England v South Africa, 5th Test, The Oval, Day 5 September 8, 2003

Forget Headingley '81 - were you at The Oval in '03?



England celebrate their series-levelling win
© Getty Images


Ian Botham must be relieved. At last English cricket fans can stop talking about the great escape of Headingley '81, and can start banging on about The Oval '03.

It remains to be seen whether quite as many videos are sold of this one, but England's comeback here was equally remarkable. You could have got long odds - 40/1 apparently - on an England victory on Thursday night, after a performance which left the watching journalists struggling for synonyms for "lacklustre". Herschelle Gibbs had scored boundaries at will, Gary Kirsten was uncharacteristically positive, the umpiring breaks hadn't gone England's way, and the beer was too warm.

England actually started to turn it around late on that first day, with three late wickets and a decent new-ball burst from Jimmy Anderson. Still, South Africa's 362 for 4 seemed decisive. The revival continued next morning when they managed an early wicket - something they had signally failed to do in more helpful conditions at Headingley - and polished off the tail in a fashion that sowed the first seeds of a sensation.

South Africa still finished with 484. Only six previous times in Test history had a score that big in the first innings of a match led to defeat (since you ask, these were: Australia 586 v England at Sydney in 1894-95; West Indies 526 for 7 dec v England at Port-of-Spain in 1967-68; Australia 520 v South Africa at Melbourne in 1952-53; England 519 v Australia at Melbourne in 1928-29; England 496 v Australia at Headingley in 1948; and Australia 490 v West Indies at Bridgetown in 1998-99).

The optimistic best-case scenario then had England running up 600 and bowling South Africa out cheaply again on a belter of a pitch. Amazingly, it came to pass: Marcus Trescothick played within himself for 219, and Graham Thorpe played out of his skin for a comeback century. Alec Stewart mucked up the script by succumbing for 38, although his partnership with Trescothick was an important one. But even Sam Mendes would have ensured a wrinkle or two in the screenplay.

And then came Flintoff. Another early wicket on the fourth morning would have put South Africa back in the box-seat for the draw they needed to claim the series. Instead Flintoff remembered his lines and smashed the ball to all parts, including one straight six off Makhaya Ntini that threatened those journalists in the airless Oval press box. A lead of 20 or so became 120, Martin Bicknell bananaed the ball around, Stephen Harmison conjured up one special over, and South Africa were gasping for breath.

Even the weather was on England's side. It saved them at Edgbaston, and it held off here (the original forecasts for Sunday and Monday were terrible). And it helped that the diffidence that marked the final Test of South Africa's last two tours here, in 1994 and 1998, returned to haunt them. Graeme Smith will look back on this summer and wonder where it all went wrong.

In the second innings Trescothick added a forthright 69 not out to his double-century, but despite his two fine knocks this wasn't quite Tresco's Test in the same way as '81 belonged to Botham. Thorpe, Flintoff, Bicknell and Harmison played vital roles too, while Stewart's long farewell kept the crowd involved throughout the match. This was a remarkably resilient team effort from a remarkably resilient team.

Steven Lynch is the editor of Wisden CricInfo.

Day 5 Bulletin: England square series with nine-wicket win