The Worst Team In The World

Admittedly things are looking bleak. I may have proved the claim that England are the worst team in the world (in 1999). Bad luck. A dropped catch here and there. Lack of a spinner that isn’t Phil Tufnell – all nominal excuses but perhaps the reality is that we are just not good enough. It’s up to me to change that.

It’s a five match series and we’re already 2-0 down. South Africa have had the measure of us in all departments.

What better day to start a fight back though than Boxing Day? Or maybe it’s the ideal day for a beating. Either way, we need to start landing some punches.

The conditions suggest there’s no need for a spinner. I’m fairly sure South Africa don’t have one and the conditions don’t look like they will help Tuffers. It’s the usual mix of sun and cloud which shouldn’t really be all that foreign to us but so far it’s been like batting and bowling in the North Pole.

With that in mind, I’ve had to make some bold calls. Lathwell is out for Hick, partly because he isn’t very good but also because Hick bowls part time off spin and it’ll be nice to have the option if we’re bowling for a long time. Bulbeck is in for Tuffers, which gives us a left arm bowling option but also strengthens the batting. Bicknell is back to replace Mullally in the final change. South Africa are unchanged, again.

We’ve won the toss! My 100% success rate on this tour remains. Take that, chance. I’ve decided to bat first whilst the conditions are at their prime, knowing full well there’ll be some dodgy spells but I’m sure it’ll be fine. It really is for the first hour. 30 without loss is a nice milestone but it also signals the end of Stewart for 21 as Schulez tempts him into an edge to slip. Atherton follows for 15 to leave us on a less appetising 52/2 but it’s still early days. Thorpe and Habib begin the rebuilding process but Thorpe only musters 8 before Alan Donald accounts for him. Lunch does not taste sweet.

Habib and Hick are well towards their 50 partnership before Hick is trapped LBW for 20. Too many of the top order have started but not got going. Hollioake arrives and manages just 8 and as we’re 141/5, we’re in trouble. Habib has at least passed 50 but Wells and Bulbeck depart in quick succession to leave us 167/7. Thankfully Bicknell is no mug and he sticks around long enough for Habib to reach his maiden test hundred. What a hero! We’ve even gone past 200 but both men depart in quick succession and despite three slogs from Goughy, we have to settle for 231. That doesn’t feel like enough.

I seem to remember in the decisive final innings in the second test we had some success by bowling aggressively at their top order, so I’ve told Goughy he can’t dance and sent those aggression bars to the max. Incredibly, one of my stupid plans works. Kirsten is removed by Gough. Again, for a duck. That’s five consecutive times. Bicknell keeps it tight before Dean Headley arrives to cause carnage. He sees off Cronje and Liebenberg whilst Hollioake arrives at the other end. His medium pace is a missile under the clouds and he bowls Ackerman and Callis. 40/5… goodness me. Headley removes Pollock and Stewart for a combined 13 whilst Bicknell gets a deserved wicket by trapping Cullinan. Gough returns to clean up the tail. 107 all out – December 27th 1999 is the day England began to fight back.

We’re in a totally new position of complete control. 124 runs ahead, three whole days to play and an evening session to come. I send Athers and Stewart out to see out the night and we’ll collect our thoughts tomorrow. They actually do as they are told and we finish the day 62 without loss. A lead of nearly 200, 10 wickets in hand. Bring on Day 3.

Pollock bowls Stewart early on Day 3. I don’t like Day 3 already. 88/1 though so plenty of hope yet. Habib and Atherton continue to build, slow and steady, before Habib edges to slip for 20. Thorpe can only manage 11 but 167/3 is still a healthy lead. Atherton gets to 80 but Kallis takes a great caught and bowled to account for him. Hick once again gets started but is bowled for 30. 210/5, a lead of over 300 and Hollioake and Wells at the crease.

Hollioake is the latest to get started but is bowled for 21, however Sir Vince remains and along with Bulbeck they add another 50 to take the lead over 400. Helpful contributions from the tail push the lead to 473; Wells is the last man out for 47. South Africa need 474 and they have two days to manage it.

I barely sleep a wink. Surely we can do this? My first test win is in sight and naturally I’m nervous we’re going to blow it. South Africa start well. The aggressive bowling leaves gaps which the openers are keen to exploit. Eventually, Bicknell removes Liebenberg with the score on 50 and it has only crept to 57 by the time Headley gets Cronje to nick behind. Kirsten has survived the Gough onslaught but Bulbeck finally makes his mark on this test match as he removes the stubborn opener and South Africa are 96/3. He also removes Kallis for 18 and 116/4 means we are six wickets away with the top order back in the hutch.

Daryl Cullinan has had a poor series but typically he picks now to turn that around. He and Shaun Pollock are like Lara and Tendulkar. A chanceless partnership that lasts the remainder of Day 4 and I AM GETTING VERY NERVOUS.

307/6 at the start of Day 5. We’re still favourites but if these two settle again we’re ruined. With the partnership at 144 Headley bowls Pollock and I feel like we’ve won it. Headley also accounts for Stewart for just 4. 352/7. De Villiers digs in and Cullinan passes 100 but Gough finally rouses himself to bowl him. He does a salsa to make a point. 383/8. Surely, now?

Gough traps Donald LBW and Schultz comes out swinging like a windmill. He scores 20 pretty quickly but Headley returns to knock out his middle stump.

It’s a win by 59 runs. I am drained.

WE’VE WON A TEST MATCH. We still trail 2-1. But we’ve found a way to beat them and that’s a big deal. Habib gets man of the match which is fine but Headley took 9 wickets and bowled himself into the ground. A real hero.

Please do join me next time as we see if the comeback can get really serious…