The Spin | When Devon Malcolm made South Africa history | Rob Smyth

Why England's win over South Africa at the Oval in 1994 might be the most jawdropping performance in their history

Ray Illingworth likes the past. If Fred Trueman is the cricketer most associated with the phrase "in my day", then Illingworth, his fellow nonsense-averse Yorkshireman, isn't far behind. His tenure as England supremo sometimes felt like an extended paean to his playing days, from his opening gambit that he wanted to play only five batsmen, with two spinners at all times, to the antiquated tactics that England used during their disastrous 1996 World Cup campaign.

It's in that context that we must understand Illingworth's comments about England's defeat of South Africa at the Oval in 1994. He said England had played "the best aggressive Test cricket I have ever seen in my life". This was not a giddy reaction to victory. Raymond Illingworth did not do giddy. Two years later, in his book One Man Committee, he had diluted his view, but only a little. "I have thought about it carefully, and I rate what happened in the last couple of days of that game as good an exhibition of positive cricket by England as I have seen in 30 years." The captain Mike Atherton, referring to those comments in his autobiography, said Illingworth was "as likely to give undue praise as the Pope is to condone abortion".

Most memories of the game start and stop at Devon Malcolm's nine for 57 in the second innings. That's understandable; it was one of the all-time great performances, described by Allan Donald as "the most destructive piece of fast bowling I have ever seen". But Malcolm's was only the most significant part of the most jawdropping England performance the Spin has ever seen, full of wild emotion, primal intent and sustained, almost deranged brutality.

There was no suggestion of what was to come. South Africa, a side full of hard-boiled characters who belonged on the set of a Western (Brian McMillan once walked into the Australian dressing-room wielding a gun), had drawn home and away with Australia the previous winter and led 1-0 going into the final Test of the three-match series. They had humiliated England by 356 runs at Lord's, a match best remembered for the dirt in Mike Atherton's pocket. England had slightly the better of the drawn second Test at Headingley, and the last hour of that match informed the final game at the Oval. As the match drifted to a draw, Darren Gough decided to rough up South Africa's star young batsman Hansie Cronje, who struggled to 15 not out from 124 balls. It was an ostensibly meaningless mini-session at the end of the match, but it suggested England's idea that South Africa were vulnerable to spin might need revising.

On the day before the third Test, a trademark Oval trampoline made up their mind for them: although Illingworth and Atherton did not like going in without a spinner, they omitted Phil Tufnell and picked a four-man pace attack of Devon Malcolm, Phil DeFreitas, Darren Gough and Joey Benjamin. Benjamin, who was making his Test debut at 33, heard of his call-up from a spectator in a lift.

The decision to omit a spinner was not entirely popular. "Malcolm ought to have been sacrificed for Tufnell," wrote Alan Lee in the Times. "If England win it will be forgotten, but it will not forgive the shallowness of their thinking." Also in the Times that day was a letter from a member of the public, Tony Risveglia. "Will our cricket selectors ever learn?" it began. "Let me tell them loud and clear – Devon Malcolm (average 37.50 per wicket) is not Test class." Mr Risveglia's letter included his full home address, as did all the other letters. These were different times in terms of reader interaction.

They were different times in south west London, too. This was the last of the fast Oval pitches. If Malcolm hadn't taken nine for 57, there might have been a case for making Harry Brind the man of the match. Brind, in his last season as head groundsman at Surrey, produced a glorious wicket: hard, fast and as true as a dying man's final words. It did not so much invite attacking cricket as demand it. The scoring rate of 3.97 runs per over throughout the match was the fifth fastest in a Test in the 20th century, and the pitch was so hard that Geoff Boycott couldn't get his key into it for a pre-match inspection. Back then the Oval was a cousin of Perth, the fastest wicket in the world, and this was the Oval in excelsis. After the second day, the Guardian's Mike Selvey called it "an exceptionally fair pitch". Illingworth said it was "as good a batting pitch, regarding consistency of bounce, as [the batsmen] will ever see".

The pitch was not, as a few people felt, responsible for the horrible injury suffered by Jonty Rhodes on the first day. Rhodes, having misjudged the length, ducked into a ball from Malcolm that smashed him on the helmet and might even have brought an lbw appeal. There were more important things to worry about: Rhodes suffered from epilepsy, which exacerbated concerns as he lay on the floor for four minutes. "He was thoroughly KO'd," said the captain Kepler Wessels. "It was sickening." Rhodes was eventually taken to hospital, where he was kept overnight with concussion. The ball had cracked his helmet, and the Daily Mirror back page the next day screamed the headline "This helmet saved Jonty's LIFE!"

England reduced South Africa to 136 for five – effectively six with Rhodes in hospital – but the expert firefighting duo of McMillan (93) and Dave Richardson (58) got South Africa out of trouble yet again. They were aided by some dubious tactics from that England attack, which, wrote Selvey, "got ludicrously carried away with itself on the fast bouncy pitch … Benjamin excepted, it was juvenile stuff."

After bowling too short all day, Malcolm then decided not to bowl short at the tailenders towards the end of the day, a contravention of England's pre-match plan. In the dressing-room, Atherton gave him a not inconsiderable b0llocking. Only Benjamin's four for 42 on his home ground – he got an almighty ovation every time he returned to fine leg – kept England in the game.

South Africa were dismissed for 332 on the second morning. Then came another storm in the most tumultuous summer of Atherton's career. He was lbw first ball despite a biggish inside-edge. As he walked off Atherton shook his head and glanced at his bat; that was enough for the match referee Peter Burge, who had been looking for an excuse ever since Atherton was economical with the truth at the start of the dirt-in-the-pocket affair. Before the Headingley Test, Burge had said, "If Atherton sneezes in the morning, he'll have pneumonia by evening." At the Oval he fined Atherton 50% of his match fee – "I'm the last of the amateurs" joked Atherton after the match – and the papers were full of reports that Atherton might resign. That evening he attended a Wisden Cricket Monthly dinner in Piccadilly and, after being told that the number of hacks outside was growing exponentially, sneaked out of the restaurant via the kitchen, up a fire escape and across a couple of rooftops.

A couple of hours earlier, Darren Gough and Phil DeFreitas had also taken the aerial route to keep England in the match. It had not looked so good earlier in the day. Atherton's dismissal was followed by a sad and tortuous knock of eight from 43 balls by Graham Gooch, which continued an awful run. Since starting the international summer with a double-century against New Zealand, he had made just 119 in eight Test innings. After Gooch's struggle came two excellent innings from Surrey players on their home ground. Graham Thorpe had returned to the side at Headingley after being ludicrously dropped for the first four Tests of the summer. He was a different player, an exhilarating counter-attacker. "I didn't want to die wondering." Thorpe pulled, cut and drove his way to a blistering 79, his third consecutive seventy-something score since his return,, while Alec Stewart made a lordly 62. Yet at 222 for seven, still 110 behind, those innings felt like decorations on a defeat.

Then came what Matthew Engel described in the paper as "brilliant oh-bugger-it batting": in the last half hour of the second day, DeFreitas and Gough decided on a bit of Friday night excess, hooking and driving on the up with abandon. They flogged a tiring Donald all round the Oval. He went for 30 in two overs, and the pair added 59 in 50 balls before the close. Every blow was met with lusty cheers form a liquored crowd, and the carefree manner in which the two batsmen gave it some humpty had many going back to Headingley 81 for a reference point. In the Times, Lee said it was "rollickingly disrespectful". Selvey called it "outrageous".

It was also contagious. From the start of that partnership to the end of the match almost two days later, England scored their runs at 5.76 per over and took a wicket every 30 balls. Throughout the match their run rate was 4.52, which was staggering and unprecedented in the mid-1990s. It has only ever been exceeded three times by an English side: the two complete mismatches against Bangladesh in 2005, and another pummelling of a poor West Indies in 2007. This was England playing like cornered tigers.

The cubs were certainly ready to protect their leader. On the Saturday morning, the England coach Keith Fletcher called Atherton into another room on the pretext of discussing field placings so that Gooch could implore the rest of the team to give everything for their besieged captain. It is seen as one of the key moments in the match, and was shortly followed by another: the first-ball bouncer from Fanie de Villiers that rattled into Malcolm's helmet. In his autobiography, Donald says that a number of the South Africa team (though not him) blamed Malcolm for Rhodes's injury and wanted to give him some short stuff in return. It prompted a furious response from Malcolm. "You guys are going to pay for this," is the pre-watershed version of his response. "You guys are history."

Some think Malcolm's famous quote is apocryphal – most of the best quotes are – although many of the South Africans on the field at the time attest to it. In his autobiography, Donald recalled the scene. "A piece of foam padding flew off from Devon's helmet and Gary Kirsten, fielding at short leg, bent down to pick it up. Devon said to him, 'Fuck off, I'm going to kill you guys', and Gary just smiled back at him. The rest of the close fielders joined in to chirrup Devon and he turned rond to them, snarling 'You guys are fucking history'. Soon we were."

England trailed by 28, but the mood of the match had changed with Gough and DeFreitas's assault. Between innings Malcolm was as inscrutable as ever, sat with his eyes closed and his headphones on. Then came the chin music. His first ball was an eye-widening brute that whistled past Gary Kirsten's face. Kirsten, numbed into strokelessness, wasn't even looking at the third ball when it rammed into his glove, with Malcolm charging through to take the return catch. The other Kirsten, Peter, went to the other extreme and was caught on the hook. Then Cronje played an immaculate looking forward defensive, only to lose his middle stump. "If you look on the footage he was in the perfect forward defence position," said Malcolm in this interview, "but the ball bowled him half an hour before he put the bat down!"

South Africa were one for three. Malcolm had figures of 2-2-0-3. Although South Africa partially recovered to 73 for three and 137 for four, Malcolm went through them in three spells of unfettered, uncomplicated fast bowling: fast, straight, and with a followthrough that suggested he was right on his game. "If ever there was a zone, I was in it," he says in an excellent interview in this month's Cricketer. The three spells were 5-2-4-3, 6-0-36-1 and then 5.3-0-17-5 as he blew away the lower order.

The glory was all Malcolm's. South Africa certainly didn't cover themselves in it.

The captain Wessels, rattled after being hit in the box and given a couple of temporary tattoos he didn't ask for, slashed wildly and was caught behind. The lower order generally took guard somewhere on middle stump … of an imaginary second set. In short, many of them didn't fancy it. "Technically they were horribly exposed," wrote Vic Marks in the Observer. At times they looked like they had seen the devil. In fact it was only Devon, but on that day it wasn't easy to discern the difference.

Only Daryll Cullinan fronted up. He made a beautiful 94 and was the only man who didn't fall to Malcolm, with Gough taking the eighth wicket of the innings. "I really don't think we were weak against fast bowling," argues the wicketkeeper Richardson. "Any team in the world would have struggled against him on that day, on that pitch." Malcolm's figures of 16.3-2-57-9 were the sixth best in Test history at the time and are still in the top 10. George Lohmann and Sir Richard Hadlee are the only seamers to have taken better figures. When he phoned home that night, Malcolm's wife Jenny, who had watched every ball, deadpanned "Hello dear. I've been out shopping all day. Did you get any wickets?" Malcolm replied: "Oh yeah, I got a couple."

England's target of 204 could have been tricky, but Gooch and Atherton ran with the mood and ran amok, ludicrously adding 56 for the first wicket in five overs. Gooch, who was angry because he thought he was past it after dropping a simple catch, creamed 33 off 20 balls. His Twenty20 strike rate of 165 was more than eight times his strike rate of 18.60 in the first innings. Donald again bore the brunt. His first four overs went for 45, which made it 75 from six after his spell on the Friday evening. After one blow from Gooch, the BBC commentator Tony Lewis said: "It's like a Sunday league match, this."

At the close England were 107 for one from only 16 overs. Victory was completed the next morning, with Graeme Hick making a classy 81 not out from 81 balls. Lee praised England's "stunningly ruthless cricket … The transformation was so swift and complete as to be barely believable."

Where does such a staggering performance come from? "Sometimes that happens," said Thorpe. "The adrenaline just courses through a side." It's natural to ascribe deeper meaning to potential tipping points – Atherton rowing with Malcolm, Gooch's pep talk, Malcolm being skulled by de Villiers – although the more mundane reality may be that it simply happened, almost by accident.

At the end of a draining match, both Gooch and Atherton considered their future before eventually going on the Ashes tour. Atherton, wrote Selvey, was "as flat as a hedgehog on the A1". The man himself said simply "this weekend wasn't a very good time for me". He was one of the few who didn't get carried away with the victory. Most felt England were ready to compete with Australia that winter. They weren't and lost 3-1. A year later, the story had a sad footnote when Malcolm and Illingworth had a nasty, public fall-out on the tour of South Africa.

Thankfully, the abiding memory is of the match itself. The magnificent English team of the 2010s give us very few opportunities to grumble about how things were back in the day. But they still haven't produced a performance as devastating as this.

You can see highlights of the game by clicking here.

This is an extract from the Spin, the Guardian's free weekly cricket email. To sign up, click here.


Rob Smyth

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