In his painstaking, clinical way Michael Atherton assumed the look and form of a Test opening batsman again at Edgbaston. His innings of 103, spanning more than six hours, was his first for England after relinquishing the captaincy. Its timing, in every sense, was impeccable. There had been suggestions, not so much thinly disguised as amply proportioned, that he might be finished at the highest level, his class and temperament eroded in two consecutive series of modest achievement. The consequences of this riposte were huge. Apart from anything else it meant the selectors had one less place to worry about.
FIRST TEST: CORK'S RETURN
It took 16 balls for Dominic Cork to claim his first wicket, one for each of the months he had been out of the England side. His neat in-ducker nicked Gerry Liebenberg's unsuspecting inside edge and popped up from a pad to the substitute, Ben Spendlove, at short-leg (thus starting a series which was an unrelieved nightmare for the South African batsman). Cork was back and England had their most incisive seam-bowling trio (Gough, Fraser, Cork) together again, for only the fifth time in Tests. Unfortunately, Gough's broken finger, sustained batting, meant they had to wait to perform in harmony.
SECOND TEST: RHODES' REPAIRS
At 46 for 4 in the Second Test, South Africa were granted the perfect chance to justify the claims that they are a team of profound resilience and indomitable spirit. This they proceeded to do, through their captain, Hansie Cronje, and their jack-in-the-box, full of beans expert fielder, Jonty Rhodes, who shared South Africa's record fifth-wicket stand. Dropped at 10 and then held off a no-ball soon after, Rhodes was a revelation and he drove England, not to mention pulled and cut them, to distraction to record his second Test hundred. Having been inserted, South Africa scored 360 - at least 100 too many.
SECOND TEST: RAMPS' POINT
On Saturday morning at Lord's, when the ball moved more than a ship in a storm-tossed sea, England folded. The one batsman who declined to go quietly was Mark Ramprakash, choosing to demonstrate this both metaphorically and literally. First, for 96 long, ball- swerving minutes he was steadfast. His decisions on what to leave and to play were extraordinary. Then, he was adjudged to have edged Allan Donald behind. On his reluctant way out Ramprakash muttered to the Australian umpire Darrell Hair that he was messing with players' careers. Ramprakash was fined but the umpire's verdict was wrong. The series, as seen via super- slo-mos and mega-microscopic cameras, was littered with such instances. But England at this moment were wretched.
THIRD TEST: STEWART'S SPEECH
No player wears the three lions on his shirt with more pride than the England captain, Alec Stewart. You can almost see the pattern bursting from his chest.
On the final morning of the Third Test, he delivered a rallying call to his men, who, in response to South Africa's slow-burning 552 for 5 declared, had been dismissed for an abject total of 183 and, following on in their second innings, were 11 for 2. He and Atherton, re- establishing their many partnerships for England, took the score to 210 for 2 by the end of the fourth day. If they were to go down, Stewart implored, then at least they should go down fighting.
The captain responded to his own speech by scoring 164 but when he was out at 293 for 4 the ball, in match-saving terms, remained at the bottom of the hill.
THIRD TEST: CROFT'S COMBAT
For more than three hours on the last, gripping afternoon at Old Trafford, the wicketless Glamorgan off-spinner, Robert Croft, defied South Africa with the bat. His partners resisted, too, but it was Croft who was there, undefeated, at the end of a heart-stirring day. Towards its culmination England were 367 for 9 and their last man, the redoubtable Fraser, had to withstand 13 balls from Donald with the third new ball. Croft played out the final over. His valiant 37 was his highest Test score, the scores finished level. England had an improbable draw, the series had properly taken off - though their Welsh hero would play no further part in it.
FOURTH TEST: FRASER'S FESTIVAL
There was some apparently well- informed gossip that Fraser would be omitted from the side at Trent Bridge. From the moment on the first morning when he persuaded Daryll Cullinan to hole out at square-leg to that on the fourth afternoon when Paul Adams was caught behind he was at his persistent, awkward, metronomic best. There were periods after South Africa's insertion when they looked likely to develop an impregnable position and similarly, in their second innings, they threatened to take the rubber away. Fraser, above all, ensured otherwise and his 10 for 122 represented a reward for old virtues.
FOURTH TEST: DONALD'S FIRE
England needed 248 to win batting fourth. Donald, aggressive, rapid, accurate, probing and single-minded, did not make it easy for them. When Atherton was 27 he appeared to glove a catch from Donald to South Africa's wonderfully spectacular wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher. The claimed catch was turned down, and Atherton did not budge. Donald bowled ferociously and the stand-off between the pair on Sunday night was spine-tinglingly compulsive. Test cricket, it appeared, was back as a major attraction. Atherton's 98 not out was a great, match-swinging innings. He and Donald had a pint afterwards and England were level.
FIFTH TEST: BUTCHER'S HOUR
At the belated moment when Mark Butcher was summoned to Test cricket he lost form and fluency. But the selectors had identified their man. He was forced to miss two matches in this series and could only watch as other men, Steve James and Nick Knight, tried to stake claims to his place. They failed and Butcher, fit again, was brought back. He had been fretting mildly about his maiden Test century, but in no circumstances could England have been more grateful for it. He is an unflappable batsman with unfussy foot movement and his 116 out of 230 (another England collapse) was invaluable.
FIFTH TEST: GOUGH'S GLORY
The decisive match of a rubber which gained an unstoppable momentum. Low-scoring and tense throughout, it demanded bottomless reserves of perseverance and inspiration. The performances were not perfect but the match was peerless. And the decisive moment in the decisive match went to Darren Gough. Roaring in at an almost full Headingley on the final morning he had Makhaya Ntini lbw. Gough, a wonderfully cheerful cricketer, deserved this. England 2, South Africa 1, their first five-match series win for 11 years. They are not yet a force but a team at last.
STEPHEN BRENKLEYReuse content