Stubborn England draw out phony war

Stephen Brenkley finds comfort in the tourists' new-found ability to avoid defeat
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The Independent Online
FOR a historically significant Test series that has contained a world wicketkeeping record, one of the great epic innings and a teenage spinning phenomenon, the winter's confrontation between England and South Africa has been strangely ungripping. So much rain had fallen before the teams arrived in Port Elizabeth for the Fourth Test that the players and their retinues felt the series had hardly begun.

They may as well have been in Manchester in May, was the feeling, which, given the number of Lancashire players who keep joining the party, makes the place a home from home.

The rest of the time seems to have been spent in ensuring the avoidance of defeat, as both sides demonstrated to perfection yesterday. The first rule of Test cricket is not to lose and they were faultless in obedience to that stricture. All this is something of a departure for those who have followed, whether from near or far, England's overseas fortunes these past few years. If a draw has meant anything, it can have only been the bit between the hanging and quartering it has been widely felt they have frequently deserved.

Yet twice in the present series, in those matches that have not been completely wrecked by the weather, England have somehow battled their way out of trouble. This suggests two things - first, that they are still quite capable of getting themselves into trouble, but second, that they have at last learnt something from being regularly beaten by everybody else. This, in turn, leads to yet another difficulty from the viewpoint of any England follower. Of course, draws are virtuous, honourable and occasionally noble - it is, old boy, what Test cricket, as distinct from that other biff-bang stuff, is all about.

But draws can also be sheer, numbing tedium.

Perhaps yesterday's play did not quite fall into that category given that neither side wished to go into the Fifth and final Test one down (will they feel by then as though the tour has started?). Yet it is difficult to think now that at the start of yesterday any of the four results were possible. After an hour, or slightly less if you clocked the old sage Trevor Bailey on the radio, it was perfectly clear that this was no longer the case. Only one outcome, a draw, was feasible, and a pretty dull one at that.

Neither team made the remotest effort to win the match. Their first priority was to eschew boldness and adventure, the two qualities that might lead to such an eventuality. It was almost like Test matches apparently used to be. After all, was South Africa not the venue for the 10-day timeless Test in 1939? When England and South Africa met in 1964-65, England won the First Test and followed it with four draws. There comes a time in the affairs of cricketers, however, when they might like to go out and seek to make something positive happen and Cape Town later this week might be a good place to start.

It is probably better for the general health of English cricket that their travels round the world are no longer, for this winter at least, a round of whacking defeats interspersed with the odd spectacular victory.

As the England chairman, Ray Illingworth, said yesterday: "You have to play pretty well to be boring." But whereas 250 runs in 50 overs is around par for the limited-over course, when England at one stage yesterday needed 248 to win in 62 overs, it was not only not on but not even contemplated.

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