After the first day was lost to rain and the second respectfully canceled following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the prediction by both captains that this series decider would produce an outright winner appeared on shaky ground.
But the fall of 17 wickets in the first three sessions of the nine available keeps things very much on track. Ollie Robinson tore through South Africa like crepe paper with figures of five for 49 in their 118 all out and England rode the emotions inside the Oval, only for Dean Elgar’s tourists to fight back in character.
Clumps came as a day that began with a fitting tribute to the late monarch ended in poor light at At 18.28, cutting things short by an hour after a brief rain delay, England were 154 for seven and leading by 36 runs. Ollie Pope had caressed an ultimately unfulfilled 67, but through a collective eagerness to score quickly – summed up by the latest fleeting thrash from Ben Stokes – and a fine four-wicket performance from Marco Jansen, the hosts had let their position slip.
Not that this would have dampened the spirits of the sold-out crowd as they filtered towards the exits and into the night. The crowd had been central to what was a historic third day in SE11, solemnly observing the elaborate pre-match ceremony and then providing a stirring atmosphere as two sides called it quits.
Admittedly there was a few groans during England’s response, although it was muffled by the occasion. Openers Alex Lees and Zak Crawley again fell cheaply as Jansen hit back with the new ball. And while Joe Root’s subdued streak looked to be turning a corner as he and Pope steered England to 84 for two at tea in frictionless fashion, it was undone when the former cut Jansen to the block on 23.
This was a key rejection from which the pendulum swung back and South Africa claimed four more wickets during the evening session. Debutant Harry Brook had opened his account with a wonderfully stylish four-run cover but was quickly bowled out by Jansen in the 12th, with Stokes then wasting a life on five when, a run later, he attempted another wild drive off Anrich Nortje and got behind. .
With the Pope’s latest love affair with the Oval ended by the previously wayward Kagiso Rabada – a meek poke behind that undid his previous stroke play – and Stuart Broad, fresh from four wickets with the ball, wearing a pull shot behind for six, Ben Foakes resumes the morning of the 11th needs to graze its tail. England must extend their lead further on this seam or face a one-innings shootout.
The first standout performance had come before a ball had been thrown, soprano Laura Wright cutting through the silence to deliver both anthems a cappella. Five languages for South Africa? The first rendition of God Save the King at a sporting event since 1952? No problem. But to a pair of tails foraging for worms in the outfield, everything else felt crisply quiet inside the Oval, and cricket’s decision to resume proceedings in the face of possible criticism was already confirmed.
Likewise, Stokes elected to bowl first, still piled up some 48 hours after the toss, and it wasn’t long before South Africa needed the tail to wag. An hour into this collective celebration, the tourists found themselves 36 for six under leaden skies, Robinson having kick-started the procession when his third delivery of the morning – a peachy ball that nipped in – brought Elgar’s stumps toppling.
Robinson was impeccable during an eight-over opening burst that returned the first four wickets of his stash. Keegan Petersen was bowled over the arms, Kyle Verreynne chipped away to a ball that nipped away and Wiaan Mulder, one of four changes to the South African XI, was lured by the siren call of a rare wide delivery when he sent a thick edge behind. This was quality English seam bowling in useful conditions.
Somewhat surprisingly, Jimmy Anderson had to settle for just one wicket among the cascade, his removal of opener Sarel Erwee in the third over after Elgar’s demise. Instead it was Broad, the first change once again, who fell to Robinson in the main, leveling Glenn McGrath’s 563 career victims with four for 41 to leave Anderson as the only seamer above him among Test cricket’s leading wicket-takers.
Having replaced Anderson and dismissed Ryan Rickelton for 11 in his first over, Broad may have initially feared that his return would not match his efforts. The 36-year-old batted repeatedly, had three DRS decisions against him and saw Jansen fall twice as South Africa’s returning all-rounder and Khaya Zondo, another call-up for that decision, staged a mini-recovery of 36 runs before lunch.
But Broad struck just after the restart when Zondo ducked to cover over the shoulder of his bat before wiping out Keshav Maharaj and Nortje with minimal effort. Robinson was the bowler who led his teammates out at the turn of the innings, but the 28-year-old had backed up his impressive comeback at Old Trafford with his third five-wicket haul. It was also capped off with an important breakthrough as Jansen had caressed his way to 30 with some sumptuous straight drives only to blink to slip.
However, Jansen was not to be surpassed. Through the return of his venomous left-arm swing – bizarrely considered surplus to requirements in Manchester – South Africa are still very much in this already historic Test series decider.