There was a time not so long ago when Test cricket was bright and breezy stuff. Runs flooded along at a four an over, and if wickets were not always falling like trees in a hurricane, action followed incident, interspersed by boundary.
Then came Trent Bridge and the Third Test. This has been the attritional fare of yore: England carved out a substantial score and South Africa set about tracking it down, eating up time, refusing to budge easily on an odd, slow pitch, generally doing enough to nudge the calm exterior of England's cucumber- cool captain, Michael Vaughan. Only Chinese water torture would do more to disturb his composure.
The third day was rarely in a state of high excitement, but it ended in drama, and over the next two days the match itself could easily do likewise. South Africa, who had lost two wickets in the first over of the day, were eventually all out more than seven hours later for 362.
England had an over to face, which was reduced to one ball when Marcus Trescothick was adjudged to have gloved it on to his thigh- pad before it looped to short leg. It was the last of several umpiring decisions that were worthy of debate, though not derision, and left England 83 ahead. It is anybody's match, but for the sake of the Fourth Test starting at Headingley on Thursday, and the series, it had better be England's.
Neil McKenzie, who was belatedly included in South Africa's side, scored 90 and deserved a hundred. James Anderson took five wickets in an innings for the second time in a brief career of five matches, but will deserve them more often in future. Like everything else in England's day, they took their time in arriving.
Of the quartet of seam bowlers in the side, none was exemplary. Stephen Harmison sustained a calf injury in mid-afternoon, which may force the selectors to cast around once more before the show moves up the road to Leeds.
England's bowling was not up to taking full advantage of a pitch that remained capricious. It was as if a naïve suitor, invited by a showgirl to have his way, was not quite sure how to realise his ambitions. England should have pitched it up and been on target more regularly.
There was contrary bounce, as there had been since the first hour of the first morning. The surface was also leisurely enough to allow batsmen time for realignment if anything was misguided. South Africa responded accordingly. No team are more stubborn, and they were not about to depart without being subjected to constant examination.
They knew all about the pitch's vagaries; their captain had publicly damned it the night before. He had been graphic enough to give his charges nightmares.
For a glorious moment it seemed that England might spare themselves the agony of an irksome day. The fifth ball of the morning, from James Kirtley, was slanted across Jacques Rudolph, who could only edge it to Alec Stewart.
That was Kirtley's first Test wicket, and he doubled the tally next ball in winning an lbw verdict against Boeta Dippenaar. It jagged back awkwardly, and although it might have slid past leg stump the umpire, Darrell Hair, thought otherwise. Hair must have felt he had thus purged himself of lbws for the day, because he later rejected several appeals that were based on similar but more solid foundations than the original.
Kirtley then missed his hat-trick, but two balls later Jacques Kallis nicked one some two feet to Stewart's right. It was arcing downward, but it was the sort of opportunity that international wicketkeepers are paid to take. Immediately, the debate was renewed about whether the catch would have been snaffled by younger man, or a younger Stewart.
It is difficult to be sure, but then that is the trouble: Stewart is 40 and no longer sure. There is no point in making the argument that anybody else might have dropped the chance in such difficult conditions for keepers. By keeping faith with Stewart, the most capped of all England players, the management are insisting virtually not only that he is still the best but also that he takes everything that comes his way.
Kallis was on 11 at the time, and he was 27 an hour later when he shouldered arms to a low one that Anderson this time had on target. It cannoned into his off-stump. The book therefore seemed to show that Stewart's drop had not been costly. But South Africa had added 44 precious runs in that time, and regrouped.
Kirtley bowled well early in the day. There was no question about the justification in playing him in this match after being in the squad for the first four Tests of the summer. But by doing so, there is also no question that the selectors have put his action on full view, and in a match, to boot, in which one of the adjudicators is Hair, the only man on the current ICC panel who has called a bowler (Muttiah Muralitharan) for throwing.
Kirtley has already performed restructuring work on his action once after being reported on a one-day tour of Zimbabwe two years ago. It is to be hoped that neither Hair nor anybody else noticed anything untoward this time. The issue of illegal deliveries is always vexatious, because it can threaten a man's career.
In this match, an eyebrow or two (not necessarily belonging to those who matter) flickered slightly and occasionally when Andrew Hall, the South African all-rounder, was bowling. If England have got it right then all well and good. Kirtley is a thoroughly whole-hearted cricketer.
He did not take another wicket and neither did England until the evening session after the early couple reduced South Africa to 88 for 4. McKenzie is an attractive batsman, with flair on the drive, and Boucher is a doughty soul who gives an opponent no leeway, especially if he is an Englishman.
McKenzie was born in Johannesburg, where he attended the same school as Graeme Smith. The old boys' network had not been sufficient to give him a Test place earlier on this tour, but the King Edwardians should both be in for the rest of the series.
The road to a third Test century had been cleared by McKenzie when he played falsely at a wideish one from Anderson that moved away, and edged it to first slip.
When Boucher was leg before to Flintoff 23 runs later, it looked as though England might have a substantial lead long before the end of the day after all. But South Africa yield nothing and, like their predecessors, both Hall and Paul Adams stayed around. None of the partnerships for the last wickets yielded less than 23.
Both were to be bowled by Anderson, one playing on, the other beaten by swing. Anderson has a golden arm and therefore the knack of taking wickets. But there remains the danger of making too much of him too soon. For England, the end of the South African innings could not come soon enough. But the start of their own was much too soon.
nPower Test scoreboard
England won toss
England - First Innings
M E Trescothick c Boucher b Hall 24
M P Vaughan c Gibbs b Pollock 1
M A Butcher c Boucher b Ntini 106
N Hussain lbw b Pollock 116
E T Smith c Boucher b Kallis 64
A J Stewart c Smith b Adams 72
A Flintoff c Pollock b Hall 0
A F Giles b Hall 22
R J Kirtley c Smith b Ntini 1
S J Harmison c Pollock b Adams 14
J M Anderson not out 0
Extras (b9, lb8,w4, nb4) 25
Total (607 min, 146.3 overs) 445
Fall: 1-7 (Vaughan), 2-29 (Trescothick), 3-218 (Butcher), 4-322 (Hussain), 5-333 (Smith), 6-347 (Flintoff), 7-388 (Giles), 8-408 (Kirtley), 9-440 (Stewart), 10-445 (Harmison).
Bowling: Pollock 36-18-65-2 (nb4, w1) (7-2-13-1, 6-1-17-0, 5-3-6-0, 13-8-20-1, 5-4-9-0), Ntini 33-3-137-2 (5-1-17-0, 7-0-41-0, 4-1-6-1, 11-0-46-0, 1-0-10-0, 5-1-17-1), Hall 24-6-88-3 (w1) (6-1-19-1, 4-1-15-0, 3-1-13-0, 2-0-18-0, 5-2-7-1, 4-1-16-1), Kallis 27-7-92-1 (w1) (7-3-18-0, 7-1-36-0, 6-1-24-0, 6-2-10-1, 1-0-4-0), Adams 26.3-7-46-2 (w1) (7-1-14-0, 4-1-5-0, 15.3-5-27-2).
Butcher: 50: 128 min, 98 balls, 10 fours. 100: 207 min, 160 balls, 21 fours.
Hussain: 50: 133 min, 89 balls, 9 fours. 100: 264 min, 189 balls, 16 fours.
Smith: 50: 138 min, 93 balls, 9 fours Stewart: 50: 143 min, 100 balls, 9 fours
South Africa - First Innings
G C Smith hit wicket b Flintoff 35
H H Gibbs b Harmison 19
J A Rudolph c Stewart b Kirtley 15
J H Kallis b Anderson 27
H H Dippenaar lbw b Kirtley 0
N D McKenzie c Trescothick b Anderson 90
M V Boucher lbw Flintoff 48
S M Pollock c Kirtley b Anderson 62
A J Hall b Anderson 15
P R Adams b Anderson 13
M Ntini not out 4
Extras (b4 lb19 w3 nb8) 34
Total (529 mins, 119.4 overs) 362
Fall: 1-56 (Gibbs), 2-66 (Smith), 3-88 (Rudolph), 4-88 (Dippenaar), 5-132 (Kallis), 6-261 (McKenzie), 7-284 (Boucher), 8-309 (Hall), 9-337 (Adams)
Bowling: Anderson 27.5-4-102-5 (w2) (3-1-16-0 3-1-8-0 5-1-18-1 3-1-6-0 4-0-19-1 9.5-0-35-3), Kirtley 31-8-80-2 (nb3, w1) (7-1-20-0 9-2-26-2 2-0-5-0 3-1-10-0 10-4-19-0), Flintoff 33-8-91-2 (nb4) (11-5-20-1 5-1-10-0 2-0-3-0 3-0-17-0 2-0-6-0 8-2-25-1 2-0-10-0), Harmison 17-3-42-1 (nb1) (6-1-13-1 6-1-10-0 3-0-14-0 2-1-5-0), Giles 10-3-24-0 (1-0-5-0 7-3-12-0 1-0-6-0 1-0-1-0), Vaughan 1-1-0-0.
McKenzie 50: 133 mins, 85 balls, 6 fours
Pollock 50: 108 mins, 70 balls, 8 fours.
England - Second Innings
M E Trescothick c Adams b Pollock 0
M P Vaughan not out 0
Total (for 1, 0.1 over) 0
Fall: 1-0 (Trescothick) Bowling: Pollock 0.1-0-0-1
Umpires: D B Hair (Australia) and D J Harper (Australia).
TV replay umpire: N A Mallender (England). Match referee: R S Madugalle (Sri Lanka).Reuse content