All’s well that ends well for Bicknell
England’s series-sharing victory over South Africa at the Oval in 2003 was remarkable for a trio of Surrey stalwarts.
It was 40-year-old Alec Stewart’s England record 133rd and last Test, Graham Thorpe’s first for 14 months after personal problems plus the fourth and final for Martin Bicknell.
Seam bowler Bicknell, 34 at the time, was at the forefront of Surrey’s domestic dominance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Yet, prior to that rubber, he had played just two Tests and seven one-day internationals.
With the series level at 1-1, Bicknell was recalled for the penultimate game of five at Headingley - where he had made his five-day debut in 1993 versus Australia - having been absent for a record 115 Tests.
England could not take advantage of his two early wickets and the Proteas recovered from 21 for four to win by 191 runs and retain the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy.
“For me it was a bit of a one-off game,” Bicknell, who took four wickets in the match, told ecb.co.uk. “I didn’t really ever see myself playing again so I just went out there with a view to enjoy it, see what I can do and hopefully make an impression.
“It went quite well and I got some wickets. I had an opportunity to bowl well on a poor pitch and I did bowl reasonably well in a game we lost.”
He continued: “Alec Stewart mentioned to me at the end of the game ‘You’ll definitely be playing at the Oval’.”
“I thought nothing of it, but then the word got round pretty quickly that I was in. I thought ‘My God, this is a different story now. This is a real flat wicket and I’ll have to be at my very best to compete on that surface’.”
The Oval pitch was true to type and South Africa profited from winning the toss by reaching 362 for four at stumps on day one, Herschelle Gibbs making a whirlwind 183.
“At the end of the first day, if you gave me an opt-out clause to finish my [England] career then I might well have taken it,” Bicknell admitted.
“I remember leaving the ground on the first day and the crowd were getting on our backs a little bit and it was all getting a bit heated and a bit unpleasant. We were all pretty deflated.”
At the start of day two bookmakers were offering 40 to one against an England win, but Bicknell was determined to make the best of a seemingly bad situation.
“I was in a cab on the second morning and thought ‘If I get a chance, I’m just going to bowl, relax and enjoy it and see where it goes’,” he recalled.
“I got thrown the ball straight away and I think got clipped first ball for three through midwicket and I thought ‘Oh dear, here we go again’.
“Then at the end of the over I got Jacques Rudolph out lbw and from that moment on the game seemed to change a bit. We bowled well, I got another wicket and we went through them a little bit.”
Bicknell’s second victim was Mark Boucher and, despite last pair Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini adding 52, the Proteas were limited to 484 all out.
Scenting a chance, Marcus Trescothick produced one of his finest innings - an international-best 219. He put on 268 with Thorpe, who struck a sweet 124 on his England comeback.
Andrew Flintoff took advantage of a strong platform on the fourth morning with a powerful 95 before Michael Vaughan declared on 604 for nine.
“Everyone got stuck in,” Bicknell remembered. “Tres got a double hundred and Thorpey went in under a bit of pressure, so everyone was pretty pleased for him that he got a hundred as well. The icing on the cake was Flintoff coming in and smashing a very quick 90.”
“It was a very good lead,” he added. “The pitch was still very good. We went out there just before lunch with a feeling ‘Let’s have a good go at them here’. There was only one side that could win the game from this position so we went at them pretty hard.
“We got a couple of wickets early on and from that moment on they looked like a team under pressure. We bowled really well, we applied the breaks and we picked up wickets at the right time.
“I remember walking off at the end of the fourth day thinking ‘Bloody hell, that was a pretty special day’. I just loved being part of a team that was on top. I hadn’t played in a winning England side before. Once the crowd started getting going with us it was just a fantastic feeling. It was great to be part of that side.”
Bicknell had trapped Proteas skipper Graeme Smith lbw and bowled Rudolph to help leave the tourists 185 for six at stumps.
In the fourth over of day five, Bicknell crucially struck twice in two balls, having Boucher and Andrew Hall caught. Although Paul Adams prevented a hat-trick, the innings lasted little longer with Bicknell returning 4-84.
England smoothly chased 110 inside 23 overs by mid-afternoon, man of the match Trescothick striking the winning four alongside Mark Butcher - the fourth Surrey player in the side.
“We were quite relaxed in the warm-ups. We played football for the first time that I can remember,” Bicknell said of the final morning.
“It just felt like it was going to happen. Alec was approaching his last day and the crowd were very much on our side. So it all felt good and we got wickets early and bowled them out then knocked off the runs pretty comfortably.
“It was just a great feeling being at the ground that day. You had a feeling that things were going to happen for us and we were going to come out on the right side of it.”
That proved to be Bicknell’s last international appearance, but he continued representing Surrey for three more seasons. In 2009 he became the county’s bowling coach, a position he still holds.
“It was nice to finish on a high at the Oval. I took that away from the game,” he reflected. “I wasn’t picked on the tour [of Bangladesh], but I finished on a high and it was good enough. Just coming back and having two Tests was pretty special.”