| James Kirtley with wife Jenny at Trent Bridge on Monday. (Reuters)
All of England expected and James Kirtley, with six wickets and a little help from a fractured Trent Bridge pitch, duly delivered as Michael Vaughan’s team levelled the Test series against South Africa.
Five years ago the visitors left Nottingham in the same position, after leading 1-0, only to lose the series at Headingley, the same venue for Thursday’s fourth Test and where history has a curious habit of repeating itself.
England will not take anything for granted, though.
Their victory by 70 runs, due in the main to them having the better of the batting conditions, has brought caution from Vaughan despite South Africa missing Shaun Pollock for the next meeting on the England captain’s home ground.
Vaughan is wise to do so for England’s problems of consistency have not suddenly been spirited away. “The pressure is probably on us more at 1-1,” he said. “Everyone will expect us to continue where we left off and put in another big performance.
“South Africa will miss Pollock; he’s a world class performer who’s caused us a lot of trouble this series. Someone will step in but they’ll have to be one hell of a player to replace him.
None displayed those qualities more than Kirtley, whose journey from shires to England’s shire-horse has been a long, bumpy one. In a denouement that had only one realistic winner, it was his combination of accuracy and timely scuttlers that put paid to any ideas South Africa had of getting above their station and scoring the 139 needed when the final day began.
Most bowlers expect slings and arrows during their career, but Kirtley, 28, has endured more than most. In October 2000, he was reported by an ICC Match Referee for throwing during England’s one-day series against Zimbabwe, a flaw he sought to remedy by working with England’s former bowling coach, Bob Cottam.
While anathema to many, particularly Australians, bowlers with kinky elbows, or suspicions thereof, exist within most of the world’s Test teams. It is a thorny subject, but unless the impurity in their action resembles that of a nine-dart checkout man, or they endanger a batsman’s well-being, it should be a case of live and let live. After all, world cricket would be much the poorer without Muttiah Muralidharan and Shoaib Akhtar.
Kirtley’s advantage on this pitch stemmed from his accuracy, though he probably has his Sussex background to thank for that. Year in year out, Hove is among the best batting tracks in the country and keeps bowlers honest by insisting that line and length is a minimum requirement.
When applied to the cracked mosaic at Trent Bridge, those same basics — so blithely ignored by England’s attack on the pancake pitches of the first two Tests — proved too much for opponents, most of whom were beaten long before the first shooter brought a sadistic ‘wooh’ from the near-capacity crowd.
Needing five wickets for victory, England still had to wait until the 34th ball of the morning to make headway. Neil McKenzie had batted better than most on this pitch, stretching well forward in defence and dispatching bad balls with unerring efficiency. For some reason, he suddenly chose to play back to a good length ball, a misjudgment he immediately regretted when the ball shot through to hit off stump about halfway up.
With several umpiring errors already alluded to by their captain, Graeme Smith, South Africa might have felt put upon when television replays showed Kirtley overstepping the front line when he had Andrew Hall smartly caught at slip by Marcus Trescothick for nought.
Though Smith could not be drawn again on either the umpires or Kirtley’s action, you sense they see it as a case of double indemnity. Television also showed Andrew Flintoff overstepped when he dismissed Pollock for a duck, with what amounted to an unplayable delivery after the ball jagged back to virtually uproot the off-stump from below.
While missing no-balls is perhaps a bit sloppy, both umpires probably felt that, with the pitch’s variable bounce likely to bring a plethora of lbw appeals, getting decisions right at the batsmen’s end was more important, a logic to which most would surely concur.
Batting, although made to look increasingly like a game of Russian Roulette, was by no means impossible, as Mark Boucher and Paul Adams showed by adding 45 for the ninth wicket. Boucher is a far better batsman than he is as wicketkeeper, and his half-century was a mini-masterpiece of improvisation and keen defence. Until he was last out for 52, England’s 12th man could not quite lever free the champagne corks.
While many have condemned this pitch, 1,056 runs were scored as it went into the last day. Indeed, anyone who has seen footage of Freddie Trueman causing havoc in the Fifties will recall pitches misbehaving far more in the last innings than this one did. If there is a criticism, it was that it favoured the side winning the toss too much, having deteriorated too quickly once England had finished batting on Friday.
When the ball keeps low and the pace varies, wicketkeeping can be almost as difficult batting and Alec Stewart will have plenty of bruises after the brave display behind the stumps. In the 56.2 overs of South Africa’s second innings, he did not concede a single bye, a fine effort after his scrappier display on Saturday.
Before this match, the power in the series lay with South Africa. Smith’s runs and Pollock’s control had taken the pressure off the shakier elements of their side. Yet as England showed here and in the one-day matches six weeks ago, apply the pressure over more than a session or two and they are prone to collapse.