The closest rivalry in world cricket
In eight post-apartheid series, England and South Africa have never been separated by more than a single game
One thing is certain when England play South Africa – it will be a closely fought series full of dramatic cricket. Since resuming hostilities post-apartheid in 1994, the two sides have never been separated by more than a single Test match. In eight series, South Africa have won three and England two, all by the closest of margins.
Even Ashes Test series are often one-sided. Witness England’s comfortable 3-1 win in 2010-2011, or Australia’s 5-0 whitewash of England in the 2006-07 series. If we go back a little further, of course, England were routinely drubbed.
But England against South Africa is guaranteed to be an even contest and it is arguable that no other rivalry in world cricket produces such consistently exciting cricket. We can be sure that come the final Test at Lord’s, that the series result will still be on the line.
England’s two won series came in 1998 and in 2004-5, when a 2-1 win gave Michael Vaughan’s emerging team the impetus for their Ashes triumph in 2005.
But each series has produced unforgettable cricket. In 1994, for example, England went into the final Test at The Oval trailing by a game. But fast bowler Devon Malcolm produced the performance of his life.
Angered by being hit on the helmet by a bouncer from Fanie de Villiers, Malcolm promised the South Africans that he would consign them to ‘history’. And he did, taking 9 for 57 in their second innings, to leave England just over 200 for victory, which they achieved by 8 wickets.
England supremo Ray Illingworth – not a man given to overstatement – praised England’s performance as “the best aggressive Test cricket I have ever seen in my life”.
And the 1995-6 series produced an equally legendary performance from an England player, this time Michael Atherton. In the second Test, known as ‘Atherton’s match’, in Johannesburg, the England opener won an epic duel with the great South African fast bowler Allan Donald.
With England facing a last-innings deficit of 478, Atherton produced a career-defining gritty captain’s knock of 185 not out from 492 deliveries to secure the draw. But England still lost the series. After four draws, the decisive game was the fifth Test, when Donald and Pollock bowled England out twice.
Since that South African win in the fifth Test of the 1995-6 series, England have performed better in the final games of series. They have won the last match four times in six series.
But for their resilience against often superior opposition, England’s overall record against South Africa would be much worse. On three occasions they have held on with 9 wickets down to deny South Africa victories.
In 1998, at Old Trafford, England followed on 369 in arrears after a double-century from Gary Kirsten and a hundred from Kallis. Atherton’s 89 and Stewart’s 164 (the latter was now captain) kept Donald and Pollock at bay, but Robert Croft and Angus Fraser had to survive for 22 minutes, with England nine down, to save the game.
The most recent series, in the South African summer of 2009-10, was drawn, with one innings victory apiece. But the overall result could easily have been 3-1 for South Africa.
In two drawn games, England were saved from defeat by the rearguard action of their number 11 Graham Onions. At Centurion he had to defend 12 deliveries, in partnership with Paul Collingwood, and at Newlands he played 11 balls, with Graeme Swann at the other end.
The last home series, in 2008, was won by South Africa 2-1 after a draw in the first Test. England, with big hundreds from Pieterson and Bell, had a huge first innings lead, but captain Smith, MacKenzie and Amla made hundreds when South Africa followed on.
The visitors won the next two games, by ten wickets and five wickets, to take the four-match series. De Villiers and Prince made hundreds at Headingley and Smith scored a masterly 154 not out in a run chase at Edgbaston. They were backed up in both games by the quick bowling of Steyn, Ntini, Morkel and Kallis.
The defeat at Edgbaston prompted the resignation of Michael Vaughan, the captaincy passing to Pieterson. The Brave New World of KP was unanimously celebrated when he led his team to a six-wicket victory at The Oval, scoring a hundred himself in the first innings. The attack of Anderson, Harmison, Panesar and Broad shared the wickets.
Although the post-apartheid series have been close, it has to be said that South Africa have had the better of most of the drawn games. They have also not lost a series away from home against any opposition since 2006.
Conversely, England have won their last seven home series. They were last defeated in 2008 – by South Africa. The winner of the coming series will be World Number One. There could not be a more enticing prospect for the second half of the summer.