Robert Croft: The Unsung Hero of ’98

England’s vicious Test series against South Africa in 1998 has come back in to sharp focus this week, with Rob Smyth’s excellent piece on the decisive Fifth Test at Headingley providing a timely reminder of the pitched battle that the two nations engaged in that summer.

Smyth recounts the increasingly antagonistic nature of the series, as England recovered from a ten wicket defeat at Lords during the Second Test to win the series 2-1.

Michael Atherton’s defiant 98 not out during the second innings of the Fourth Test at Trent Bridge is often considered to be the defining moment of that series, and with good reason, but it would have been for nothing were it not for another man: Robert Croft

There is, admittedly, an element of nostalgia to this and time has a funny way of shading our memories in to a softer focus – but Croft’s efforts at Old Trafford should never be forgotten when talking about this series.

I was 14 at the time, England had suffered the aforementioned hammering at Lords and my father, our family friend Chris and I arrived at Old Trafford on the Saturday to see England slump to 162/8 by the close of play chasing South Africa’s mighty 552.

To say the highlight of the day was the dirty jokes one bored spectator had taken to reeling off in the Stand D bar as the cold set in would be an understatement. We fully expected to be heading home by the end of the Sunday.

Inevitably, England were asked to follow on early the next day; but thanks to the efforts of Michael Atherton (82 not out) and captain Alec Stewart (112 not out) the game did at least reach the final day.

Once the pair had fallen however – Atherton for 89, Stewart for a brilliant 164 – an air of inevitability began to spread as wickets tumbled.

Sat atop the pavilion (this is in the days when the pavilion was to the side of the square, not at one end of it) we watched Graeme Thorpe dismissed for a duck, Dominic Cork and Ashley Giles depart for 1 a piece and Mark Ramprakash fall for 34.

There was however one light that began to shine.

England were still 73 runs short of making South Africa bat again when Robert Croft joined Ramprakash at the crease, and the Proteas had a plan for the Welshman: short and fast.

It sounds ridiculously simple in many ways – but South Africa, and Donald in particular, had already made life difficult for Croft using this tactic, dismissing him at Lords with much the same plan.

They had done their homework..

This time, so had Croft.

The leg slip became an increasingly redundant ‘ghost’ from that Lords Test as Croft dug in, displaying his new and improved backward defensive with regular aplomb.

This admirable defiance seemed like it might be little more than a footnote when Ramprakash and Giles departed within six runs of each other however, England still 40 runs short of ‘safety’ with only Darren Gough and Angus Fraser to come.

Gough survived for 76 balls, the enthusiastic Yorkshireman showing remarkable restraint given his usual desire to ‘give it a go’. Could England really survive this?

Few expected Angus Fraser to see out the remainder of Allan Donald’s over, let alone help get England over the line.

But get over the line they did.

Fraser survived 13-balls as Croft’s beautifully understated fist pump marked the end of the game and the end of a remarkable innings, the Swansea native outlasting the tourists through 190 minutes of incredible tension – finishing with a Test career best 37 not out.

The twist in this tale was that Croft was dropped for the next Test at Trent Bridge, his 0-211 simply unsustainable despite his resilience with the bat.

Mark Salisbury took his place in Nottingham – a change that seemed to delighted then South Africa captain Hansie Cronje as he plundered the leg spinner in to the Fox Road car park with worrying regularity – but Croft’s contribution proved pivotal as that Atherton innings underpinned an eight wicket victory before England secured a rare 90s series victory at Headingley.

Croft returned to the England side that winter, playing one Test in Australia, and added a further six caps to his total before making his final international appearance in 2001

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on July 4, 2017, in England, International Cricket, South Africa, Test Cricket and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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