Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 11, 2022

The Final Over of the Day – England vs South Africa, Third Test, Day Three

Ball One – Leaving in Silence

Thirty minutes before the scheduled start of play, a large proportion of the crowd are in their seats having been told that there will be ceremonials to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II – 15 minutes later, there is little sign of such.

Some two hours earlier, most of Kennington will have heard a test playing of a very familiar tune with now jarringly unfamiliar lyrics – all at ear-splitting volume. God was implored, for the first time in the hearing of anyone under 70 years of age, to save The King – it felt strange in a near-empty ground, what it will sound like with a capacity crowd in situ, your writer is about to find out.

The silence was of a depth I have witnessed just once before – at Wembley Stadium for the post-Hillsborough FA Cup Final of 1989. Then it was suffused with anger; today with sadness. It was moving and vindicated, unequivocally, the decision to play today.

Another knock-on effect is worth noting – the absence of music on the PA and interviews and adverts on the big screen has given ownership of the atmosphere back to the crowd. It makes a huge difference to the experience and, perhaps, the players.

Ball Two – Elgar cancelled at The Proms and at The Oval

Ben Stokes may not have the Oxbridge background of England captains past and he may not always have displayed the best judgement on and off the field, but he instinctively feels the game and, so the evidence suggests, feels the cricketers too.

Backing his men – always and forever – may not produce the results he is looking for every time, but it appears to be working more often than not. He tossed the new ball to Ollie Robinson, a man who has spent his international career being criticised for one thing or another, leaving Stuart Broad, who won a Test almost singlehandedly here in 2009, to cool his heels.

Robinson produced a beauty to remove South Africa’s captain and Ben Stokes had got another one right.

Ball Three – Here’s to you, Mr Robinson

I go back to 1974 in terms of memories of Test cricket, so that’s a fair old sample space to back up the claim that the first session today was the finest collective display of bowling I can recall from an England side. They put an inexperienced SA order on the rack and brought the pain with lines and lengths born of smart thinking and control developed over many years of playing this strange game.

Sure they had help from the atmospherics and a pitch that had just enough juice to allow the seam to bite, but such conditions are not uncommon in England. What is uncommon is their relentless, ruthless exploitation by Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and slimmed-down, ultra-confident Ollie Robinson.

To their credit, Khaya Zondo (with a bit of luck) and Marco Jansen (with a lot of skill) stemmed the tide to take lunch at 69-6, but England had achieved their first objective in this three day Test. The game has progressed quickly.

Ball Four – Bish Bash Bazball

England wrapped up the SA innings on 118, Robinson with a fivefer, Broad with four and Anderson just the one early success. The Sussex man was the pick of the attack, but all three were at the peak of their powers and at the batters for over after over, barely wasting a ball short or down the legside, squatting in the corridor of uncertainty.

The visitors may not have the Test wickets in the bank that Broad and Anderson can boast, but Kagiso Rabada is world class, Anrich Nortje is appreciably quicker than any England bowler and Marco Jansen has height and left arm awkwardness to exploit.

Both sides are far stronger on paper with ball in hand rather than bat, but technique and temperament can trump talent in Test cricket. On an emotional day, Zak Crawley and Alex Lees have a platform to unleash the Bazball. It’s more a case of can they than will they as there’s only one way to play from here.

Ball Five – Happy Scamperers

Perhaps nothing indicates the attitudinal change effected by the Stokes-McCullum axis than the singles harvested by Ollie Pope and Joe Root in the half-hour before tea. For years, I would watch Ponting and Clarke (or Warner or Hussey or Martyn) drop it and run to keep the scoreboard ticking over, irritate the bowler and make the captain ponder taking out a slip to supplement the covers. England to follow suit? Back then, no chance.

Now they do and it’s interesting to consider what the strategy requires. Firstly, you have to be looking for it, the mind at least half on scoring a run rather than preserving one’s wicket. Secondly, you have to trust your partner, know that he won’t seek to blame you if he’s run out, know that the captain and coach will back your decision-making even when it’s proved wrong. Thirdly, you have to value every run, build the marginal gains into a substantial advantage, understand that glory is mainly hard work below the waterline.

Like much else about England’s uber-aggressive approach, it will go wrong in the future at some point – but, boy oh boy (pace Tony Greig), its bloody good fun while it lasts.

Ball Six – 272 runs, 17 wickets in 70 overs

High risk it was, and not all of it worked, but England finished the day on 154-7 with a lead of 36 and power to add.

In a sense, England’s innings can be judged on the fact that it’s a three day Test and that the opposition were all out for less than 120. Had some of the yahoos by Harry Brook, Ben Stokes and even Joe Root come off, England could be 60 or so on tonight and looking at a 100+ lead tomorrow. As it is, they’ll probably take a lead of 70 which, in the context of the match so far, is very handy indeed.

Recency bias is likely to leave fans a tinge disappointed and pundits a little chary of praising the home side’s effort because one has the feeling that 118-4 would have been attainable and that represents a stronger position than the one they hold. But this match is a shoot-out for the series, Ben Stokes says he will always go for the win from any situation (and has the history to back up the bravado) and England are more likely to win from here than they were when Jimmy Anderson bowled the first ball of the day.

A day that, in the round, belongs to England.

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