The last time England lost at home by an innings was against the Australians in the summer of 2009. The margin of defeat was by an innings and 80 runs. Yesterday England were trounced by the Proteas by an innings and 12 runs at the Oval. But the margin really hides the plastering received by the Test cricket champions at the hands of the South Africans.
Since last summer when England achieved the numero uno status and displacing India with disdain, they have looked head and shoulders above all visiting sides - Sri Lanka, West Indies and Australia. This series was to be the contest, top team versus top contender. If the Oval Test is anything to go by, the hunters are now the hunted.
The true margin of defeat at the Oval was 2 South African wickets against England’s 20. It doesn’t get more one-sided than that. It was the 5-day express version of a whitewash. Where are the clouds when you need them? And why was the series opener not played at Lord’s?
The Proteas landed on the shores after a training camp in the Swiss Alps, played only two warm games before the Test match. At the end of day one, England were sitting pretty. The curators had produced a bald brown track, obviously to keep Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Kallis at bay. Strauss won the toss, elected to bat and England finished Day 1 on 267/3, with Cook unbeaten on 114, having completed his 20th Test century. A big first innings score was on the cards, normal service likely to continue. There was even talk of the South Africans being a bit “undercooked”.
The first session of the second day changed all that and more. The South African bowlers came to the party. England lost the last 7 wickets for 118 runs and were wrapped up for 385, with Morkel, pick of the bowlers, accounting for four wickets. That brought the determined Smith to the pitch, who lost his partner cheaply. And for a while the England total looked par. What followed in the next couple of days is what dreams or nightmares are made of. Two massive partnerships, the first between Amla and Smith, and then an undefeated one between Amla and Kallis took South Africa miles ahead in morale terms.
This Test match will be remembered for several records, but mostly for the unbeaten 13-hour vigil at the crease by Amla. The calm and modest South African became the top Test scorer for his country, remaining unconquered on 311 when the declaration came at tea on Day 4. Smith scored a determined 131 in his 100th Test match appearance and King Kallis produced his 43rd test century, remaining unbeaten on 182. The England bowling attack seemed to be completely out of ideas, mostly working on containing than attacking. The swing and seam movement had completely dried up. The pitch was flat and the sun was out.
However all that changed in the second innings! With England 252 adrift, the ball started to move laterally in the hands of the South Africans. By the end of day four they had already accounted for four English wickets, including the two most stubborn, Cook and Trott. The fifth day was further testament, as Steyn moved the ball both ways, as did Philander. The rough helped Tahir, and Morkel was intent on increasing the pressure. The end came swiftly with the second new ball, with one session to spare in the match.
The England bowling-attack had worked much better in the UAE against Pakistan, and then in Sri Lanka, in conditions where they did not expect any help from the pitches. Broad seemed to be over-pitching often, searching for swing but with little effect. Swann bowled long spells, often hitting the track harder but unable to extract enough spin and bounce. Anderson and Bresnan worked hard but could not deliver the goods. Bopara was probably the only one who caused a few problems – with the ball. The holding game didn’t work for England. The subcontinental pitch didn’t work either.
The South Africans were relentless in the game, with ball and bat, after an average first day. They played with AB, as the make shift wicket-keeper in the absence Boucher, needed to use only four batsmen and did all the damage with their four main bowlers in short sharp spells.
The crown is looking slippery tonight. England will come back stronger in the next two Tests. They will not roll over, not at home. This series is very much on. What remains to be seen are the tactics, the team mix and the pitch conditions that the home team comes back with.
The Olympics will be a distraction, so stay tuned in! It’s not over yet.