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Week 9

Sunday, July 30

Only three times in test history has a team managed to bat through the final day to save a test match. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that all three occasions were in the “modern era” and, of course, one of them was by South Africa five years ago against Australia in Adelaide when Faf du Plessis made his debut and scored an unbeaten 110 while AB de Villiers blocked his way to 30 from 220 balls.

A few months after that England produced a blockathon of their own with Ian Bell, Matt Prior and even Stuart Broad (6 off 77 balls) defying New Zealand what had seemed a certain victory at Eden Park in Auckland.

The first time it ever occurred was when Michael Atherton batted 11 hours for an unbeaten 185 against South Africa at the Wanderers in 1995 to save a test most people had already gift-wrapped and presented to the home team.

Clive Eksteen bowled over 50 overs without a single reward. Robin Smith and Jack Russell stood in the trenches with Atherton.

Having already batted for two-and-three-quarter hours and faced 111 balls for his unbeaten 77, Dean Elgar has the opportunity to place his name among the great test match saves if he can make it through another six and half hours on Monday.

The Proteas will need him to – it’s hard to see the job being done without him at the heart of it.

He was hit at least half a dozen times in the final session, at one stage requiring lengthy treatment from physio Brandon Jackson to a finger injury. He was also bruised on the inner thigh and inside knee.

At the final drinks break of the day he looked wearily towards the substitutes in their orange bibs as they walked on with plates of snacks and bottles of water: “I think Elgar may need a brandy,” said Phil Tufnell on air.

If Elgar does fall in the first session then it will fall to Temba Bavuma to lead the team towards the very distant shore. Yesterday I told you that in 11 of his 35 test innings he has walked to the crease with the score below 100.

Today it became 12 out of 36. He has five ‘crisis’ half-centuries. On the fifth day he will resume on 16 from 59 balls.

Vernon Philander knows what is required and is batting as well as he ever has done. He has batted through the final session of a test match in Colombo to save it, so there’s no problem with his temperament.

Chris Morris may see it as an opportunity to atone for his wretched bowling performance.

Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel showed admiral fight and no little skill in the first innings but cannot be expected to hang on for any longer than an hour, at best.

Sadly, on current form, Keshav Maharaj looks like he’ll be as much use as a paper plate in a soup kitchen.

“It’s not all doom and gloom in the change room, we are in a hole but we have fought our way out of them before and we will fight again tomorrow,” said an admirably optimistic assistant coach, Adrian Birrell after the days play.

He did, however, admit that the ‘hole’ started on the first day and had little to do with how events unfolded on day four.

The illness to Philander and the bowling of Rabada and especially Morris, in helpful conditions, was more than disappointing on the first day.

“Chris is that sort of player. He will bowl bad balls and he will bowl unplayable ones, we just have to accept that. Hopefully there will be more unplayable ones to come and less of the bad stuff. He’s conscious of it but we don’t want to inhibit a player to the extent that he loses his ‘X’ factor.

“KG has bowled well in spells but he is a fantastic player and he can blast teams away, he’s done it in the past and he will do it again.”

On the prospects of saving the game, Birrell admitted there “isn’t great expectation but there is hope. We have lost our best two ‘blockers’ so somebody else is going to have to do it now.

“Hindsight is a marvellous thing. We’ve had this conversation before, where you don’t know what is the best thing to do. When I was asked whether we should have a ‘holiday’ after the Nottingham test my answer was ‘I’m not sure but we’ll prepare in the same way we always do for two days before.’ All I do know is that this team needs to be fresh, and we were fresh. I don’t think it made any difference that we didn’t play a warm-up game,” Birrell said.

We’ll never know. But we’ll have our suspicions.

Statistically, the draw is a 100-1 shot tomorrow. No. 250-1. But how stunning it would be if it happened. Just as it made Atherton’s career 22 years ago, it could define Elgar’s and/or Bavuma’s.

It was “ride London” this morning. 100 000 people cycling around the capital. Not a race, like the Argus or 94.7, just a huge ride. Richmond Park was closed to traffic.

There were marshals in fluorescent jackets making sure we crossed at the appropriate, safe, time. I would have been there about five hours if I’d waited. Health and Safety.

Saturday, July 29

Rain days drag on forever which means, by the time play is finally called off, what happened on the field of play hours earlier is often forgotten.

It wasn’t a lot but what Temba Bavuma and Morne Morkel achieved should not be forgotten. It just might turn out to be very important in the context of the game.

Bavuma’s half-century spanned 120 balls and was yet another illustration of his penchant for rising to a crisis. Ideally he shouldn’t have to bat in quite so many crisis situations, but, what a temperament.

This was his 35th test innings and, in 11 of those he has walked to the crease with the total below 100. In five of them he has passed 50 and totals 424 runs at an average of 42.4 compared to a career average of slightly under 32.

Today he passed 1 000 test runs in one innings less than Jacques Kallis got there.

Nobody is harder on him about not having scored more than one century than himself. Nobody understands the batsman’s job more than him. Hopefully the hundreds will start coming soon because nobody works harder or deserves success more than him.

England, leading by 252 overnight, will want a lead of 400+ but will also want to be bowling before tea on the fourth day.

They know The Oval doesn’t deteriorate and batting conditions are often as good on the final day as they are on the second day. It means they will have to take some chances to score quickly and risk losing wickets.

“They will slow the game down and make run-scoring as difficult as possible for England in the morning session,” Michael Vaughan said.

“If wickets fall then England will have to consolidate and use up valuable overs. If the sun comes out, which it is forecast to do, the pitch can be flat, flat. Honestly, South Africa can’t bat as badly again as they did in the first innings. They may only have to bat a little over 100 overs to save the game,” Vaughan said.

There are many imponderables and unanswered questions in this series so far – the most important one for South Africa is how Chris Morris could bowl so beautifully and effectively at Trent Bridge and so poorly here at The Oval.

Perhaps it was the week’s break? Perhaps he needed to keep bowling? Not according to former England left-arm spinner and radio commentator, Phil Tufnell.

“It’s because he’s a daisy,” Tufnell said. “Every team has them, mostly bowlers but sometimes batsmen. Nobody can really explain it – some days he can, some days he can’t.”

Friday, July 28

It was bound to happen on the day the weekly ‘Cricket Paper’ was published in the UK with my column prominently proclaiming the fighting qualities of the Proteas team over the last decade in which they have lost just a single series away from home.

A shocking collapse which, at its nadir of 61-7, looked like ending with a total of less than 100.

Listeners to the BBC’s Test Match Special were entertained by Graeme Smith who has thrived in his role as expert analyst and, far more often than not, emerged well ahead on points following his verbal tussles with his former on-field counterpart, Michael Vaughan. But he also has a good line in self-deprecation when it’s appropriate.

“It wasn’t a great start in the morning for South Africa, especially with Morris bowling two overs of bowling machine stuff,” Smith said. “Bowling machine stuff,” replied anchor Jonathan Agnew. “What’s that?”

“Well, when you go to the nets you tell the guy operating the machine that you want to work on your cover drive and he changes the setting to ‘half volley outside off stump,’” Smith said, sounding entirely reasonable.

"It wouldn’t do your confidence much good if you went to the nets and set the machine on ‘jaffa’ and then spent the next half-an-hour putting your off stump back into the ground."

The best South African performance of this test match, so far anyway, came last night from Investec whose first-day cocktail party for the media and selected guests was staged on one of the VIP terraces at the Vauxhall end of the ground. Live music, burgers and boerie rolls and a complimentary bar. Many thanks to the series sponsor.

In order to find the venue we were required to explore some corridors we wouldn’t normally visit. They were adorned with photographs of some of the greats of the game, mostly from the modern era which befits the venue because, despite hosting its 100th test match in well over a century, has stayed ahead of most other international venues by remaining modern and relevant.

My attention was particularly caught by the snap of Jacques Kallis who looks like he’s had Temba Bavuma’s legs photo-shopped onto his century celebration.

Smith felt South Africa’s collapse was due to an inability to bat under pressure – but said they were not alone.

“It’s a worrying trend. England were the same at Trent Bridge, rolled over twice facing a decent but not huge total. England bowled really well but did they bowl as well as 75-7 would suggest? I thought there was a bit of a lack of fight,” Smith said.

As has been the case so often over the last decade, it’s hard to see how South Africa might save the test, let alone fight their way back into it.

An Amla double hundred, a searing seven-wicket burst from Rabada. It’s possible. But once again the team has backed itself in the tightest of corners and will have to find some magic to escape from it.

Thursday, July 27

Joe Root emulated Faf du Plessis’ boldness from that last test in winning the toss and opting to bat first in conditions that made it feel very much like a bowling day. It was courageous and may yet pay dividends with the innings currently evenly balanced at 171-4 after 59 overs.

It could also backfire, as it did five years ago, with conditions becoming better and better for batting on days two, three and four and South Africa building a monster score of 637-2 which towered over England’s 385.

That doesn’t seem likely, however, with more grey skies and showers forecast for the next couple of days and if Alistair Cook can stick around for the majority of the second day there is more than enough batting remaining for England to take control of the game.

Vernon Philander bowled beautifully in the morning session – albeit for only four overs before he left the field with an upset stomach.

It was a great pity he couldn’t bowl a second spell because, as almost always, he was making the new ball recite poetry in Ancient Greek and they couldn’t understand a word of it. There is an excellent chance he would have added further wickets.

But all the seamers beat the bat more often than is usual which may persuade them and their supporters that they were unlucky and, with better fortune, may have been able to take charge of the game themselves. Sometimes, however, it actually means they were bowling the wrong length. If the ball beats the bat that often, it may be that it needs to bowled fuller.

It was a day dominated by the weather, however, with crowds spending their time hovering from the showers as much as they were watching the cricket. For those of us covering it, the grimness of the press box – one of the bleakest in the world – seemed strangely appropriate.

Wednesday, July 26

South Africa had lost all three post-isolation test matches at the Oval until the last one, five years ago, in which Hashim Amla’s triple century and the record partnership with Jacques Kallis led the tourists to another record total of 637 for two and a memorable victory by an innings and 12 runs shortly after the scheduled tea break on the fifth and final day.

It was quite a way to put the record straight.

The 1994 test match was equally memorable but for very different reasons. On a rock hard, fast and bouncy pitch, South Africa had slumped to 136 for five before being rescued by the familiar “men for a crisis” duo of Brian McMillan (93) and Dave Richardson (58) who took the total to a respectable 332.

Along the way the famously quick but often erratic fast bowler Devon Malcolm had shattered Jonty Rhodes’s perspex ear piece all over the pitch and almost knocked his helmet off his head.

Concerns for Rhodes’s well-being were immediate, especially as a sufferer of epilepsy – although he would have retired hurt without the condition.

South Africa’s fast bowling quartet, especially Allan Donald and Fanie de Villiers, vowed to make life equally uncomfortable for the inept Malcolm when his turn came to bat.

De Villiers duly hit him on the head at number 11 as the hosts scrapped their way to 304 all out. Malcolm picked himself off the floor, dusted himself off and issued the now immortal line: “You guys are history!”

And he meant it. In what is still regarded as some of the fastest and most devastating fast bowling ever seen in this country, he ripped his way through the South African second innings with 9-57 with only Daryll Cullinan able to withstand the force.

England needed just 205 to win and Michael Atherton (63) and Graeme Hick hastened them to an eight wicket victory to square the series at one test each.

No test was played at the Oval on the 1998 tour but the 2003 match was a high-scoring classic for the venue with South Africa seemingly in total control of the game at 345 for two shortly before the second new ball on the first day with Herschelle Gibbs flying to an imperious 183.

But his dismissal exposed the middle order late in the day and a brief ‘collapse’ saw them slip to 385 for six and a final total of 484 – surely still enough to avoid defeat. Or so everyone thought.

Marcus Trescothick produced one of his best test innings, 219 and, with Graham Thorpe (124) and Andrew Flintoff (95) weighing in too, the home side earned a lead of 120.

But with time running out, and the pitch still playing true, it still appeared England’s chances of levelling the series were bleak.

Not so. A disorganised batting display ended with dismissal for only 229 – it would have been worse without Shaun Pollock’s 43 – and England had just enough time to chase down the 110 they needed for a famous victory.

So tumultuous and emotional were the victory scenes in the third test of the 2012 tour, during which South Africa clinched the series and the number one ranking, that the fourth test – at the Oval – is almost forgotten. At least by South African fans.

Kevin Pietersen was made captain in the aftermath of Andrew Strauss’s resignation (Graeme Smith’s third England captain ‘victim’ following Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain) and he scored a century to mark the occasion.

Such was the level of ‘victory fatigue’ and emotional hangover, especially after Mark Boucher’s career-ending eye injury, that serious consideration was given to resting some of the senior players for the game and playing some fringe members of the squad.

But a test cap is the highest honour among the Proteas and there were no volunteers to stand down. Smith top scored with 46 as a distracted SA team were dismissed for just 194.

Pietersen’s 100 helped the hosts to a total of 316 but it was Steve Harmison’s swashbuckling and unlikely 47 from number nine which really broke their spirit, despite Makhaya Ntini’s 5-94.

Amla (76) and AB de Villiers (97) helped the tourists to post 318 in their second innings but Cook and Strauss posted a first-wicket partnership of 123 to make light work of their modest target of 198 and a consolation victory.

Tuesday, July 25

Easily the most commonly recurring question I’ve fielded from Englishmen and South Africans alike over the last week has been: “What made the difference – was it really Faf returning as captain?”

It is pretty hard to explain a turnaround of such proportions. Defeat by 211 runs turning into a record victory by 340 runs. It’s like a Premiership football team losing 4-0 one week and beating the same opposition 6-0 a week later.

I’ve always been reluctant to apportion too much credit – or blame for that matter – to a captain because he is, after all, only one of 11 players on the field. But in this case it’s probably fair to say that he was the single biggest difference, not far ahead of the fielders catching the ball in the outfield rather than dropping it.

Then there was the selection of a fourth seamer in Chris Morris, and the fact that he performed with both bat and ball at vital times, never more obviously than the two magnificent deliveries he produced to dismiss England’s two best batsmen, Alistair Cook and Joe Root, in the second innings.

But there was one other difference which has been underplayed and may, or may not, have made a critical difference, we’ll never know. And it’s almost as hard to explain as the change and magnitude of the results. At Lord’s, the Proteas attack bowled 13 no-balls between them. At Trent Bridge they bowled none.

Charl Langeveldt, the fast bowling coach, is a hard task master (very little is written about that, either) but it surely takes a lot more than a plain, verbal bollocking to stop Morne Morkel from over-stepping.

If that was the case he’d have stopped bowling them years ago. He’s had enough bollockings from different captains and coaches over the years. Whatever he did, it worked and deserves acknowledgement for that.

Instead, Langeveldt preferred to focus on the return of Kagiso Rabada to the attack for the third test beginning at the Oval on Thursday.

Unsurprisingly, the former Boland, WP and Proteas swing bowler insisted that Rabada would be “raring to go.” Rather more surprisingly, he said that the superstar had been “building his work rate up” each morning of the Trent Bridge test and “getting plenty of overs in his legs.”

We all saw him bowling each morning but nobody realised quite how much time he had spent in the nets and how many balls he had bowled. We had other things to do – like watch the test.

It was another example of Langeveldt’s canny understanding of a fast bowler’s requirements to be at their best for a test match.

Rest is naturally important but those of us who thought Rabada might have had a little too much of it with his enforced ‘rest’ from the second test followed by another week of inactivity should have known better.

There is no way that Langeveldt was going to allow Rabada to put his feet up for two weeks and expect him to ‘click’ straight back into bowling 20 overs a day in three or four spells.

Sure, his workload needs to be managed, but fast bowlers cannot be wrapped in cotton wool. It’s a painful job and the vast majority of quicks need to stay in regular contact with the pain.

It is a part of what they refer to as the sometimes elusive “rhythm.”

Monday, July 24

Although the Women’s World Cup hasn’t featured on these pages for the last month it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t caught my imagination – and a lot more than that. It has transformed the women’s game forever and, in some parts of the world, it may even have transformed society.

The final was as emotional and gripping a game as Lord’s has ever seen, and it was sold out. There were ticket touts doing a roaring trade and an atmosphere compared to anything experienced by anyone in living memory.

England probably deserved to win but the nature of the semifinal win over Dane van Niekerk’s South African team should convince the Proteas – if they needed convincing – that they really have completed the journey from rank amateurs to potential World Cup winners within the space of just four years. It would never have been possible without the backing of Momentum and I have no doubt that the return on their sponsorship investment in women’s cricket will be their greatest ever in the years to come.

India’s journey to the final, however, was ‘the’ story of the tournament. They should have won it, too, but for the heart-breaking collapse at the end which saw them lose their last seven wickets for just 28 runs to snatch the unlikeliest defeat from an apparent certain victory.

The ‘attitude’ of the team is what will transform attitudes towards women in the country. Led superbly by the charismatic, 34-year-old batting legend Mithali Raj, they have already gained the respect of millions of traditionally sexist Indian male cricket followers, including many journalists and commentators who had never even watched a women’s game before. It was a gamble to televise every game but viewing figures suggest that it has paid off.

Now the preparation starts for the third test – the 100th to be played at The Oval, only the third ground in the world to reach the milestone. I was asked to write an article for the match programme celebrating Hashim Amla’s 311* at the ground five years ago and it brought back some wonderful memories. There have been some mixed emotions, too, but more of that in the days to come…

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