Ploy of playing five bowlers backfires

Robert Winder reports from Cape Town on the failure of England's bold strategy
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The Independent Online
For connoisseurs of the batting collapse the fifth Test at Newlands was a dream come true. England were bowled out twice for 150 and South Africa only made it past 200 thanks to an implausible burst of overthrows, byes and slogs in a 10th-wicket stand that changed the match.

No one really blamed the pitch, which looked good enough when Graham Hick was hoisting Paul Adams for two grand sixes in the row, or when Thorpe was slicing Allan Donald through the covers. But the tendency of both sides to lose wickets whenever things grew tense put an embarrassing complexion on England's strategy in this match,which was to pick an extra bowler and play just five batsmen.

At the outset, it seemed a heartening, positive move. With four bowlers, England had been finding hard to see off the South African lower order. Several times in the series they had made good early inroads (neither Hudson or Cronje made a fifty) but they were never ableto drive home their advantage.

Perhaps with Devon Malcolm back (by popular demand) to blast away the tail it would be different this time. But it was terribly risky. No other top side in the world these days gambles on only five batsmen, especially batsmen who on this tour have proved anything (Athertoin and Russell excepted) but limpet-like.

At any rate, the gamble did not pay off. As it turned out, the match only lasted three days, and England's extra bowler (Malcolm) had a horrid time. South Africa took the opposite, seemingly defensive, position and it proved right, Richardson coming in at No 8 to play the decisive innings of the match.

Afterwards, Atherton confessed to a desire for a batting all-rounder."The difference between the two sides was Brian McMillan," he said."He allowed them to pick a balanced team."

In a way the story of this match was summed up by the wildly differing fortunes of the two No 11s. Paul Adams wowed his home fans, both with the bat, in that surreal innings on Wednesday afternoon, and yesterday with the ball. There was a moment when Hick and Thorpe threatened to ruin his average with some fine, clean hitting, and Hansie Cronje and Gary Kirsten ran over for a chat with their little protege. It looked as though they might rest him, but the captain's nerve held. Adams' lucky stars carried on twinkling: Hick and Thorpe were dismissed (both controversially) and Adams' next six overs yielded one wicket for eight runs.

Naturally, when Peter Martin skied Shaun Pollock towards the brewery at the end of England's innings, it was Adams who scurried round to take the catch.

For Malcolm it was all so different. At the very end Kirsten flicked Mike Watkinson to deep square leg, Malcolm went down on one knee in the approved manner and the ball squirmed through his legs for four. The crowd had hysterics.

The following ball, Kirsten repeated the trick and when Malcolm picked it up and threw it in, there was a cruel burst of loud sarcastic applause. Poor Devon. He did not seem to see the funny side. He pulled his cap over his head as if he wished it would go all the down to his knees.