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England v South Africa, 5th Test at The Oval - Match Report

Match Report by Neil Robinson 08/09/03

In one of the great Test Match turnarounds, England recovered from a traumatic first day to grab a convincing win over South Africa in the Fifth Test at The Oval and square the series 2-2.

Forced to field first on the flattest pitch of the summer, England were powerless as South Africa racked up 362 for 4 by the close of the first day. But a massively improved bowling performance on the second day saw them bag the last six South African wickets for just 122 runs. A hard earned double century from Marcus Trescothick, a century on his return to the side from Graham Thorpe and another blistering innings from Andrew Flintoff then took England to a first innings lead of 120 before some high class bowling from Stephen Harmison and Martin Bicknell left the hosts needing to chase just 110 to win, a target they knocked off with nine wickets in hand.

On a pale-looking wicket, for which the term ‘featherbed’ might almost have been invented, it looked like a good toss for South African skipper Graeme Smith to have won. Within 20 minutes of the start, the true bounce, limited movement and fast outfield had helped the openers settle and signs for the hosts were uniformly ominous. The sight of Ashley Giles coming into the attack to bowl his left arm spin within the first hour did not improve the native mood. Bicknell and Anderson were innocuous, Flintoff and Harmison found the surface slow and unresponsive. It was not the worst England bowling performance of the summer, far from it, but on such a good pitch the margin for error was miniscule. Several times a bowler could be spotted with hands on hips thinking “well, there wasn’t much wrong with that” as the ball skidded to the boundary off the dashing blade of Herschelle Gibbs.

England’s one breakthrough of the morning came from a run out, Graeme Smith, on his heels instead of backing up, left inches short by Michael Vaughan’s throw when called through for a sharp single by Gibbs. But if anything this only intensified Gibbs’ desire to stay in the middle and make the most of his good start. In this he was helped yet again by the world’s most obdurate, unmovable batsman, Gary Kirsten, who stayed with him through most of the day in a partnership worth 227 which should have set up the game for a South African victory. If the razor-sharp brain of the late Douglas Jardine could have been put to work devising a plan for shifting Kirsten, it would probably have come up with something involving a sniper’s rifle and a grassy knoll, but such moral ambiguities are not the province of Duncan Fletcher and Michael Vaughan. The man whose pre-match announcement that he had shelved his retirement plans has probably caused a few dozen bowlers to seek therapy this week provided the steel and Gibbs the style as the tourists cruised to 290-1 before Kirsten’s efficient 90 was terminated when he missed a sweep at Giles and was adjudged, unfortunately perhaps, lbw.

With South Africa 111-1 at lunch, a brief ceremony took place on the field in which England captains past and present paid their tributes to Alec Stewart on the occasion of his final match. Asked if it brought a quiver to his lip he replied, “maybe, but that’s probably just the thought of still fielding on Sunday on this pitch.” He summed up the mood of most England fans. They had had their moments of misfortune, twice that morning Gibbs had survived confident lbw appeals when playing down the wrong line at straight deliveries. His apparent forward stride may have saved him each time, but with his feet straddling the crease he was not as far forward as he appeared. But if England were annoyed at these misfortunes, the balance was redressed somewhat by the mercy decision which removed Kirsten and two further dubious judgements against Kallis and McKenzie as South Africa’s second innings sank into the mire.

England briefly gained control in the afternoon when a tight spell from Giles and a hostile burst from Harmison left the batsmen bruised and shaken, but even the loss of Kirsten after tea was unable to disrupt South Africa’s serene progress towards a match-winning total. Gibbs had some more luck when he got the thinnest of edges through to Stewart in the next over, so thin only the TV replay could pick it up. Kallis was then dropped at slip by Thorpe off Giles on 15. Giles was bowling well, but Kallis was looking to attack him. Twice he was beaten in the flight when coming down the wicket, but each time he still managed to connect, dispatching the ball for 4 and 6 wide of long-off. But the bowler eventually gained his due when Gibbs was bowled aiming a mighty heave over midwicket. His 183 contained 35 fours and a six. When McKenzie then fell cheaply in the last over of the day, one of James Anderson’s unpredictable magic balls finding his edge, England could feel a little better about things, but the win and the series now looked beyond them. South Africa’s position looked virtually impregnable. Nobody could have guessed that, from here, it would be all downhill for them.

England struck in the first over of the morning, Jacques Rudolph stepping across a full ball from Bicknell which straightened on him. A fine, probing spell from the Surrey veteran then gained further reward when Boucher was judged to have nicked another fine outswinger on its way to Stewart. Kallis and Pollock then held up the England charge with a determined stand of 34 until Kallis was unluckily run out backing up when Giles deflected a stinging straight drive from Pollock on to the stumps. It was a sharp, instinctive bit of cricket from the Warwickshire man, getting down quickly and deliberately angling his fingers for the run-out. Hall was soon lbw to Flintoff for 1 and then, on the stroke of lunch, Adams was run out going for a second run to keep Pollock on strike, a fine 75 metre throw from Butcher leaving him stretching in vain. South Africa were 432-9, having lost 5 wickets for 70 runs in the session.

Throughout this series the last five South African wickets have contributed more runs than their top five and after lunch England had another 50-minute dose of frustration as Shaun Pollock farmed the strike intelligently and Makhaya Ntini stuck by his new ball partner in a stand worth 52 runs and priceless moral capital to their team. Vaughan set his field back for the first three balls of each over, then brought it in to deny the single which Pollock somehow still managed to aquire from the fourth ball every time. Ntini, for his part, managed to keep out everything England threw at him, until Anderson slipped a quick one through his defences to rip out his leg stump. By then, Pollock had added a few crisp boundaries to move to a defiant 66 not out and England left the field looking much less happy than they had been an hour before.

They got off to a racy start with the bat anyway. Vaughan struck two exquisite off drives off Ntini and looked to be in fine touch. Perhaps he believed it himself too, but if he did it led him into over-confidence in thinking he could dole out the same treatment to the wily Pollock. A drive at a ball which wasn’t quite there and offered just a fraction of late movement had him pouched at third slip to give Pollock his 300th Test wicket. Butcher again looked in prime form and added 50 with Trescothick, of which 32 were to his credit when Hall nipped one back a long way to trap him lbw. South Africa were backing up some fine accurate bowling with some stunning stops in the field and England, finding it hard enough to keep the dangerous Pollock and Ntini at bay, were having extra trouble trying to pierce the infield.

 

England now had two batsmen at the crease for whom the last twelve months had been especially difficult. Graham Thorpe’s well publicized marital break-up had caused him to miss 14 Test matches and he had reached the stage where he was doubtful of ever representing England again. Marcus Trescothick had failed to make a century during any of the Tests Thorpe had missed, his vulnerability outside the off-stump appeared to have been exposed by bowlers such as McGrath, Gillespie and Ntini and the doubters were beginning to notice that he had never made a hundred against a non-asian Test side and cast admiring glances at Middlesex’s prolific Andrew Strauss as a possible alternative partner for Vaughan at the top of the order. Both men were clearly playing for their futures. Their determination was plain to see.

In an effort of will reminiscent of Herschelle Gibbs’ self-denying beginning back at Edgbaston, Trescothick valiantly fought against his instinct to play at tempting deliveries outside off-stump, forcing the bowlers to bowl at him and working the ball off his pads whenever possible. There were still moments of uncertainty in his problem area, and it all looked like terribly hard work as he crept his way to a 170 minute 50, but slowly his judgement improved and he began to look more settled. At the other end Thorpe, though not at his most fluent at first, progressed mostly in nudges and deflections, running the singles and rotating the strike in an object lesson to a generation of boundary-hitting young Englishmen.

The two left-handers reached 165-2 by the close, then moved on to 271-2 by lunch on the third day. On the way Trescothick moved to his fourth Test century with increasing solidity, the landmark reached when, on 97 he was served up the welcome gift of a Paul Adams long-hop which he sent to the midwicket boudary with a great scythe of the bat almost as wide as the grin he revealed by taking off his helmet a moment later. South Africa’s bowling by now was becoming ragged. Trescothick was driving through the off-side with ever more confidence, Thorpe, scoring off many more balls, adding a few brutal square cuts to his plethora of singles. He moved to his own hundred off 199 balls, to receive a standing ovation from his home crowd which rivalled that given to Nasser Hussain for his magnificent hundred at Trent Bridge in warmth and duration.

They looked likely to bat through the whole day, but nearing tea as the light worsened and a light shower began to fall, Thorpe’s concentration wavered slightly and he was bowled off his pads by Kallis for a superb 124. It was a fairy-tale return for the local hero, the selectors may now find it impossible to omit him from their plans for this winter. The stand had added 268. A mere 11 runs came in the first 10 overs after tea as a nervous Smith, who has struggled since his impressive debut innings, tried to settle. He looked to have done so when 2 runs gained through a Rudolph misfield were followed by consecutive boundaries off Pollock, a sweet straight drive and a short-arm pull through wide mid-on. But soon after he was trapped on the crease by Hall’s deceptive pace and given out lbw. The ball struck him quite high and on another, luckier day he might have received the benefit of the doubt.

But thoughts of this were quickly dispelled as Alec Stewart strode to the crease in his final Test. The whole crowd stood to applaud this fine servant of English cricket, the South Africans formed a guard of honour to greet him in the middle, joining in the applause. Stewart raised his bat, tried to look impassive, but could not fully disguise the emotion on his face. Marcus Trescothick, meanwhile, had quietly dashed to the groundsman’s hut for a much needed leak. The focus was soon back on Trescothick as he passed 150 with a dance down the wicket and a lofted straight drive off Hall for four. His fluency and daring now increased as he progressed towards 200. An Adams full-toss was dispatched over midwicket for a huge six, the next ball creamed through extra-cover for four. Despite a packed off-side field, he managed to thread two classy drives through extra-cover in one Hall over. It was a display of top class timing and placement. A half-volley clipped through cover point for four off the leg-spin of Rudolph brought up his 200 with his 31st four after 535 minutes. On this day of ovations, the crowd rose once more as a man. In his previous eight innings in this series, Trescothick had made a total of 199 runs.

The fairy-tales and ovations would have attained the heights of perfection if Stewart had been able to produce a vintage hundred on his final appearance. It was not to be, but he played pleasantly enough for 38, helping Trescothick to add an important 101 before Pollock trapped him lbw. A tired Trescothick top edged Ntini to square leg and departed for 219 soon afterwards, then Giles, roughed up by two bouncers, edged Kallis low to second slip before the close and England, at 502-7, were in danger of letting a crucial lead evaporate.

 

When Bicknell fell for a duck in the first over next day, this looked sure to be the case. But England still had one hope left and it came packaged in the sizeable frame and substantial character of Big Freddie Flintoff. Flintoff’s blistering hundred at Lord’s was made in conjunction with the tail, but it was in a match already lost, a no-pressure, nothing to lose situation. This time Flintoff was left with the last two wickets and the necessity of a major first innings lead pressing upon him. He rose to the challenge in exhilarating fashion. He had an early escape when a top-edged hook fell just short of Kirsten running round from mid-on, but there were so few leg-side fielders the extravagance was easily forgiven. Thereafter there were few mistakes.

Taking Pollock’s management of the strike as his lesson, but adding a more aggressive approach all his own, Flintoff put South Africa to the sword and thrashed all their early optimism out of them. Credit must also go to Harmison, who showed a straight bat and firm resolve whenever he was called upon to face a ball. Of the 99 runs the partnership added (the largest ever 9th wicket stand conceded by South Africa), Harmison made only 3, but the value of his support could only really be counted in Flintoff’s runs. Flintoff signalled his intent with a bludgeoned four through extra-cover off Pollock, bringing up his 1000th Test run. He then smote Kallis over long-on for six before two even more impressive maximums off Ntini had the crowd on their feet again. The first a vicious pull over midwicket, the second a straight smash over long-off high into the pavilion. It was clean, brutal hitting, straight out of the Jessop-Botham school.

Only a crafty spell of yorkers from Hall held up the mayhem. But the runs still came, Flintoff varying his position in the crease to play havoc with Hall’s length and hitting along the ground straight, or glancing delicately down to fine leg. A couple of stylish late cuts also showcased a new depth to his batting. He brought himself to the brink of another hundred, moving to 95 by going down on one knee to loft a mighty blow off Adams high over wide long-on, posing a potential hazard to passing aircraft, but an attempt to repeat the dose next ball cost him his leg stump. There was another rousing ovation. England were 601-9. Three runs later the declaration followed, leaving South Africa an anxious two overs before lunch. It seemed barely credible, but now they were batting to save the match.

Pressure and momentum are funny things in cricket matches. Logically, there was no real reason why South Africa should not now charge on, make a fair score and try to bowl out England despite their first innings deficit. But so great had been the shift in power over the last five sessions that the tourists were left dumbstruck. Although the situation was far from conclusive, the momentum was now firmly with England, the pressure all on South Africa. Amid a tumult of noise from a partisan home crowd roused to a frenzy by Flintoff’s pyrotechnics, Gibbs was the first to crack, taking a wild slash at a full, wide ball from Anderson and edging to Stewart for 9. Smith followed 10 runs later, pushing forward down the wrong line to Bicknell and hit in front of middle and off.

Although they worked hard and tried their best to build partnerships, the South Africans could never wrest the initiative back from England. The bowlers rose to the occasion. Bicknell and Harmison were the most impressive. Bicknell’s tight line was a constant threat, his command of late outswing and a well disguised inswinger kept the presence of danger uppermost in the batsmen’s minds. Harmison, although his figures have not always reflected it, has made steady progress throughout his first year as a Test cricketer. In this match he finally emerged as a genuinely threatening bowler at Test level. He bowled well without luck in the first innings, now he bowled a slightly fuller length, with excellent control, giving the batsmen nothing to hit and testing them with hostile pace.

Kirsten and Kallis had taken the score on to 92-2 when a niggardly spell from Harmison culminated in a wicked delivery which pitched middle, rose and left a creasebound Kirsten, finding the edge of his bat and flying straight to Trescothick at first slip. In his next over Harmison beat Kallis for pace, the batsman again trapped in the crease by excellent length and struck on the back leg in front of off. It was superb bowling, though Kallis may have felt he got fractionally outside the line and that Umpire Venkataraghavan might also have given him the benefit of the doubt on the question of height. No matter to England, they were rampant, Harmison triumphant.

Harmison bowled a marathon spell of 13 overs either side of tea, while at the other end Bicknell provided his own stern examination of technique and resilience. And it was Bicknell who gained the next breakthrough, teasing an uncertain Rudolph with two which swung away from him, then feeding him the inswinger which the youngster left, only to watch in horror as it swung back to hit his off-stump. 118-5 and South Africa were reduced to strokeless, passive resistance from McKenzie and Boucher, offering straight blades and prayers for rain. The light did close in during the final session and play ended nine overs early, but not before more bad luck befell South Africa, McKenzie given out lbw on the back foot despite a big inside edge. Boucher and Pollock hung on in the gloom, but at the close South Africa’s prospects looked as murky as the light at 185-6.

After four sell-out days, 18,000 Londoners buried their grandmothers and made their way down to The Oval for the final day of the series, most of them hoping, and now expecting, an England win. They were not to be disappointed. For once, South Africa’s tail provided only fleeting resistance. It took only 55 minutes for England to sweep up the last four South African wickets. Boucher was first to go, in identical fashion to the first innings except for the fact that this time the edge was genuine. The catch was Stewart’s 277th and last dismissal. Bicknell followed up this textbook outswinger with a slow long-hop to Hall, which the surprised batsman somehow prodded straight to Ed Smith at short midwicket. At 193-8, only Pollock provided any hope for South Africa, but dreams of another stand with the tail didn’t last long. After a couple of hefty blows over mid-off and down to third man, Pollock failed to get on top of a short ball from Harmison and steered it straight to Thorpe at backward point. Ntini and Adams held out for a while, but Ntini was powerless against a Harmison throat-ball, he tried to pull it but it lobbed up off the splice. At short leg, Ed Smith watched the ball arc over his left shoulder, then dived as it fell to grasp it in his left hand. South Africa were 229 all out and England needed just 110 to win. Stewart led the side off to rousing applause.

On either of the pitches for the last two Tests, at Trent Bridge and Headingley, South Africa still might have had a chance. But apart from getting a little faster, this pitch remained as true as on the first morning and such a slender lead was never enough. Trescothick was dropped by Hall at slip on 1, and England had to work hard for their runs, but even though they lost Vaughan to a loose cut on 47, the result was never in doubt. Trescothick and Butcher accelerated towards the target with increasing style, Trescothick striking the winning runs over slip to finish with an unbeaten 69 from 66 balls. England’s remarkable recovery was complete and a remarkable, roller-coaster series had finished all square.

And so a vintage summer of hot weather and top-class cricket comes to an end. South Africa will feel a little hard done by, in that they played most of the best cricket seen during the series and overall were the more cohesive unit. But England have overcome a myriad of problems this summer, from the traumatic ending of Nasser Hussain’s captaincy to an epidemic of injuries to several leading bowlers. They would have done well to compete at all in this series, that they have twice fought back against a powerful South African side must give them plenty of heart for the future. They have a few weeks’ of R&R now, before a lengthy winter programme involving tours to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and West Indies begins. South Africa have only 8 days at home before they fly off for a tour of Pakistan, a nightmare of scheduling which Graeme Smith described as “crazy”. Those who compile international schedules are going to have to be careful that quality is not compromised by quantity before too long. Anyone who saw this series though, will have had no cause for complaint.

Scorecard Summary

South Africa 484 (Gibbs 183, Kirsten 90, Kallis 66, Pollock 66*) & 229 (Harmison 4-33, Bicknell 4-84)

England 604-9 dec. (Trescothick 219, Thorpe 124, Flintoff 95) & 110-1 (Trescothick 69*)

England won by 9 wickets

 

Series Drawn 2-2

Man of the Match

Marcus Trescothick

Men of the Series

Andrew Flintoff (England) & Graeme Smith (South Africa)

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