With the three match series tied at 1-1, after each side had demonstrated batting failure and bowling strength, this final Test of the summer held intriguing possibilities and was eagerly awaited. I was part of the expectant crowd at the Oval, and it was disappointing – after a long summer with all too little rain – to arrive in sunshine on day one only to find that overnight showers had delayed the start till eleven. It was even more galling at eleven twenty eight for the rain to start again, and the familiar Oval ballet of the tarpaulins to commence instead of cricket. Meanwhile the toss had been held in camera, and it was announced that Ben had won it and had chosen, as he is wont to do, to field first.
The day proceeded in this vein, promises of an inspection, an announcement that lunch was being taken early and that play would begin at one thirty ‘if it didn’t rain again’, mopping up operations in bright sunlight, protracted for just long enough for it to rain again, and so it went on. About four, my companions and I had had enough, and soon afterwards, back at home, I learned of the death of Her Majesty.
Day two was, of course, cancelled in line with the national grief. It may well have gone the same way as day one in any case, with more intermittent but heavy showers. As the day proceeded, we learned of further event cancellations across the nation, including the entire weekend football programme, so it was a welcome email from the Surrey club that announced that play would take place on the Saturday, with suitable marks of respect. Please turn up early, we were requested.
A few minutes before the scheduled start, the teams and officials emerged, and the whole Oval fell spontaneously silent in what by any measure was a very moving moment. There was a short homily, and we were then requested to be silent for a further two minutes before a sharp peal on the bell, and the singing a capella of the two national anthems. The ceremony was unshowy, brief, to the point, poignant, and utterly respectful.
England bowled their socks off on that first morning, pure class as always from Anderson and Broad, and a very hostile and well-crafted spell from Robinson who broke the back of the innings taking five wickets, all established batters. This was a performance which determined the course of the game, and earned him the player of the match award. The prospect of the test ending within the three remaining days suddenly seemed far less remote.
England’s batting did not exactly scintilate with the exception of Pope, who took the bull by the horns with 67 in only 77 balls, joined all too briefly by a similarly sparkling Joe Root. Having breezed past South Africa’s paltry 118 with only four wickets down, they contrived to lose the tail in very short order to end with a paltry lead of forty soon after the start of day two.
A dogged start by the South African openers eased them back to level pegging, with the England bowlers rapidly burning off all their reviews, beating the bat a lot, but this time getting nowhere. Enter Stokes, who hadn’t bowled at all in the first innings, to take a wicket in his first over. He really does have a magic touch. He promptly took himself off, leaving the other three to work through the next few wickets, but they needed a break, and once again the skipper came on to bowl a long holding spell, which included a magical ball which swung in from outside off to remove the leg stump of the unfortunate Jansen.
With less than a couple of hours before the end of the day England needed just than 130 to win, and Crawley and Lees (who nearly lost his wicket first ball) set off like men who fancied a day off on Monday. By the time the light had inevitably deteriorated to the point one might have expected at 6.30 on a September evening, they had rattled up ninety nine, and nothing was going to stop England now. Surrey declared free admission for the final morning.
The last rites took less than twenty minutes on Monday morning. It was pleasant to stand on the pavilion terrace with a pint and watch the very low key presentation ceremony.
Everything about the presentation of this match was low key: the absence of flickering advertisements, restrained use of the public address, the generally quiet hum of the crowd. This was a very pleasant change (old fogy alert) from the often brash sideshows that desecrate too much cricket these days. I have over the years found plenty to criticise in the way they manage things at the Oval, but they rose to the occasion this time, conducting the whole proceedings with excellent taste and the decorum the circumstances required, with fascinating and fluctuating cricket taking centre stage.
The man of the series was Stokes. Back in January, when speculation about the future captaincy was rife, I wrote ‘Ben Stokes is the next in line, but he already – like Root – bears too much playing responsibility in the side and is currently struggling to re-establish himself after a long lay-off.’ My suggestion at the time, off centre, but not ridiculous, was that England should turn to Sam Billings. Whatever happened to that idea?
Stokes has been magnificent. I don’t remember another England captain in my lifetime who has had such an impact. His infectious self-belief may not have turned England’s frail batters into giants, but it has certainly compensated for their deficiencies. ‘I want a result, either way. I am not interested in a draw’; his statement at the start of this match flew in the face of Test match wisdom but I love it, don’t you? His leadership in the field, in this match particularly, has been – and this is a word that should only be used very sparingly – inspirational. What a summer he, and his team, have had.