The first hour or so of the match went roughly as I expected. But that was about it. Of course, I did not expect Morne Morkel to open the bowling and trap Strauss lbw with his fourth ball of the day. But seeing the bowlers on top in slightly tricky conditions was nothing surprising. It was after that, as that South Africa’s excellent attack started to look toothless, that my expectations started to look misplaced. Morkel was really only accurate with that one delivery; he was quite wayward overall. Steyn was down on both pace and aggression. But perhaps the most disappointing was Philander. He took the new ball with Morkel, but he never looked special. That is by no means to say that he is not, or that he will not come back later in the Test or series, but for today he was a long way short of the form that saw him take 51 wickets in seven Tests. Tahir meantime was just as much of a non-entity as I expected he would be; he was only notable for getting enough turn to suggest that it will be a tough to bat on days four and five.
There were a few possible reasons for the performance from South Africa. The obvious suggestion is that they were undercooked. They did not get a lot of time to bowl in their warmups and when they did do so they looked slightly poor. The conditions did not help them as much as they might have liked either. The pitch was flat and although the start was delayed due to rain the sun came out around lunchtime and by and large stayed out. The predicted occasional interruptions never materialised. And not to be ignored is the fact that South Africa were quickly up against two very good batsmen in Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott. The two batted together for 56.4 overs and put on 170 for the second wicket. Once the shine had come off the ball a bit, South Africa very quickly looked like they did not have any backup plans. They were reduced to bowling well outside off stump in the hope that Cook or Trott would go fishing. Technically it did work as that was how Trott was finally out, but almost anyone who has ever watched Trott and Cook bat could tell you that if it was going to work it would take a long time. A lot of people found this partnership ‘boring’, but I thought it was actually very absorbing. It never felt like nothing was going to happen partly because Trott or Cook would occasionally play a beautiful shot to the rope, but also because it always felt like South Africa might have something special in reserve and it was a long time before one felt that England were even relatively comfortable after the early wicket.
Trott did finally fish at a ball that was too far outside off and edged it behind after tea. It brought Kevin Pietersen in with the score 170-2, but even with the match seemingly well set up for him he had a very odd innings. He was very scratchy to start; at one point he had scored six off 22 deliveries and a lot of those a bit streakily. He did settle down though against Tahir and looked very well set to make it to stumps and maybe even get some runs off the new ball. Except before that happened he tried to pull a short ball from Kallis that was not in the right position and all he could do was strangle it behind on 42. It was a terrible end to an innings where he really should have gone on and dominated. The pitch was flat and the attack was flagging, not to mention his motivation playing South Africa and after the events of last week. It was really a classic KP dismissal. It left England still in a good position, but needing to negotiate a tricky period before stumps.
Given that it is a fairly traditional Oval pitch, England are probably looking at 450 as being almost a minimum from this position. But the ball is still relatively new, only nine overs old, and the South African pacemen will be fresh tomorrow morning. The first hour will thus be very important; South Africa almost have to use that time to take a wicket. If Cook and Bell survive and get settled then South Africa could be staring down the barrel of a huge total. Alastair Cook has some remarkable stats after going to a hundred: he actually averages 180 in his first 19 tons. Of his last six (since the start of the Ashes) he has two doubles and only one dismissal between 100 and 130. Ian Bell has been in good form so far this summer, and indeed last summer as well, and then there is the English lower order with which to contend. If Prior and Bresnan come in sometime tomorrow afternoon with England already up to 400 and a licence to play their shots against an old ball they could add a lot of runs very quickly. The best hope for South Africa will be to break this nascent partnership early tomorrow morning and then send Bopara back cheaply. South Africa can keep themselves in the match if they do that, but they will have a lot of work to do even afterward. They probably have to keep England under 425 to have a decent chance.
Regardless of England’s final total, there are three things on which to keep an eye tomorrow: first is Steyn and Philander. Neither looked at the peak of their game today and tomorrow should give a good indication of how much of that was just rust. The pitch is still flat, but they will have to improve. The second is Ravi Bopara. Anyone who reads this blog with regularity will already know that I do not rate him, but he has (another) chance to prove me not-entirely-right tomorrow. He had mixed fortunes against India in a similar situation at the Oval last summer, but he is less likely to be declared on this time. At Edgbaston, however, he made only seven after watching a long partnership. Lastly: England should have a chance to bowl at some point. South Africa will almost certainly be under some sort of scoreboard pressure when they come out and they have to bat with the same caution that Cook and Trott did.