It appears there is to be no middle ground in this series. Two weeks after England followed a 211-run win at Lord’s with a 340-run defeat at Trent Bridge, they have returned to routing South Africa once again, handing the Proteas a 239-run thrashing in an historic 100th Test match at The Oval.
The total capitulation at Trent Bridge had been fairly worrying for England, with inconsistency and recklessness once again rearing their ugly heads for Trevor Bayliss’ side in Test cricket, and so there was a slight air of panic in their team selection for this match — three debutants in a single game never gives off the greatest sense of a side having it all together.
In the end, two of England’s three newcomers can rightfully be said to have enjoyed a good start to their Test careers, Toby Roland-Jones coming within a whisker of the Man of the Match award with a maiden five-wicket haul and Tom Westley looking like he might have the quality to make it at the highest level — albeit from a very small sample size of evidence.
Only England’s final debutant, Dawid Malan — picked despite, by Test match standards, a fairly modest County Championship record — had a game he’d probably rather forget, with 11 runs across two innings and given he was a slightly curious selection in the first place, it remains to be seen how long he will last in the side.
As has been the case in every match in this series, it was once again first innings runs that laid the foundations for victory in the game, as first Alastair Cook and then Ben Stokes resisted both a fearsome South African bowling attack and favourable bowling conditions to ensure England made a decent total of 353.
It was Stokes’ fifth Test hundred, but arguably his best, even including his scintillating double against the same opposition in Cape Town last year, as the all-rounder picked the perfect times to attack and defend and steer England to a respectable score.
South Africa were undoubtedly hampered by the fact that Vernon Philander spent large amounts of the match off the field and then in hospital with a stomach bug — the burly bowler still causing England some serious problems despite his illness, with the hosts very fortunate they didn’t have to face more of him.
Kagiso Rabada continues to have, by his standards, a slightly disappointing series unable to match the consistency or threat of either Morne Morkel or Philander, although he did still produce an absolute gem of a yorker to remove Malan and show just how dangerous he can be.
With the ball in hand, it was all about Roland-Jones for England, the debutant introduced early by Root after an ineffectual opening burst from James Anderson. He repaid his captain’s faith, removing all of South Africa’s top four to reduce them to 47/4 — a position from which they never recovered.
Temba Bavuma was the only man to really resist for South Africa, once again playing a gutsy innings, and he looks like being a mainstay of the South African order for some time to come. He was eventually the last man dismissed (at a score of 52) and Roland-Jones’ fifth victim.
One headache for England going into the next Test will be Keaton Jennings’ place in the side. The opener made a battling 48 in the second innings, although he was fortunate to be dropped early on and rode his luck at times — there was a slight sense that the longer he batted, the more he showed that he might not quite be suited to the role in the long term.
It will be interesting to see what England do. One suspects they might give him one more game to prove himself, although with Mark Stoneman breathing down his neck, they may yet opt for a change.
Ultimately for much of this series South Africa’s batting has been a little disappointing, perhaps illustrated by the fact that Dean Elgar’s battling century in the second innings was his side’s first of the series — had it not been for the opener’s efforts, England’s margin of victory would have been even greater, the contest even more lop-sided.
In the end it was fitting that The Oval’s 100th Test ended with a little history, Moeen Ali finishing things off with the first Test hat-trick at the ground and the first in history to comprise only left-handed batsmen, as England wrapped up a thumping victory to ensure they cannot lose the series.
Whether they can win it next week in Manchester is an entirely different question and one given their recent unpredictability that remains difficult to answer. If there was ever a good time for Bayliss’ side to find some Test match consistency then it is surely now.