ONCE England have lost a series, any sort of series, there is no stopping them. Having failed to take chances to win both the first two Texaco games, they walloped South Africa yesterday by seven wickets with 15 overs in hand, taking the sword to them like an avenging army after restricting them to 205 for eight.
Adam Hollioake now has a better than even chance of continuing as the one-day captain, a matter the selectors will discuss at their meeting on Saturday evening.
Hollioake might again have pressed home the advantage his side held when the South Africans were reduced in typical Headingley conditions to 117 for six after 35 overs, but he came out with his stock higher from a game in which he neither batted nor bowled. His field placings for Robert Croft were cautious for batsmen new to the crease, but this time the early recall of Darren Gough, after another excellent new-ball spell, actually accelerated the scoring rate.
Not, however, to the sort of rate which England achieved when Alistair Brown and Nick Knight ripped into the South African fast bowlers. Driving, cutting and pulling with gay abandon against bowling which was made to err and fielding which looked fallible for the first time, they took 14 from Shaun Pollock's first two overs, 12 from Lance Klusener's, 16 from Allan Donald's and 20 from Hansie Cronje's.
If there was ever a better demonstration of attack being the best form of defence it is hard to recall it. Dry and cracked in familiar Headingley fashion, this was a good pitch on which to move the ball off the seam at pace. But there was some bounce and pace in it too, and a fast outfield to balance things for the batsmen.
Brown especially did not let any of the South Africans settle as he crashed his way, mainly along the ground, to the fastest fifty scored in 15 years and 53 games since Texaco took over from Prudential Insurance as the sponsors of home internationals. He reached it as early as the 12th over, with a drive and a pull for his eighth and ninth fours and a single to midwicket off his 31st ball.
Knight took only another eight overs to reach his fifth fifty in 24 one-day internationals for England, in addition to his three hundreds. He averages 46 now, better than any current Englishman and very much in line with the most successful exponents of the one-day game from any country. Desmond Haynes, the highest scorer with 8,648 runs, averaged 41, Viv Richards 47 and Aravinda de Silva and Sachin Tendulkar, the highest scorers still playing, 35 and 40 respectively. It is hard to think that Knight's talent will not translate to the Test stage again eventually.
England will face the first Test a week on Thursday with a little more confidence now. South Africa chose to bat first on a sunny day before a well-behaved crowd who enjoyed themselves all the more for the fact that no one seemed to get drunk. The decision to ban the intake of alcohol on to the Western terrace was long overdue. Almost before anyone had found a bar, South Africa had lost two wickets, Gary Kirsten, chopping on against Angus Fraser after leading a charmed life against Gough, and Jacques Kallis run out by an alert Alec Stewart.
Gough moved the ball around venemously, beating the bat five balls out of six in his fourth over. Gerry Liebenberg and Daryll Cullinan managed to eke out 28 for the third wicket in 12 overs but Cullinan was brilliantly thrown out by Nasser Hussain from cover - so much depends on whether the throws hit the stumps or just miss - and South Africa's slip became a skid when Liebenberg was lbw to Mark Ealham's inswinger and Jonty Rhodes was caught behind, chasing a ball which cut away.
Cronje, positive as ever, made 35 from 41 balls but when he was caught behind, driving at another outswinger, South Africa's need was simply to make sure that they batted out the 50 overs. They would not have done, perhaps, had Pollock been given out for four when he inside-edged an off-break from Croft via his thigh into Stewart's gloves but he survived to make what turned out to be the highest score of the match from 64 balls, a truer reflection of his batting skill although he still has something to learn about playing spinners.
Brown and Knight rattled up 79 from the first 10 overs and 113 before the fielding restrictions were lifted, by which time the issue was virtually settled. Even when Brown was run out by a swoop and direct hit by Kallis every bit as good as Hussain's earlier in the day, England continued to attack, Matthew Fleming coming in at three.
Knight was out rather softly in the end, steering a catch to Rhodes at backward point, where he had earlier failed to hold on to three rasping shots which mortal fielders would barely have sighted, let alone caught. Fleming, having been caught at third-man off a one-day no-ball from Donald (over shoulder height), was bowled by him instead, cutting, but not before he had clumped Klusener over square-leg for six.
There were two more sixes to come, by Hussain off Pat Symcox, although England's captain and unofficial vice-captain for the Test series ahead were able to get the remaining runs at their leisure. Two-one was a fairer reflection of the difference between two possible World Cup winners.
With full houses virtually guaranteed and the profile of these matches getting higher, at least in England where their quantity has been sensibly limited, it is hard to think that the England Cricket Board will not soon find a new patron for them, whoever is to televise the games from 2000.