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At Kennington Oval, August 16, 17, 18. England won by four wickets. This was the best match of the whole five. Full of surprises throughout the three days, it was fought on a pitch that provided a fair chance for both batsman and bowler. For once there was no batting paradise to fetter the bowlers, Compton's 73 was the highest individual score and South Africa's 202 the best total. Actually 36 wickets fell for 714 runs, an average of less than 20 a wicket, and it was a relief that no batting or bowling records were broken. The only thing new to Test cricket was the dismissal of Hutton for obstructing the field, a decision that had been given only four times previously in first-class cricket.
From England's point of view, the hero was Laker, the Surrey off-break bowler. He took ten wickets in the match for 119. Unafraid to pitch the ball well up to the batsmen, he attacked them persistently. Bowling round the wicket, he gave the ball plenty of air and his finger-spin whipped off the pitch across the bat towards his leg-trap of Hutton, Brown and Tattersall.
Again Brown lost the toss--the twelfth time in the fifteen matches in which he had led England--and again South Africa concentrated entirely on defence. From the start the pitch proved responsive to spin--in the early stages the ball turned only slowly--but on this occasion dilatory batting did not pay.
South Africa were handicapped through Waite and Mann being unfit. They brought in Endean and Melle and, although neither let the side down, the absence of Mann, who broke a sequence of nineteen Test appearances, was keenly felt, for the pitch should have proved ideal for his left-arm slow bowling.
During the two hours before lunch on the opening day, when South Africa scored only 66 for the loss of Endean, there was nothing to indicate the thrills that were to follow. The Springboks started even more slowly than in the other three Tests when they batted first. At Nottingham they made 82 for one wicket; at Manchester 68 for three; at Leeds 98 for one. There were some splendid opening overs by Bedser and Shackleton, but with the cricket colourless the 25,000 spectators became restless. The stubborn first-wicket stand was broken in the last over before lunch when Endean played the ball on to his pads and Brown accepted an easy catch in Laker's leg-trap.
On resuming, Eric Rowan appeared to sense the necessity of making the most of his opportunities, and it was nearly three o'clock, when the second new ball was almost due, that Brown joined Laker in a long spell which changed the character of the cricket. Six wickets went down while the score moved from 106 for one to 146 for seven.
Rowan had spent two and three-quarter hours over his 55 when Brown began the collapse by deceiving him with a leg-break that produced a slip catch. Without addition there fell two more wickets, those of van Ryneveld and Cheetham, and subsequently Athol Rowan alone showed ability to deal with the bowling. The analysis conveys no real idea of how finely Brown bowled his leg-breaks. Athol Rowan drove and pulled cleanly, and he and his brother scored 96 of South Africa's 202. Actually the last nine South African wickets fell in two hours.
Sixty-five minutes remained for play on this first day when Hutton and Lowson began England's reply, and at once disaster occurred, for Endean, the South Africa wicket-keeper, caught Lowson on the leg-side with only two scored. McCarthy, Melle, Chubb and Athol Rowan bowled splendidly, but Hutton and May looked set for a long stand when, in the last over, Hutton, playing back, fell lbw at 51. This was a great achievement for South Africa and the position became evenly balanced again.
Light rain delayed the resumption the next day for twenty minutes, when Compton, if not comfortable, stayed three hours forty minutes and, last out, saved England from complete collapse.
At first the pitch was more lively, and Chubb, at the age of 40, accomplished a notable feat in rarely sending down a loose ball while bowling unchanged from the Vauxhall end from 11.50 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. Athol Rowan made his off-breaks whip across even more viciously than did Laker the previous day, and McCarthy, abandoning the short-pitched bumper, maintained complete control over pace and direction.
Again South Africa experienced trouble in separating Compton and Watson, and while they were together England had no cause to worry. The turning-point occurred at 128 when Watson's valuable wicket was thrown away. Compton cut Chubb to third man and Watson immediately dashed down the pitch. Compton, on his back foot, sent his partner back, but McCarthy's return hit the stump, and Watson was out by at least a yard. Some people blamed Compton, but Watson afterwards said it was not the Middlesex player's fault. In two hours between lunch and tea five England wickets fell for 78, and on resuming the last two went down for five more runs. Compton was content with four 4's.
When South Africa, who led by eight runs, batted for the last ninety-five minutes, the Surrey bowlers, Bedser and Laker, were in masterful mood, but the fielding was uncertain. Indeed Hutton, at slip and short leg, missed four chances, including two from Eric Rowan, who for once eschewed caution. Still, England disposed of Endean, van Ryneveld and Nourse, South Africa finishing at 68 for three wickets (E. Rowan 36 not out).
Two men, Laker and Brown, carried England to victory on Saturday, when the seven remaining South African wickets fell in two hours before lunch for 86. Laker took four for 29 and Bedser, by claiming two, raised his number of victims in twelve Tests since the previous December to 62, and equalled his feat of 30 wickets in the winter series against Australia.
The pitch was less difficult than on the first two days, for it was drier and ball turned more slowly. England, wanting 163, began their task after lunch, and the two Yorkshiremen, Hutton and Lowson, batted with such ease and confidence that an easy victory seemed certain.
In fifty minutes they took the score to 53, and then came the Hutton sensation and calamity. A ball from Athol Rowan lifted abruptly and struck Hutton on the glove. It ran up his arm and, when he looked round, it appeared to him, as he afterwards explained, to be falling on to his wicket. In that split second Hutton never thought about the wicket-keeper making a catch. He flicked at the ball with his bat and missed it, but it fell neither on to his stumps nor into Endean's gloves. The wicket-keeper had been obstructed and the South Africans rightly appealed. Just as rightly, Dai Davies signalled Hutton out. Hutton did not wilfully obstruct the wicket-keeper, but he wilfully waved his bat, an action which prevented the wicket-keeper from getting to the ball. From his point of view it was a most unsatisfactory ending to his 100th innings in Test cricket.
On Hutton's departure the issue again became open. One moment England were on top; the next South Africa were in the fight with a good chance of success. Technically, Athol Rowan deserved to be credited with Hutton's wicket, for spin brought about the incident, and his next ball accounted for May, caught by one of four short-legs. Next Compton and Lowson left, so that, with four wickets down, 73 runs were still needed.
At this stage came Brown, and in the ensuing seventy-three minutes the battle was lost and won. Brown, renowned for his courage, hit boldly and luck went with him. While scoring his first three singles he offered three difficult chances. At the tea interval England were 98 for four wickets, and after the interval Athol Rowan erred for the first time in length and three overs from him cost 26 runs, 18 to Brown, including one 6 over square leg, and eight to Watson.
When Brown, top scorer, was lbw England wanted only 12, and appropriately Laker made the winning hit by turning Rowan to long leg for three. So England won the rubber by three victories to one, but only those present that day know how close South Africa came to sharing the honours. It was England's first win at The Oval since they beat Australia in 1938. The attendance during the three days was 80,900.