Cricket’s real home is where the heart is ... at The Oval

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - STU­ART HESS

OF COURSE on the oc­ca­sion that it hosts its 100th Test there was a lot of sen­ti­ment around here. That’s un­der­stand­able.

This is a ground with so much his­tory, so beloved by its mem­bers and the lo­cal com­mu­nity. But whereas Lord’s, its neigh­bour north of the River Thames, is known for its prim and proper English­ness, The Oval rev­els in its more laid back al­most ur­ban na­ture. It’s not pre­ten­tious in the way Lord’s and its MCC mem­bers are. And it doesn’t throw its his­tory in your face. It’s a ground that a se­cu­rity guard summed up to a fel­low South African journo cov­er­ing this se­ries: “Lord’s is the Home of Cricket, this is heart of cricket.”

The Eng­land and South African teams treated the old ground to a most en­ter­tain­ing open­ing day, even if it was in­ter­rupted by rain.

All around the his­tory was cel­e­brated. Ban­ners in the streets, and an enor­mous ban­ner on the fa­mous Gas­works while there were com­mem­o­ra­tive mugs and ties on sale. The of­fi­cial pro­gramme con­tained tales of matches past, the he­roes who have graced this ground. An Eng­land XI and a Rest of the World XI made up of play­ers who’ve per­formed great feats here was pub­lished. Un­sur­pris­ingly Hashim Amla was in­cluded in the Rest of the World side, slot­ted in at No 5, his usual No 3 po­si­tion go­ing to a chap called Don­ald Brad­man. Given that he’s the only cur­rent player in­cluded in the team, Amla won’t mind bat­ting out of po­si­tion, sand­wiched be­tween Viv Richards and You­nis Khan.

Tony Wood­cock, the Times for­mer cricket cor­re­spon­dent who watched his first Test here in 1938 – the match in which Len Hut­ton set the Eng­land Test record with his 364 – re­called some of his favourite mo­ments at this venue, one of which in­cluded South Africa’s great slow bowler from the 1950s, Hugh Tay­field.

“On the third day South Africa’s Hugh Tay­field, an off­spin­ner of dev­il­ish cun­ning and de­cep­tive flight, bowled un­changed, ex­cept for lunch, from 12.30 un­til the close of play at 6.30, a spell of 52 overs for 54 runs,” wrote Wood­cock.

“Among the renowned stroke-mak­ers Tay­field re­duced to stroke­less­ness were Pe­ter May, De­nis Comp­ton, Tom Graveney, Brian Close and Wil­lie Wat­son.”

Eng­land won that match, the de­cider in a five match se­ries, by 92 runs. Tay­field fin­ished with 5/60 from 53.2 overs in that sec­ond in­nings. For 37 years Tay­field’s 171 Test wick­ets were the most taken by a South African. Since then he’s rapidly fallen down the list and yes­ter­day he dropped to eighth as Ver­non Phi­lan­der claimed wick­ets 171 – Keaton Jen­nings – and 172 – Joe Root.

It may not be the most sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment in­volv­ing a South African player or the South African team in a Test here. But it’s a land­mark that is sym­bolic of an­other break with the past. The Oval may be cel­e­brat­ing 100 Tests, but South Africa too is forg­ing a his­tory for it­self here. Phi­lan­der’s a sig­nif­i­cant part of that.

FAF du Plessis didn’t mind los­ing the toss yes­ter­day. He prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been too con­cerned to bat, but he also said he was very un­sure how the pitch would play so, hav­ing a bowl suited him.

Du Plessis men­tioned in the build-up to this Test that his top or­der didn’t mind play­ing on grassy, seam­ing pitches be­cause that’s what they asked for in South Africa last sum­mer when they took on and beat Sri Lanka.

Of course, with all due re­spect to Su­ranga Lak­mal and Co. James An­der­son and Stu­art Broad pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cantly more chal­leng­ing ex­am­i­na­tion on grassy sur­faces. South Africa’s bats­men proved in Not­ting­ham they could pros­per, how­ever.

Ver­non Phi­lan­der and Morne Morkel are pretty adept them­selves at bowl­ing in con­di­tions which aid their seam and pace. Given the rol­lick­ing his bats­men have taken from for­mer play­ers since the sec­ond Test, it has to be said that Joe Root’s de­ci­sion to bat first on this sur­face un­der cloudy skies was a brave one. It al­most de­manded that his bats­men show more ap­pli­ca­tion and nous.

Keaton Jen­nings may not have ap­pre­ci­ated that, his nine ball night­mare against Phi­lan­der again ex­pos­ing a tech­nique where hands and eyes are not aligned.

Per­haps due to the fact that Phi­lan­der only bowled four overs in his first spell – the re­sult of a “tummy bug,” – the rest of the at­tack didn’t have a guide for which ar­eas were most trou­bling for the English bats­men.

Morkel was too short, while Kag­iso Rabada, back af­ter sus­pen­sion, didn’t con­trol the swing­ing ball.

Alas­tair Cook and his Es­sex buddy Tom West­ley – one of three Eng­land debu­tants – dug in, with West­ley per­haps given too many easy balls to hit off VER­NON PHI­LAN­DER

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