England v South Africa, 5th Test, The Oval, Day 2 September 5, 2003

Bowling for run-outs

When Nasser Hussain was captain and his players had an off-day in the field (contrary to rose-tinted opinion, this tended to happen once every other innings), his great lament was that English bowlers lack "mystery". Hard as we might dig, he would argue, Harbhajans and Saqlains are the exception, not the rule. And until one is unearthed, England are sure to be subjected to the odd day of toil.

Marcus Trescothick: took an eternity to get off the mark, but reached 64 not out by the close

That had palpably been the case on the first day here, when the lack of mystery had extended even to the captaincy. "England are bowling for run-outs," it was suggested by one observer. Today, for want of an alternative, that snide aside became a definitive game-plan. And you know what? It worked.

On the face of it, South Africa blew it. Until Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini added 52 bullish runs after lunch, seven prime middle-order wickets had gone down for 87. On a good wicket, and in prime conditions, even England would have been hard-pressed to slump to such spectacular effect. Had they done so, however, they surely wouldn't have owed quite so much to sheer bad luck.

Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Pollock - South Africa's three middle-order veterans - were all sawn off one way or another. Kallis was cruelly run out by the tips of Ashley Giles's fingers; Boucher, who clipped his pad with his bat, was unfortunate that umpire Venkat missed Martin Bicknell's initial look of disappointment. All of which, and more, left Pollock high and dry - and flying - on 66 not out. Another 100 runs between them (a conservative ask on past form) and the series would have been secured.

It's one thing to give a sucker an even break. It's another thing entirely for that sucker to respond to the gesture. But in Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe, England found two batsmen with tentacles on their wickets. Not coincidentally, they were also the two batsmen with the most to prove in this match.

Their cases are also very different. At the age of 34, Thorpe is returning to the side for the first time in a year, and is understandably eager to impress. Trescothick, on the other hand, has never been dropped, but for all the stick he's received lately, he might as well have been. With everything to prove, his innings was a throwback to his debut at Old Trafford in 2000 when, perversely enough, his awareness of his off stump was the defining aspect of his game.

On that occasion, Trescothick took an eternity to get off the mark, battling through an exemplary opening spell from Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, en route to a hugely composed 66. And today, once again, he allowed himself no jiggery-pokery as Pollock and Ntini teased his outside edge, and the cheer of the day was reserved for his first scoring stroke, after 23 dot-balls.

The boo of the day, on the other hand, was reserved for the moment when he and Thorpe accepted the umpire's offer of bad light. But unlike that dreadful defining moment at Headingley, the catcalls were largely in jest. The crowd knew, as Trescothick knew, that his day's work was very much complete.

Wisden Day 2 Bulletin: England fight back