Comment: Honours even under new captain

It could have been so different. For a second or so England looked to have got off to the best of all possible starts when the first ball of the match, a widish long hop from Stephen Harmison, caught Graham Smith’s bat high up and flew head high to Alastair Cook in the gully.

The unfortunate Essex man failed to hang on to the ball and a straightforward chance of a valuable wicket ended up on The Oval turf.

In the same Harmison over Smith got an inside edge onto a delicate part of his anatomy and dropped to the ground in agony and required a minute or so to recover.

The very next ball went through to wicketkeeper Tim Ambrose. It was still climbing and deflected off his chest and onto Ambrose’s mouth. He required treatment which held up play for a few more minutes.

There were other close calls for Smith and his opening partner Neil McKenzie as Harmison and new ball partner James Anderson consistently beat the bat and Andrew Flintoff after he was introduced to the attack after 11 overs.

But there had still been no wicket. The sense of gloom and doom for England deepened as dark clouds rolled in over neighbouring Archbishop Tenison’s School. The England attack still had their tails up, but looked as if they were going to be frustrated just as they were working up a serious head of steam.

But Flintoff broke the spell. Having induced an edge from Smith that flew just wide of Cook at third slip, the Lancashire all-rounder finally gave new England captain Kevin Pietersen something to cheer with the last ball of his fifth over, the 20th of the South Africa innings, when McKenzie chased a wide ball and the resulting edge was taken by Cook. Shortly after that rain drove them off a quarter of an hour before the start of the interval and an early lunch was taken.

Scoring had been difficult throughout this first session. Harmison generally bowled an impressive line and length and went for just three runs an over, Flintoff was similar, with Anderson the tightest. There was time only for three overs from Stuart Broad, returning to the side after his one-test lay-off, which was not really enough for him to get into any sort of rhythm, although he troubled McKenzie in his first over, thereafter perhaps bowling a shade too short and wide.

Overall honours were about even by the time they trooped off for that early lunch.