put in still represents a mountain not a molehill. "Useless tosser" tags are being lined up again.
ENGLAND have made a habit of being dismissed for under 200 in their first innings. Not now. Michael Atherton and Mark Butcher ensure as much by withstanding the opening onslaught by Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock. Butcher has been restored to the side for the first time since the First Test and if there is not much daintiness about him he is unfussily solid. He is within 25 runs of a maiden Test century when he is given out lbw with Donald bowling round the wicket almost from the return crease. "It's always disappointing to be given out but the umpire's decision is final and you walk off. I can't say any more," he says later, almost as if relating a cricketing mantra, if a most welcome one. The decision was perhaps dodgy but the umpire, even in a high-tech, multi-slo-mo- replay age is always right. Otherwise the game is not worth the candle.
FOR almost five hours Mark Ramprakash marshals England's middle and late order. There is almost nothing of the country's most complete strokeplayer in his innings but his calm, proficient application is vital. Nightwatchman Salisbury is marvellously adhesive, potential partnerships with the recalled Graeme Hick and the 20-year-old debutant Andrew Flintoff are cut off but Ramprakash and the tail get just enough to keep England in contention. The mild outbreak of slow-handclapping which greets his steadfastness seems daft. "It was quite a difficult situation when Graeme Hick and Freddie Flintoff got out," he says. "It was important to stay there, and South Africa don't make it easy. Don't forget that they are very, very good bowlers. But I felt comfortable enough. The 29 runs for the last wicket really helped. When we got to the changing rooms the psychological advantage was probably with us."
ON Saturday evening England take more early South African wickets but then the match and series appear to shift away from them. Sunday changes everything, this game, the rubber, the summer - maybe, just maybe, the face of English cricket.
South Africa are bowled out for 208. Fraser the warhorse takes his tally to 10 wickets, Cork swings again just like he did last summer, or was it the one before? According to Stewart there never was any doubt about Fraser's position "once we got here and saw the wicket". Fraser was not so sure as he explained in his reaction on being included. "A huge sigh of relief," a relief confirmed in his self-assessment that "I show people I can still do it".
England need 247 to win. The whole affair is crystallised in the game within the game between Donald and Atherton. It is utterly compulsive, a fierce, wonderful fast bowler with all the tricks allied to the highest pace, in combat with a dauntless foe, a brave, unselfish, self-contained opening batsman of the oldest school.
When Atherton is on 27 he looks to have gloved Donald to Mark Boucher who appears to take yet another good, low catch. The umpire declines to raise his finger, Atherton declines to walk. Donald is mean and magnificent, he bowls with stunning rapidity, he stares, he swears but he cannot shift the calm, undemonstrative man at the other end. "I don't blame Atherton for not walking," he says when it is all done. "A lot of cricketers in his position wouldn't have walked and why should they? Of course, I was incredibly disappointed. The umpire, Steve Dunne, said the ball brushed the arm guard but I thought different."
Donald thinks his side would have won had Atherton gone then, but there are no recriminations. His ire has no place off the pitch. "I had a bit to say to Athers, told him he had let himself in for a battle and would get it. But that is where the battle stayed - out in the middle. The grievances don't carry on afterwards. I have great respect for him as a player and I'm pretty sure he feels the same for me." It is beyond doubt. Atherton confirms: "We were the first to have a beer together after the game. I can't understand Afrikaans so I couldn't understand what he was saying out there."
ATHERTON sees England home. It is the highest total they have made to win against South Africa and in the end it was not even close. The margin is eight wickets and Captain Stewart bashes 45 off 34 balls to finish it. His predecessor as skipper is 98 not out. Fraser is judged man of the match.
No complaints about that but no player deserved a century more than Atherton. He is a cussed so-and-so but he is a thoroughly endearing cricketer not least because he recognises it as a team game first and foremost. He reveals his preparations for the final day. "Twice this summer I have been not out overnight and got out early so last night I decided to have a few beers and went to bed reasonably early and got a good night's sleep."
He adds: "There was a Test match to be won and that is the best motivation of the lot. It was a critical game because there was not a lot else going on to take up the headlines but it was a great Test match." A great Test match indeed.