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England step into the unknown

By Scyld Berry

2 August 1998

MAPS of medieval times used to mark unknown places in the far north as 'terra incognita'. Although Leeds has subsequently been explored and settled, unknown territory is where England are going on Thursday, to see if they are anything more than one-off winners.

Their victory over South Africa at Trent Bridge was superlative in parts, spine-tingling and hyperventilating stuff, and a passionate performance, too, as Angus Fraser and Mike Atherton, beneath their phlegmatic exteriors, dug every bit as deep as champions like Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh did in crises last winter. But England have been here before: the occasional brilliant win, especially from behind, and set among fields of under-performance, is familiar territory.

The pattern has become well-established since Ian Botham roared his last effective roar and England entered upon the most unsuccessful period of their Test history. Every summer and every winter it has been England's habit to come up with a jewel, usually just when their supporters are about to despair once and for all.

In Test cricket it is exceptional for a country to win from behind on first innings. The rule is that the upper hand which has been obtained at the halfway point is sufficient to crush your opponent if a definite outcome is reached. England, in common with most countries' experience, never won from behind from 1982 to 1994. Since then, of their last 11 victories, seven, including Trent Bridge, have been born in these circumstances.

The conventional argument is that a team who win from behind has great 'bottle' and resilience: if this were the case, however, England would not have failed to win a major Test series from 1986-7 to date. Another interpretation is required for this unprecedented phenomenon: that touching rock bottom is what sparks England into life. It is when they have nothing left to lose but their places that inspiration arrives, or inhibition goes, and they let the hair down and fear failure no more.

To achieve three of these seven victories, England turned on some attacking batting of unsurpassable brilliance in their second innings at the Oval against South Africa in 1994, at Adelaide in 1994-5, and at Lord's against West Indies in 1995. It was inspired defensive batting which won the Tests at Christchurch in 1997-8 and at Trinidad earlier this year, and a combination of the two at Trent Bridge, when Atherton and his partners doused Allan Donald before Alec Stewart swept England home.

Getting on top is only half the battle, though. The other half is staying on top, which has been beyond England since 1981 and 1985, when Botham had Australia on the run and they last won two Tests in succession against 'Big Boys'.

It is in England's favour, however, that they finished off South Africa with such a flourish at Trent Bridge. It must have reminded the South Africans of their hammering at the Oval last time, when England knocked off the runs at six an over for another eight-wicket win. Combine that with the South Africans' reputation for 'choking' at the last gasp - they have yet to win a major prize since their readmission - and England will start with an advantage.

It is in England's favour, too, that they have developed a left and right-handed opening pair that works; that Mark Butcher, though he can still be sketchy early on, used his feet at Trent Bridge to break the spell of Paul Adams, who had hitherto bound England to two runs an over; and that Darren Gough will be playing, as Headingley's support is lukewarm when no Yorkshireman is engaged. It would help if the pitch turns out a soft and grassy one, like Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, not a hard one like Lord's and Old Trafford, which suited the South African bowlers.

Fraser and Atherton have also done their side the same service as old centurions brought into the front line to show how it should be done. Fraser's battle was against his own inner fears as well, lurking beneath the calmest surface. When he had bowled the first ball of the Lord's Test, a wide full toss, he - of all people - fell prey to the thought: ``I've lost it. After 40,000 balls, I've lost it.''

As his diary in these pages last week revealed, Fraser knew his career was on the line at Trent Bridge, that at 32 he was bound for Australia or oblivion. And his reaction, after a 90-minute spell on the Sunday morning, not to mention a season as long as the year itself, was to finish off South Africa instead.

Atherton's duel with Donald will become one of the immortal passages of Test cricket, when the fast bowler drove himself to screaming point and Iron Mike was at his most metallurgical. When Walsh had pitched short from round the wicket in Kingston, the pounding was visibly getting to him in the over he was out. At Trent Bridge it never did, and he is on the way to a unique position in cricket, for having the softest hands that can absorb any bouncer - well, all but - and the strongest will.

'Masochistic' he has been called, but he is not one of those who love to soak up punishment. His motivation is to do what he does best without a display of emotion. He hates hyperbole, like that of former colonies who claim their beers/beaches/cricketers are the best in the world. In this sense he is a Douglas Jardine, who was driven to stuff it up the Australians for their triumphalism.

It is in South Africa's favour that they will surely field 11 men at Headingley, not 10 as at Trent Bridge, where they selected Gerry Liebenberg, or rather nine, as Jonty Rhodes was sawn off in both his innings when the luck went all against them. England can take the same squad of 12 into uncharted territory, where they will find if they have improved enough to take on Australia.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 02 Aug1998 - 10:18