After our diet of fish fingers, this was proper cricket
21:50 GMT, 21 July 2012
The South African total was swelling hour upon hour, a relentless accumulation of runs and minor records. The English fielding was starting to wilt, with Andrew Strauss frowning his concern.
And high in the grandstand, a man who captained England long ago was nodding his approval of the scene. ‘Test cricket,’ he growled. ‘Proper cricket.’ And we knew just what he meant.
A philosopher once observed that the English, not being a spiritual people, invented cricket to give them some sense of eternity. At The Oval, their understanding became a little more profound. Not that it was dull, never that. But it was decidedly different to the usual diet of Twenty20 hit and giggle.
Floored: Andrew Strauss is left to ponder one of the toughest days of his England captainsy
Different to the sudden death attitudes of the one-day game. And quite different to most modern Tests, which involve the opposition briefly flattering to deceive before capitulating to the best English side of recent years.
Capitulation was never on the South African agenda, as they played the kind of cricket that Tests were designed to provide. It is a game which examines character as well as technique; a game in which pressure is incrementally exerted, advantages are subtly seized, and tame concession is never contemplated.
The players had grown used to the rhythms of the shorter form. You could almost watch them altering their methods, adjusting their expectations.
After a diet of fish fingers, they were being served Dover Sole, and they found it rich for their taste. Likewise the crowd. This was not quite what they had come to see, but they became slowly absorbed by the intricacies.
Going nowhere: Hashim Amla was immovable, batting all day for 183 not out
True, there were a few Mexican waves when affairs slowed drastically in mid-afternoon. But they knew what was at stake, how much mental effort was being expended on the battle.
South Africa have players who relish this kind of conflict, none more than the captain Graeme Smith. In the course of this short tour — far too short for most tastes — he has dispensed a stream of soothing platitudes: ‘It’s a very open series . . . two good teams going up against each other . . . we wouldn’t expect it to be easy.’
All true, of course, but that is not what he is saying in the dressing room. Smith believes that there are weaknesses, technical and temperamental, in this England side, and he is desperate to exploit them. Since they are rated the best in the world, he offers the English the mandatory compliments, but his body language does not hint at excessive respect.
In this, as in much else, he resembles other successful Test captains. Australia’s Allan Border springs to mind as a man prepared to bat for days without offering a sociable word or a plausible chance. There were times when it seemed that Smith still might be in the middle come Monday evening, and it took the rankest fluke to remove him.
Hungry: South Africa have never lost a Test when Graeme Smith has scored a century
Stuart Broad had just donated 21 off three overs with the new ball when Tim Bresnan was brought on to stem the flow. With his first delivery, he had Smith hesitating for a millisecond.
The ball found the inside edge, struck a pad and touched the wicket with scarcely sufficient force to dislodge a bail. Smith had scored 131, yet he strode blackly away, as if he had left the scorers untroubled. It had been something of a tour de force, his first 50 taking him 160 balls, his second whipped off in just 41. And he had left his side in a position of some security.
Smith’s collaborator, Hashim Amla, was in equally implacable mood. He scores his runs with rather more wristy style and grace than his captain, but he scores them in similar quantities. He was the nimble, resourceful player he had always promised to be and he was to find a formidable accomplice.
Jacques Kallis is not the man a fielding side would most like to see coming down the pavilion steps when the scoreboard is showing 260 for two. His career statistics are overwhelming, certainly with ball, but most ferociously with bat.
Power show: Jacques Kallis helped himself in the afternoon session, moving to 82 off 161 balls
And this match has revealed no diminution of his abilities. Pretty soon, he was filling his boots; slowly at first, then with accelerating ease as control passed into South African hands. His face gives little or nothing away, but as the total passed 400 the whole of The Oval knew he was enjoying it.
As was my friend, the ex-England skipper. ‘Test cricket. Proper cricket,’ he called it. And he called it just right.