Close England 502 for 7 (Flintoff 10*, Bicknell 0*) lead South Africa 484 by 18 runs
English cricket fans haven't had an awful lot to cheer about in recent weeks. But, in that grand tradition of saving the best till last, all the encores came pouring out on a pulsating third day's play at The Oval. Two of Surrey's finest, Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart, made thrilling and contrasting contributions to the entertainment, but England's thumping total of 502 for 7 was underpinned by a West Country import - Marcus Trescothick, who banished a disappointing run of form with a magnificent 219.
By the close, England had overhauled South Africa's first-innings total, and with three wickets in hand - including the dangerous Andrew Flintoff - they had the prospect of a useful lead as well. Their hopes of levelling the series, however, took a blow with six overs remaining, when Trescothick hoisted Ntini down the throat of Jacques Rudolph at backward square leg (489 for 6). And when Ashley Giles was caught at slip with eight balls remaining, it was South Africa who finished the day stronger.
But, after sustained criticism about his lack of application in Test cricket, Trescothick had responded in the most emphatic fashion imaginable. In an innings spanning nine-and-a-half hours and 374 balls, he cracked 32 fours and two bruising sixes over midwicket. All this was made possible by his intense concentration on Friday afternoon, when he barely laid a bat on his first 22 deliveries. By the end, however, he was bullying a tiring attack with all the verve he has consistently shown in the one-day game.
The meat and drink of England's total was provided by a fabulous partnership of 268 between Trescothick and Thorpe, who made a thrilling 124, his first Test century on his home ground, and his first innings of note for 15 months. They batted throughout the first session of the day, and though Trescothick would later take centre stage, it was Thorpe's performance that had the fans drooling.
The hallmark of Thorpe's play on the second evening had been his peerless picking of the gaps on the leg side. Today, however, he was in a feistier mood, taking on Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini with a succession of pulls and forcing strokes through the off. Until his dismissal, he hardly played a false stroke, and all the while he ran the quick singles like a man reborn. Eventually, he guided Ntini through backward point for two to bring up his 12th and most satisfying Test century, and the crowd rightly stood to salute him in a spine-tingling ovation that lasted for the best part of a minute.
Nothing looked likely to end their partnership until, with half an eye on an incoming rainstorm, Thorpe was defeated by Jacques Kallis, who angled the ball into his legs from round the wicket, and bowled him off his pads. That brought Ed Smith to the crease, and though he got off the mark with a first-ball four, he was never allowed to settle, and was soon pinned lbw by Hall for 16.
The entire ground knew the implications of Smith's dismissal. Out of the pavilion for the 235th - and possibly last - time came Stewart. The South Africans lined up for a guard of honour, as the entire ground left their seats yet again. The emotions didn't get to The Gaffer in quite the same way as they had for The Don, on this ground 55 years ago, but it still took him 17 nervy deliveries before he was able to push Ntini through the covers for his first runs.
Amid all the comings and goings, Trescothick was now moving along serenely. Since Thorpe's demise, Trescothick had allowed himself a greater freedom of expression, and as the shine disappeared off the second new ball, he belted Hall over mid-on for his 25th four, to bring up his second score of 150 in Test cricket.
He might, however, have fallen shortly afterwards. Having equalled his previous Test-best of 161, Trescothick uppercut Ntini towards third man, where Paul Adams came within a fingertip of an astonishing backflip of a catch. Instead, he could only deflect the ball over the rope for four, and Trescothick followed up with a thumping smear through midwicket next ball.
Stewart rose to the occasion, as nobody doubted he would, and cracked a succession of cover-drives to rumble towards his own half-century. Smith, sensing the desperation of South Africa's predicament, attempted to mix it up with some legspin from Jacques Rudolph. It nearly paid off when Stewart was dropped by Neil McKenzie at cover, but for Trescothick it was a gift. He pummelled him for six, then drove a juicy half-volley through the covers to reach his double-century. Instead, Smith called for one last effort from Pollock - and he duly delivered, pushing Stewart back onto his stumps and trapping him in front of leg for 38 (480 for 5).
With two days remaining, England will have a keen eye on the weather forecast. The outlook is not promising, and yet the disruption to today's play was minimal. Given a following breeze and clear run of sunshine, they might yet be able to pull something from this series.
Wisden Day 3 Verdict: Comings, goings, and stayings put
Wisden Day 2 Bulletin: England fight back