LONDON – Moeen Ali’s day five hat-trick was a wonderful way to round off the 100th Test at The Oval, a special venue for myself and the game in general.
As with the other games in this series, The Oval’s 100th game has been devoid of closeness – the margin of victory massive once again.
I can’t quite put my finger on why that is, but you could say with some surety that if more players from both sides had displayed the same class and application in the face of adversity as South Africa’s Dean Elgar in this series, we will have had some closer games.
A contest at Old Trafford would be a positive thing for the series.
Understandably, all the plaudits must go to England and their win. It was a hugely gritty and professional performance, given the hounding they took at the hands of the press after their own Trent Bridge debacle.
You can trace the roots of this win right back to day one, and the quality shown by Alastair Cook and Ben Stokes in building a total under stormy skies.
The England bowlers then did a wonderful job, with debutant Toby Roland-Jones providing a display of what has brought him his success for Middlesex. He looks to be a real thinking bowler, changing his angle of attack in order to stop batsmen settling against him.
A theme of the series has been the side batting second crumbling under scoreboard pressure, a trend South Africa failed to break here.
However, amid the obvious failings was yet another gem from South Africa’s most consistent performer, Dean Elgar. He’s a battler and a fighter, and despite admitting to feeling out of sorts technically, he’s looked increasingly assured at the crease.
Good Test batsmen find a way to score runs, even when the fluidity and fluency has seemingly been drained from them. What we saw from Dean in his superb rearguard in the fourth innings was what can happen when you fight through those periods.
Sunday and Monday saw his movements become more precise and sharp, and he began unfurling some sumptuous strokeplay to accompany his dogged defence.
Saving the game always looked a step too far, but he can be proud of how he stood up for his country on Monday. Young players can certainly look to Elgar’s knock as a perfect example of the work and determination it takes in order to contribute as consistently as he does.
Finding a solid and reliable opening partner for Elgar is a priority for South Africa, and the answer to that question looks unlikely to be answered on this tour.
The tour as a whole has been a disappointing one, with the white-ball cricket failing to live up to expectations, and the Test side now looking down the barrel of their first Test series defeat in England for some time.
Throwing Aiden Markram in for the Old Trafford Test in place of Heino Kuhn would be a huge ask of such a young player, and it’ll be interesting to see if the selectors see that as a risk worth taking in order to gauge how Markram stands up at this level.
South Africa’s bowling was placed under unexpected pressure in this match due to the illness Vernon Philander was struck with, something they could have done without.
That saw Chris Morris forced into playing the third seamer role, which I’m not sure he’s as comfortable with. His economy rates in this game show the hole in his game – consistency.
As the fourth seamer, you can often be more aggressive. Knowing that your workload is likely to be smaller than others grants that fourth bowler more freedom to try and take wickets. England got away from South Africa in that first innings, and Morris clearly struggled to simply hit his mark.
Faf and the team will have some work to do to build him up and get his mindset right ahead of Old Trafford, a pitch he should enjoy bowling on, with pace and bounce traditionally typical characteristics.
It’s been a long, long tour for this group. For those involved from the start until now, this next Test will undoubtedly prove to be a stern test of resolve and their ability to regroup.
A 3-1 defeat would be a hugely disappointing pill to swallow given the quality at South Africa’s disposal, especially as England appear to be in something of a transitional stage themselves.
An encouraging point is that most batsmen in the South African side have shown some form at points in this series, but they’ll need to come together at the same time at Old Trafford if anything is to be salvaged from what’s been a tough few months on English shores.