Five-fer: Day three, The Oval

Blog Opinion

We pick out the five key points from the third day's play of the first Test between England and South Africa at The Oval.

<b>1. Man Of The Hour</b><br>It will have surprised next to no-one that Graeme Smith scored his 25th Test hundred in his 100th Test. Smith, after all, loves the big occasion. It brings the best out of some players and Smith is patently one of them.

Added to that is the fact that only Sir Donald Bradman averages more than Smith in Tests in England. Once he'd reached three figures it seemed inevitable that he would carry on because his average in England after going to a hundred was well over 200 prior to this knock.

Yet every century requires different skills and fresh resolve, and the mechanics of this one were most impressive. Realising that patience was the key against the swinging ball on a sluggish pitch, Smith knuckled down and scored just 37 runs in 37 overs on day two.

When he went to fifty on the third morning, he'd faced 160 deliveries, making it his slowest half-century in Test cricket. With his eye in and the ball old, Smith then tonked 52 from the next 41 balls to make sure there was no doubt about who was in charge.

In his interview with Cricket365 prior to the series it was clear just how at peace he currently is with his situation, and Smith's innings here was clearly the result of an uncluttered mind.

<b>2. A Return To Character</b><br>As admirable a century as it was from Smith, even he would admit that it was one of his grittier, crabbier knocks. When his batting is really flowing he can drive the ball straight down the ground, but that certainly wasn't the case as he worked a huge percentage of his runs to the leg side.

It was a good thing, then, that the purists had Hashim Amla's technique to enjoy at the other end. Amla's checked drive is arguably the finest in the game, and it was regularly on show as he compiled a masterful hundred of his own.

While his captain struggled against Graeme Swann early on, Amla had the offspinner in his pocket all along, sweeping Swann to both distraction and frustration.

Against the fast bowlers he was equally chanceless in an innings that sucked the life out of England's bowlers because it became impossible to see how Amla might get out. Some might say that he outdid even Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott in that department.

By his own high standards Amla was due a century, having not registered one in his six previous Tests.

He often looked like scoring one during that spell, which came during series against Sri Lanka and New Zealand, only to play uncharacteristically loose strokes and throw away a good start.

But on Saturday he was very much the Hashim Amla who has flummoxed bowling line-ups the world over during his 60-Test career.

<b>3. Lesson Learnt</b><br>A little like South Africa's effort on day one, it was difficult to find too much fault with England's bowlers today as Smith and Amla notched up South Africa's highest partnership against England.

Both batsmen were superb, and did well to keep out a number of excellent deliveries that would have got the better of many other batsmen with lesser patience.

When the breakthrough eventually did come, with the ball deflecting onto Smith's stumps via the inside edge and left ankle, there was an element of fortune and perhaps weariness involved.

Although there were occasions when needless boundaries were given away – generally through the fast bowlers straying onto the pads, where both Smith and Amla are very strong – for the most part Andrew Strauss' side could only salute a fine batting effort.

England showed through Cook and Trott on day one that runs had to be slowly accumulated, with the good deliveries shown plenty of respect.

Unfortunately for them it seems that South Africa were paying full attention.

<b>4. Flat Footed</b><br>Cricket, more so than many other sports, is a mind game. If your head's not in the right place, your game is going to suffer, and we saw this with England's bowlers, especially Stuart Broad.

He's not the most cheerful of cricketers, Broady, but he was decidedly grumpy from the get-go, and the more Smith, Amla and Kallis defied him, the less effective he became. At one stage, he gave James Anderson a look that would have curdled milk, all because Jimmy's valiant boundary dive didn't succeed. He shook his head and kicked the turf after every delivery for the next few overs he bowled.

England's fielders were often seen to be crouching on their haunches, staying on the ground a bit too long after a misfield, and there was not much chatter out there, even though Andrew Strauss employed his usual defensive field settings.

Strauss's frustration was also evident, if not from his facial expression then from his crossed arms, because try as he might, his bowlers refused to bowl to his field. With Smith, they bowled far too straight, and no matter where square leg and fine leg moved, he managed to evade them.

To be fair to the skipper, he did make an effort to get his men keyed up as the close drew near. He ran around the field to every man and chucked them the ball, before standing back at slip, much to the delight of the crowd.

South Africa will hope that Broad and company don't do what the Proteas bowlers did on day two, after a similarly downbeat day. Dale Steyn made a 180-degree turn-around to great effect, so what will day four bring from the Three Lions attack?

<b>5. Turn but no bounce</b><br>Given that day three has just concluded, the fact that the pitch is very flat and bounce-free will be a worry for both sides. The ball that got rid of Smith kept low, and deliveries from Broad and Anderson often didn't reach Matt Prior behind the stumps.

The bounce became increasingly variable as they day progressed, and the batsmen did well to read each ball as it came, while the bowlers' temperaments were clearly not helped by seeing their hard work bounce short of the keeper.

The only man who would be slightly encouraged by the wicket as it stands is Graeme Swann, who got a lot of turn in the footmarks, despite not being able to get a breakthrough. His problem was that while he bowled well, the batsmen were too set in their innings to find him dangerous.

South Africa might be considering batting through to a big lead so that they can put England in to bat last on this track, and hope that Imran Tahir can take advantage of the spin and that Cook and company can't get set.

<b>By Tristan Holme and Lindsay du Plessis</b>

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