The great Lancastrian fast bowler was in the twilight of an exceptional career, which had brought him 245 Test wickets and, briefly, the world wicket- taking record. He had not played for England for two years and 20 matches; he had turned 35 that summer. There are performances which nudge selectors, however, and there are those which are like beating them over the head with a bat until they take notice.
Statham had been the first to 100 wickets and had more than 120 by the time the team was picked for the third Test. It could be detected that he was in form and might just have one final burst in him. He was summoned to square the series for England. It would be romantic to record that he recalls it down to the last detail, how he walked down the steps at The Oval on the opening morning, marked his run and turned to concentrate on dispatching the South Africans for the final time.
'To tell you the truth,' said Statham, 'I don't remember much about it at all. I was nervous but that was the same on every morning of a Test. It wasn't really nerves, more adrenalin.' He probably had reason for nerves, as he was notoriously unlucky. Even his nickname, George, derived from his habitual misfortune. He had inherited it from Winston Place, the old Lancashire batsman who was similarly unlucky, and took to describing himself, for no apparent reason, as 'poor old George'.
Statham was surprised to be there. Others might have cast him in the role as series saviour but he had taken over the Lancashire captaincy that season. Tests were hardly on his mind. 'I didn't anticipate being called up ever again. I had thought my England days were over,' he said. 'I was 35 and I did wonder what the selectors were doing.'
The selectors knew what they were doing. Statham's accuracy was as relentless as it had been throughout an exemplary career which had seen him form one half of two of the legendary England fast-bowling partnerships: with Frank Tyson and Fred Trueman.
He finished with five for 40 in the first innings, one bowled and three leg before decisions in his favour bearing testimony to his enduring ability to bowl straight. 'Ken Higgs bowled very well, I know,' he said. 'He hardly gave anything away and I think we both finished with seven wickets.'
Statham's memory was correct. Higgs, his Lancashire partner, was playing his first Test at the age of 28 and backed him up with four first-innings wickets. Their efforts ensured the South Africans were all out for 208. England replied with 202 and the match was set for a tense finish. Statham and Higgs did the bulk of the
second-innings bowling, returning two for 105 and four for 96 without quite dictating the course of the match.
'I haven't really much idea who was playing for South Africa,' said Statham, whose career has just been chronicled wicket by wicket in a book by Geoff Wilde, Brian Statham, published by the Association of Cricket Statisticians.
'Colin Bland was in there somewhere and he looked a good player.' Bland, of course, had become renowned for his brilliant fielding on that tour but Statham had understandably different reasons for remembering him. Bland scored 127 in South Africa's second innings.
Left with 399 to win, England were 91 short with 70 minutes and six wickets in hand when it rained on The Oval. South Africa and George Statham both departed. It is somehow disappointing that he is unable to be there at Lord's this week to welcome them back.
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