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The Oval crowd rose as one shortly after tea on Sunday to hail a notable English triumph on a day of sporting history. Sadly for Andrew Strauss, the man they were celebrating was Bradley Wiggins rather than any hapless home cricketer.
It was that sort of day for England. The packed Kia Oval crowd were on their feet applauding often enough but, with the exception of that burst for the Tour de France winner, it was exclusively in recognition of South African brilliance.
We did not see this coming. We knew South Africa were a formidable side and that this Investec series could go either way. But no-one could have expected total South African first-Test dominance and near humiliation for England.
England just did not look like taking a wicket on the fourth day of what has turned out to be a thoroughly one-sided opening salvo in this eagerly awaited contest.
And that followed a third day in which they could dismiss just one batsman, making this the biggest pasting they have received in modern memory, more so even than when Australia scored in excess of 600 in the opening Ashes Test of 2009.
On that occasion in Cardiff they famously held on for a draw, as they did twice against South Africa on their last tour, at Centurion and Cape Town when they had been outplayed. But, on 102/4, still 150 behind, it will take a rearguard action even greater than those three on Monday for England to get out of this sorry mess.
England’s problems in the final session, which saw Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Strauss all fall, were in total contrast to what went before when their much-heralded attack were reduced to total toothlessness.
All of a sudden, as is often the case when a team begin a desperate quest for survival, a pitch which had appeared among the flattest in Oval history now had the odd demon or two in it. Or perhaps South Africa’s attack have simply outbowled England’s, winning the first round of this shootout of the world’s best hands down.
No-one was hailed more enthusiastically or more deservedly by this generous Oval crowd than Hashim Amla, who displayed enormous levels of skill and concentration to bat for more than 13 hours and become the first South African to score a Test triple century. It was an extraordinary effort. England had simply no answer to him.
Amla, the first player of Indian extraction to play for South Africa and hugely improved since England first encountered him, is not often thought of as among the world’s best batsmen but here he showed he belongs in the most illustrious company.
On Saturday he had added 259 for the second wicket with his captain Graeme Smith and on Sunday he surpassed it with Jacques Kallis as a further 377 runs came without further success for England, the machine-like Kallis moving on to a barely believable 43rd Test hundred without anyone really noticing he was there.
Not only did Amla, a quiet man with an iron resolve described as the tourists’ ‘silent warrior’ by Dale Steyn ahead of this Test, receive standing ovations for each of his three centuries but also when he moved past the 278 AB de Villiers made against Pakistan two years ago, giving him the highest Test score by a South African.
When Smith’s positive declaration came at tea, Amla had reached 311. Kallis, with more Test centuries to his name than anyone bar Sachin Tendulkar, was on 182 and South Africa stood, imperiously, on 637/2, 252 ahead. England, strangely subdued, looked all but beaten.
What a contrast with the first day, when it was the tourists who seemed lacking in penetration and hunger. And what a worry for Andy Flower that England not only lacked potency but seemed devoid of ideas in the field. Their body language was of a team resigned to their fate and powerless to puncture the bubble in which Amla and Kallis had ensconced themselves.
Still, there did not seem any reason why England could not bat for the bulk of four sessions to emerge unscathed but more than two days in the field with just two wickets to show for it can leave the most mentally strong fragile and fallible.
South Africa certainly had a spring in their step and found movement where Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan could find none, with Imran Tahir then posing problems where Graeme Swann had mystifyingly posed none.
The crowd had waited all day for a wicket and then four came along, Cook following his century with a duck and Trott falling to his friend Steyn, who roared his approval at his success. Pietersen, inexplicably, missed a straight ball from Morne Morkel while Strauss swept Tahir tamely to backward square leg.
It was sorry stuff but at least Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara, batting for his Test life, steadied the ship before the close of a totally deflating day for England.
They will have to bat out of their skins on Monday if the No 1 ranked team in Test cricket are not to suffer their fifth defeat in nine Tests this year since rising to that exalted status but, admittedly, their first defeat in any match this season.
The sun is finally shining but for England the clouds are gathering. email@example.com – Daily Mail