In the dusk of the season when it was almost too dark and too late, England at last located what it was they were looking for, yesterday. Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe turned up like two men who had gone missing for more than a year and wondered what all the fuss had been about.
Both scored centuries - in Trescothick's case a double - and their third-wicket partnership of 268 provided England with their most emphatic batting of the summer. It might not make a difference to the outcome of the series but England have given themselves a slim chance of drawing level to 2-2. With three wickets left, they led South Africa by 18 on first innings at the close of the third day, having scored 337 in the day.
It was a triumphant return for both men at the centre of proceedings. Trescothick made the highest individual score for England since Graham Gooch's 333 in 1990. Thorpe's importance to a team he might have departed forever, was demonstrated by the fact that he has now featured in their last four partnerships of more than 250.
While this one lasted it was quite delectable, and since it lasted for more than five hours the pleasure was almost boundless. England had waited, and waited, for this pair to score centuries again.
The last time they had both done so was in the same innings at Edgbaston last year, a mere 15 months in which the probability of either of them repeating the feat was considerably outweighed by the likelihood of hell freezing over. For Trescothick, that gap represented 40 Test innings, a nightmare tour of Australia, a rebuilding of his technique and a change back.
For Thorpe, it was only four Test innings and a rebuilding of his life. Weeks after his 123 in Birmingham, he had walked away from the team, his marriage in tatters and his emotions in turmoil. He missed 14 Tests repairing the damage, but only Nasser Hussain's broken toe persuaded the selectors that they should recall him for this match, the first time in history that a broken toe has helped to mend a broken heart.
Each was as unexpectedly assured as the other. Trescothick was a model of self-denial. South Africa perpetually tried to ensnare him with the type of ball he has frequently edged to slip, but this time he refused to co-operate. He had clearly attended whatever is the equivalent of the Priory Clinic for batsmen who cannot resist temptation outside the off stump.
The four with which he brought up his century, through mid-wicket, was his 19th. He had faced 215 balls and failed - or refused to try - to score from 175 of them. The tourists might have been asking an alcoholic if he would like another drink, only for the sot to reply: "No, I'd love to, but if I do I know it will be me my last." It was his fourth Test hundred and thanks to the blazing boundaries, usually in his favoured hunting grounds behind point and through mid-wicket, actually his second fastest.
He went on to his first double century with boundaries less abundant, and though there were reflective periods, he was as dominant as Graeme Smith had been for the tourists earlier in the piece. He fell, hooking to long leg, shortly before the close.
Thorpe had gone earlier. If anything his was the greater return from the doldrums. It was his 12th hundred for England and, bizarrely given the circumstances, it was as though he had never been away. All the arguments about whether he merited recall were rendered pointless. He was characteristically patient, playing the ball late and pushing it into gaps with the precision of a laser-surgery machine. On a pitch he knows so well, he was unafraid to leave his crease but the familiar backfoot nudges and slashing cuts were in plentiful supply.
Thorpe got where he wanted, fittingly, with a squeezed two backward of point. It was his first hundred at his home ground and he is only the sixth Surrey player to score a century at The Oval. If he was playing for a winter tour place, this secured it.
Briefly after he was out, the selectors faced mild embarrassment. Thorpe was bowled off a pad when Jacques Kallis made one jag back off the pitch as light rain fell in mid-afternoon. Enter Ed Smith, suffering not only from pad rash but the uncertainty of his place in the side. Equally, the selectors must have realised that if he made runs they would have to pick him for the tours of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. A nice problem to have, but a problem nevertheless, for they probably have places allotted for others.
Smith made a handsome enough 16 but that does not a tour place confirm. It is possible that he will not play another Test match (though it would also be a rush to judgement by the selectors who picked him on county form) and that is certainly true of the man who followed him.
All roads this summer have led to this match for Alec Stewart. He announced months ago that he would bow out after it. The crowd stood and applauded in a greeting that combined respect and admiration. South Africa formed a guard of honour, which was wholly appropriate, although it was also ermissible to wonder if their canny captain, Smith, had also calculated that a man moved by the tributes of his peers is also a man who is vulnerable.
Stewart simply twirled the bat in the way he had in 234 previous visits, bided his time and eventually got off the mark with a boundary. He was not here solely for the farewells and helped Trescothick in an eventually dashing standard before he moved across his stumps for possibly the last time.
Trescothick had become marginally becalmed after the early tea but he also remained the ascetic. He reached 150 and was dropped, playing an upper cut behind square, when he was on 161. Paul Adams made a valiant attempt but knocked it over the boundary rope: Trescothick had his career-best score. It is safe to say that he is back.
The pitch had stayed resolutely in featherbed mode and South Africa, like England before them, were found short of ideas on how best to bowl. Not that they did so badly but they did so unthreateningly. If there was a criticism, it was that they did not make England's batsmen play enough, but South Africans have long tried to deny the opposition that privilege.
They fielded well enough - hitting the stumps three times in attempting run outs - though a couple of errors also perhaps betrayed a wish for them. Put a touring side under pressure in their last match before the flight home and the chances are that they will accede to it.
England had responded assertively after a desultory opening day which restocked the ammunition provisions of their critics. Their next assignment is in the sub-continent - in Bangladesh (comfortable but not as comfortable as it was once was) and in Sri Lanka (devilishly difficult). What they must ensure is not assuming that all is now right with their world. But a restored Thorpe and Trescothick goes a long way towards it.
npower Test scoreboard
South Africa won toss
South Africa - First Innings
G C Smith run out (Vaughan-Stewart) 18
H H Gibbs b Giles 183
G Kirsten lbw b Giles 90
J H Kallis run out (Giles) 66
N D McKenzie c Stewart b Anderson 9
J A Rudolph lbw b Bicknell 0
M V Boucher c Stewart b Bicknell 8
S M Pollock not out 66
A J Hall lbw Flintoff 1
P R Adams run out 1
M Ntini b Anderson 11
Extras (b12, lb10, w4, nb5) 31
Total (542 min, 128 overs) 484
Fall: 1-63 (Smith), 2-290 (Kirsten), 3-345 (Gibbs), 4-362 (McKenzie), 5-365 (Rudolph), 6-385 (Boucher), 7-419 (Kallis), 8-421 (Hall), 9-432 (Adams); 10-484 (Ntini)
Bowling: Bicknell 20-3-71-2 (6-2-17-0, 5-0-20-0, 2-0-11-0, 7-1-23-2), Anderson 25-6-86-2 (w1) (3-0-17-0, 4-0-19-0, 4-0-20-0, 10-5-17-1, 2-1-7-0, 2-0-6-1), Harmison 27-8-73-0 (nb4) (7-2-18-0, 6-2-20-0, 3-2-4-0, 7-2-8-0, 4-0-23-0), Giles 29-3-102-2 (2-0-6-0, 3-0-12-0, 8-1-28-0, 8-1-29-2, 5-0-19-0, 2-0-8-0, 1-1-0-0), Flintoff 19-4-88-1 (w2) (8-2-26-0, 2-0-17-0, 4-0-30-0, 5-2-15-1), Vaughan 5-0-24-0 (nb1), Butcher 3-0-18-0 (w1) (one spell each).
First day: 50 in 51 min, 12.4 overs. 100 in 108 min, 24.5 overs. Lunch 111-1 (Gibbs 50, Kirsten 29) 29 overs. 150 in 164 min, 39.2 overs. 200 in 219 min, 53.1 overs. Tea 230-1 (Gibbs 122, Kirsten 71) 60 overs. 250 in 253 min, 63 overs. 300 in 294 min, 71.3 overs. 350 in 336 min, 80.4 overs. New ball taken after 83 overs at 355-3. Close 362-4 (Kallis 32) 89.5 overs.
Second day: 400 in 429 min, 101.4 overs. Lunch 432-9 (Pollock 26) 116.3 overs. 450 in 511 min, 120.1 overs. Innings closed 2.13pm.
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: 50: 111 min, 84 balls, 9 fours. Kallis: 50: 145 min, 84 balls, 6 fours, 1 six. Pollock: 50: 113 min, 82 balls, 7 fours, 1 six.
England - First Innings
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 not out 10
A F Giles c Hall b Kallis 2
M P Bicknell not out 0
Extras (b6 lb14 w8 nb10) 38
Total (for seven, 603 min, 140 overs) 502
Fall: 1-28 (Vaughan), 2-78 (Butcher), 3-346 (Thorpe), 4-379 (Smith), 5-480 (Stewart), 6-489 (Trescothick), 7-502 (Giles)
To bat: J M Anderson, S J Harmison.
Bowling: Pollock 33-8-103-2 (nb9) (6-2-17-1 6-1-21-0 6-2-19-0 5-1-23-0 7-2-19-0 3-0-4-1), Ntini 27-4-97-1 (nb1, w1) (4-0-20-0 4-0-9-0 5-1-16-0 5-1-16-0 4-0-24-0 5-2-12-1), Hall 30-5-101-2 (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), Kallis 29-4-90-2 (w6) (9-1-35-0 3-0-13-0 6-1-18-0 8-2-17-1 3-0-7-1), Adams 15-2-63-0 (5-0-18-0 6-1-26-0 4-1-19-0), Rudolph 6-1-28-0 (3-1-10-0 3-0-18-0).
Progress: Third day: 200 in 232 mins, 56 overs. 250 in 290 mins, 69.1 overs. Lunch 271-2 (Trescothick 103, Thorpe 86) 76 overs. New ball taken after 80 overs at 287-2. 300 in 341 mins, 82.5 overs. 350 in 403 mins, 96 overs. Rain stopped play 3.02pm - early tea taken 351-3 (Trescothick 137, Smith 4) 97.2 overs. 400 in 495 mins, 116.5 overs. 450 in 530 mins, 124.4 overs. 500 in 592 mins, 137.4 overs.
Trescothick 50: 169 min, 128 balls, 9 fours. 100: 302 min, 215 balls, 19 fours. 150: 458 min 319 balls, 25 fours 200: 535 min, 356 balls, 31 fours, 1 six
Thorpe: 50: 118 balls, 6 fours. 100: 256 min, 199 balls, 11 fours.
Umpires: S J A Taufel (Australia) and S Venkataraghavan (India) .
TV replay umpire: J W Lloyds (England). Match referee: R S Madugalle (Sri Lanka).Reuse content