Review – South Africa's 1994 tour to England

Blog Opinion

In two weeks' time 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.

<I>In two weeks' time 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 four, the three-Test series of 1994:</I>

South Africa's 1994 tour of England was their first in 29 years and a cause for heartfelt celebration on all sides. In interviews at Lord's ahead of the first Test the tourists were giddy as schoolboys, the home side curiously sizing up a new yet formidable enemy, and reporters used the word "historic" as if their press credentials depended on it.

For the previous three decades South African cricket had agonised over how they would fare against the world's best. A special generation of players, <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b> almost without question the nation's greatest</a></b>, had now missed out altogether, but a new group were impressing from a standing start.

Allied to a creditable 1992 World Cup showing the new South Africa had been competitive but cautious in 14 Tests, drawing seven. Defeats on imposing tours of India and the West Indies were mitigated by victory in the unfamiliar conditions of Sri Lanka. Most impressively, they had held their own home and away against an Australia team closing on the Windies at the summit of the world game.

England were in acute need of a fresh start themselves. Five years previously English cricket had reached probably its lowest ever point, surrendering the Ashes urn as a rebel tour to South Africa was exposed, and stagnated since. That had been followed by two further humblings at the hands of Australia as well as the habitual Wisden Trophy defeats, with the only relief coming against weak New Zealand and Sri Lanka teams plus India on home soil.

A year previously they had appointed a new captain, Michael Atherton, to oversee such a renewal although revolution was always relative at Lords – Atherton's predecessor Graham Gooch retained his place for a first Test that coincided with his 41st birthday. In fact it was the team frozen in time for three decades who were the more progressive, blooding the likes of Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes in their last series before Bob Woolmer took charge and the pace of change in international cricket accelerated.

Where the opening Test proved historic for the visitors it was histrionic for the home side. Kepler Wessels <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>scored a first-innings century</a></b>, later describing it the high point of his career, in a total of 357 before Allan Donald joined him on the honours' board to establish a 177-run lead.

Then on Saturday afternoon all hell broke loose. As the home bowlers sought a miracle to put themselves back in the match, television cameras captured <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>Atherton rubbing a substance from his pocket into the ball</a></b>. It was later revealed to be soil from a foot-hole and so not in breach of the laws. But a media fire, fuelled by the captain lying initially to the match referee about the incident, turned a Test match into a full-blown trial in the court of public opinion. Chairman of selectors Raymond Illingworth ultimately allowed Atherton to keep the captaincy but not his match fee.

The tourists declared at lunch on day four, setting 456 to win, before their four-man pace-attack skittled a besieged and bewildered England for 99. Senior figures in the South African camp, including captain Wessels and coach Mike Procter, would later rank it among their highest career achievements and were angered that such an important and emphatic victory was overshadowed by the dirt-in-pocket inquest. As Matthew Engel wrote in <i>Wisden</i>, 'If Atherton was a cheat, he was not a very successful one.'

South Africa now sensed blood. Their lack of a spin bowler had been identified as a weakness beforehand but going to Headingley and The Oval with a 1-0 lead and an attack of Donald, Fanie DeVilliers, Craig Matthews and Brian McMillan, victory appeared to beckon.

Atherton took the bold decision to bat first in the second Test at Leeds and made 99 (<a href=' ' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>for the second time in a year</a></b>) as the foundation of England's 477/9dec. At a time when even more people than usual were waiting for him to fail, it was a contribution of typically obdurate character from the captain. The South African attack was blunted by Atherton and the returning Graham Thorpe, Donald struggling with a toe injury and McMillan now the pick of the bowlers.

Following the great all-rounders of the 1980s was a thankless task worldwide and McMillan an unlikely pretender to their crowns. The burly Transvaal man lacked Imran's glamour, Kapil's menace and Botham's personality, plus his international career was necessarily curtailed by the apartheid ban. But he was as close to emulating them as any cricketer in the world in the mid-1990s, and on this tour he served notice of those credentials by topping the tourists' batting and bowling averages.

On day two England thought they had South Africa cornered on 105/5 before Peter Kirsten's rearguard century. At 39 years and 82 days old Kirsten was the <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b> fifth oldest maiden centurion in history and remains the oldest in the last 64 years</a></b>. By the time the tourists were finally all out for 447 all hope of a positive result had gone, a Test dominated by the bat to an almost unprecedented extent for Headingley at the time.

On they went to The Oval (though via Torquay <i>and</i> Glamorgan on a tour featuring 11 top-class matches in addition to the three Tests).

By the evening of day two South Africa had one hand on a series victory. Having posted 332, McMillan top-scoring with 93, the tourists had England at 222/7. This brought together at the crease Phil De Freitas and Darren Gough, the latter winning his only fourth cap after a debut against New Zealand at the start of the summer.

Gough had been a revelation in an England team lacking in imagination and enthusiasm. The Yorkshireman brought both, acting with a beguiling kiddish gusto that belied a sharp cricketing brain and devilish variation with the ball.

Viewed from 2012 his partnership with DeFreitas is unremarkable but at the time it was utterly thrilling. The pair, both wannabe all-rounders sequestered in the lower order, teed off to put on 59 in half an hour before the close. It was an exhilarating ancestor of the 100-plus-strike-rate innings that now change Test matches