One memory of the South African tour of England in 1998 still stands out clearly in my mind. Not the usual Donald-Atherton one, but something more general: my surprised reaction to hearing the news that England had won the series 2-1. Why was I so surprised? Hadn’t I been following the series and its twists and turns? Had I been on another planet? Well, sort of. That summer I had decided to go off on a long road-trip through the American West, determined to finally hike through all those locales that had seemed to only exist in Ansel Adams’ coffee-table books. When I left for the trip, South Africa led the series 1-0. The first test had seen England take a first innings lead; the second test had seen South Africa win comfortably by 10 wickets; and in the third test, South Africa seemed to have had England by the throat, before England escaped in the follow-on. Despite this last survival trick, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that South Africa would win the series. As I traveled through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Montana, I lost contact with the cricket. Back in 1998, Internet cafes were not that common in the US (believe it or not); I didn’t stay in any hotels that might have had a computer with an Internet connection (more often than not, I was either in a tent or a cheap motel); and lastly, whenever I did pass through a town that could have provided access to the ‘net, I was simply in a hurry to move on, buy supplies, eat, refuel, and so on. Amazingly enough, for 24 days and 8000 miles, I simply didn’t check my email or cricket scores. I don’t think I will ever have such an extended break from either of the two ever again. When I returned to civilization (I think it might have been Minneapolis), I checked Cricinfo for the scores and was dumbfounded.
How had England pulled this off? They seemed outgunned in both the pace bowling and batting departments; their batting order circa 1998 was still susceptible to the quick collapse; and their captain, Stewart, was no Mike Brearley. South Africa had helped of course; they had taken a first innings lead at Trent Bridge but then failed to both stack up a serious second-innings score and seriously challenge England in their run-chase (despite Atherton’s heroics, South Africa really should have managed more than 2 wickets in 87 overs). And then at Headingley, they dismissed England for less than 250 in both innings, were left 219 to win, and promptly slumped to 5-27 before losing by 19 runs. Talk about stumbles at the last hurdle. England’s bowling attack of Fraser, Gough and Cork did them proud in the end, and of course, their batting line-up, which included Atherton, Stewart and Hussain proved to be tougher than people might have imagined.
As this series gears up (and its one I’m looking forward to), some of the older circumstances still seem to obtain: South Africa’s pace bowling attack seems stronger; England’s batting seems more vulnerable to the collapse; and in the captaincy stakes, they seem evenly matched. South Africa should be confident, but if their history is any indicator, they’d do well to postpone all celebrations till the time that Graeme Smith steps up to receive the test series winner’s cheque.