A Battle Through The Ages: England v South Africa

There are few tours that stir the passions in quite the same way as a visit by the South Africans. For those of us of a certain vintage, over 30 perhaps, only the Ashes gets the pulses racing more than a visit from the Proteas.

With the exception of a largely forgettable series in 2017, every tour by the rainbow nation since readmission has been intense, enthralling and usually quite bruising for England and its captains in particular.

Mike Atherton was caught with dirt in his pocket at Lords in 1994, before standing awe struck at slip two games later as Devon Malcom condemned the tourists to “history” at the Oval. In 1998, no longer captain but still the rock of England’s batting, he stood firm against the fire and fury of Alan Donald in one of the great duels in Test history. Other England captains have not come out of tours by South Africa quite so well however, and this is largely down to the force of personality of one man. 

Nathan Lyon once spoke of wanting to end England players careers before an Ashes series but make no mistake, this is the series that really ends careers. Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss, arguably England’s three most successful captains of the modern era, all fell on their sword after coming up against the Protea Fire and one man in particular, the granite hewn colossus that is Graeme Smith, South Africa’s captain for 12 years and three tours of this land. 

In 2003, a then 22-year-old Smith took on a South African team that was in disarray following a chaotic exit from a home World Cup and began to ruthlessly shape them into his own, indomitable image. Nasser Hussain was so underwhelmed by the young man standing before him that he referred to him as “whatshisname” in the press conference before the first Test. Over two days and 277 runs, Smith repeatedly rammed that insult back down Hussain’s throat. By the end of the drawn game Hussain had resigned and Smith had claimed the scalp of his first England captain. The rest of the series was a pulsating affair as Michael Vaughan led his men in a fightback that ended in a fine win at the Oval, a drawn series and the seeds of the great Ashes triumph two years later. 

Five years later it was Smith again defying England with an all time great innings of 154 not out at Edgbaston in a South African victory that prompted Vaughan’s resignation. 

Fast forward to 2012 and perhaps the most infamous incident of all as “Textgate” dominated front and back pages and cricket journalists turned into amateur Sherlocks to investigate the content of Kevin Pietersen’s mid series texts to the South African team and to ascertain who indeed was the mysterious author of the “KP Genius” Twitter account. The furore led, indirectly, to Strauss’ resignation at the end of the series as Graeme Smith claimed one last scalp before his retirement two years later. 

In recent years South African cricket has been something of a mess, with corruption and resignations at board level leading to government intervention in 2021. The national team’s image has also been damaged by accusations of racism. The testimonies of Paul Adams and Ashwell Price as to the treatment they received in the Protea dressing room have cast a shadow over many of the team that played under Smith in the same way that the Yorkshire racism crisis has made us question some of the heroes of 2005.

These days it appears the present always casts a shadow over the past, however glorious we wish that past to be. 

Current coach Mark Boucher was charged by Cricket South Africa after being the subject of many of the more serious allegations but all charges were dramatically dropped in May soon after Paul Adams indicated his unwillingness to testify against his former teammate.

Smith himself was investigated for racism in the early part of this year but was found innocent by two independent investigations. It is hard to believe that the furore did not contribute to his decision not to reapply for his job as Director of Cricket at CSA when his contract expired. It is indeed a pity as one feels South African cricket needs its strongest leader now more than ever. 

The team that will walk out at Lord’s tomorrow morning may not have the strength of previous sides to tour the country but it will still contain players to thrill English fans, including Kagiso Rabada, one of the finest fast bowlers in the world at the moment, and the standard bearer for the transformation of cricket in the country and the efforts to produce more Black African cricketers. 

In Dean Elgar, the Proteas possess another captain in the Smith mould, who will not be afraid to go toe to toe with England’s players. 

I hope fervently for a competitive series as Test cricket needs a strong South Africa. Bazball alone will not revive the Test game, particularly if the only competitive series are played between England, India, and Australia. To survive and thrive, the game needs its other great nations feasting at the same table as the big three. That is why, despite my love for what Stokes and McCullum are doing for our game, I will be hoping for a South African victory this summer. One feels both the Test game and the rainbow nation need it. 

Billy Crawford


  • Is it me of is this strangely fragmented season catching my enthusiasm for test cricket on the wain. It’s the drama of the long game that makes it special for me and having such a long time between tests lessens the impact of that drama. It’s rather like waiting an age for the next instalment of your favourite TV program. You lose the thread of that continuity that keeps your enthusiasm going. It may prove to be wrong and I hope it does, once the series gets going, but at present my enthusiasm is Luke warm.

  • Sorry, Billy, but I just don’t buy into your (complete lack of) logic here ! On what basis does ‘the Test game and the rainbow nation’ NEED a South African victory any more than England needs an English one ? Given the parlous political state of red ball cricket in England, I would argue exactly the opposite.

    • South African cricket has been in turmoil for a while. Their Test cricket could most definitely use a boost, as could all of the smaller nations outside the big 3. Test cricket in England is still hugely popular and lucrative, despite poor results before this summer. On that basis, I can see why Billy thinks a win for the underdog would be a good thing for cricket in general.

      • I understand that, James, but a poor showing in this series would have major political ramifications for English red ball cricket, which in turn would have major implications for the future of international Test cricket itself. Everything the ECB has done since Claire Connor’s appointment seems to me designed to limit the room for manoeuvre of the incoming Chairman and CEO as much as possible, and as for Strauss’s report …..!!! The classic action of a weak management lacking in vision – when in doubt, get one of your own to write a report telling you what you want to hear !!! Anything other than a good series played in front of large crowds (although Lord’s will, I suspect, be affected by the rail strikes), preferably with an England victory would have major implications for the red ball game.

      • All these things are relative I think. The red-ball game is in a parlous state in England in some ways–but not nearly as much, I suspect as in SA.

        Test cricket is quite possibly more popular in England, and certainly as popular, than anywhere else now. SA is getting smaller crowds for tests, its finances are much more parlous, there’s a greater divide in South African cricket than in England’s, and it’s getting a lot fewer games than England (acording to leaks of the FTP, SA will only have eight home tests over the next four seasons put together; England will have 24, or 25 if they get to the final of the WTC).

        So I too see what Billy is saying: a SA loss, especially a heavy one, risks red-ball cricket in SA sliding into irrelvance compared to white-ball and especially franchise, cricket (let’s not forget that in their last series they were missing almost half their team because they’d chosen the IPL over a test series).

  • SA just lost their warm-up game to England’s reserve XI by an innings – that’s how much chance of a competitive series there is. It’ll be a good spectacle if you enjoy watching Maharaj being belted into the stands. SA still have a decent seam attack but everything else about them is in bits and there’s plenty of blame to go round (the ICC, BCCI, CSA, ECB… ).

    “I still maintain they can sit together comfortably, Test cricket and T20 cricket”. That was Strauss today. Whether he’s a fool or a knave I don’t know.

    • They didn’t field some of their best bowlers (like Rabada) in that match. So I wouldn’t write them off quite yet.

    • Well, the SA seam attack has certainly started decently, admittedly in helpful conditions, and SA seem to have put out the best team they can (given that some of their players will continue to change allegiance, usually to support their families).

      On your wider point about Strauss’ comment, test cricket and T20 will always compete for players to some extent (good white ball players aren’t always good test players, see for example Eoin Morgan and Jason Roy). The Hundred is essentially modified T20 with extra gimmicks (I actually like a couple of these gimmicks, like the cut off time, which speeds up the game, and having the new batsman on strike after a wicket, which rewards the bowling team, but overall, I think the ECB has probably come up with the new John Player League).

      • I can actually think of very few players anywhere in the world who are South African by upbringing and would improve this team–and all the players who “changed allegiance” to become Kolpakers are available again since that status dissolved.

        The only three I can think of playing tests for anybody are Labuschagne, Conway and Wagner–and I don’t think Wagner would get in this team. England should be thankful that they don’t have to bowl at Labuschagne and Conway instead of Petersen and Markram though!

  • An alternative history of the 2012 series that doesn’t just repeat the Clarke-Flower-Strauss constructed alibi:

    The two teams meet for a shootout for best team in the world. The series is only three Tests because that’s all Clarke wants. The time for the fourth and fifth tests is instead given to a meaningless bilateral ODI series against a Big Three chum. Mike Selvey predicts England will win 2-0.

    First Test – England are thrashed by an innings. The most skillful bowling attack in the world concedes 637/2. Anderson and Broad take 1/240 while Steyn wins the match with 5/54. Mike Selvey puts it down to the weather.
    Second Test – England aren’t beaten for the only time in the series thanks to a century but the bloke the entire media and establishment will blame for them losing the series.
    Third Test – SA win again (mainly thanks to Philander and Amla). England’s best performers are YJB and Finn. The team’s experienced core of Strauss, Cook, Trott, Prior, Swann, Broad and Anderson are so motivated by the dropping of that bastard enemy within that they contribute next to nothing.

    England’s defeat makes sense seen in contect of a decline after the 2010-11 Ashes which also saw a 3-0 defeat in UAE and a 0-0 draw in NZ. However a narrative is constructed that the team was wall-to-wall briliance until unaccountably falling apart on Day Two in Brisbane.

  • Bumble nails it – on both counts !

    It was fascinating listening to Sir Andrew Strauss on the rise of franchise cricket on Test Match Special. He was passionate about the future and admitted he won’t please everyone with his high performance review.
    But one thing struck me. He said the domestic structure in England should mirror the international game. So where does the Hundred fit in? We’re the only country who play it….

    A tale of two Richards
    So over to you Richard Thompson, new chair of the ECB. He’s an excellent man and will need to appoint an excellent new chief executive, too.
    For me Richard Gould is the man. The pair were successful at Surrey and could sort our game out. I’m not all doom and gloom about the future yet, but I have started to worry.

  • Hey,
    Awaiting Big match has been arrived after a long days.
    India tour of Zimbabwe ODI match.
    And the predictions look good and you have listed down the detailed article with a Twitter account.
    That even more highlighting in your blog.

    • This South African side is superior to England in EVERY department. We’ve seen some crap from England over recent years but this takes the biscuit. Appalling, I’m lost for words and I don’t support England anyway. The SA bowling attack is better than the Aussies and our white ball bashers had no answer to it. What do you expect, no red ball cricket for 6 weeks because of the ECBs wretched 100. You don’t need a performance review you need an independent review into the ECB, Strauss and the whole bloody lot of them. Its clearly no longer fit for purpose .The Counties should throw their “recommendations” down the toilet. Let the new Chairman at least look into the workings of this obscene organisation.
      I’m normally a calm bloke, but cricket is now being split apart. I can see a breakaway organisation on the horizon. But I’m f***ing done with England.

      • What is your basis for saying the South African attack is better than Australia’s? Because they managed to skittle England? I’m not sure that really makes the case.

        Maybe wait until the likes of Ngidi, Jansen and Njorte have played more than a dozen or so Tests each before anointing them. You don’t get extra points for making grandiose statements prematurely.

        But that does segue nicely into the real indictment of England, aside from their unjustified pre-series bravado (Stokes claiming they were “in South Africa’s heads”, how did they pan out?) and their woefully inept batting. Compounding all that is the fact that this is not an experienced, battle-hardened South African side.

        By my count, the South Africans had 4 players who’d played fewer than 10 Tests, and 7 players who’d played fewer than 20 Tests. And they still managed to stuff England by an innings on their own turf.


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