The winter's tale - from abject to Zimbabwe

Stephen Brenkley looks for the highs, lows and somewhere-in-betweens of the African adventure
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The Independent Online

England's overall record on the long winter tour, which was brought to a merciful end by torrential rain last week, tells a muddled story. Of the 14 international matches they played, there were six victories, six defeats and two draws. Half won, half lost, half decent. Their glass unfortunately is half empty rather than half full.

England's overall record on the long winter tour, which was brought to a merciful end by torrential rain last week, tells a muddled story. Of the 14 international matches they played, there were six victories, six defeats and two draws. Half won, half lost, half decent. Their glass unfortunately is half empty rather than half full.

They might have won both the last Test and one-day matches of their excursion into southern Africa but they are no nearer to a settled team in either form of the game. England lost the big moments. Still, when they embarked for South Africa last October annihilation was being confidently predicted, but only by those who thought England had a chance. Others assumed it could be much worse.

Here are the ups, downs, bests, worsts, thicks and thins of another unsuccessful winter:

Final Act: As it turned out, this was off the field, but perfectly demonstrated that in English cricket nothing is as certain as uncert-ainty. Central contracts could signal a sea change in the national team's fortunes, and after two years of planning allied to procrastination the names of those players chosen will be announced at Lord's on Wednesday. In Harare last week, it was stipulated by the ECB chief executive, Tim Lamb, that only Test players would be named. By Friday, after (more) consultations, it was stated that one-day players would also be included. This assumes, presumably, they can find enough of either.

Key moment: The Wanderers,25 November, gloomy skies, moist pitch, First Test, first over, fifth ball, Donald to Atherton. Ball swings late, jags back immensely, bursts through gate, leaves Atherton utterly stranded as his stumps are ripped out. England 1 for 1 and shortly after, sensationally, 2 for 4. It is seriously suggested that they could be 12 all out. Somehow, they surmount that obstacle but the match is lost early on the fourth day, Atherton having received another snorter in the second innings, this time from Pollock, and bagged a pair.

Poignant touch: For most of the last year of the old millennium, Gavin Hamilton was in his pomp. In good form for Yorkshire, the Broxburn lad had had a wonderful World Cup with Scotland and, in search of greater glory, justifiably changed allegiance to England. Picked for the First Test, he failed to score in either innings, took neither wicket nor catch. There was a rush to judgement. It may be Hamilton's only Test. If so, he will join Fred Grace, WG's younger brother, as the only England batsman to bag a pair in a solitary Test. There are, however, some differences: Fred took a legendary, steepling catch, England won the match. Hamilton may also consider himself lucky; nine days after his Test, Grace died of pneumonia.

Greatest rivalry: At the start of the tour it was being billed as Donald v Atherton. It was close, but since South Africa won the series, Donald also took these honours. By the end, their conflict paled compared to Andrew Caddick v Darren Gough. Neither could speak more than three sentences without mentioning the other enviously. Gough now acknowledges, grudgingly, that Caddick is a better bowler, Caddick rather suspects that the Yorkshireman might have more star quality. It is healthy competition from England's view. Caddick is now a tremendous bowler with passion; Gough needs to be fitter, but the sight of the Somerset man grabbing the glory might be the spur he needs.

Best one-day match: This was actually supposed to be no such thing. For almost four days and four nights it rained on Centurion Park, and on the fifth day the sun shone and somebody thought it would be grand to have a game of cricket. Thus, the Fifth Test became a one-innings match. South Africa, who had begun their first innings on the first day before rain intervened, batted on for a while. There then followed some jiggery-pokery. Both sides forfeited an innings and it is still unclear, according to regulations, whether South Africa forfeited their second and England their first or whether both sides forfeited their second. Those who would consider themselves guardians of Test cricket cried heresy. The point was that in the circumstances, with a healthy crowd to please and with the series already decided, it was not the thin end of the wedge but sound pragmatism. And England won the first one-innings Test of them all.

Worst one-day match: Take your pick from eight or nine. The triangular tournament followed by the one-off series in Zimbabwe contained some of the dullest, most prosaic cricket that can have been constructed in the name of entertainment. Close finishes were preceded by insipid games. One-day cricket needs runs but it needs balanced, competitive contests more.

Top diplomat: Whether greeting bum decisions with no more than a metaphorical shrug of shoulders or dealing with endless requests from fans, interviewers and players, Nasser Hussain was unruffled. He loves being captain, it could yet be the making of him. He is bolder than many predecessors, he could do with being luckier with the toss. There is still something to learn. Two weeks on it still rankles that England had South Africa at 21 for 5 in the triangular final. Hussain then took off the opening bowlers who had done the damage. But he isrefreshingly frank.

Most memorable shot: It is tempting to opt for the Chris Adams firm-footed off-stump drive which became something of a trademark and inevitably ended up in catching practice for the boys behind the stumps. But that would be unkind to a player desperate to succeed. Hussain's cheeky pull for six in the second innings at the Wanderers, the first scoring shot of the innings, is close. But Lance Klusener's repeated jackhammer straight drive in his 174 at Port Elizabeth was what did for England's hopes of getting back in the series early.

Top 12th man: Ashley Giles must be the only player in England touring history not to have played a single game. This one-day specialist was overlooked for all nine one-dayers. The suspicion was that the physio Dean Conway and scorer Malcolm Ashton might be given the nod first. Giles, like Hamilton, kept working, kept smiling. The best of team men if only he could get into the team.

Most heartening aspect: The only problem with England, it has been said, is that they can't bat, can't bowl, can't field. Wrong. Boy, they can field. The one-dayers demonstrated that they are keen, quick and accurate. No longer did they make shelling catches look easier than shelling peas. It doesn't make them Australia but it does make them combative, and they have to start somewhere.