During his career as England captain Michael Vaughan will seldom see a better example of a team finishing off an opponent when they are down than that provided by South Africa on the first day of the fifth Test here yesterday. Needing only a draw to clinch their first series victory in England since 1965, not even the loss of three late wickets in the final session could spoil another day of domination for Graeme Smith's impressive side.
On a perfect Oval pitch and against a bowling attack they have ground into the dirt, South Africa ruthlessly exploited the batsmen-friendly conditions and ended the day on 362 for 4. Through reaching such a mighty position, and by still having five batsmen who are capable of scoring hundreds, the tourists have all but ensured they will return home as champions even though there are still four days to go in this game.
Following their defeat in the fourth Test at Headingley, where England threw away four golden opportunities to take a 2-1 lead in the series, Vaughan promised his side would not make the same mistakes again. South Africa's batsmen however, after spending two games batting on spiteful surfaces, were no mood to be charitable.
The scoreboard may not suggest it, and Vaughan's bowlers will definitely not have felt it as they wearily left the field, but this was not England's worst bowling display of the summer. Each of Vaughan's five-man attack gave it their all but not one of them could come up with a plan to trouble Herschelle Gibbs, who was back to his imperious best.
The South African opener has had a mixed tour but like Smith - his captain and opening partner - he has played two crucial innings for his side. The first of these, a majestic 179 in the first Test at Edgbaston, set South Africa on their way but yesterday's superb display of clean hitting was even better to watch.
Gibbs is South Africa's most talented and exciting batsman. The 29-year-old may throw his wicket away occasionally through playing the odd rash shot, but on this occasion his 50th Test appearance seemed to focus his mind. The elegant right-hander, with a glorious array of drives, cuts and hooks, celebrated the event by scoring his 10th Test hundred.
There were periods, after Gibbs carelessly ran Smith out for 18 in the morning session, and then whilst Stephen Harmison attempted to rough him up with a succession of short balls in the afternoon, when the diminutive right-hander had to work for his runs but these occasions were far too rare. Each time an England bowler erred, the ball was cracked to the fence and the fact that all but 37 of his 183 runs came in boundaries gives a good indication of the lack of pressure the home attack generated.
On the rare occasion they managed to create a chance either the umpires, who turned down two strong lbw appeals before Gibbs had scored 50, or England's fielders - Martin Bicknell and Mark Butcher shelled two difficult catches immediately after he had scored his century - failed to help.
Gibbs predictably gained excellent support from Gary Kirsten who looked well set for his third Test hundred in four innings before he missed a sweep at Ashley Giles on 90. After batting for more than 11 hours on the minefield at Headingley, the nuggety left-hander must have felt he was in paradise here batting on a pitch whose bounce he could trust.
Indeed, following several well-timed drives, there were times when Kirsten looked to be enjoying himself too much and he was cursing himself when he walked off having added 227 with Gibbs in their record partnership for South Africa at this ground.
After losing an important toss Vaughan would have expected a long hard day in the field as he left Smith at 10.15am to tell his bowlers the bad news. England's new captain has been under pressure since taking charge but had a good day organising his side. The 28-year-old alternated his bowlers well and was active in the field but would not have been happy with what took place at lunch.
On a day when his side needed to be totally focused on the task of defeating South Africa, the last thing Vaughan would have wanted was to spend 20 minutes of the lunch break standing in the middle of The Oval waiting for Alec Stewart to be presented with a bat to commemorate his final Test match. South Africa were on 111 for 1 and Stewart, Vaughan and Mark Butcher, along with three of the England captains the Surrey veteran had played under, looked uncomfortable as they were interviewed by Mark Nicholas, Channel 4's front-man.
Nobody, not even those who feel the selectors should have already replaced Stewart with a younger model, would begrudge the career of England's most capped player being recognised in such a way. However, surely this should have taken place at a more convenient time. Watching everyone wait for Channel 4 to come back from a commercial break before the presentation started made one wonder where people's priorities lay on a crucial day for England's cricketers.
THE OVAL SCOREBOARD
South Africa won toss
SOUTH AFRICA - First innings
*G C Smith run out
(Vaughan-Stewart TV replay) 18
61 min, 39 balls, 3 fours
H H Gibbs b Giles 183
326 min, 258 balls, 35 fours, 1 six
G Kirsten lbw b Giles 90
217 min, 156 balls, 15 fours
J H Kallis not out 32
92 min, 55 balls, 4 fours, 1 six
N D McKenzie c Stewart b Anderson 9
46 min, 36 balls, 1 four
Extras (b11 lb10 w4 nb5) 30
Total (for 4, 373 min, 89.5 overs) 362
Fall: 1-63 (Smith); 2-290 (Kirsten); 3-345 (Gibbs); 4-362 (McKenzie).
To bat: J A Rudolph, ÝM V Boucher, S M Pollock, A J Hall, P R Adams, M Ntini.
Bowling: Bicknell 13-2-48-0 (6-2-17-0, 5-0-20-0, 2-0-11-0); Anderson 17.5-4-61-1 (w1) (3-0-17-0, 4-0-19-0, 4-0-20-0, 6.5-4-5-1); Harmison 16-6-42-0 (nb4) (7-2-18-0, 6-2-20-0, 3-2-4-0); Giles 21-2-75-2 (2-0-6-0, 3-0-12-0, 8-1-28-0, 8-1-29-2); Flintoff 14-2-73-0 (w2) (8-2-26-0, 2-0-17-0, 4-0-30-0); Vaughan 5-0-24-0 (nb1); Butcher 3-0-18-0 (w1) (one spell each).
Progress: First day: 50: 51 min, 12.4 overs. 100: 108 min, 24.5 overs. Lunch: 111-1 (Gibbs 50, Kirsten 29) 29 overs. 150: 164 min, 39.2 overs. 200: 219 min, 53.1 overs. Tea: 230-1 (Gibbs 122, Kirsten 71) 60 overs. 250: 253 min, 63 overs. 300: 294 min, 71.3 overs. 350: 336 min, 80.4 overs. New ball taken after 83 overs at 355-3.
Gibbs' 50: 121 min, 93 balls, 10 fours. 100: 221 min, 167 balls, 20 fours, 1 six. 150: 270 min, 215 balls, 28 fours, 1 six.
Kirsten's 50: 111 min, 84 balls, 9 fours.
ENGLAND: M E Trescothick, *M P Vaughan, M A Butcher, G P Thorpe, E T Smith, ÝA J Stewart, A Flintoff, A F Giles, M P Bicknell, S J Harmison, J M Anderson.
Umpires: S J A Taufel (Aus) and S Venkataraghavan (Ind).
TV Replay Umpire: J W Lloyds.
Match Referee: R S Madugalle (S Lanka).Reuse content