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September 4, 2003
For the third time in the series, the South Africans spotted a good batting pitch - and for the third time in the series they took full advantage. At Edgbaston, in the first Test, they purred to 398 for 1 by the end of the first day. At Lord's, after England's inadequate 173, it was 151 for 1 at the first-day close, and 412 for 2 at the end of the second. And now, after the less-than-perfect pitches served up at Trent Bridge and Headingley, it was business as usual at The Oval. You don't lose many matches after piling up 362 runs on Day One, and the series is as good as won.
Running away with it: Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten set off for another run
For once the main man in the big-scoring bonanza wasn't Graeme Smith. The game was only an hour old, but already England were bowling for run-outs, and they got one when Herschelle Gibbs pushed optimistically into the covers and Smith's despairing dive was well short.
There was a time when that might have fazed the excitable Gibbs, but now he settled in, determined to put off the embarrassing explanations to his captain for as long as possible. He started by driving dreamily through the covers, graduated to classy cuts, and finished off by noting Andrew Flintoff's semi-Bodyline field - three men deep on the leg side - and smashing hooks past them anyway. Gibbs's raw power was breathtaking: he hit the ball so hard that you could almost hear the poor painters who will soon be giving The Oval its winter spruce-up sighing as another defenceless fence-post copped a bruise from one of Gibbs's 36 boundaries.
It was Gibbs's day - there were two early lbw appeals which Venkat might have given, and later the thinnest of edges off Flintoff didn't register on Simon Taufel's personal snickometer. But it was a memorable innings, and an overdue one - Gibbs had been subdued since his 179 at Edgbaston on the first day of the series.
Three late wickets - two for Ashley Giles, who occasionally flighted the ball well, and one for Jimmy Anderson in the last over - saved England from total disaster, but the fast men were off the pace for most of the day. Stephen Harmison rarely put two balls in the same place, Anderson mixed up testing toe-crushers with freebie four-balls, and even Flintoff, usually the tightest of the fast men, was expensive. And Martin Bicknell, playing on his home ground at last, must have wondered whether passing that fitness test was such a good thing, after Gibbs eased forward onto that front foot in the third over and spanked him past a motionless cover fieldsman.
Sadly for such a fine county performer, Bicknell's international recall has come a year or two too late, as his pace has dropped one notch too many on the speed-gun. He is surely destined to end up as a quiz question - who won four Test caps, in pairs, ten years apart? He will become cricket's Ian Callaghan, the nippy Liverpool winger who played twice for England in the World Cup year of 1966, and twice more than 11 years later. That belated experiment didn't work, either.
Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.
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