Cricket: Surreal, like a Harry Enfield sketch

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The Independent Online
ALL MY life I have dreamed of playing for England. I have imagined walking out to bat, savouring the atmosphere, conjuring up the circumstances in my mind's eye. All sorts of permutations have flashed through my mind at various times down the years. A sunny Saturday afternoon with the score on 250 for 3 on a flat one has been a particular favourite; 2 for 4 and about to face a hat-trick delivery from Allan Donald after 17 balls of the match never featured. Never.

Thursday morning at The Wanderers in Johannesburg will remain with me always. England knew it was a toss worth winning but there was nothing negative about the dressing room when the coin came down the wrong way.

Someone had to bat on a moist pitch under a covering of cloud amid high humidity. I sat on the balcony, yet to change into whites. Donald bowled Michael Atherton at the end of the first over with a vicious in-cutter. In the second, Shaun Pollock had the captain Nasser Hussain caught at gully with an equally malevolent spitting delivery - 2 for 2. I went to change.

Although the Tests are shown live on South African television there is, because of the distance from the satellite, a slight delay between the action and transmission. I put on my pads and, as I always do, left my thigh guard and box until later. I heard a roar from the crowd outside and knew immediately that a wicket had fallen. I looked up at the screen on the changing room telly. Butcher was edging Donald to the slips - 2 for 3.

I continued with my preparations as Alec Stewart went out, selecting the helmet, the gloves, the bat. I heard another huge cheer. I didn't bother looking at the telly this time. I knew we had lost another wicket. Then I began the long walk from the room, down the open air tunnel, which is next to the grass area where kids bang on the side.

There could hardly have been a more dire situation for England but as I made my way to the middle I could only think that this was in the realms of the surreal. It was weird. I felt as though I was in a Harry Enfield television sketch. When I got to the middle, Michael Vaughan met me. He, too, was making his debut and his position was equally bizarre. He had gone in at 2 for 2, had lost two partners without the score progressing and had not faced a ball. "What's it doing?" I said. He gave me a wry smile. Well, you had to laugh.

There was a wait before I took guard while the umpires checked the light. Michael and I had a chat. I decided then that I had to be positive. I told him I had faced Donald before and there was a chance of a bit of width. I was going to throw the kitchen sink at anything wide, and the taps along with it. Shaun Pollock, I knew, would be a different prospect because he bowls at you.

First, there was the hat-trick ball to negotiate, my first in Test cricket. Strangely, I was composed. I knew Donald would not send it past my nose end because he had to go for the wicket. I went firmly forward, it was of good length, seamed in and hit me innocuously on the front leg.

My first scoring shot came off my fourth ball. It was outside the off stump, I threw everything at it and it came right out of the screws. Soon after I drove one to third man, expecting the in-swinger and getting the away swinger. In the past Donald has tended to pepper you with away swingers and then put in the in-swinger. But he has been working on the in-cutter and had reversed his usual policy. He was getting all the help he required from the pitch.

Vaughan and I began to assemble the makings of a partnership. Apparently, Atherton said in the dressing room that we were the ideal pairing for the conditions, having played most of our cricket at Headingley and Derby respectively. Gallows humour was essential. We reached the drinks break. In the first over afterwards I was out, a ball going down the leg side from Donald, getting up and taking the bat handle. It was fearfully disappointing that it should end like that.

England have been up against it from the first moment of this Test. There is no use in saying we have been on top for a second because we haven't. But we did not bat horrendously and we did not bowl horrendously either.

From the outset I have singled out the importance of this match as being significant for the whole series. That still holds good. But win, lose, or draw it is how we play, how we compete, how we respond in the rest of this match which matters. I am the 597th player to win an England Test cap (alphabetical order makes Gavin Hamilton the 598th and Vaughan the 599th). I can now tell you that it is a different game.

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