WITH EXPECTANCY high and admission free, Headingley was almost full yesterday as England's bowlers took 42 balls to take the two wickets that secured both the Fifth Test match and the series. When the umpire Javed Akhtar raised his finger to end Makhaya Ntini's brief innings, a 12-year drought at Test level was ended. To those who wondered if such things would only happen in the next millennium, England's first major series victory since Mike Gatting's Ashes win in 1986-87 had finally materialised.
The release from this agonisingly tense Test was merciful and the players experienced a whole gamut of emotions. After the headlong rush for souvenir stumps, the mood in the dressing-room was eerily calm: either England were expecting to win, or they could not yet quite believe they had done it.
For Alec Stewart, the England captain, the feeling was clearly "very special". Watched by his parents here on Saturday and Sunday, Stewart completed something of a family double with this 2-1 series win. The last occasion that England won a five-match series, father Mickey was the team coach.
"As captain, my style has been to have an open dressing-room where players are able to believe in their own ability and not be fazed by the international environment," he said. "To succeed, you need self-belief."
Stewart ended the series as boldly as he started it, and there was no suggestion of giving Shaun Pollock any easy singles to get Allan Donald on strike - a tactic Bob Willis used at the MCG in 1982, when Allan Border, shepherding his No 11, Jeff Thomson, steered Australia to within four runs of victory before one I T Botham stepped in to resolve the matter.
As expected from one who has spent so long in the wings, there were wobbles, and after Edgbaston it took England two Tests to compete. Stewart is still a little tactically transparent, but this is a minor fault that will be eradicated with experience.
For the moment his strength lies in the support and encouragement he has given his players. During England's mad 15 minutes on Friday - when three dropped catches might have cost them everything - he kept heads up and minds focused. Unlike his predecessor, Michael Atherton, you never forget Stewart is there.
One slight downside to the day was that Atherton, who has spent 83 Tests waiting for such a moment, was not on the field to savour the momentous occasion. As much the architect of the series win as anyone, he has been suffering from a bout of food poisoning and missed all but the last wicket (though not, apparently, the champagne) when the taxi returning him from a specialist became caught in a traffic jam.
Not wanting to distract attention from the field of play where the real event took place, Atherton typically played the whole thing down. As England's longest serving captain, there was not the slightest hint of his feeling slightly aggrieved at his successor's instant glory.
"I had a little success as captain, he said, "but once I'd passed the captaincy on to Alec, I've not given it a second thought. I'm delighted his first series has ended in victory and I'm delighted to have played a part. He's obviously done a good job."
Named as England's man of the series, Atherton's form with the bat has been a crucial factor. His new-ball duels against Donald and Pollock set the series' uncompromising tone. Finding an opening partner has also helped. Mark Butcher can have earned no greater praise than Atherton's claim that the Surrey left-hander has been the "find of the year".
The turning point was Old Trafford, where England somehow clung on to a draw. Had South Africa won and gone 2-0 up, England could not have gone on to win the series.
Hansie Cronje, the tourists' captain, confirmed it was the moment the pendulum began to swing England's way. "It was day four at Old Trafford that Atherton and Stewart took the win away from us," he said. "After that, we just couldn't put big scores together to put them under pressure."
Atherton, never one to mince words, was even more succinct: "South Africa's failure to kill us off there cost them dear."
For England there were no such problems yesterday. Headingley has witnessed many great moments down the years. Yet if the Botham and Willis Test here in 1981 is remembered for its logic-defying feats this one should be recalled for two teams who fought each other to a near standstill. Test cricket does not get much better and the final Test was a microcosm of a series that became taut with dramatic tension.
With the series in the balance, most would have spent an uneasy night and Stewart later admitted to waking at least three or four times to ponder field settings. If the nerves were jangling after play had resumed, the first ball of the sixth over would have settled them.
Angus Fraser has played a titanic role in this series and it was fitting that his removal of Donald, to the faintest of edges, largely removed any aspirations the visitors may have entertained. Eleven balls later it was all over, as Ntini, put on strike by Pollock, walked across an in-swinger from Darren Gough.
The wicket gave Gough 6 for 42 in front of his home crowd, and a Test best to savour. His performance was one of many heroic efforts on both sides. Mark Butcher's maiden Test hundred, which won him the man of the match, was all but matched by Nasser Hussain's 94 in the second innings, which was made in the most testing circumstances, with Donald and Pollock never far from their aggressive best. Jonty Rhodes, too, played brilliantly and both Cronje and Brian McMillan deserve praise for their half-centuries.
Cloaked in cloud except on Sunday, this Headingley pitch was as unreliable as the weather forecasts that had promised a heat wave. But if testing conditions invariably provide close encounters, England are getting better at winning them.
With 14 weeks before the first Test in Australia, that is a heartening sign and, given that one or two fine tunings are made, the chances of the Ashes returning to these shores before the 21st century may not be the fanciful notion it seemed a month ago as England followed on at Old Trafford.
Henry Blofeld; more Test match reports, page 24
England won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings 230 (M A Butcher 116; M Ntini 4-72).
SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings 252 (W J Cronje 57; A R C Fraser 5-42).
ENGLAND - Second Innings 240 (N Hussain 94; A A Donald 5-71, S M Pollock 5-53).
SOUTH AFRICA - Second Innings (continued)
(Overnight: 185 for 8)
S M Pollock not out 28
(107 min, 74 balls, 1 four)
A A Donald c Stewart b Fraser 4
(30 min, 23 balls)
M Ntini lbw b Gough 0
(8 min, 8 balls)
Extras (lb6, nb2) 8
Total (327 min, 75 overs) 195
Fall (cont): 9-194 (Donald), 10-195 (Ntini).
Bowling: Gough 23-6-42-6 (nb1) (9-4-10-3, 4-1-14-0, 10-1-18-3); Fraser 23-8-50-3 (nb2) (9-3-28-2, 4-1-8-0, 7-1-14-0, 3-3-0-1); Cork 17-1-50-1 (5-1-13-0, 6-0-16-1, 6-0-21-0); Flintoff 4-0-13-0; Salisbury 8-0-34-0 (one spell each).
ENGLAND WON BY 23 RUNS
Umpires: Javed Akhtar and P Willey. TV replay umpire: K E Palmer. Match referee: Ahmed Ebrahim.
Man of the match: M A Butcher. Adjudicator: P J W Allott. Players of the series: M A Atherton and A A Donald. Series adjudicators: R A Woolmer and D Lloyd.
Scoreboard compiled by Jo KingReuse content