One of the beauties of sport is that its fickle nature often makes fools of those who dare to offer predictions. Before James Anderson dismissed Neil McKenzie with the last ball of the first day, South Africa, on 362 for 3, were in total control of the fifth Test. England, who need to win this match to save face as well as the series, did not just appear tired, they looked out of it.
Three days later and much has changed. One side is still in control but remarkably it is no longer South Africa who sit on the verge of a memorable victory. The Oval has seen many great individual performances and the odd sensational comeback, but this match, should England complete their unexpected triumph today, will have to go down as one of the best. If they win, it would be only the seventh time in the history of the game that a side has won a Test match after conceding over 450 in the first innings.
England have several players to thank for this amazing turnaround. Superb centuries from Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe on Saturday and a breathtaking 95 from Andrew Flintoff yesterday will grab the headlines, but disciplined bowling from each member of England's attack, and the odd favourable umpiring decision, have been just as crucial. With his side precariously placed on 185 for 6 and with a lead of only 65 runs, it appears that Graeme Smith, the South African captain, will not leave these shores having to worry about excess luggage. The trophy he and his side so desperately want looks set to stay here.
As well as England have played in the last three days, South African trepidation has also led to their downfall. In the same way that England were guilty of throwing the game away at Headingley when they came off for bad light, South Africa showed their vulnerability on the second morning when they failed to capitalise on a good start. The defensive nature of their batting sent a message to Michael Vaughan and his side. It told England that, despite all their positive talk, South Africa were nervous. Through getting into a position where they should not lose, the tourists had put themselves under pressure. The fear of losing all that they had worked so hard to gain was suddenly like a weight around their neck.
With the pressure off, England's bowlers began to bowl as well as they can and took seven quick wickets. And with confidence returned, they continued to bowl with control and aggression in South Africa's second innings.
Facing a deficit of 120, Herschelle Gibbs was the first to fall when he slashed at a wide half-volley from Anderson and was caught behind by Alec Stewart. Warmed up by Flintoff, the crowd were now roaring the bowlers in, and the perfect batting surface suddenly seemed to be misbehaving. It was not, but when batsmen are unsure of how to play, a belter can look like a minefield.
Gary Kirsten joined his captain at the crease and one sensed that England knew this was the partnership they had to break. Three overs later they did when Martin Bicknell trapped Smith plum in front with a perfect inswinger. After scoring 621 runs in his first three innings of the tour Smith has struggled. Since Lord's the left-hander has added only 93 to his tally in six attempts.
Whether it was the prospect of possibly missing out on winter tours to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, or calls for one last effort from his captain that stung Steve Harmison into action, it did not matter to the full-house crowd. All they saw was a lanky English fast bowler winging it down at 90mph and causing the South Africans all sorts of trouble. They, and Harmison's team-mates, loved it.
Following mediocre performances earlier in this series the pedigree of the Durham pace-man has been questioned, but his hostile 13-over spell either side of tea showed just what he is capable of. Not only did the 24-year-old remove Kirsten and Jacques Kallis, South Africa's two most experienced batsmen, he also increased the probability of a winter in the sun.
After the break Martin Bicknell came back to bowl Jacques Rudolph when he left an inswinger, and Flintoff won an lbw appeal against McKenzie even though the ball clearly struck his bat before hitting the right-hander's pads.
That England were able to put South Africa under such pressure was because of another scintillating innings from Flintoff. Starting the day on 10, the Lancashire all-rounder seemed unsure what to do when Bicknell fell lbw to the third ball. With the field set deep both he and Harmison, who put on 99 crucial runs for the ninth wicket, were guilty of faffing about and wasting valuable time.
Then, after surviving a close lbw appeal from Kallis, Flintoff exploded. Kallis will be hoping it was the let-off and not his few choice words that fired Flintoff up because from then on the course of the day changed. Swinging his bat on occasions like a scythe, Flintoff rode his luck and chipped a few fortuitously into the gaps but when the ball found the middle, boy, did it stay hit.
No South African bowler escaped. A Kallis delivery would have reached the Harleyford Road but for the stand while Makhaya Ntini was struck for a huge six that fell just short of the press box. The the biggest blow, however, was saved for Paul Adams, whose left-arm spin ended up in the top tier of the Lock-Laker Stand at long-on some 100 yards away.
Attempting to repeat the stroke, Flintoff selflessly lost his wicket within five runs of a century, but the 70 runs he had accumulated in 49 balls put South Africa, for the first time in this series, firmly in their place. With another big crowd expected, only the weather can stop an intriguing summer of cricket finishing with a fitting finale.
THE OVAL SCOREBOARD
Fourth day of five: South Africa won toss
SOUTH AFRICA - First innings 484 (Gibbs 183, Kirsten 90, Kallis 66).
ENGLAND - First innings (Overnight: 502 for 7)
M E Trescothick c Rudolph b Ntini 219
M P Vaughan c Gibbs b Pollock 23
M A Butcher lbw b Hall 32
G P Thorpe b Kallis 124
E T Smith lbw b Hall 16
A J Stewart lbw b Pollock 38
A Flintoff b Adams 95
A F Giles c Hall b Kallis 2
M P Bicknell lbw b Pollock 0
S J Harmison not out 6
J M Anderson not out 0
Extras (b11 lb18 w9 nb11) 49
Total for 9 dec (706 mins, 162 overs) 604
Fall: 1-28 (Vaughan) 2-78 (Butcher) 3-346 (Thorpe) 4-379 (Smith) 5-480 (Stewart) 6-489 (Trescothick) 7-502 (Giles) 8-502 (Bicknell) 9-601 (Flintoff).
Bowling: Pollock 39-10-111-3 (nb10) (6-2-17-1, 6-1-21-0, 6-2-19-0, 5-1-23-0, 7-2-19-0, 3-0-4-1, 5-2-7-1, 1-0-1-0); Ntini 31-4-129-1 (nb1, w2) (4-0-20-0, 4-0-9-0, 5-1-16-0, 5-1-16-0, 4-0-24-0, 5-2-12-1, 3-0-31-0, 1-0-1-0); Hall 35-5-111-2 (w1) (8-3-24-1, 4-2-15-0, 5-0-14-0, 4-0-10-0, 5-0-16-1, 4-0-22-0, 5-0-10-0); Kallis 34-5-117-2 (w6) (9-1-35-0, 3-0-13-0, 6-1-18-0, 8-2-17-1, 3-0-7-1, 5-1-27-0); Adams 17-2-79-1 (5-0-18-0, 6-1-26-0, 4-1-19-0, 2-0-16-1); Rudolph 6-1-28-0 (3-1-10-0, 3-0-18-0).
Progress: Second day: 50: 56 min, 12.4 overs. Tea: 51-1 (Trescothick 12, Butcher 14) 14 overs. 100: 117 min, 27.3 overs. 150: 170 min, 39.3 overs. Bad light stopped play 5.56pm-close 165-2 (Trescothick 64, Thorpe 28) 46 overs. Third day: (min 94 overs). 200: 232 min, 56 overs. 250: 290 min, 69.1 overs. Lunch: 271-2 (Trescothick 103, Thorpe 86) 76 overs. New ball taken after 80 overs at 287-2. 300: 341 min, 82.5 overs. 350: 403 min, 96 overs. Rain stopped play 3.02pm, early tea taken 351-3 (Trescothick 137, Smith 4) 97.2 overs. 400: 495 mins, 116.5 overs. 450: 530 min, 124.4 overs. 500: 592 mins, 137.4 overs. Close: 502-7 (Flintoff 10, Bicknell 0) 140 overs. Fourth day: 550: 650 min, 150.4 overs. 600: 689 min, 158.3 overs. New ball taken after 160 overs at 602-9. Declaration at 12.28pm.
Trescothick's 50: 169 mins, 128 balls, 9 fours. 100: 301 min, 215 balls, 19 fours. 150: 451 min, 315 balls, 25 fours. 200: 356 min, 31 fours, 1 six. Thorpe's 50: 159 min, 118 balls, 5 fours. 100: 257 min, 199 balls, 11 fours. Flintoff's 50: 92 min, 68 balls, 8 fours, 1 six.
SOUTH AFRICA - Second innings
G C Smith lbw b Bicknell 19
H H Gibbs c Stewart b Anderson 9
G Kirsten c Trescothick b Harmison 29
J H Kallis lbw b Harmison 35
N D McKenzie lbw b Flintoff 38
J A Rudolph b Bicknell 8
M V Boucher not out 22
S M Pollock not out 19
Extras (b1, lb5) 6
Total (for 6, 247 mins, 57 overs) 185
Fall: 1-24 (Gibbs) 2-34 (Smith) 3-92 (Kirsten) 4-93 (Kallis) 5-118 (Rudolph) 6-150 (McKenzie).
Bowling: Bicknell 18-4-51-2 (10-3-26-1, 7-1-23-1, 1-0-2-0); Anderson 10-1-55-1 (8-1-46-1, 2-0-9-0); Harmison 13-5-24-2 (one spell); Giles 10-2-36-0 (4-1-10-0, 6-1-26-0); Flintoff 6-2-13-1 (2-1-2-0 ,4-1-11-1).
Progress: Fourth day: Lunch 10-0 (Smith 2, Gibbs 8) 2 overs. 50: 65 min, 14.4 overs. 100: 130 min, 29.5 overs. Tea: 101-4 (McKenzie 3, Rudolph 4) 30 overs. 150: 208 min, 47.2 overs. Bad light stopped play 5.45pm.
Umpires: S J A Taufel (Aus) and S Venkataraghavan (Ind).
TV Replay Umpire: J W Lloyds.
Match Referee: R S Madugalle.Reuse content