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England reach final but miss golden opportunity

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

19 August 1998

IN a final they may be, but England do not yet look like potential World Cup winners next year.

Having dropped Pat Symcox when he was five and seen the big and cheerful veteran from Kimberley bludgeon four sixes to extend South Africa's total into something they could defend, England again gave away soft wickets after Graeme Hick and Nick Knight, with a stand of 113 for the third wicket, had taken them to a position from which they ought to have won at a canter.

That they did not do so was a considerable and well-deserved consolation for South Africa, who go home tonight on a high note despite the fact that, because their net run-rate was the lowest of three, a 14-run win was insufficient to take them to tomorrow's final against Sri Lanka at Lord's. From 161 for two, needing only 84 more to win in 17 overs, England were bowled out for 230.

Once the sums had been done, their first duty was to make 198. Win or lose, that ensured a place in the final and a cover drive by Ian Austin off the last ball of the 42nd over made sure that at least they would achieve the more important objective.

Nevertheless there have been glaring inadequacies in the two matches so far which will need addressing by the time the selectors make their final choice of 15 players for the World Cup, at the end of March.

Having lost six out of seven internationals in South Africa prior to the last World Cup - not to mention two of the three Texaco games earlier this season - England missed a great opportunity here to give themselves more confidence for their next probable meeting in the World Cup itself, at the Oval in the first round next May. While they demonstrated familiar brittleness, South Africa emphasised their equally well-founded reputation as a side who never know when they are beaten.

Symcox tossed up his off-breaks with courageous and old-fashioned slowness, Hansie Cronje contributed a valuable spell of medium pace and Jonty Rhodes, irrepressible to the end, followed a brilliant run-out with a phenomenal, leaping catch. The relief and delight of Cronje especially was obvious but those planning South African itineraries in future will surely do their best never to repeat their commitment to 16 Tests and 28 internationals in one year.

Cronje chose to bat first yesterday. On a pitch which showed signs of uneven bounce in the early stages but generally played well enough to produce a game which satisfied a full house, it was a curious decision, less because of the pitch or a cloudy morning than because by going in second South Africa would have been chasing an exact target in a precise number of overs to reach the final. His hope was to bat England out of the game but the excellent Darren Gough made that difficult by taking two wickets in his first four overs.

Mike Rindel was leg before, his front foot on the popping crease, and Gary Kirsten caught behind, cutting rather half-heartedly, to end an ultimately disappointing personal tour. But Rhodes, promoted to four, and Darryl Cullinan, driving with liberated panache, counter-attacked splendidly and by the time that Alan Mullally had Rhodes caught behind, South Africa were on the way to a decent total.

Cullinan had made 70 off 73 balls when Gough, brought back by Alec Stewart with a wicket needed, immediately flattened his leg stump with an inswinger. England thereby regained control until the match-turning moment when Symcox drove Robert Croft high to long-on and saw Adam Hollioake, a rising star of 1997 in eclipse for most of 1998, drop the catch. Symcox celebrated with one six off Croft, one off Gough and two to ruin Peter Martin's hitherto excellent figures.

When Rhodes pounced from backward point in the third over of England's reply and threw out Ali Brown with a direct hit, the game was clearly on and had Stewart been given out to a ball of full length from Donald which thudded into his front pad when he was barely forward, South Africa would have been in charge.

Stewart made a useful if not entirely convincing 27 before an uppish drive to backward point in the 12th over but Hick played from the start with the same poise and good timing as he had on Sunday. He took full and handsome toll of the inexperienced Nantie Hayward and with Knight, cutting and driving profitably if never at his best, the job was mainly done when, off the first ball of the 34th over, Hick changed his mind in mid-stroke to Cronje and chipped to mid-on.

Nasser Hussain got a leading edge, Knight and Hollioake respectively cut and steered against Symcox's spin and then came the moment which defined South Africa's contribution to this season. Croft drove from the meat against Rindel's left-arm spin and watched, spellbound, as Rhodes flung himself upwards and left to his fullest extent at extra cover to make an astounding catch.

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Date-stamped : 19 Aug1998 - 10:37