England v South Africa, 2012
A review of the first Test, England v South Africa, 2012
At The Oval, July 19-23. South Africa won by an innings and 12 runs. Toss: England.
On a warm Sunday evening, a beery roar spread across the ground: four blokes in yellow jerseys and fake sideburns were basking in vicarious glory after news arrived from Paris that the real Bradley Wiggins - also sporting a yellow jersey, but more authentic facial hair - had been officially crowned as the first Briton to win the Tour de France.
Spectators were in the mood for applause, since they had seen a tour de force themselves. There are few clearer proofs of a batsman's mental strength or physical adaptability than a Test triple-century, and minutes earlier Hashim Amla had become the first South African to breathe such rarefied air. For at least four reasons it was a genuinely great achievement: with Petersen gone for nought, it was born in adversity; it came away from home against the team rated best in the world; it was an innings of real beauty, with shots played all round the wicket, off front foot and back; and, like only nine of the previous 25 Test triples, it would lead to victory.
In fact it led to more than that: it led to annihilation. No one was sure when England had been so utterly outflanked, though Hastings in 1066 was a possibility. In losing by an innings, Strauss's team scraped just two wickets, and one of those - Smith bowled via bat and pad - was a touch fluky. Between the dismissal of Ravi Rampaul, West Indies' No. 10, at Edgbaston in June and the end of this Test, England had taken three wickets, once every 260 runs. As the marauding South Africans raced towards their first victory at The Oval, their pack downed batsmen at an average cost of only 31.
After England's eventual marmalising, it was hard to recall the optimism of the first day. The word was that South Africa were undercooked and, without Mark Boucher, had lost their soul. De Villiers, the regular one-day keeper, took the gloves, in his 75th consecutive Test - so equalling Boucher's national record.
The Oval, which was hosting the First Test while Lord's geared up for Olympic archery, had seen endless rain before the game. Another shower delayed the start by 15 minutes, but Strauss, wary of a pitch expected to deteriorate, batted anyway. He immediately faced Morkel (handed the new ball in preference to Steyn) from round the wicket. The fourth delivery struck Strauss - a serial Morkel victim - on the pads, and Smith, utterly convinced of the shout, successfully challenged the not-out decision.
The next breakthrough, though, was a while coming. Philander had bolted to 50 Test wickets from 1,240 balls, quicker than anyone, but now he went wicketless through a whole day for the first time. Steyn, No. 1 in the world rankings, fared no better as the South Africans failed to wake a comatose surface. With the fielding similarly sleepy, imaginary scoreboards whirred inside spectators' heads: England would surely make 500, 600 - perhaps even 700. So it was a shock when Trott drove airily, ending his 170-run stand with Cook, who would go on to his 20th Test century, almost a year after his 19th. Still, Pietersen wouldn't waste such an opportunity, would he? Er, yes. With England in apparent control at 251 for two and the new ball available in moments, he followed an innocuous leg-side bouncer and gloved Kallis to de Villiers.
Next morning, a change in the weather meant England, after sailing serenely through the first day, were suddenly blown on to the rocks. Clouds loured over Kennington, making the ball as skittish as a kitten. Out went a defensive line wide of off; in came vicious, intimidating swing. First overboard was Cook, dragging a loose drive into his stumps. He had played just one other false stroke: a top-edged hook that brought his first six in his 45 home Tests.
Bopara, replacing Jonny Bairstow in the problematic No. 6 spot, botched his return. Leaving his bat pointing skywards like an abandoned periscope, he was caught in two minds about hooking - and behind for a duck. Bell, though, was beaten by classic Kallis. After two outswingers, he left what he thought was a third. But the ball shaped back in to kiss the off bail: England had nosedived from their overnight 267 for three to 284 for six.
Prior counterpunched, but the truth was that six of the top eight fell to soft dismissals, and their total of 385 was more a statement of what might have been than of intent. When Anderson aped Kallis to despatch Petersen for nought (away + away + in = out), England's failings looked pardonable. But rain that fell just after tea washed more than the players from the field. When cricket resumed at 5.55, it became clear that any scintilla of movement had gone too - at least when England had the ball. Just before the close, Amla, on 40, slashed hard at Bopara. Strauss, the lone slip, fell back to earth with stinging fingertips. As drops go, it was forgivable, but costly.
The left-handed Smith was initially unsettled by Swann, so he eschewed all risk by lunging defensively forward or playing from the crease - a viable option against such sluggish turn. The result was a fifty high on determination and low on aesthetics; at 160 balls, it was his slowest in Tests. (His next fifty, though, came from just 41, as he became the seventh player to mark his 100th Test with a century.) Session merged into session as milestone after milestone slipped by under increasingly blue skies: 200 stand, 100 for Amla, 250 stand…
On the third afternoon, Smith finally made way for Kallis. Not that it made a ha'p'orth of difference: the England bowlers were as threatening as blancmange - though with distinctly less wobble. Still, Strauss did manage a laugh when his throw smashed the sunglasses that had just slipped from his sunhat, a mishap oddly emblematic of England's plight. More century landmarks peppered play on the fourth day, with the bowlers joining in: 100 for Anderson, 200 for Amla, 100s for Bresnan, Swann and Kallis (his 43rd in Tests), 200 stand…
Amla, who had chosen to defer his Ramadan fast, had an insatiable appetite for runs: on the attack, he was strong, elegant and wristy, while his defence, forward or back, was neat, fluent and commanding. No single shot stood out, but that was testament to his all-round dominance. Against Swann, Amla lingered outside off and played him to leg so effortlessly that the bowler ended with none for 151. And his partner was the Kallis so rarely glimpsed in England - the batsman with oodles of time and every shot in the book… 500 up, 250 for Amla, 250 stand, 300 stand, Amla to 281 (beating de Villiers's national record), 150 for Kallis, 600 up…
Four balls later, in the 184th over, Amla lofted a drive over extra cover. It took him past 300, and from the most exuberant beard in Test cricket there flashed a mile-wide smile. By the time Smith declared at tea, earlier than many expected, Amla had faced 529 balls.
It wasn't quite chanceless - no marathon stretching to 13 hours and ten minutes, the longest undefeated innings in Test history, could possibly be - but it was studded with 35 fours. It was the first triple in England since Graham Gooch's 333 at Lord's in 1990, the first by a visiting batsman since Bobby Simpson's 311 for Australia at Old Trafford in 1964, and unforgettable for its calmness, placement and concentration.
England, trailing by 252, had four sessions in which to save the game. On a pitch that for almost 48 hours had refused bowlers so much as the time of day, it should have been within their compass. Yet the South Africans did find movement, and for the third innings in a row an opener fell for a duck. When Pietersen, unsettled by Morkel's aggression, lost his middle stump playing inside a straight one, England were 57 for three. That became 67 for four after a nervy sweep from Strauss looped to backward square leg.
Next morning Bopara, looking to belt the leather off a ball better ignored, dragged on, ending a responsible fifty stand. Bell, however, continued the restraint, and with Prior began to hatch an unlikely escape. He inched his way to 50 from 189 deliveries - like Smith, his slowest in Tests - only to be undermined an hour or so after lunch when Prior could resist the sweep no longer: Kallis snapped up the game's first slip catch as England lost another wicket of their own making. Once Steyn removed Bell with the new ball to leave them 210 for seven, the end was near. With England nine down at 3.40, tea was delayed, and the last wicket came at 3.58. It was a minor inconvenience for South Africa; in truth, England weren't much more trouble.
Man of the Match: H. M. Amla. Attendance: 103,387. Close of play: first day, England 267-3 (Cook 114, Bell 10); second day, South Africa 86-1 (Smith 37, Amla 47); third day, South Africa 403-2 (Amla 183, Kallis 82); fourth day, England 102-4 (Bell 14, Bopara 15).