England channel Jekyll rather than Hyde against South Africa

Joe Root’s team should head to Old Trafford for the final Test of the series with a 2-1 lead

Day four of the third Investec Test match between England and South Africa at The Oval, London, England. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Day four of the third Investec Test match between England and South Africa at The Oval, London, England. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

 

This England side has kept us guessing this summer. But for four days at The Oval they have been Jekylls rather than Hydes, delivering an honourable, highly professional performance throughout. By the close of play South Africa, who had been set a preposterously large target of 492 for victory, were ailing at 117 for four.

The forecast for Monday is fair, so, barring a miraculous South Africa fightback, Joe Root and his team should be able to head to Old Trafford for the final Test of the series with a 2-1 lead.

The England seamers allowed their opponents no respite so that the fourth innings of the match followed the pattern of the first two Tests. The batsmen were in torment against bowlers eagerly hunting down their prey.

Every member of England’s pace quartet was on target and a threat. Stuart Broad made the first incursion; Toby Roland-Jones consolidated that with the dismissal of Hashim Amla for the second time in the match, and then the irrepressible Ben Stokes found himself on a hat-trick. Jimmy Anderson looked good, though there were no birthday presents for him.

There was the odd blemish in the field. Early on Keaton Jennings dropped a hard chance from the bat of Dean Elgar at third slip – and Elgar is proving one of the more adhesive batsmen in this series. He remained unbeaten on 72 at stumps.

But inroads were soon made elsewhere. Broad sent Heino Kuhn’s off-stump cartwheeling. Then Roland-Jones induced a false stroke from Amla, who left it too late to withdraw his bat, which unwittingly guided a low catch to Root at second slip.

Roland-Jones impressed again in a seven-over spell. In this match he may have demonstrated one of the virtues of playing so much cricket at Lord’s for Middlesex. There the pitches habitually offer minimal assistance to bowlers, which is often the case in Test match cricket. Hence they have to work hard for their wickets there rather than wait a few minutes before the ball hits a great tuft of grass before changing direction. Roland-Jones has spent half a decade learning his trade in such taxing conditions; hence he shows no sign of being intimidated or bewildered by a relatively flat, slow track.

Shiver me timbers

As ever it was Stokes who had the crowd roaring the loudest. First he propelled the perfect yorker to Quinton de Kock, who is suddenly looking exposed so high in the order; the stumps were shattered. Next ball the timbers of Faf du Plessis would also have been disturbed if the South African captain had not put his pads in the way. For the second time in the match Du Plessis padded up to a straight ball; once again his review was futile.

In the last hour Elgar battled away defiantly with the odd majestic stroke in between some typically dogged defence, and Temba Bavuma dug in diligently once again. But batting was never easy against a purposeful England attack and there remained the impression that they were merely delaying the inevitable. There are still 98 overs available on Monday.

Batting was not such a demanding occupation earlier in the day. With England starting it with a lead of 252 it was hardly surprising that the third innings of the match was one of those relatively stress-free affairs where the main topic of debate was when Root would declare. But it was not devoid of interest because of the personnel involved.

Jennings added another 14 runs to his overnight score before he was caught in the gully from the splice of the bat, having been surprised by a lifter from Kagiso Rabada. So he finished with 48, his highest Test score of the summer by quite a margin. Whether that is enough to keep him in the team remains to be seen.

Best time to change

There will be those who, if England win the match, spout the mantra “never change a winning team”. In fact, the best time to change the team is after a victory. Then the move is triggered by the simple desire to improve the side rather than the desperation to keep the critics at bay. England winning at The Oval should not decide whether Jennings is retained for the Old Trafford Test. However, the suspicion remains that this is a minority view.

Tom Westley’s position is currently more secure. He registered a half-century, the first by an England No 3 making his debut since Owais Shah in Mumbai in 2006. Westley was nowhere near as fluent as on Saturday night. Perhaps he recognised the scope of the opportunity in front of him; perhaps the South Africans bowled better at him. Generally they kept the ball away from his legs so his progress was much slower than that of Root, who likes to score on both sides of the wicket.

Even so, 84 runs in a debut Test batting at three against an attack of this quality is a fine achievement. Westley, like Roland-Jones, appears to have a calm temperament and a method. It may not be a perfect method but it appears to work pretty well for him.

The other newcomer, Dawid Malan, was committed to the task of accelerating the innings but was soon LBW on review to Chris Morris. The others batted according to type: Root purred until holing out against Keshav Maharaj; Stokes ended up slogging selflessly, Moeen Ali did not recognise the danger of Bavuma in the outfield and was run out. Meanwhile Jonny Bairstow cruised along at a run-a-ball while Roland-Jones – where has he been all this time? – made an unbeaten 23 like an old pro. Guardian service

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