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