Kirsten's century ruins the England party

South Africa 260-7 v England

One of the attractions of the Headingley Test match is that nobody can ever be certain of what will take place. When Andrew Flintoff dismissed Andrew Hall with the first ball after tea on the first day of the fourth Test, Michael Vaughan must have felt his side had taken a firm grip on this five Test series, which currently stands level at 1-1. The England captain would even have started to contemplate the innings he was about to play.

England's bowlers, led by the Surrey veteran Martin Bicknell - playing in his first Test match for more than a decade - had reduced South Africa to 142 for 7. With only the tail to come Vaughan's side would have expected to have their feet up in the dressing room by the time Scooby Doo came on the television.

However, Gary Kirsten, playing in his 92nd Test, and Monde Zondeki, making his debut, had other ideas. By the time the pair walked off, at about the time the six o'clock news was being read, this Test, and possibly the series, was once again there for the taking. Together, in an unbeaten partnership of 118, Kirsten and Zondeki had lifted South Africa from a perilous position to the competitive total of 260 for 7.

England, on a ground famous for its bowler friendly conditions, will only find out how good a score this is when their batsmen take guard at some time today. But Kirsten, with his 18th Test century and Zondeki - a nephew of the late Steve Tshwete, the ANC activist who spent several years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela - with a maiden first-class 50 ensured Vaughan's batsmen will be under pressure when they get their chance.

It was ironic that at a time when Yorkshire are set to spend £25m upgrading thsi ground and the England and Wales Cricket Board are investing thousands to "sex up" the image of the game, that the leading figures in either side were gnarled old pros. There were times when the 34-year-old Bicknell and Kirsten, the veteran South African batsman, brought proceedings to a standstill but this was Test cricket at its best.

The tourists would have been out of this match by now but for Kirsten's typically uncomplicated and resilient century. There are many more attractive batsmen than this dour left-hander but few a captain would rather see at the crease in a crisis.

After watching his captain, Graeme Smith, drive loosely at the fourth ball of the day Kirsten would have had little time to collect his thoughts. And his state of mind would not have been helped after watching three of his colleagues forlornly make their way back to the dressing-room having failed to come to terms with accurate bowling on a good pitch offering only limited assistance to the bowlers.

Bicknell, playing in an England bowling attack containing five fast bowlers - Ashley Giles and Stephen Harmison were both dropped - bowled as he does for Surrey every day of the week. Bicknell has spent a large proportion of the last 10 years frustratingly watching 36 fast-bowlers of varying quality gain selection ahead of him. However, it took the 34-year-old just two balls to show what England have been missing when a beauty found the edge of Herschelle Gibbs bat.

Nipping the ball about and giving nothing away the veteran was the principal reason for South Africa's sorry start. In an opening spell of nine overs Bicknell at one stage had the remarkable figures of 6-5-2-2. Indeed, it was not until his 41st delivery that he bowled a bad ball. By then, though, Bicknell, Kirtley and Kabir Ali, who celebrated his Test debut with an early wicket, had South Africa in deep trouble on 21 for 4.

The one batsman Bicknell was unable to bore into a false shot was Kirsten. The 35-year-old, like the Indian batsman Rahul Dravid at this ground 12 months ago, showed just how important it is for a batsman to know where his off-stump is. Watching him leave the ball continually as it whizzed past off-stump may not have made great viewing for the healthy crowd but Kirsten could not have cared less.

In the morning session he worked England's bowlers superbly and eventually made them bowl the ball where he wanted. Even by Kirsten's standards this was not a fluent hundred but it is doubtful he has scored a more valuable one. As the only South African player to have played his side's two previous tours of England, nothing would give him greater pleasure than being a member of the team that won their first series here since re-admission.

How Andrew Flintoff must regret overstepping the front line in his first over of the day. Kirsten was on 28 when a delivery from the Lancashire all-rounder reared off a length and hit him on the glove. A simple catch lobbed up to James Anderson in the gully but the umpire, Simon Taufel, shouted and signalled "no ball".

Kirsten appeared happy to allow the talented Jacques Rudolph, with a classy half-century, dominate their partnership of 95 and it was only when Zondeki joined him in the middle that he began to cut loose. Kirsten, who took 172 balls to accumulate his first 50 runs and 60 to score the second, then began to cut, pull and show his full range of shots. The reasoning behind this tactic - to get as many runs as he could before the team's tail were knocked over - only highlighted how unexpected his partner's innings was.

Coming in on a hat-trick and with your side in trouble is not the easiest way to launch a Test career but Zondeki, after getting through a hostile spell from Flintoff, began to show his talent. The right-hander, playing in only his 16th first-class game, left the ball almost as well as his partner and drove the ball superbly through the covers as England's frustrated bowlers aimed for the stumps. How Vaughan must have wished he had a spinner in his line-up.

HEADINGLEY SCOREBOARD

First day; South Africa won toss

SOUTH AFRICA - First innings

*G C Smith c Stewart b Kirtley 2

2 min, 4 balls

H H Gibbs c Stewart b Bicknell 0

7 min, 2 balls

G Kirsten not out 109

377 min, 272 balls, 16 fours

J H Kallis c Vaughan b Bicknell 6

38 min, 32 balls

N D McKenzie c Stewart b Kabir Ali 4

14 min, 10 balls, 1 four

J A Rudolph lbw b Kabir Ali 55

126 min, 101 balls, 10 fours

ÝM V Boucher c Vaughan b Flintoff 16

50 min, 33 balls, 2 fours

A J Hall c Smith b Flintoff 0

1 min, 1 ball

M Zondeki not out 50

139 min, 92 balls, 10 fours

Extras (lb10 w1 nb7) 18

Total (for 7, 380 min, 90 overs) 260

Fall: 1-2 (Smith), 2-2 (Gibbs), 3-16 (Kallis), 4-21 (McKenzie), 5-116 (Rudolph), 6-142 (Boucher), 7-142 (Hall).

To bat: M Ntini, D Pretorius.

Bowling: Kirtley 24-9-64-1 (w1) (7-3-13-1, 7-4-8-0, 5-0-26-0, 5-2-17-0); Bicknell 20-10-32-2 (nb1) (9-6-12-1, 6-3-9-0, 5-1-11-0); Kabir Ali 18-3-60-2 (nb3) (2-0-14-1, 4-2-6-0, 6-1-21-1, 6-0-19-0); Anderson 11-5-39-0 (3-1-16-0, 8-4-23-0); Flintoff 17-4-55-2 (nb3) (1-0-2-0, 5-3-17-0, 7-1-23-2, 3-0-9-0, 1-0-4-0).

Progress: First day: 50: 90 min, 21.4 overs. Lunch: 71-4 (Kirsten 29, Rudolph 26) 29 overs. 100: 166 min, 40.5 overs. Tea: 142-6 (Kirsten 44) 57.3 overs. 150: 248 min, 59.1 overs. 200: 300 min, 71.3 overs. New ball taken after 80 overs at 230-7. 250: 354 min, 84 overs.

Kirsten's 50: 242 min, 172 balls, 7 fours. 100: 328 min, 232 balls, 15 fours. Rudolph's 50: 116 min, 94 balls, 10 fours. Zondeki's 50: 136 min, 87 balls, 10 fours.

ENGLAND: M E Trescothick, *M P Vaughan, M A Butcher, N Hussain, E T Smith, ÝA J Stewart, A Flintoff, M P Bicknell, R J Kirtley, Kabir Ali, J M Anderson.

Umpires: B F Bowden (NZ) and S J A Taufel (Aus).

TV Replay Umpire: P Willey.

Match Referee: R S Madugalle.

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