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The Smith & Ntini show at Lord’s

by Matthew Engel 5 minute read

In the 2004 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, Matthew Engel reported on Michael Vaughan’s first Test as England captain, an innings defeat to South Africa at Lord’s.

The new smiling face of English cricket, which Michael Vaughan presented to the cameras in the Long Room on the eve of the game, lasted less than 24 hours – indeed only about 65 hours from the moment he was handed the captaincy when Hussain resigned on the Monday night. Normally, even England captains get a honeymoon longer than that. But by Thursday lunchtime, England were in crisis for the second Test in succession. And this time there was no escape.

South Africa won massively, having scored 682 for six, smashed the record for their highest total and inflicted on England their biggest-ever first-innings deficit – 509, five more than at Brisbane in 1946-47. Throughout the game, Vaughan retained something close to a smile, though it presumably represented bemusement (unless, frighteningly for England, it was gormlessness). Hussain’s grim-visaged pent-up fury would have been more appropriate.

The disaster was, at least in part, attributable to the unplanned handover, and the brutal scheduling of Tests with only two days in between. England were too distracted to absorb the lessons of Edgbaston and evolve a plan to combat Smith’s relentless, but not infallible, batting. By the end of this game a man being patronised ten days earlier as a young inadequate was being compared to Bradman – indeed he had surpassed him by scoring 259, five more than the Don’s 73-year-old record for an overseas player in a Lord’s Test, and reaching 621 in the two games, which was beyond even Bradman.

England’s first-day batting certainly was gormless. They were put in, though Vaughan would have batted anyway: there was cloud cover but nothing beyond normal first-day juice in the pitch. The teams were identical to Edgbaston except for South Africa preferring Hall to Willoughby as their fourth seamer and Adams to Peterson as the spinner. In the event, Adams was hardly required in the first innings. Nor did anyone miss Pretorius, who limped off with a thigh injury: England’s batsmen did the bowlers’ work for them, as if their mindset had not adjusted after their overwhelming one-day triumph here just 19 days earlier. They nearly all looked at home but got out needlessly, the mood typified by the top-edged hook that did for Vaughan on 33. For no good reason, England crashed to 118 for nine.

The last pair, Gough and Anderson, had some fun. Their 55 was the highest stand of the innings, an oddity last achieved for England 133 Tests earlier, by Phil DeFreitas and David Lawrence at Trent Bridge against West Indies in 1991. But the spectators’ cheers were more ironic than delighted, and if there were a trace of happiness left in Vaughan’s smile, it was wiped out when Smith was dropped horribly by Hussain at cover on eight. By the close, South Africa were 151 for one.

England’s bowlers trudged on to the field on Friday like men wearing signs saying “Hit me”. Smith obliged. His opening stand with Gibbs was worth 133; he put on 257 with the uncompromising and unflashy deflector Kirsten, then 123 with Dippenaar. At 3.02 on the second afternoon, Smith reached 500 for the series, only eight days after it had begun. Night fell again, and he was still there, Brian Lara’s 375 apparently at risk. By then bowlers and spectators alike began to forget there was ever an existence without Smith at the centre of it.

The interminability of his innings had a drawback for him – observers began to sniff out his technique, which involved biffing anything straightish into the leg side and keeping the face closed to avoid nicks. A line outside off stump had possibilities. But as the weather grew hotter, the pitch ever blander and their spirits weaker, England had no way of executing a plan even if they had one: the old-new pairing of Gough and Anderson, so hyped during the one-day series, was a disaster (except with the bat). Both were knackered: Anderson by overwork; Gough, terminally, by the passing years. And what chances came were mostly dropped, four in all. Stewart, who had a ghastly game, could at least be absolved of eight of the byes, which came when he was off with an eye injury and McGrath deputised.

After nine hours (or maybe years) and 34 minutes, 370 balls and 34 fours, Smith was bowled by Anderson for 259. South Africa improved their highest total against England for the second match running, but Smith declared, kindly, just short of the wholly demoralising 700 mark and England, in their second innings, batted far better than in their first. No one ever imagined they could save the game but they did put down markers for the weeks ahead. Butcher and Hussain put on 126, and later came Flintoff, who finally played the sensational innings in front of an English Test crowd that he had long threatened. He smashed 142 off 146 balls, with 18 fours and five sixes, crashing the ball with a power that may even have surpassed Ian Botham and enchanted a packed house (who feared they would watch only another collapse). Just as importantly, he dispelled the panic in the England camp. It was the highest score by a No. 7 in a Lord’s Test, beating Les Ames’s 137 against New Zealand in 1931. The less quantifiable Lord’s thrill-factor matched that of the late Ben Hollioake’s one-day flourish against Australia in 1997.

Flintoff finally took one liberty too many against Adams, but it was Ntini who had done the real damage, becoming the first South African to take ten wickets in a Lord’s Test. This was just reward for Ntini’s pace and zest, though he was helped by the tightness of the other bowlers and the looseness of the batting – half his wickets came from misjudged pulls, hooks and swats. But as South Africa celebrated, England were calming down: at the height of the panic on Saturday morning, it had been assumed that their old guard would all be despatched – Gough took the hint and retired from Tests, but both Hussain and Stewart lived to fight again.

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