TELFORD VICE at The Oval
With a voluptuous pop, a champagne cork parted company with its bottle and leapt into in the honeyed sunshine that soaked the scene. It was 11.23am.
Ah, the sumptuous sound of summer. Of course, this being England, it didn’t last. Within the hour glum clouds had bearded the ground, and rain made its first intrusion 15 minutes before lunch. It abated long enough for another hour’s play, but not a minute more.
But if you thought not a lot could have happened in the 37 overs bowled in the third test between England and South Africa yesterday, you would be wrong.
Plenty did, and when the fight against the elements was abandoned England were 74/1 in their second innings. Or 252 ahead with two days left in the match. Two days, mind, which are forecast to be cloudy but, at this stage, dry.
That isn’t good news for the South Africans if they are to go to Manchester for next week’s fourth test with a series still to win.
Victory for England at The Oval — still the most likely of the four available outcomes — will mean South Africa can, at best, only draw the rubber at Old Trafford.
Vernon Philander will be central to whatever drama unfolds. He spent Friday night in hospital with a drip in his arm fighting a viral infection that had limited him to 17 of the 103.2 overs South Africa bowled to dismiss England for 353, and stopped him from batting in his usual position as they crashed to 126/8 in reply.
Will he be fit for Manchester? He’ll have to be.
Yesterday’s first notable event came in the seventh over, when Temba Bavuma slashed Stuart Broad to gully — where Ben Stokes dropped what would have been a fine catch.
“You are absolute shit,” Bavuma didn’t say to Stokes, which would have been harsh, even considering it was what Stokes had spat at Bavuma during his maiden century at Newlands in January last year.
South Africa were five runs away from avoiding the prospect of following on when the chance went down.
How long Morne Morkel would be able to suspend everyone’s but his own disbelief in his batting ability without Bavuma’s towering presence — figuratively, of course — at the other end and with only an ailing Philander to come was anyone’s guess.
As it happened, Morkel scored a flinty 17, Philander agonised to an unbeaten 10, and Bavuma was last out for 52, a doughty effort of more than three hours that earned his ninth half-century and his fifth scored with South Africa’s backs to the wall. It also sent Graeme Pollock and his sorry ilk back under their rocks tae think again.
England’s second innings was four overs old when Philander found Keaton Jennings’ edge. The catch flew to third slip, where it eluded Dean Elgar.
But Morkel claimed a bigger scalp five overs later when he trimmed Alastair Cook’s off stump with a delivery that veered towards the left-hander and then snaked away off the pitch.
The South Africans celebrated, of course. But not too heartily: much will have to happen in this match if they are to break out the champagne and send corks leaping into England’s scarce sunshine.