England v South Africa, 1998

Donald denied by Dunkirk defiance

When South Africa came to England in 1998, they were expected to take the series. Then the script went awry

Interviews by Simon Lister |

South Africa arrived in England in the summer of 1998 expecting victory. England had not won a five-Test series for more than a decade. Then the script went awry.

If looks could kill: Donald v Atherton at Trent Bridge © Getty Images

Allan Donald: 3-0 - that was our captain Hansie Cronje's prediction. Now we had to back those comments and we had the players to do it.
Mike Atherton: I was in shocking form. I really needed to give myself time to do something about it. So I worked my nuts off for three days before the first Test in front of a bowling machine.

For the first time in five years Atherton had a little more time on his hands. He had resigned the captaincy and been succeeded by Alec Stewart.

Atherton: It didn't bother me at all. I'd had my time. I told Alec that I was there if he needed me, but really, there's nothing worse than a former captain getting involved when he's no longer in charge.

The first Test at Edgbaston was drawn but Atherton's time with the bowling machine had paid off. He scored his first Test century for more than a year. Rain on the last day stopped England setting South Africa a target. It was a time of change. There were speed guns at the matches and England had employed a psychologist.

Steve Bull (England psychologist): David Lloyd, the coach, had appointed me. People often get the wrong idea of the psychologist's job. There was no white coat, no office. Neither did I "psych the players up" or "motivate" them. It was about suggesting, not telling. My role was to contribute to the development of independent-minded cricketers.

Despite England's new addition, the psychological edge soon belonged to South Africa. During the second Test at Lord's Donald bowled beautifully. Beautifully fast.

Angus Fraser: He's a magnificent athlete, isn't he? There are some of us who make even the easiest tasks look bloody difficult and then you've got this bloke who was a superstar.
Donald: There was a big "Oooh" from the crowd and I didn't know what it was. Shaun Pollock was at mid-off and said, "That's not bad gas, that." The board showed 94.7mph or something. I thought, "Yeah, that's pretty sharp."
Fraser:It became a bit of a macho thing. Darren Gough was always looking at it. But it wasn't helpful when you're not taking wickets and your last ball was only 79mph.

Donald did take wickets. His five-for in the first innings caused England to follow on. Before long, South Africa were 1-0 up in the series.

Jacques Kallis: All cricketers love to do well at Lord's and now we had our foot in the door.
Donald: After Lord's we felt that our house was in order and that we were playing the way we should. Never for once did I think we were over-confident. We just had a great deal of self-belief and thought we'd win the series well.

I'd been quietly cacking myself on the balcony with the coach, David Lloyd, sitting next to me agonising over every ball. He'd got himself worked up into such a bloody state and there I was - next man in - having to calm him down Angus Fraser

The third Test was at Old Trafford and South Africa squeezed England further. They batted, batted and then batted some more. A score of 552 took them to the third morning.

Donald: That was a mistake. We should have declared on that second night. Even though it was a big score, I saw it as too cautious.
Atherton: South Africa batted too slowly. It was typical of their approach under Cronje. His was a conservative side.

Yet it seemed to be enough. For the second Test in a row England followed on. Their 183 had barely taken a bite out of the deficit but in the second innings they were hungrier. Captains old and new, Atherton and Stewart, put on 226.

Alec Stewart: It's nice to think that it was a captain's innings. Yes, we weren't going to win but we had to stay in the game, and if a little opening came our way, we had to take it.

On the last day South Africa needed eight wickets to take a 2-0 lead.

Donald: We thought the job was done. Then England put up a hell of a fight.
Kallis: Atherton and Stewart played well and it showed the guts that English cricket has. It really shows why England are so tough to beat at home.
Fraser: Yeah, they both batted very well but I remember being livid that each of them got out hooking when we were trying to save the sodding game. I know you don't render yourself shot-less but still ...
Stewart: That's typical Gus, isn't it? He's only happy when he's miserable. If we weren't allowed to hook we wouldn't have got two-thirds of the runs we did. I scored thousands of runs playing it. Typical bowler-talk that is.

The home side kept scrapping. Wisden called it a "Dunkirk style evacuation of the kind much beloved of English cricket followers". Leading the flotilla was England's offspinner, Robert Croft.

Robert Croft: It was a real "fight for the badge" Test, this one. I reckoned we had a one in ten shot of pulling it off.

Croft had come in at No. 8 and had put on runs with Mark Ramprakash, Ashley Giles and Darren Gough.

Fraser gets Cronje at Trent Bridge © Getty Images

Croft: We had to score a few but play out time too. I wasn't thinking about wanting to be there in an hour and a half. I just thought about the first 10 minutes, then the next and then the next.

England were six, seven, then eight wickets down but, with time running out, the volume of the South Africans' frustrations increased.

Croft: The chat hadn't been too bad but all of a sudden it got very spicy, about the time Darren Gough started batting. He took one look at Brian McMillan, who'd come from the dressing room to field at slip, and said: "Why's the bloody bus driver playing?"

Gough took the flak for more than an hour before he became Donald's sixth wicket of the innings. England still needed two more runs to make South Africa bat again when Fraser, last man in, walked to the middle.

Fraser: I'd been quietly cacking myself on the balcony with the coach, David Lloyd, sitting next to me agonising over every ball. He'd got himself worked up into such a bloody state and there I was - next man in - having to calm him down.
Bull: Resilience, mental strength. Fraser's approach was critical.
Fraser: When I got out there I tried to speak and I had no spit in my mouth because I was so nervous. Crofty said: "Ntini is quite difficult to see coming out of the Red Rose Suite, so I'll take him and you have Donald." I thought "Thanks a bloody lot, mate."

Fraser survived one delivery, then another. Croft continued to bat in a Test as he never had before. South Africa were straining for a decisive victory. One ball would do it.

Stewart: It was edge-of-the-seat stuff.
Fraser: You just throw your body in front of the ball. Get forward, cover your stumps, get your pad outside the line and, if it's short and it hits your chest, so be it.

The longer Fraser stayed there, the more curious he became to know when it was supposed to end.

Fraser: There was all sorts of confusion. Was it overs? Would there be a 10-minute break between innings? If the scores were level, was that enough? I spoke to the umpire Peter Willey and said, "What's going on?" And he said, "I haven't got a clue, just keep batting."

It was one of the best pieces of Test cricket I watched as a player. You had a world-class bowler against a world-class batsman and they were both playing with a bit of meaning Alec Stewart on Atherton v Donald

Donald was approaching his 40th over of the innings and had all but bowled himself into the ground. He summoned up the energy for one more yorker. The scores were level. He ran in and hit Fraser on the foot to bring screams for an lbw from his whole side.

Fraser: Everyone says I was plumb but it didn't hit me on the front toe, it got me on the back leg, on my heel. I was so far over, it would have slid down the leg side.
Donald: Gus is probably right. When I appealed, I thought it's maybe done too much. Well worth a shout, though.

It was the game's last act. England had escaped with a most unlikely draw.

Donald: At the end I was on my haunches and I don't think I've ever been so tired. The series should have been nailed right there. That's where doubts started creeping in.
Atherton: We had a beer in their dressing room and I saw Allan's feet. He'd planted them in a bucket of iced water and they were covered in blisters.
Donald: Some of the guys questioned the captain's declaration but Cronje hated negativity, absolutely hated it. He told us we were to forget it, get back on the horse at Trent Bridge and smack 'em there.

But had the horse already bolted? Propelled by their escapologist's trick at Old Trafford, England played aggressively in the fourth Test. Fraser, who was not even certain he would be picked, took 10 wickets. But the match will forever be remembered for something else ...

Fraser: (chuckles) Ten bloody wickets and all people talk about is Atherton and Donald.

On the fourth evening, chasing 247 to win, England had lost one wicket and Atherton was batting with Nasser Hussain. Donald was again leading the South African bowlers.

Bull: It was a psychologist's dream. I still use the footage today. It was an utterly pivotal moment. A fast short ball, Atherton defends and the keeper yells for joy. Caught behind? Atherton stands his ground.

England take the series 2-1 at Headingley © Getty Images

Atherton: I was an avowed non-walker. It's as simple as that and I've never made any apology for it.
Donald: The umpire has to make the decision. Out or not out. Atherton made the right call because the Test series was going to swing there and then and, if he had walked, it could soon have been three, four or five down. What followed is perhaps the fondest moment of my career. Really.

Coming round the wicket, Donald bowled a series of short-pitched, extremely fast deliveries. Atherton ducked, hooked and took the blows. He would not yield. Neither would Donald.

Bull: Yes. The eye contact. Very interesting.
Donald: He just stood there and I could have glared at him for 10 minutes but I knew I had to turn first. That was round one to Atherton. The guys were telling him in the clearest terms that he had been quite fortunate. Hansie was getting stuck in.
Kallis: I felt for Atherton. The batsman's wondering, "When's it going to end, when's it going to end?" It was unbelievable viewing; I was standing at slip and balls were flying past ears and heads and he was playing and missing.
Stewart: It was one of the best pieces of Test cricket I watched as a player. You had a world-class bowler against a world-class batsman and they were both playing with a bit of meaning.
Atherton: It was a particularly fierce and red-blooded passage of play. What was significant was that it was going to take the series one way or the other. It was their big push.
Donald: I have never, ever been more focused on an individual. But I had to do it in a controlled fashion, not reckless and angry. I took a huge breath and I thought, "If I lose it here, we could lose the game tonight." Nothing short and wide.
Bull: It was spectacular. Mike was, in my view, the epitome of controlled belligerence. In moments of great pressure distraction comes very quickly to most people but he never wavered from believing he would win that contest. He oozed self-control.

Atherton survived - and so did Hussain after being dropped at the wicket. Donald turned to the skies and howled.

Donald: That just blew me away and I think my frustration told it all. That was my last punch. I thought perhaps this was not meant to be.

He was right. The next day England won the game by eight wickets and Donald received a consolation gift.

Donald: Yeah. Mike gave me his batting glove. He signed it on the red mark that the ball had left.

Winning here in this country is massive. I don't think English people realise how big it is for touring sides. It's the accolade. It's absolutely humungous, priority number one Allan Donald

The series was now 1-1 with one to play and at Headingley a low-scoring thriller unfolded in which Fraser and Donald again took five wickets in an innings. At the close of the fourth evening South Africa, chasing 219 to win, needed another 34 runs but had only two wickets left.

Stewart: For the last morning they gave the seats away free and because it was Yorkshire it was full up. But it was a very special atmosphere.

A crowd of 10,000 witnessed half an hour's play. The series was being decided.

Fraser: Goughy and I went out for a loosener and the ground was three-quarters full. Back inside we told the lads and then all of us went out to a noisy crowd and an exciting atmosphere that got us all going.
Donald: I felt very low coming to the ground on that last morning.

Donald's anxiety was well-founded. He was soon dismissed by Fraser, and on the forty-third ball of the morning, Makhaya Ntini was lbw to Gough for a duck. England had won the series.

Donald: Later I saw a photo of Hansie watching England running off the field and he was just out of it. We knew we would win that Test series. We just knew it. But England fought hard, came back brilliantly and, when they had a sniff, they went for it.
Stewart: We saved it and then we won it.
Donald: Winning here in this country is massive. I don't think English people realise how big it is for touring sides. It's the accolade. It's absolutely humungous, priority number one. And for a short while we had it in our hands.
Fraser: The cameras came into the dressing room almost straight away and Gough and Cork were hogging it as they do and I just remember going around the corner and putting a towel over my head. Then I started crying. Throughout the 1990s we had under-achieved hugely. This was the biggest moment in my career. The tears were for the victory, for having played a part in it and for beating South Africa. After all, they were a bloody good side.

This article was first published in the August 2008 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here