Cricket: Hussain takes the strain

Fifth Test: Match of tension and intensity, nerves and nuances swings England's way at heady Headingley
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The Independent Online
THERE was abundant excitement in Leeds yesterday that the BBC had postponed a television programme to screen live coverage of the Fifth Test. The schedulers, not for the first time, got it wrong. This is the sort of match for which they might have considered clearing entire channels for days at a time so that neither a ball nor a nuance are missed.

For long periods nothing much seemed to happen but it was constantly mesmeric, never monotonous. If the advantage at the start of the third day began with South Africa it slowly, sometimes agonisingly, shifted towards England, but never so much that it could not move back again sharply. Every run was sacred and the tourists did not yield any lightly. Wickets were hardly of any less value and England, for once, put a high premium on them but England, in this regard, can be suspiciously like a dodgy insurance company.

The sky and the pitch looked capricious but both behaved well enough for the lead of 300 to which England must aspire to remain tantalisingly within reach. Having lost wickets near the start of each session they ended the day with a lead of 184 with two specialist batsmen still to come and Nasser Hussain unbeaten on 83 having faced 295 balls with admirable equanimity. If Mark Ramprakash had managed to keep out Shaun Pollock with the new ball as the evening drew to a close England's advantage would have been marginally greater. But three successive, tense, significant partnerships of more than 50 kept the game and series marvellously alive. Although it was half expected of them when they received their setbacks at the start of each session, England did not flap either with the bat or in the mind. Hussain was a combination of the judicious and, much less frequently, the cavalier, but he was immensely composed.

It was the loss of the first wicket to the first ball of the day that was potentially the most crucial and disastrous. Allan Donald bowled his loosener to Michael Atherton. It did no more than cut back a fraction but Atherton was not moving properly at that stage.

Throughout his career the former captain has had some trouble persuading his feet to move early in the innings (Gus Fraser is Billy Whizz by comparison) and there they were, stuck in the crease. His pads were adjacent and if the inside edge of his bat probably intervened, the verdict was delivered quickly. Atherton walked off ruefully. Unlike Donald on the previous day he did not brandish his bat to the Western Terrace.

England had to regroup carefully at that point and through Mark Butcher and Hussain they did so. There was some playing and missing, there was some pretty top-class bowling but the batsmen did not wilt. They had reached 67 by lunch at which point there had been no more wickets. It was slow, painstaking and enrapturing.

When Butcher was 23 he pulled a ball in the air perilously close to square leg but for the rest of the time he was phlegmatic, playing upright and driving occasionally and if not quite with languor then at least handsomely. He looked a Test match opener. At the start of this series Butcher's place was in doubt and his method was being called into question. But he will go to Australia in a few weeks as the natural left- handed foil to Atherton. His advance is testimony to the worth of the system of A tours.

The afternoon was only a quarter of an hour old when he edged Pollock to second slip. The partnership of 81 was then the highest of the match. It was that kind of match. It was a matter for momentary debate whether Alec Stewart might adopt his routine approach and take the attack to the bowlers. He drove Pollock for four, gathered another boundary when he was dropped off the rearing, good length ball which followed as Jacques Kallis at second slip dived across Brian McMillan at first, and summarily clipped the next one through square leg.

If that seemed to answer the question it also appeared to trigger something in Stewart's psyche. He and Hussain then played out 29 scoreless balls. How the South Africans tempted them, bowling just outside the off stump, inviting the injudicious jab. None was forthcoming. Donald tried something different.

He bounced Hussain. The batsman hooked him and hooked him again. A low- scoring, tense match such as this is replete with key moments but that drop and the half-hour which followed will take some beating when the analysis comes to be done. The little flurry enabled England to reach tea at 141. They had scored 13 more runs than in the morning, were 119 ahead and had eight wickets left.

Hussain passed 50 for the 13th time in Tests, off 161 balls and when he reached 61 he had accumulated 2,000 Test runs. The score had not advanced by a solitary run when he lost his captain. It was another lifting, length ball and the edge to the wicketkeeper was regulation. Maybe this moved the contest back to evens again but at the back of everybody's mind was the prospect that where England are concerned they could lead by 400 and South Africa could win by eight wickets.

Only 12 five-match series involving England have arrived at the final Test with the outcome in the balance. Only once have England come from behind to win such a series in the decisive match. That was in 1922-23 when they lost the first, won the second, drew the next two and won the last by 109 runs. The opponents were South Africa.

It is to be hoped that the television wallahs were rewarded for their gamble in taking off the repeat documentary so these climactic proceedings could be seen. The programme in question was People's Century: Boomtime 1948. It was all about the start of England's post-war recovery. What was on instead filled the slot admirably. One day it may be seen as Boomtime 1998, the start of England's pre- Millennium recovery.

Henry Blofeld, page 18