Cricket: Mr Klusener, sign on the swatted line

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The Independent Online
LANCE KLUSENER'S century in South Africa's first innings was the highest ever played at Port Elizabeth in a Test match. It was also one of the top three innings I have ever seen. Ratings like these are always arguable and subjective but of Klusener's there could surely be no doubt.

I can remember playing for Derbyshire against Lancashire once when Ian Bishop was storming in against Neil Fairbrother. For an over or two it was obvious that the man they call Harvey was extremely disconcerted. Bishop was at his most hostile and if Fairbrother was not backing away to square-leg he was looking understandably worried.

Bishop then hit him in the grille of the helmet. It acted like a wake- up call. Fairbrother flayed our distinctly rapid West Indian to all parts. It seemed that he played all the shots in the book and then played them again.

Robin Smith played an innings in a one-day international which sticks with me as well. That too was a batsman at the top of his game. There have been other splendid innings in that time, of course, but not ones I have necessarily seen. Klusener's was right up there with the very best of them all.

Judged purely by the array of his strokes, he is actually a limited player. He has a mere three upon which he relies, a cut, a drilled drive and a shovel to leg. He plays them fiercely with deadly menace. Believe me, during the course of his innings England came up with several ploys to counter his style and contain him. None of them worked. His devastating hitting clearly makes him a one-day player to be reckoned with, but he has worked hard and this was top Test stuff.

As it happened, I helped to end his stay at the crease. He hit Darren Gough's slower ball to leg without quite middling it and I leapt to my left to hold the catch. It was my first legitimate catch in Test cricket, though I had two taken two as substitute against India at Old Trafford in 1990 - Navjot Sidhu and Sanjay Manjrekar - which went down in the scorebook as ct sub.

Having caught Klusener my celebrations were as much relief at knowing we were to leave the park as at holding on to the ball. I went up to him, said "well played", told him I was having the ball to mark the occasion and asked if he would sign it. The word ball may be pushing it to describe what I had in my hand. It looked like something I put on my toast in the mornings. It will stay that way as a keepsake.

The build-up to the Second Test and the time we spent in the field reminded me once more of what a singular game Test cricket is. Here we are eight weeks away from home and we are not yet quite half way through. No other game demands quite such time away from home or for its players to spend so much time on the field of play.

This is not a moan by the way. We are well rewarded for what we do and we are playing for our country, something we all dream of, but the mental pressures of playing this game are enormous.

Moods, attitudes change in Test match week. Players who might have been jokey and happy the week before are jokey and happy no longer. They are trying to concentrate on what lies ahead and during the match remain absolutely concentrated. A serious business is Test cricket.

Not that there can be many finer places to play it than the St George's ground, Port Elizabeth. This a lovely town, second maybe only to Cape Town of the places cricketers here visit and the ground is wonderful to play on.

It is pleasant enough structurally but the atmoshere inside is remarkable. A brass band plays intermittently in one of the stands. They are mostly raunchy, upbeat numbers. A group of kids danced to them throughout. It exuded conviviality and happiness.

The Barmy Army have, by and large, been tremendous for the England party. Here are a group of lads expressing fervent support for the team and having a holiday. But they are not always harmonious. The idea of having brass bands rather than the monotonous soccer style chants we have on English grounds appeals to me. It's something I would not mind trying to introduce at least in one-day floodlit matches at Hove next season.

The intensity of this Test match cricket stuff still astonishes me, but equally the game was made for the unforgettable atmosphere created here in Port Elizabeth.