At tea yesterday England's Test against South Africa was following the script of the match the teams played at The Oval in August 1994. Wisden described the game as "one of the great Tests". By happy coincidence, it was also the first Test I wrote about for this paper.
It began as this one did. South Africa batting and not scoring as heavily as they wished: all out 332. England's reply was not all they wanted either. They were 28 behind at the end of their innings, but an incident was to profoundly influence the result.
Devon Malcolm, Derbyshire's fast bowler, a large man who was not light of foot, had been hit on the head by a quick delivery. Steve Waugh's Australia had not yet undermined traditions based on the concept of good sportsmanship. Fast bowlers were not meant to attack vulnerable tail-enders such as Malcolm. And Malcolm was cross. "You guys are history," he growled from under his helmet. He took 9 for 57; South Africa had been dismissed for 175 and England won by eight wickets.
In the Lord's Test, England's last six wickets added six more runs than South Africa, principally thanks to Jonny Bairstow's innings that ended only when his patience was exhausted, and a bold last-wicket stand of 33 which gave England their slender lead. The sun was so hot that MCC members were told they could take off their jackets (though not their ties), and the commitment of a full house was so intense that they clapped when a ball was prudently left and whooped when Steve Finn was dropped by Graeme Smith .
But England's bowlers seemed to have lost the script. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are not the fearsome attack of a year ago. Graeme Swann came on after only 10 overs, and bamboozled Smith. Broad was exultant when he had Alviro Petersen lbw. South Africa's openers had gone for 50. Perhaps we would see a repeat.
But Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis played with assurance; Swann's appeals for leg before bore no fruit and before long the pair had recorded a fifty partnership. One of the game's charms is that nothing is impossible in a cricket match, but another famous and improbable win by England was looking unlikely.
By his standards Smith has had a poor game, out for 14 and 23, but he has more often tormented England since scoring 277 at Edgbaston in 2003. His 154 not out there four years later to win the series at in 2007 was one of the finest innings I have watched. Smith saw off Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan as England captains, both of whom resigned after losing to South Africa. Andrew Strauss may yet become a third victim. We will know more by today.
Rivals to Smith's 154 among my sharpest memories are Kevin Pietersen's 227 at Adelaide in 2010 and Sanath Jayasuriya's 213 from 278 balls at The Oval on another hot day in 1988. Anyone who has written about England's Tests for 18 years bears scars, and some disappear slowly. The worst was inflicted by New Zealand in 1999, when England's defeat at The Oval placed them bottom of the ICC's Test rankings and Hussein was booed by a disenchanted crowd. Australia in 2002-03 was simply awful, when England lost the first three Tests, and the Ashes.
I was convinced then that England might not beat Australia in my lifetime, but the humiliation had been made tolerable by the form of Michael Vaughan, who averaged 63.30 in defeat and started the journey towards the annus mirabilis in 2005. (My "memorable date" is 12/09/2005.) But the best of all Tests came five years later in Adelaide, when England scored 620 for 5 and beat Australia (2 for 3 after six balls) by an innings and 71 runs. The memory keeps me warm. Journalism ought to be better than working, and my time writing about cricket in Test and county grounds and in Australia, India, South Africa and the West Indies is proof for me. But this is the last of it. Thanks for having me.