Spare a thought for Alviro Petersen. Two days ago he got a peach of a delivery from James Anderson; it which swung back in at him, beat the inside edge of the bat and trapped him plumb leg before for an eleven ball duck. In the 48 hours after that, South Africa lost just one wicket and three batsmen all scored centuries. One of those batsmen was Hashim Amla who remained patience personified at the crease and went on to record the first triple hundred in South Africa’s history. It was an absolutely amazing innings and it was only as he neared the mark that he started to show any sign of nerves. He became only the second batsman ever to score more than 300 at the Oval, with the other being Len Hutton in that famous match against Australia. The 13 hours and ten minutes he spent making Amla unbeaten 311 was also only seven minutes short of the time Hutton was at the crease in 1938. That was not the only significant mark of the day as South Africa’s 637-2 declared was the first time England have conceded over 600 in an innings since the 2009 Cardiff Test.
England were given exactly four sessions to bat as South Africa declared at tea. It was a declaration that was perhaps only aggressive by Graeme Smith’s standards, but it was very clever as it meant that runs would be important as well. He gave England an incentive to try to score the 252 needed to make South Africa bat again. It really should have been possible. The pitch had been sucking the life out of the Test for most of four days and the batsmen had only struggled under cloud. England, however, promptly did their best to make the pitch look much spicier than it had ever been. Cook did get a good ball to get out and Trott got a decent one, though he followed it a bit. Kevin Pietersen threw his wicket away again. He had already offered a dolly of a chance to Kallis at slip that had been put down when he got a straight one from Morkel and somehow played inside the line to a ball that knocked over middle stump. He played the sort of defensive shot that I have been known to play and that is not a compliment. It was simply appalling. It was Strauss’ dismissal, the last of the day, that was the real blow to England. Strauss was the last batsman who one would back to bat deep in the innings, but he went out top edging a sweep to Tahir. It was a bad shot, but to his and Tahir’s credit it was a bad shot borne of very good bowling. The previous two balls from Tahir had really leapt out of the rough and it was clear that Strauss felt that he had to find a counter. To be fair, he was probably right; there was every chance he would have got out if he had stayed as he was too.
England’s position at stumps is one that looks hopeless. They still trail by exactly 150 runs and have lost the three batsmen most likely to grind out an innings to save the match. Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell are the two not out batsmen and they are England’s last two middle order players. Tomorrow will tell us a lot about whether or not the selectors knew what they were doing in selecting Bopara. He and Bell simply must find a way to build a partnership. There is still a chance that England could at least make South Africa bat again, though I think the odds of England actually drawing the Test are low. England will have to have Bell, Bopara and Prior erase almost all of the deficit and then hope that the pressure to get wickets shifts to South Africa enough that Bresnan, Broad and Swann can build a lead big enough that South Africa do not have time to chase it. Tomorrow is supposed to be the best day for batting in the Test, but England will simply have to do much better than they did today.
There are a few causes for English optimism. One is of course that the last time these two side played each other, England managed to cling on for nine-down draws twice. Another relates to the earlier alluded to Cardiff Test of 2009. It was the last time that England conceded 600 in an innings and the scores are quite similar to those so far in this Test. At Cardiff, England needed 240 to make Australia bat again and found themselves 46-4 and later 70-5. That ended in a draw, though England did not have as much time to bat then. A little bit farther back, however, England have actually not lost any of the last three matches in which we have conceded over 600 in an innings.
All of that could be construed as simply grasping at straws though and to be honest that is exactly what it is. The history and stats are interesting, but tomorrow it will come down to whether or not England’s remaining seven batsmen can find a way to keep out the vaunted South African attack for the better part of ninety overs. The result will say a lot about both sides.