Fireworks by Pietersen but the spark has gone from tourists
Saturday 09 August 2008
For some of the afternoon, Jacques Kallis stood at slip wearing a floppy, wide-brimmed hat with a green cap perched on top of it. It looked as though he was in the early stages of planning for a fancy-dress party.
Since last Saturday, when they clinched the Test series and won the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy without actually being permitted to get their hands on it, it might have been one long party in the South African dressing room (fancy dress optional).
That is not to imply they were unprepared for the fourth Test, or that they were not trying, but that they had already done what they came to England to do, to win a rubber in this country for the first time since 1965 and only the third time in 12 attempts.
Whatever transpired in the fourth Test would leave them undisturbed. They did not look like a side desperately keeping an eye on the ICC World Test rankings, wondering what another win would do. They have already secured their place in the table at third with the usual two at the top, Australia followed by Daylight.
They would take what came their way and they might yet win the match, but they could be relaxed about it. They had nothing to lose, only a Test. It is easy to opine that Australia would have been more obviously intense.
But that is a relatively recent phenomenon. In both 1993 and 1997, the Ashes safely secured, they performed the rare trick of being in two places at once, losing at The Oval while on the way to the airport.
South Africa had several reasons to be grateful for wrapping it all up in Graeme Smith's kitbag at Edgbaston a week ago. The first was that defeat there would have disturbed them greatly and they knew it. The second was that they have never won at The Oval in 12 times of asking.
The second day of the match, like the first, was dominated by England's new captain. There was a sense of inevitability about Kevin Pietersen's 14th Test hundred and, though he was clearly disappointed to be dismissed two balls after reaching it, the years to come will lend a certain resonance to an innings that was exactly 100.
It ensured that England were winning the match and also gave them the edge elsewhere. More South African-born players have now made hundreds in their first match as captain of England than as captain of South Africa. The England trio is Allan Lamb, Andrew Strauss, who did it in the second innings, and Pietersen, not to mention Tony Greig who made 96. The only two men to have done it for South Africa are Herbie Taylor and Jackie McGlew.
There have been dead Test matches for almost as long as Test series have been played (the first was in 1882 when England went to Melbourne for the fourth Test 2-0 down and forced an extremely turgid draw) and they will endure. There was an eerie fascination about England's last tour to Australia when the Ashes were swiftly surrendered. Could England prevent a whitewash?
Similarly, when England spent most of the Eighties fighting for survival against the West Indies, it was always like rubbernecking at the scene of a car crash. You knew you should not be watching but you could not take your eyes off it.
But this one feels different. All Test matches should be special – because of their very name – but with the purest form of the game fighting for its life the edge has gone because the series has gone. This is The Oval's lot in life. Yet attention has been high all week because of Pietersen's ascendancy to the captaincy. All tickets for the first four days were sold months ago. There was something in it for the bowlers all day and, although Pietersen stole the show as he was always bound to do, the contribution to the innings of Makhaya Ntini was a wonderful footnote to his career. This will be the last time he bowls in a Test match in England and it was the 18th occasion on which he has taken five wickets in a Test innings.
This is Ntini's third tour of England and he has graced an international game that only 20 years ago he would not have been permitted to play. When Pietersen says he came to England because of the quota system in South Africa favouring non-white players, he should remember that Ntini has been a magnificent inspiration to black cricketers in his country.
He had a bad day at the start, shelling Pietersen skiers on 52 and, less culpably, on 61 but he ran in with all the old vigour, wide of the crease and keeping them honest. Stephen Harmison made merry with him in the evening but it was a lovely valedictory effort.
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