A review of South Africa's 1998 England tour


Peter May takes a comprehensive look back at the 1998 Test series between England and South Africa, a marathon run that came down to the final match.

<I>Next week England and South Africa renew Test hostilities with the title of world number one up for grabs. The teams have played just four series in England in the last 47 years yet each has been excellent with two outright classics.

Here we look back on the first of those classics, the five-Test series of 1998:</I>

Beforehand, the 1998 series between England and South Africa looked a potential mismatch; to the halfway point it turned out exactly that; and by the end it was one of the outstanding Test match-ups of the modern era.

Since their historic visit to England in 1994, South Africa had flourished. Of nine Test series they had won five and drawn one, losing only to Australia (home and away) and India (away) and on each occasion by a single-match margin. Home wins over England, New Zealand, India and Sri Lanka were backed up by one-off Test victories and success in Pakistan.

The period of transition after readmission, when South Africa picked a few middle-aged blokes out of misty-eyed obligation as much as for experience, was over. Under the leadership of Hansie Cronje the Proteas were the coming side of world cricket, an outfit of immense promise characterised by coach Bob Woolmer's emphasis on doing every part of the game well.

England remained mired in a dismal era for the national team, recently losing a sixth successive Ashes series and being held over two Tests in Zimbabwe. The high points of the previous decade in Test cricket had been salvage jobs rather than successes: the rousing Oval climax to square against South Africa in 1994, a drawn Wisden Trophy series a year later and the Atherton-Russell rearguard in Johannesburg. There is no disputing the magnificence of a heroic draw, but it spoke volumes that these were the greatest causes for celebration.

South Africa began their tour in assured fashion, winning matches before an ODI series victory, only for the Test series to start with a heavily rain-affected draw at Edgbaston.

Undeterred, the tourists hammered home their superiority in a Lord's Test dominated by seam. New captain Alec Stewart put the visitors in and saw Dominic Cork lead a rout of the top order to 46/4 only for Cronje and Jonty Rhodes, the two batsmen the home side fancied most, to put on 184 for the fifth wicket. Once a tail, including Mark Boucher at eight and Lance Klusener at nine, had wagged, the situation had been rescued to 360 all out.

Even in an era of calamitous collapses, England's response represented two collector's items. Their first innings encompassed only one completed session, with three wickets lost in 14 overs at the end of day two and all out shortly after lunch the next day. Allan Donald claimed a second five-fer in two Test visits to HQ with help from Shaun Pollock. In a total of 110, extras had top-scored with 20.

Following on, still 250 behind, the second attempt was somewhat better. A captain-heavy top order of Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Stewart provided the bulk of runs to 102/2 and 222/4 before the loss of five wickets for 11. Jacques Kallis' figures of 4/24 from 19 overs were his Test best at the time. A belligerent last-wicket stand between Angus Fraser and Robert Croft averted an innings defeat but the South Africans needed only seven balls in their second innings to finish the job before the end of day four.

The tendency towards collapse was chronic at this time. In seven completed innings across the series, England lost their last five wickets for an average of 52 runs. 'Each batsman goes out hoping to do well,' observed Stewart when challenged, 'and when he pops back again two minutes later it's not ideal.'

For the third Test at Old Trafford England found themselves following on again. Gary Kirsten's 210 was the longest ever international innings by a South African, a mammoth ten hours and 50 minutes that at times was as hard to watch as it must have been to compile.

Even with 439/3 on the board following his departure and the formidable Klusenser promoted, Cronje seemed oddly reluctant to push on and the declaration on 552/5 did not come until late on day two.

After Donald had continued his terrorising of the top order, Paul Adams led the first-innings rout for 183, before England were 11/2 batting again.

'Awful,' lamented the <I>Daily Mirror</I>'s Chris Lander. 'There was no excuse for a collapse like that.'

With Graham Thorpe unable to play a full part with a back injury, the home side's reliance on Atherton and Stewart was almost absolute. The odd couple delivered, the former captain with 89 and the incumbent 164. With Stewart also keeping wicket, the most popular joke in England was to ask when he'd start opening the bowling.

Yet another collapse left England three hours from safety with only three wickets left only for Croft to emerge as an unlikely hero. The Welshman batted for the rest of the day with the help of Darren Gough Gough and then Fraser, who arrived on a king pair and saw off seven balls from Donald in the most improbable fashion.

In leading England to another famous stalemate, Croft had kept all three series results open – the tourists were one up with two to play but he was promptly dropped, playing only one further Test in two years.

If Manchester was another of the respect-in-adversity stories in which English cricket revelled at the time then the fourth Test at Trent Bridge provided the match that the national team and national game needed: not only a success story, but one as dramatic and hard-earned as they come.

Stewart's decision to bowl having won the toss was rumoured to be in protection of his fragile batting line-up against Donald and Pollock, and did not yield success. The first day saw 300 runs and seven wickets, a harbinger of a changing game after many decades when 200/4 was an even day's Test cricket. After Steve Elworthy swung the bat on the second morning the final total was 374, but England stayed competitive with 336 in response.

'It was an un-South African performance,' observed Atherton. 'Normally the way they play cricket is to try not to give you a sniff in the game and then go for the win.

'Midway through the match the odds were against us with the bookies but I felt it was the kind of game we could beat them in because the game was progressing too quickly for their liking.'

So it proved. Fraser completed a ten-wicket haul in the match as South Africa fell for 208, Cronje top-scoring in both innings, to set 247 to win in a day and a half.

At that time England had not chased such a total at home in 96 years and their difficulties against Donald and Pollock were manifest, but this was the first time the tourists faced any real pressure.

Atherton, who had struggled for runs in the final year of his captaincy, but his form once relieved was outstanding. The personal contest with Donald, further spiced by a failure to walk when clearly out and a drop of Hussain by Boucher,