The Hundred is done and dusted… now back to more traditionally minded short-form thrills. England and South Africa have been in hyper-drive during a compelling but erratic Test campaign – a crushing innings victory apiece to date, with neither match surviving beyond the third day. And as we head to the decider at the Kia Oval, all bets are off as to which version of either team will turn up. Not to mention for how long.
Still, as Brendon McCullum and Co. would doubtless argue, their aggression in those early-season wins against New Zealand and India has been misrepresented. What really marks this new-look Test team out from its cagey predecessors is not the speed with which they’ve gone about their work, but the positivity – be that with the bat or in the field, with consistently attacking fields even in moments of adversity, and in attack and defence alike, hence the praise for Zak Crawley’s doughtily compiled 38 from 101 balls last week. It wasn’t an innings that will silence the wider doubts about his place, but as far as the team hierarchy are concerned, the proof is in the result that it helped to set in motion.
The challenge to England’s batters is bound to be redoubled this week, however. For there’s surely no way that Elgar will make the same mistake twice, and undermine the potency of his four-pronged seam attack to shoehorn in an extra spinner. Simon Harmer’s off-the-boil display in the second Test was exacerbated by the fact that he did the bulk of his work on day two rather than days four and five, as a springy surface persistently pined for the absent left-armer Marco Jansen, whose cloud-snagging offerings would surely have been the better bet to back up the trio of early wickets from his fellow seamers.
It is shaping up, therefore, as another important toss – with rain in the offing and cloud cover likely, both teams may be equally keen to bowl first on Thursday morning. Even allowing for Elgar’s stoic agenda-setting up top, South Africa’s batting is uncomfortably brittle, all the more so now that Rassie van der Dussen has been ruled out with a broken finger. Ryan Rickelton has been confirmed as his replacement, after a season of healthy returns for Northamptonshire, while Khaya Zondo may yet join him in the middle-order, where Aiden Markram has gone 15 innings and counting without so much as a fifty, and where Keegan Petersen, for all his fighting qualities at Old Trafford, is still awaiting his first Test hundred.
England WLWWW (most recent first)
South Africa LWWWW
In the spotlight
In his now-familiar fashion, Stokes announced England’s team 24 hours out from the start of the match, and confirmed Brooks’ debut in place of the injured Bairstow. That is the only change to the XI that won so handsomely at Old Trafford, meaning that Matthew Potts misses out for the second match in a row, now that Robinson has reaffirmed his frontline credentials. Asked if he had been tempted to mix things up further, Stokes was emphatic in his response. “No. The way in which we’ve operated this summer has been with three seamers, me as a fourth and a spinner. The performance we put in last week, it would be pretty hard to change the team from there.”
England: 1 Alex Lees, 2 Zak Crawley, 3 Ollie Pope, 4 Joe Root, 5 Harry Brook, 6 Ben Stokes (capt), 7 Ben Foakes (wk), 8 Ollie Robinson, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Jack Leach, 11 James Anderson
Rickelton steps in for his third Test cap as South Africa cover off the loss of the injured van der Dussen. Speaking ahead of the game, Elgar hinted at further tinkerings but wouldn’t be drawn on exactly what. He did, however, reference the likelihood of damp conditions, which rather implies a return for Jansen. Zondo is waiting in the wings if Markram’s struggles prove to be terminal.
South Africa (possible): 1 Dean Elgar (capt), 2 Sarel Erwee, 3 Keegan Petersen, 4 Aiden Markram / Khaya Zondo, 5 Ryan Rickelton, 6 Kyle Verreynne (wk), 7 Marco Jansen, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Anrich Nortje, 11 Lungi Ngidi
Pitch and conditions
After the hottest summer in UK history, autumn is upon us with a vengeance this week. Damp conditions are forecast throughout the Test, with an inevitability of delays, not least on Thursday when London is set for a series of showers. Paradoxically, this may only help to speed up the game as a whole, given the potency of both seam attacks in such conditions.
Stats and trivia
- South Africa have lost four of their five Tests at The Oval since readmission, including their first post-apartheid visit in 1994 when Devon Malcolm famously took 9 for 57.
“The whole summer has just been great. We’ve changed the way in which England Test cricket in particular has been viewed, and one thing I’m very proud of is the way we’ve captured the imagination. It would be nice to finish the summer off and win the series as well.”
Ben Stokes wants to cap a restorative summer for his team.
“There’s definitely going to be a winner. The styles of cricket we’ve been playing, there is definitely going to be a result. I am pretty confident there’s going to be a victor. Going into this Test one-all, it’s pretty much like a World Cup final for us.”
Dean Elgar is gearing up for what he also called the biggest Test of his career.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket