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When Devon Malcolm made South Africa ‘history’

Devon Malcolm © Getty Images
Devon Malcolm was an English fast bowler © Getty Images

When deciding whether to bowl bouncers at a tail-ender, it is wise to bear in mind that if he is a fast bowler himself, he may return the favour with interest. Michael Jones looks back at the occasion, twenty years ago, when South Africa chose to bounce Devon Malcolm — and quickly found themselves on the receiving end.

Background: South Africa’s 1994 tour of England was a symbolic one. It was almost three years since their readmission to international cricket and in that time they had already reached a World Cup semi-final, and clinched a dramatic five-run victory against Australia when the hosts failed to chase a target of 117 but this was their first visit to England since 1965. It had been England who, in the wake of the D’Oliveira affair, pushed to have South Africa excluded from international cricket; now they were finally returning to the country which had cancelled their scheduled tour in 1970 a sign that their reintegration was complete. In the press’s previews of the series, the word ‘historic’ was bandied around until it became a cliché.

The tourists were determined to make an impact, and they certainly did so with a thumping win at Lord’s. Captain Kepler Wessels who had played a Lord’s Test before, for Australia nine years earlier made a century, Allan Donald took five for 74 in England’s first innings, and the home team crashed to 99 all out in the second to lose by a massive 356 runs.

The result, though, was overshadowed by the repercussions of one incident on the third day. Darren Gough was attempting to reverse swing the ball, and had asked the nearest fielders to keep one side of it dry. Mike Atherton, not having a towel to hand, scooped up some dirt from one of the adjacent pitches for the purpose. A few minutes later, TV cameras spotted the England captain rubbing dirt on the ball, and all hell broke loose. Peter Burge, the match referee, summoned Atherton to explain his actions.

The umpires, Dickie Bird and Steve Randell, attested that they had been inspecting the ball at regular intervals, and that there had been no change to its condition beyond the wear consistent with the amount of use it had received; Burge chose to disregard their evidence, deciding that Atherton’s actions constituted an offence even if they had not changed the condition of the ball. Atherton dug himself into an even deeper hole with his answers at the hearing: when Burge asked if he had had any artificial substance in his pocket, he replied “no”.

Technically this was true, since the dirt was an entirely natural substance, but Burge failed to see it that way and was livid when he found out the truth. Team manager Ray Illingworth stepped in, announced that he was fining Atherton £1,000 for using the dirt and the same amount again for misleading the referee, and crowed to anyone who would listen that by doing so he had saved Atherton’s captaincy, if not his whole international career; Atherton himself took a rather different view.

After resisting the calls for his resignation, in the second Test at Headingley Atherton answered his critics in the best way possible, making a fighting 99 before missing out on a century as he spooned a return catch to Brian McMillan. Graham Thorpe, Alec Stewart and Steve Rhodes all made fifties, enabling England to post 477. Their seamers reduced South Africa to 105 for five in reply, in serious danger of following on but the visitors fought back thanks to Peter Kirsten’s maiden Test century, with support from Jonty Rhodes, McMillan and Craig Matthews, they limited the first innings deficit to 30, and with England not going in again until after lunch on the fourth day, there seemed little prospect of a result.

Sure enough, the match fizzled out into a draw, with Graeme Hick’s century the highlight of the second innings. England had salvaged a degree of pride after their thrashing at Lord’s, but they still went into the final Test at the Oval 1-0 down. There was one black cloud on the horizon for the tourists Allan Donald had sustained a foot injury which prevented him bowling in the second innings, and it was uncertain whether he would be able to play in the last match.

Day One: McMillan and Richardson guide visitors after Rhodes injury: On the first morning in Kennington, South Africa won the toss and chose to bat; the half-brothers Peter and Gary Kirsten opened the innings, although neither lasted long Gary was caught behind off Phil DeFreitas for two, Peter bowled by Malcolm for 16. Hansie Cronje made a start but was unable to convert it into a big score when he was trapped in front to give the debutant Joey Benjamin his first Test wicket.

Darryl Cullinan playing in his first match of the series, after Andrew Hudson had been dropped followed quickly, but the defining moment of the first day’s play came with the score on 106 for four: Jonty Rhodes misread a short ball from Malcolm which kept lower than expected, and ended upducking straight into it, being hit so low that Malcolm even considered appealing for lbw; Rhodes’s epilepsy meant that any blow to the head could potentially be fatal, and he was rushed to hospital to be treated for concussion.

Malcolm could hardly be blamed for the injury, since the ball wasn’t even a bouncer, but the South Africans didn’t see it that way. Soon after lunch Benjamin claimed his second wicket, Wessels lbw, to leave the visitors in deep trouble at 136 for five – effectively six, since there was no chance of Rhodes batting again in the innings.

McMillan and Dave Richardson went on the counterattack, adding 124 at four an over, and the scoreboard was looking somewhat healthier by the time Richardson was caught behind for 58. Benjamin dismissed Matthews for a golden duck, bringing Fanie de Villiers to the crease at 266 for seven.

Atherton instructed his strike bowler to bounce the tail-ender, but Malcolm never the easiest of players for a skipper to handle infuriated his captain by repeatedly failing to do so. Graham Gooch, who had captained Malcolm before, ambled over to Atherton to make a suggestion: he was only half-joking in saying he had found that the best approach was to tell Malcolm to do the opposite of what you actually wanted him to do.

Having run out of other ideas, Atherton told Malcolm to bowl yorkers, and sure enough he started digging it in short. A useful stand of 35 for the eighth wicket was ended when DeFreitas dismissed de Villiers, but Donald who was judged to have recovered enough to play stayed with McMillan until the close, by which time they had taken the score to 326 for eight.

Day Two: DeFreitas and Gough lead England recovery, Atherton in hot water again: After spending the night on 91, McMillan failed to reach his century the next morning, adding only two more runs before DeFreitas dismissed him to end the innings on 332, with Rhodes still in hospital; DeFreitas and the debutant Benjamin finished with four wickets each.

Gooch played out the opening over of England’s reply, before the captain faced his first ball from de Villiers; it hit him on the pads and Ken Palmer raised his finger. Atherton walked off with a slight shake of his head and a glance at his bat; most watchers thought nothing of it at the time other players had shown far greater displays of dissatisfaction with umpiring decisions (he had grounds to feel aggrieved: replays showed a thick edge onto the pads).

When Illingworth put his head around the dressing room door to warn “The referee’s not happy again”, Atherton asked innocently “Who does he want to see this time?” and was shocked to be told “You”. Both umpires were present when Atherton faced his hearing in the referee’s room, and were asked whether they thought that his reaction to his dismissal constituted dissent; both replied that they did not, but Burge had Atherton in his sights after the previous incident Donald commented that he was “obviously waiting for Atherton to transgress again” and for the second time in the series he decided to ignore their opinion and fined the captain anyway.

Little wonder, then, that Atherton lost all faith in the refereeing system a feeling which was only reinforced seven years later when TV cameras at Port Elizabeth showed Sachin Tendulkar picking the seam, and the outcry on that occasion was directed not at Tendulkar for ball tampering, but at the referee for daring to accuse him of it. At least this time he was not alone: Burge appeared to be going on a fining spree, with de Villiers also penalised for dissent and every player on both teams for slow over-rates. Atherton commented wryly “It’s been an expensive series. I’m playing for the love and honour of the game at the moment.”

Seeing the captain at low ebb, Illingworth suggested to Gooch as the most senior player that he should have a word with the rest of the team. Keith Fletcher took Atherton to one side under the pretence of discussing tactics, and in his absence Gooch urged the players to rally behind the captain. His pep talk must have hit the right note – rally they did.

Back on the pitch, Gooch hung around for an hour without setting the scoreboard alight, but Thorpe added 60 for the third wicket with Hick and 52 for the fourth with Stewart, before falling to Matthews for 79. He was gaining himself a reputation for making useful scores without converting them to really big ones: since making a century on debut against Australia the previous year he had failed to make another, and his third consecutive dismissal in the 70s did little to change that. Stewart became the second Surrey player of the innings to make a half century on his home ground, but when de Villiers claimed his wicket and that of Steve Rhodes a few runs later, England were 222 for seven and South Africa looked set for a sizeable first innings lead.

DeFreitas and Gough had other ideas. They had already put on one big partnership that summer 130 against New Zealand on Gough’s Test debut and decided, as Gough put it, to “have a laugh and a slog”. Atherton knew there was no point in trying to tell them to play carefully, so he didn’t bother; he was happy to let them reduce the deficit the only way they knew. They set about the bowling with gusto, and were helped when Donald limped off the field: he had been resting completely between the second and third Tests in an attempt to recover from his injury, but the resulting period of inactivity left him unprepared for bowling a long spell, and he developed leg cramps. Wessels, a hard-nosed competitor who prided himself on playing on through injury, was unimpressed with Donald’s claim that he was unable to continue, and the matter created a rift between them which endured for years; meanwhile DeFreitas and Gough continued to tuck into the bowling of de Villiers and McMillan. By the close they had taken the score to 281 for seven, their partnership worth an unbeaten 59 and the deficit reduced to only 51.

Day Three: Fired-up Malcolm blows South Africa away, England chase gets off to flying start: The following morning England attempted to continue in the same vein, but their fun was soon cut short when DeFreitas took one risk too many and was run out for 37 off only 31 balls. Benjamin fell for a duck on debut, bringing Malcolm to the crease; Wessels, seeking to get back at him for the injury to Rhodes, urged de Villiers to bang one in, and the bowler duly obliged, clattering Malcolm on the helmet first ball.

Although the helmet was dented and Malcolm called for a replacement, he was not hurt, only angry. His supposed reaction has become one of the most famous quotes in cricket: “You guys are history; you’re going to pay for this.” As with many great quotes, its authenticity is open to doubt: Gough, at the non-striker’s end, claimed he didn’t hear Malcolm say anything, but Donald (who had returned to the field that morning) later confirmed that remarks to that effectwere made to Gary Kirsten when he went to hand back to Malcolm a piece of padding which had flown off the helmet, and he threatened to “kill” the other close fielders who gathered around although the exact words used included several obscenities which are usually omitted when the story is retold for a family audience.

Whatever the truth, Malcolm was happy to perpetuate the legend, and later used the line as the title of his autobiography. Donald himself went over to Malcolm at the end of the over to ask if he was all right, and was told, albeit not in exactly the same words, to go away. Before the next over, Gough reminded his partner that he was on 42 not out, and would quite appreciate it if Malcolm could hang around long enough for him to reach 50. Malcolm, as usual, seemed not to hear the instructions, slashed one boundary then went for another wild hoick off Matthews and was caught, to end the first innings with England trailing by 28.

Donald later felt that Wessels and coach Mike Procter had erred in not saying anything to the team between innings. A wiser or more cautious captain might have warned his team that Malcolm was likely to be fired up, but as it was South Africa, dismissing his threats as a mere showof bravado after being hit, were completely unprepared for the barrage which was to follow.

DeFreitas took the first over, a maiden to Peter Kirsten; at the other end, his half-brother Gary faced up to Malcolm. The first ball of the over tore past Kirsten’s chest as he barely managed to sway out of the way; Malcolm’s follow-through took him almost nose to nose with the batsman, and South Africa had the first inkling of what was to come. His third ball smacked into Kirsten’s gloves and looped up; John Crawley at short leg was closer but Malcolm took responsibility himself, nearly barging Crawley out of the way as he held on to the catch, and the visitors were nought for one.

After taking a single off DeFreitas, Peter Kirsten faced Malcolm’s next over, and decided attack was the best form of defence as he tried to hook a bouncer. He failed to control the shot, spooning it up in the air, and DeFreitas took the catch running in from long leg: one for two. Cronje was next to go, beaten for pace as the ball ripped between bat and pad to knock back his middle stump. South Africa were in disarray at one for three, their worst start ever to a Test innings: only Australia, with nought for three at Brisbane in 1950, and India, with the same score (subsequently nought for four) at Headingley in 1952, had done worse.

Cullinan, going in at number 5, was unimpressed with his team-mates’ capitulation, telling them “Just watch me!”, and for a while he and Wessels set about rebuilding the innings. They had taken the total to 73 when another Malcolm bouncer almost hit Wessels on the nose; clearly shaken, he slashed wildly at the next ball outside off stump and was caught behind. McMillan was next in, and soon gave a chance to Gooch in the deep; he positioned himself perfectly to take it, but it burst straight through his hands.

The drop played on Gooch’s mind; he confided to Atherton at tea that he was worried that, at 41, his fielding was becoming a liability to the team, and wondered if it was time for him to retire. Atherton tried to assure him that dropped catches happen to everyone, and not to make a decision in haste. As it transpired, Gooch did tour Australia the following winter, although after 245 runs in ten innings with only a single fifty, he may have wished he had not; at least he survived the tour unscathed, one of very few to do so as almost every member of the squad came down with an injury at some point.

McMillan hung around long enough to add 64 with Cullinan, before trying to fend off another short ball from Malcolm and giving a catch to Thorpe at first slip; 137 for five at least constituted a recovery from one for three, but things soon got worse for the visitors. First Richardson was trapped in front of middle stump, then Matthews gloved another bouncer; it looked to be heading down the leg side, but Steve Rhodes leapt high to his left to pull off the catch. 143 for seven, and Malcolm had taken all of them: his sights were now set on the possibility of becoming only the second bowler in Test history to take all ten wickets in an innings.

Jonty Rhodes, still slightly groggy from his first innings blow, finally came out at number nine, and for a while he gave further support to Cullinan, who did his best to keep the scoreboard ticking over. They had taken the total to 175 when Gough finally ended Cullinan’s resistance; he had scored a fine 94 off only 134 balls, while all his colleagues had looked helpless against Malcolm. Gough had spoiled Malcolm’s chances of taking all ten, but he quickly polished off the last two wickets as Rhodes edged a wide ball to his namesake behind the stumps, and a fast straight ball was enough to clean up Donald.

Malcolm walked off the field with nine for 57 to his name from 99 balls in the innings, second only to Richard Hadlee’s nine for 52 as the best figures by a fast bowler in a Test. True to his word, he had reduced South Africa to a slice of cricket history.

Although the match will forever be remembered for Malcolm’s performance, what happened next was scarcely less extraordinary. England needed 204 to win; with 16 overs remaining in the day, they might have been expected to concentrate on surviving until the close, with two full days left in which to score the remaining runs. Gooch and Atherton were opening the innings — two batsmen with reputations as dour defenders, and the last pair on earth whom anyone would have predicted to set a record for fast scoring. Wessels, still brooding from his first innings fall-out with Donald, made the decisive error of forcing him to bowl despite his injury. He later admitted that he failed to cope with the onslaught; Gooch had already scored eight when he was dropped in the first over; Atherton caught the mood and between them they brought up 50 in just 27 balls — still the earliest point at which that milestone has been reached in a Test innings.

Gooch was bowled by Matthews soon afterwards, having scored 33 off 20 balls, but Hick picked up where he had left off, carrying England to 107 for one by the close; what might have been a testing hour before stumps had instead seen the home team knock off more than half the victory target. If Malcolm had torn the heart out of South Africa, the England top order had danced on what remained of the body.

Day Four: Atherton and Hick lead charge to victory: Next morning Atherton and Hick carried their partnership to 124, and by the time Donald had Atherton caught behind, the victory was a foregone conclusion. Hick and Thorpe carried them over the line with eight wickets and more than five sessions to spare. England’s score of 205 for two had taken just 35.3 overs, the fastest run rate to chase down a target in excess of 200 in Test history.

Hick’s unbeaten 81 had come at a run a ball, while Donald was left smarting at figures of one for 96 from 12 overs, at the time the worst economy rate by anyone bowling ten or more overs in a Test innings. The series was drawn, and South Africa’s win at Lord’s suddenly seemed a very long time ago. Atherton, after being pilloried in the press all series, could feel at least partially redeemed by the result. Even Illingworth — who, as Atherton later wrote, “was about as likely to give undue praise as the Pope is to condone abortion” — called it the most positive display of cricket he had seen from an England team in thirty years. Malcolm was chosen as England’s man of the series, despite only playing at the Oval; McMillan, after achieving the rare double of topping both the batting and bowling averages for his team, was the obvious choice for the visitors’ award.

The series set the tone for a keen-edged rivalry: several of the most memorable Tests of the subsequent decade were played between the same two teams.At the start of England’s return tour to South Africa the following year, the players met Nelson Mandela, by then the country’s president. Mandela greeted Malcolm with the words “I know you. You are the destroyer.”

Brief scores:

South Africa 332 (Brian McMillan 93, Dave Richardson 58; Joey Benjamin four for 42, Phil DeFreitas four for 93) & 175 (Darryl Cullinan 94; Devon Malcolm 9 for 57) lost to England 304 (Graham Thorpe 79, Alec Stewart 62; Fanie de Villiers four for 62) & 205 for 2 (Graeme Hick 81*, Mike Atherton 63) by 8 wickets.

(Michael Jones’s writing focuses on cricket history and statistics, with occasional forays into the contemporary game)

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