Has there been a more consistently absorbing Test Match rivalry over the past 40 years to match the struggles of England versus South Africa? Will Cockerell believes not, as he reminisces on some epic affairs since the end of apartheid.
It's almost impossible to describe the euphoria of the opening days of the Lord's Test of 1994 and our renewed acquaintance with a fabled foe. The weather was perfect and it was nostalgic to see Cap'n Kepler, he of Ashes' '85 ilk, grind out an emotional ton on an evenly poised 1st day. After that, the mother of all shellackings, with England dire and Atherton getting his hands dirty; too dirty as it turned out. An wild and apoplectic Jon Agnew called for skipper's head, which many felt was "a bit much".
Onto Headingley and a dour tussle, largely dominated by England, which ended honours even and then a mesmerising encounter at the Oval, one of the most thrilling post-war Tests for sure. Atherton in trouble again for dissent, and Fanie de Villiers got fined so much he was left with just £70 for his week's work. Devon Malcolm getting hit right between the eyes proved to be the series turning point ["you guys are going to pay for this. You guys are history."]; and his violent 9-57 soon followed; and with Goochie, heart-broken at a terrible dropped catch and raging at the dying of the light striking at 165.00, and Hicky at his most expansive, light work was made of the 204 target.
A drab, depressing series ruined by the weather, but marked by MA's epic 185* at Joburg, and another fighting draw at Port Elizabeth meant matters were poised at 0-0 for the denouement at Cape Town. Honours should have been even after first digs but England threw it all away as the frog in a blender Paul Adams and Dave Richardson carted them for 73 in an excruciating last wicket stand. The dreadful run out of Graham Thorpe summed up England's 2nd innings demise and a pitiful target of 70 was set, which South Africa chased without loss.
Result 1-0 South Africa
What a series! Perhaps in my top 5 of following England this last 40-odd years. No series of longer than 5 matches had been claimed by England since 1986-87; and it really had been 11 years of punishment. After an Edgbaston draw, England were hopeless at Lord's and even worse at Old Trafford [552-5 vs 183 1st inns]… until! An unlikely trio of Robert Croft, Darren Gough and Gus Fraser had 90 minutes to survive on the final evening and managed it. The draw (171 overs in their 2nd inns) meant England took all the momentum into Trent Bridge. That soap opera of a match, saw England finally given a target of 247 to save the series. The Sunday night's Donald-Atherton duel still lives fresh in the memory. DRS could have had a say in MA's famous edge, one feels! 108-1 over night became 247-2 and we had an Oval climax to savour.
England were slow out of the traps with 230 but an inspired Fraser (5-42) yielded a deficit of just 22. More poor fare followed but Hussain's 94 (421 mins), whilst one of the most boring innings in Test cricket was in many ways a match-winner. 219 to find, and the top 5 in the visitors' order produced 3, 6, 3, 0 & 0 on a magical Sunday night. An astonishing fightback followed as Rhodes and Mcmillan compiled 117, before a late England rally saw 34 required on the final morning with just 2 standing. A nailbiting 10 runs were quickly added before first Fraser found Donald's edge and then Goughie had Ntini LBW that to this day looks a bit dodgy. But oh sweet relief, England had won a meaningful series for the first time since December 28, 1986.
Result 2-1 England
Although England fought hard all series long, they simply weren't good enough here to forge on to winning positions. The key sequence was the third Test when the follow-on was enforced (Caddick 7-46) but England could only watch and wait as Gary Kirsten batted for an eye-watering 878 minutes, go on, you try it.
Series notable too for its start (England 2-4 before debutant Michael Vaughan impressed), and its finish when a crooked Hansie Cronje gift-wrapped England a chase of 249 in the rain-ruined Centurion Test with two innings forfeited. They got there in a thriller, but it wouldn't be the last we heard on the matter.
Result 2-1 South Africa
Another wonderful home series, as both teams pummeled away for supremacy for all 5 games. England couldn't buy a wicket in the first two Tests as SA forged a 1-0 lead. A battling England win crucially followed at Trent Bridge as SA badly messed up a chase of 202 before handing out a thrashing at Leeds.
2-1 to SA before the truly epic Oval Test where SA creamed their way 484 [it could have been a lot worse], only for England to refuse to lose. A majesting 219 from Tresy, an emotional and pitch perfect 124 from the returning Thorpe, and a brutal 95 from Flintoff meant England suddenly had a hefty lead and over a day and a half to make it count. 4 wickets for the rarely sighted beast that is Martin Bicknell and 4-33 from Harmy settled the account.
New England skipper Michael Vaughan was up and away; little could one imagine he'd become the 'winningest' England skipper of all time.
And yet another humdinger series. England were seen as underdogs going into the first game, but a 126 from Strauss set up a seven wicket win. England gave up a 200 advantage in the next before the openers plundered 273 and even had SA squealing late on the 5th day as bad light brought the players off with 8 down and 15 overs remaining [much to MPV's fury].
The Boxing Day Test was sombrely marked by the Asian Tsunami and England went down limply. The teams couldn't be separated in the next (411 v 419), before an astonishing 180 from Trescothick set a daunting target of 325 which saw SA quickly crumble to an inspired Matthew Hoggard's 7-61. All England needed now was a draw for a famous away win and their way was paved by one of the most bizarre and selfish innings of all time by Jacques Kallis who took 217 balls to make 136 when really quick runs were required. Never did an Barmy Army fan enjoy a Kallis go-slow more. It meant England only had to bat out 45 overs instead of around 60, and promptly crashed to 45-4. But Kallis had left his bowlers too little too late.
Many felt that Hoggard's figures of 26 wickets at 25 warranted the man of the series award, but Strauss's 656 runs at 72 proved hard to ignore.
Result 1-2 England
Another series full of drama followed as England tossed away a surefire win at Lord's and then a dreadful effort at Leeds saw a wonderful encounter at Edgbaston. In what would prove to be a desperate Michael Vaughan's last Test, England fought all the way, and twice wrested control. When Pietersen and Collingwood had put on a flamboyant 115 in England's second inns (before KP threw it away), and again when they reduced SA to 93-4 chasing 281. But Graeme Smith was not to be denied as he raised his Walther and assassinated England skipper number 2. A third would take his bullet four years hence.
Smith's 154* is widely regarded as one of the great Test innings, as he and Boucher chiseled out a 5 wicket win. England bizarrely thought that KP was the answer to their captaincy woes, and he led them to a win at the Oval in a dead rubber.
Result 1-2 South Africa
After the stunning Cardiff Ashes thriller of 2009 when England salvaged the most unlikely of draws, they nailed two more here. At Centurion their last pair [Collingwood and Onions] batted out 19 balls, as the preceding four bats scored 2, 0, 0, 2 between them. A pulvarising volte-face followed as hundreds for Cook and Bell enabled Swann and Broad (9-97 combined) to skittle the hosts out for 133 for England to surge ahead.
It was back to Brigadier Block time at Cape Town as Onions again, this time with Swann, had to survive 17 balls. South Africa were seriously wondering what they had to do, but they broke the damn open at Joburg as an exhausted England capitulated by an innings.
More fine drama, over-shadowed by the AJS-KP catfight – or Doosgate – whick saw the latter dropped for the crucial final Test having slammed a century in the exciting drawn Headingly Test. In a remarkable coincidence England gained a 6 run first inns advantage at the 3rd and final Test at Lord's, the same amount as at Leeds. But they toiled dreadfully in the 3rd inns which meant an unlikely 346 to win, with a headfried Strauss out for 1, as Graeme Smith sat back with his popcorn to watch a 3rd England skipper bitterly resign under his watch. But in a memorable final day onslaught England had SA thoroughly rattled as 45-4 triggered a gung-ho spirit in the side.
I was San Francisco bound and up in the skies as the England fightback began and some hours later I approached the prettiest stewardess on board to ask her to find out the Test score. Two minutes later she shimmied up to my seat and looking deep into my soul with her bedroom eyes, whispered, "England won!" I punched the air, yelled out with delight and kissed her. With visible horror she then mumbled, "I'm kidding."
With Trott dropping anchor; YJB [young Jonny Bairstow], Prior, Broad and Swann plundered 205 runs off 253 balls to come within 64 of an astonishing victory with 3 wickets standing. But then the new ball became due and Philander said, "enough!"
Result 0-2 South Africa
Revenge was thus sweet in the last momentous encounter. So much action, and so much joy if you were an England fan. After a superb and fairly straight-forward England win at Durban, I managed to spunk £750 on England to take a first innings lead at Centurion after their 629-6 [Stokes 258 off 198] at odds of 1-10, for the easiest £75 I thought I'd ever make. Suffice it to say I was a tad relieved when Hashim called them in at 627/7 in their reply. The gripping Joburg Test saw the teams separated by just 10 runs on first innings as SA strove to strike back. Then Stewie the wrecking ball went to work as a stupefied crowd watched their team fold to 83 (Broad 6-17).
The last match, as in the 2015 dead Ashes rubber, was England at their worst. But look at my face. Does my face look bovvered?
Result 1-2 England
Overall series score since 1994: 4-3 to South Africa, with 3 series draws.
Overall Test score since 1994: 14-12 to South Africa (17 draws)
What can we hope for these next 5 weeks between two fine, evenly matched sides? Well England are overdue a first home win for almost a generation against SA, so I shall opt for a typically bullish 3-1 home triumph. (This, I fear, is the air stewardess talking, not me…)