England’s cricketers are up on the High Veldt, not only taking on South Africa in the fourth Test match, but also their own demons as they strive to reinvigorate all the suddenly evaporated boastful optimism about giving the Australians a run for their money in the Ashes contest in the summer. As England fannied and faltered down in the Cape a week ago, the Aussies were looking as relentlessly unbeatable as ever in their home series against a talented Pakistan side. At the press of a Sky-TV button it was chastening to switch from England’s ham-handed, flat-footed exertions at Newlands to Australia’s noisily confident and vibrant strut at Sydney. Suddenly for England, all 2004’s sunny good heart seemed a loony illusion — strike bowler Harmison was trundling down tripe like a tyro and captain Vaughan was batting, as his compatriot Geoffrey Boycott witheringly put it, ‘like my auntie on the beach at Bridlington’.
‘Bounce-backability’ is the coach-shrinks’ buzz word — and if England do not display bucketfuls of it this weekend and next (in the final Test at Centurion Park) then all the inspiring rhythms and melodies being stored up for next summer will have gone to waste. Temporary blip or not, England have only themselves to blame for their suddenly leaden labours. Three months off and no serious practice is not the way to approach a Test series. Work-to-rule player-power now demands the right of Test cricket tourists to cuddle up to wives and children over Christmas and New Year. Aptly, it is precisely 30 years since an apoplectic MCC was forced to accept family visits on tour, and I remember vividly in 1974–5 the surreal hotel breakfast scenes in Melbourne as England batsmen changed nappies or dished up their children’s cornflakes only an hour or two before going out to be almost decapitated by Lillee and Thomson in (still) the cruellest series of any.
Numbers always help in cricket, and from England’s gloom in Cape Town emerged a couple of shining stats. The refreshing rookie Strauss, uncomplicated leftie of Leyland vim and vintage, logged 1,000 Test runs in only his 19th innings, a rate bettered only by regal trio Sutcliffe (12), Hutton (16) and Hammond (18). Some company! At once, England’s conscientious Mr Plod, slow bowler Giles and he-man Flintoff became only the ninth and tenth Englishmen in history to achieve the significant all-rounders’ ‘double’ of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets. Both nailed the notable notch in their 43rd Test — double the time it took the astonishing Botham (21 Tests, still all-comers’ world fastest ahead of Vinoo Mankad’s 23), some distance from lionheart Tate (33), but not far short of the giraffe-like Greig (37) and Brian Johnson’s little ‘tittlemouse’ Titmus (40). Both Giles and Flintoff, nevertheless, were quicker than Emburey (46), Bailey and Illingworth (both 47) and even the legendary Rhodes (44), although wondrous Wilfred — in the end an unflinching opening bat, of course — played the first 25 of his 58 Tests as a wholly unconsidered No. 11 rabbit, always going in as the groundsman was revving up his Ransome.
Amazing whizz-of-the-fizz Warne is the only current Australian to achieve the Test ‘double’. It took that peroxide Pom-basher all of 58 Tests. With our two (in 43) that’s one preening plus point at least for the upcoming Ashes.