After the disappointment at Lord’s and the wonderful backs-to-the-wall win at Trent Bridge, we were back in London for the 3rd, and penultimate, Test of the series.
3rd Test – The Oval (London)
This was the Oval’s 100th Test and it became only the fourth ground to reach a Test ton after Lord’s (134 Tests) and the Melbourne and Sydney Cricket Grounds (109 and 105 Tests respectively). It’s played home to some incredible moments over the years including Sir Donald Bradman’s last innings duck, when just four runs would have seen him end with an average above 100, and Kevin Pieterson’s sublime 158 to win back the Ashes in 2005.
Closer to my heart, it’s also the home of one of my favourite days of Test cricket as we watched Hashim Amla become the first South African to score a Test triple-century back in 2012.
Unlike 2012 where we arrived on the fourth morning with the Proteas on an impregnable 403/2, five years on we arrived for the third morning with England completely in control. A marvelous 80 odd from Alistair Cook and a fighting hundred from Ben Stokes had seen England to 350 before an epic collapse on the second afternoon / evening, admittedly under some of the trickiest batting conditions I’ve seen, saw us slump to 51 for 6.
Temba Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada fought back hard to take the score to 126 at stumps so as play got underway, we still needed 28 to avoid the follow-on with only 2 wickets left.
Bavuma and Morne Morkel duly saw us past the follow-up, batting nicely for some 90 minutes. We passed 150 before Morkel was first to go and Bavuma followed shortly thereafter with the Proteas ending on 175 and a huge 178 runs in arrears.
We needed wickets quickly and though we bowled well up-front, we didn’t enjoy much luck. In particular, Morkel bowled one of the best spells I’ve ever seen and deserved far more than just the wicket of Cook. As the expected rain arrived mid-way through the afternoon session, England had extended the lead to just over 250. No further play was possible unfortunately, which only compiled our misery and it definitely wasn’t the best day’s cricket!
Zoneboy and I headed back to the Oval on the fourth morning to see if we could find tickets and we were in luck, securing fantastic seats behind the bowler. Thankfully the rain stayed away all day but the required miracle didn’t materialise as England really grinded us into the turf, batting until tea and setting an impossible 492 to win.
There was definitely hope, though, as we had batted out Tests before but losing 4 wickets before the close had all but sunk our chances of survival. Once again Heino Kuhn failed while Amla was out for 5 to bring his combined score for the Test to 11, 300 fewer than the last time he played here! Quinton de Kock failed again at #4 while captain Faf du Plessis forgot the golden rule of cricket and was out not offering a shot for the 2nd time in the Test.
Aside from a magnificent fighting century from Dean Elgar, it was a poor performance from the team and we were all out mid-way through the 4th day, losing by a huge 239 runs. Sadly, there was to be no repeat of the fairy-tale draw in Adelaide and it was a thoroughly disappointing performance, especially on the batting front.
Fourth Test – Old Trafford (Manchester)
The Proteas now had it all to play for and we thought we would see a hungry and vastly improved performance as the team sought to salvage a drawn series (and not become the first South African side to lose a series in England since 1998).
Frustratingly, we couldn’t get Vernon Philander fit as both he and Chris Morris were withdrawn shorty before play began, both suffering from back spasms. The loss of Vernon was particularly huge, as demonstrated in the 3rd Test where he wasn’t fully fit either.
We were up bright and breezy at 6am for our 6.55 train to Manchester and were expecting a great day after the first day had ended with honours even and England 260/6.
Disappointingly, it was not to be and what irks most is the way we played. We looked lethargic in the field, were generally sloppy with both our fielding and catching and the batsmen continued to have poor shot selection. Granted the luck wasn’t always with us, Mornel Morkel went past the edge 19 times on the 1st day, but you simply have to take your chances.
We had the opportunity to wrap things with Johnny Bairstow on 53 and England 312/9 as Bairstow edged one to de Kock. He was duly dropped and just 30 minutes later Bairstow had 99, England had 362 and all momentum had been lost.
England were now in the driving seat and once again, our batsmen failed to dominate. The momentum for the innings is set by the openers and we’ve had no momentum at the top of the order for too many tests now. After his heroics at the Oval, Elgar was out 1st over and Amla was once more effectively opening the innings.
Kuhn and Amla added a decent-ish 45, before Amla feathered one down the leg side, Kuhn and Bavuma followed with 47 and Bavuma and captain Faf du Plessis added 48 to see the Proteas looking in decent shape on 131/3.
Once Bavuma was out however, leaving an in-swinger that clipped one bail, we collapsed and in the 32 overs that followed until close of play, we lost 6 for 89 and were 220/9 at stumps. We had seen 13 wickets, 322 runs and England well and truly on top.
(Notwithstanding another spirited performance from our bowlers that restricted England to 243, the hosts would go on to comfortably win the Test and secure a 3-1 series win. We were set an unlikely 380 to win and slumped to 202 all out midway through the afternoon session of the 5th day).
The Proteas had lost only their second away series in a decade and the first at home to England since 1998. While the performances and results obviously disappointed massively, it was an incredibly special month and great fun following the Proteas with some of my best friends.
The overriding emotion is one of massive disappointment. Our batsmen in particular never really turned up and while conditions were tough to bat in, we could never get ahead of the game and apply scoreboard pressure. We managed only 1 century (vs. 5 in 2012, a 3-Test series) and went pass 300 only once in the 3 Tests we lost (we scored over 330 in both innings in our win at Trent Bridge).
We also learnt a number of crucial lessons, including that de Kock should bat no higher than 6, and I think it’s time we blood youngster Makram to open. While I feel sorry for Kuhn as wickets were offering lots of assistance and England bowled well up front, he’s not the future so let’s pick the youngster. We also need to move on from AB as he’s just not going to play Tests cricket again.