South Africa

South Africa displaced England as the No 1 Test side when they beat them by 51 runs in the third and final Test at Lord’s © Getty Images

On August 20, 2012, South Africa beat England by 51 runs in the third and final Test at Lord’s, thereby claiming the series 2-0 and displacing their opponents as the No 1 Test team in the world. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the events leading up to the change of guard, including some “derogatory” text messages sent by an England player about his own teammates to the opposition camp.

It had been a glorious British sporting summer otherwise. The 2012 London Olympics that kicked off at the end of July had ensured that the region was the cynosure of all eyes. Team Great Britain were doing really well across all sports. By August 9, in 13 days, they had surpassed their 48-medal target, making it their most successful Olympics since 1908. Unfortunately, the England cricket team could not share the joy of their Olympian compatriots as they were getting their backsides handed over to them by the mighty South Africans simultaneously.

A year ago, England had thumped India 4-0 and swapped places with the world champions to become the No 1 Test side in the world. The merciless massacre of MS Dhoni‘s superstar team had prompted the British press to proclaim the beginning of England’s dominance of world cricket for the next decade. The future looked bright for Andrew Strauss and Co, who had also earlier won their first Ashes series Down Under after 24 years in the winter of 2010-11.

However, England’s honeymoon following the Ashes win had been disrupted by their star player, Kevin Pietersen, who announced a surprise retirement from the One-Day International (ODI) format of the game at the beginning of the summer, during the West Indies’ visit to the country. This was just a few days after he had been rapped on the wrists by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for blasting cricketer-turned-pundit Nick Knight on Twitter, after the latter criticised Pietersen on television. Pietersen, who played all three formats for England prior to his decision, blamed the crammed international schedule for his retirement from ODIs, but still showed interest in participating in the upcoming Twenty20 World Cup, where England would be defending their title.

However, the terms of the ECB contracts for limited overs are such that you have to either play or quit both, and can’t handpick one. As Pietersen and his legal team negotiated with the ECB, his relationship with his teammates, captain and coach slowly started going south, even as England got whooped by an innings and a few runs in the first Test at The Oval, thanks to a Hashim Amla masterclass of 311 runs.

Just as the media and the local support began to turn their backs on the team and, as always, blame Pietersen for it all, everybody’s favourite villain showed up in the second Test at Leeds. It’s no secret that Pietersen considers Headingley as his arena; five years ago, he had scored a magnificent double century against the West Indies, and he also had a ton against Pakistan in his report card for the venue. Pietersen went on to fire a century that almost pulled England back in the series. He scored 149, his 21st Test century, and nullified Alviro Petersen’s 182 for the Proteas batting first. It was, as Michael Atherton described it, “an innings pure unadulterated brilliance”; he does not usually need an incentive to perform against South Africa, the country of his birth and who rejected him as a player, but this was a bold statement from the big man.

Pietersen’s century helped England go past South Africa’s 419, only just, but could not prevent a draw, thus handing the Proteas an unassailable lead going into the third and final Test at Lord’s. England were now clutching at their No 1 ranking by their fingertips. Victory at the home of cricket for Graeme Smith‘s men would bring a rather premature ending to England’s reign at the top. England needed Pietersen now more than ever; the stage was set for the 31-year-old to deliver the final knockout punch to his detractors by guarding his team’s status as world No 1. It was the stuff of the movies; unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.

On August 10, four days after the end of the Headingley Test and six days prior to Lord’s, the Daily Mail‘s cricket correspondent Lawrence Booth broke a story that would open the biggest can of worms in the England setup for a long time. Booth reported that Pietersen sent text messages to members of the South African team during the Headingley Test that “contained ‘less than flattering comments’ about Strauss and his teammates.” The South African team manager, Dr Mohammed Moosajee, confirmed that Pietersen had sent the texts, but “they contained friendly banter between guys who have played with each other in the past.” The ECB, expectedly, declined to comment on the issue.

The following day, in a desperate damage control measure, and minutes after Mo Farah had sent the nation into euphoria by winning the gold in the 5,000 metres, Pietersen released an interview on YouTube that was taken by his own agent, where he renounced his decision to retire from ODIs and requested the ECB to give him a chance to help England defend their T20 title. He also expressed excitement at playing at Lord’s, which would be his captain Strauss’s 100th Test. However, there was no mention of the text messages and no apology whatsoever for any supposed derogatory comments against his skipper and coach. As it turned out, it was a case of too little too late for Pietersen.

On August 12, the ECB, in what was seen as a daring move to protect the team spirit, announced that Pietersen had been dropped from the squad for the third Test. Managing director of the board, Hugh Morris, said in a statement, “The success of the England team has been built on a unity of purpose and trust. Whilst we have made every attempt to find a solution to enable Kevin to be selected we have sadly had to conclude that, in the best interest of the team, he will miss the Lord’s Test.”

South Africa and Kevin Pietersen's text messages rob England off the world No 1 Test ranking

Following the text messaging saga, ECB took the bold decision of dropping Kevin Pietersen for the Lord’s Test © Getty Images

The decision was met with shock, but was approved of by majority sections of the England cricketing fraternity. Former captain Nasser Hussain endorsed the decision while commentating for Sky, saying, “Make no mistake, Graeme Smith and the South Africa team are sitting there now saying great, England are a slightly weaker side without Pietersen. But you can’t have the focus being about one person. For too long this summer it has been. I’m worried about the mental energy of Strauss and Flower in particular — off the field they have always been dealing with Pietersen issues. It’s been a bridge too far. They’ll put up with a lot with Pietersen, but not the antics of the last week.”

Pietersen released a statement through his agent the same evening, which read: “This entire episode has been demoralising for me and my family. I am hugely disappointed the ECB have decided not to select me. To say I am gutted is an understatement. However, none of this constitutes the end of my career as an international cricketer.” However, it wasn’t to be enough as his own teammates failed to support him and were confident of doing well without his services.

In a column for the Daily Mail, James Anderson wrote: “Kevin talked about having issues within the dressing room. What’s frustrating is that this was, literally, the first we knew about it. Kevin has mentioned nothing to us. From the time Kevin first announced he was quitting one-day cricket and why, we have tried to get on with things the best we could, even though there has been a lot of speculation.”

Graeme Swann was more blunt writing for The Sun: “Just because you lose one player, it doesn’t necessarily make you a weaker team. In fact, since Kevin retired from limited-overs cricket, we are unbeaten in all matches in the shorter formats.”

England recalled Jonny Bairstow as Pietersen’s replacement for the Lord’s Test. The Yorkshireman had been dropped following a poor outing against the Windies and joined young James Taylor as the most inexperienced members of a clearly weaker looking team. Tim Bresnan, however, was optimistic: “It may be an even better side, it’s one of those things where a talented player is being replaced by another talented player. So why should we miss a certain individual because he’s unavailable for selection?” It was clear that England were preparing themselves for the post-Pietersen era.

Smith won the toss in the morning of the first day at Lord’s, August 16, and rightly opted to bat on a good pitch. England did well to restrict their guests to 309, a score which was achieved due to a lower middle-order boost from JP Duminy and Vernon Philander, who both scored 61; Steven Finn (four for 75) and Anderson (three for 76) shared majority of the spoils. In response, England rode on Bairstow’s gritty 95 and another half-century from Ian Bell to take them six runs past South Africa’s total, with Morne Morkel and Philander taking four wickets apiece.

In the second innings, Amla returned to pile more misery on the Englishmen after missing out in Headingley, as he scored 121 to take South Africa to a decent 351, thereby setting the hosts a 346-run target to be achieved in a little more than three sessions. In the 13 overs that England got to bat towards the end of Day Four, Philander ran in and dismissed both the openers, Strauss and Alastair Cook, to peg them to 16 for two at close of play.

Day Five, August 20. England needed 330; South Africa, eight wickets. Exactly nine years ago, Mark Butcher had played the innings of a lifetime against Australia in the Ashes, hitting his way to a superb 173 not out that helped England chase down 315 in just 73.2 overs. Come 2012, Butcher was long retired, England had not selected their best batsman and the world No 1 ranking was at stake. No, not many who had come to watch the final day’s play were holding their breath.

At the crease were the reliable duo of Jonathan Trott and Bell. However, the Proteas bowling machine, boasting of arsenal with the names of Philander, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn, were booming loud early in the morning. The two England batsmen began tentatively and struggled against the pace and accuracy of the South Africans, with a number of edges flying past the slip and gully cordon, just about managing to clear the fielders. Trott did not help the cause by going for a few blind cover drives, which just about managed to miss Philander’s screaming away-swingers.

After adding 18 runs to their overnight score, Bell was gone. The right-hander threw his blade at a wide and short outswinger from Philander and found the edge that carried easily to Smith at first slip, who caught it on the second attempt. Philander’s figures at the time read three for 11. At 45 for three, young James Taylor whipped the ball away towards cow corner and set off for a sprint. It was a long boundary and the ball slowed down in the outfield as it approached the rope and came to a halt inches before it. The batsmen scampered across for three in the meantime, before Taylor decided he wanted a fourth. Trott was undecided and started to run, before checking himself and returning to his crease. But as the throw came in, Taylor was already three-quarters of the way down towards Trott’s end before he realised what was going on. The ball was collected at the bowler’s end and flung towards wicketkeeper AB de Villiers’s vacant end, who gladly whipped off the bails. At 45 for four, that was the end of England’s chase, as it were.

As young Bairstow came in to join Trott, the mood in the England dressing room was one for the graveyard. Strauss, sitting in the balcony, wore the biggest frown while batting coach Graham Gooch had his palm pressed against his forehead. Surely, the last six wickets could not score 300 runs by themselves. However, Trott and Bairstow slowly found their feet and began going for their strokes as the ball got older. Trott soon settled into his silky drives through the off-side and was aided well by Bairstow, who went for his shots with a slightly more aggressive flair.

In the 35th over, with the score at 87 for four, Smith decided to bring on his only specialist spinner, Imran Tahir. Morning, Imran, said Bairstow as he gladly welcomed Tahir’s tossed up delivery and spanked it down the ground for four, before sweeping him for another boundary to bring up the fifty partnership, of which Bairstow had scored 37 from just 24 balls. In the next over, Trott steered Morkel through the slips for four to bring up his team’s hundred. The Lord’s crowd were in full voice by now. England had scored 59 off the last nine overs. Shaun Pollock, in the commentary box, said that the lunch break will be good for the Proteas. England took lunch at 120 for four, with a further 226 needed from 63 overs. Surely, it wasn’t possible?

Any hopes of a miracle were dashed moments after lunch in the second session, when Tahir’s delivery from around the wicket skidded and kept low before shattering Bairstow’s woodwork. He had earlier reached a confidence-boosting half-century off just 41 deliveries to delight the local support, but fate had other things in mind. 134 for five then became 146 for six when Jacques Kallis took a stunner in the slips to help Steyn dismiss his bunny Trott for the sixth time in his career, which he reminded the batsmen and his teammates by showing six fingers.

Stuart Broad, who had walked in at No 8 with 200 runs more needed, was not one to give up so easily. The handy, pinch-hitting left-hander took the counter-attack to the Proteas as he pulled the fast bowlers for boundaries to the cheers of the crowd; Steyn was punished for his dismissal of Trott by Broad hitting him for 12 off one over, including a mighty six over square-leg. As Broad went for his shots, which included an equal number of swings and misses, England crossed the 200-mark. “Everyone’s a winner,” said a clearly amused Bumble on the telly as Broad missed a mighty drive off Morkel. This was entertaining stuff, and the crowd was loving the little cameo. The fifty-partnership between Broad and Matt Prior, who had gladly taken the backseat, was soon brought up.

Broad’s rearguard was to end three overs before tea, to the disappointed boos from the crowd, as he top-edged a hook straight to fine-leg where Amla was waiting with open arms. England went into the interval at 221 for seven, with another 125 needed from 33 overs and the new ball due in 10 overs.

Swann, always the sprightly one, decided to take over from Broad in the final session. He launched his own version of the counter-attack as he negated Tahir’s use of the rough patches on the pitch by stepping down the track to his fellow spinner. Prior joined in the fun too as he cleanly reverse-swept Tahir to the cover boundary to bring up his half-century. England’s deficit was now into double digits. To celebrate the milestone, Swann stepped back to a short delivery from Kallis and hammered it for half a dozen to bring up the fifty partnership. At 265 for seven, for the third time in a single day’s play, England had begun to dream of the impossible.

At 282 for seven, Swann guided Tahir wide of point and set off for a quick single. Jacques Rudolph, who had dropped a sitter in the slip cordon earlier, redeemed himself as he swooped in and swiftly got a throw towards the bowler who whipped off the bails with Swann inches short of his crease. A plucky and fearless knock of 41 from 34 balls from the England No 9 had come to an end. Two runs later, South Africa thought they had Prior when he skied Morkel and was caught in the deep by Duminy. However, the batsman was called back to the crease after the umpires checked the replays for the no-ball and spotted one.

It was a temporary reprieve for the wicketkeeper-batsman, as at 294 for eight, he nicked one to the slips off Philander to give him his fourth wicket. Prior was gone for a brilliant defiant 73 that had come off 130 balls after nearly three hours at the crease under pressure. South Africa did not take much longer to wrap up the innings as Kallis plucked another apple in the slips to give Philander his fifth and South Africa the match, series and the No 1 ranking. England, after providing their guests with some butterfly-in-the-belly moments, had fallen short by 51 runs.

It was cruelly ironic on the England team: on the equivalent Monday a year ago, they had been handed the International Cricket Council (ICC) mace for the best Test team in the world; and now they were witnessing it being robbed off them and handed over to their clearly deserving opponents. Since the 4-0 whitewash of India, England had lost six of the 11 Tests they played in, telling much of their big stage blues. The Proteas had played the better cricket over the summer all-round and deserved the accolades. They had batted, bowled and even fielded better than England, who dropped nine costly catches in the field, which yielded 550 runs for their rivals.

Asked to reflect on his team’s short ride as world No 1, Strauss said that he didn’t look at it “with a great deal of fondness.” He was, however, optimistic of the future. “We’ll come back though. When you reach No 1 you’ve got to up your performance, you can’t rest on your laurels. Although I can’t fault the effort the guys have put in, in certain areas we weren’t on the ball.” Atherton then asked the English captain if he was the man who would lead England back to the top of the rankings. “Well, I hope so,” came the reply.

Nine days later, Strauss called a press conference and announced his retirement from all forms of the game.

Brief scores:

South Africa 309 (JP Duminy 61, Vernon Philander 61; James Anderson 3 for 76, Steven Finn 4 for 75) and 351 (Hashim Amla 121; Steven Finn 4 for 74) beat England 315 (Ian Bell 58, Jonny Bairstow 95; Morne Morkel 4 for 80, Dale Steyn 4 for 94) and 294 (Jonathan Trott 63, Matt Prior 73; Vernon Philander 5 for 30) by 51 runs.

Man of the Match: Vernon Philander

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)