Another Test, another one sided result. England go 2-1 up in the series with the expected thumping win, even if they had to work for it just a little bit today. Each match in this series has been competitive only for the first couple of days, before playing out with one team dominating the other completely. To date it’s been reminiscent of the last Ashes series, where despite some rather hopeful comment about how good it had been, the reality was that it was frustratingly predictable after the opening exchanges in each match. It was topsy-turvy as a series for sure, but the individual games simply weren’t close. Since that point the pattern has continued, and even the Guardian noticed this morning how few England matches of recent vintage have been remotely close. It’s something that is begining to become prevalent in the Test game these days, and something to note when singling England out for not showing fight in the fourth innings – they aren’t alone. Certainly as far as this series is concerned, much the same can be levelled at South Africa at times, albeit Dean Elgar has shown everyone how to do it over the last couple of days.
That this match got as far as it did was down to him. Despite repeated blows to a damaged finger, he showed character, fought hard and took the runs when on offer with attacking fields. In short, he played a proper Test innings of the kind that appears to be going out of fashion. His clear disappointment when walking off the field to a standing ovation for a determined 136 was evidence if it were needed that he’d been intent on batting the day, if only anyone could have stayed with him.
For South Africa to have had any chance at all, they needed Elgar and Temba Bavuma to bat deep into the day, and the dismissal of the latter, and the exposing of the bowlers in the South African line up rather signalled the beginning of the end. Joe Root has had difficulties with the Decision Review System this series – too keen to send it upstairs for speculative appeals (or too prepared to listen to Jonny Bairstow according to one reading of it), but that’s the nature of a new captain learning who to trust and when to take the review option. Here was an example of using it supremely well, a straight ball jammed between bat and pad, but looking rather straight. Aleem Dar made the correct decision in giving it not out, for there was no way he could be sure whether it was bat or pad first (the temptation with the arrival of DRS must be to give those not out routinely anyway), but with it clear it was pad first on replay, it was no surprise to see it overturned.
If Bavuma’s lbw was tight, Vernon Philander’s was an omnishambles. A ball that didn’t swing or seam in, but was gunbarrel straight from the start, was unaccountably left alone. One of the easier decisions any umpire will ever have to make, and Toby Roland-Jones was on a hat-trick. He nearly got it too, the ball flying off the outside edge to a slip cordon diving in all directions to try and get a hand under it. Roland-Jones has had a fine match – not just with the ball either – and the eight wickets he took were good reward for the virtues of bowling line and length and nibbling it about a bit. Maybe it’ll catch on. Whether he will make a successful Test career or not is open to debate, but the England hierarchy often appear thoroughly obsessed with all seam bowlers being capable of high pace. It is a curiosity when in the opposite ranks this series there is someone who rarely gets above 80mph but causes teams everywhere no end of difficulty. That’s not to say for a moment that Roland-Jones can reach those kinds of levels, but it is peculiar that England don’t seem to notice when opposition players who don’t fit the established template succeed.
Elgar’s dismissal came just three balls from the end of the match, given he was the first of a hat-trick taken by Moeen Ali to finish proceedings in a rush. It was a fine delivery too, slower, loopy and angled into off stump before turning away to take the edge and be caught by Stokes at slip. The second to Rabada appeared almost a carbon copy, but the ball wasn’t quite as good, though given the difference in batting skill perhaps it didn’t need to be. Moeen then had to wait for Stokes to complete an over before being the third bowler to bowl a hat-trick ball in the match. This time, it came off, a straight ball to Morkel defeating the half lunge forward and crashing into the pad. It looked out live too, though the verdict was in the negative. The review was clear cut and with that he became the first England off spinner since 1938 to take three in three. It was also the first ever Test hat-trick at the Oval, only the third time a hat-trick has been taken to win a match (the last example being in 1902), and perhaps most remarkably of all this was the first instance in Test history of four batsmen being dismissed first ball in an innings. Finally, in the cricketing world of esoteric stat mining, a favourite has to be that it was also the first Test hat-trick where all three victims were left handed. If the outcome of the match had been beyond doubt for quite a while, it remained an astonishing way for it to finish.
With hindsight the difference in the match was probably England’s first innings. What appeared to be a reasonable total turned out to be a good one, and South Africa’s bowling not as consistent as perhaps it had seemed to be at the time. The loss of Philander to illness may well have been critical, for the others didn’t quite manage to fill the gap he left. South Africa may well have had the worst of the batting conditions under heavy cloud and floodlights, but the alternative to that is to go off the field when there is artificial light. If it’s not dangerous, then play should go on, and being on the receiving end of that is just bad luck of the same nature as being put into bat on a green seamer.
With such huge swings in fortunes both in this series and recently, especially involving England, it would be a brave pundit who would predict the outcome of the final match in the series at Old Trafford starting Friday. There is no reason to assume the frailties of the England side on show at Trent Bridge have been solved, indeed South Africa’s fourth innings resistance here was several order higher than England’s capitulation last time out. Judging by current patterns, it would seem mostly likely one team will thrash the other, with no real reason to be sure which way around that will be.
The England debutants had a mixed time of it – Roland-Jones was excellent, Tom Westley promising, while Dawid Malan didn’t get to make much of a contribution. In all three cases a single Test match explains nothing. Roland-Jones’ eight wickets in the match equalled the debut performance of Neil Mallender for example, not necessarily the career trajectory he would hope to duplicate, while plenty of batsmen who have had good careers didn’t do so well first time out. Whether Keaton Jennings did enough with his second innings 48 to retain his spot is more open to question, but the increasing frustration at the revolving door of England openers means that at some point they have to make a decision and keep to it for a time. Mark Stoneman is talked about as the next option, mostly because Haseeb Hameed has had a poor first class summer – but with little first class cricket to change that, it will still end up being about having an opener against the much weaker West Indies who has the chance to cash in and earn a place on the Ashes tour, with no one any the wiser as to whether it’s the right call. England are in the same position with uncertainty over an opening batsman that they were three years ago following the premature discarding of Michael Carberry.
For South Africa, and given the usual nature of the Old Trafford surface, they will be confident they have the bowling weapons to bowl England out cheaply twice. Morris was less effective (and more expensive) here than in Nottingham, but a fit and healthy Vernon Philander could make the difference. What they do with the batting order is perhaps of more interest. Quinton de Kock’s elevation to number four didn’t pay dividends here, and while anyone can have a quiet game, the doubts about the wisdom of over-working the wicketkeeper must continue. A number four will be fully padded up and preparing to go in at the fall of the first wicket, and De Kock would have been at that point after eight overs and five overs of the respective innings, having kept for over a hundred overs and eighty overs just previously. It’s asking an awful lot of his mental resilience no matter how physically fit he might be.
One thing does seem likely: with these two sides few would feel that a draw (unless rain affected) at Old Trafford is the obvious result. Both are flawed, both are prone to collapses and have brittle looking batting orders, and both have decent bowling attacks. It really is anyone’s guess what will happen, but it would be a pleasant change if at least it could be reasonably close.