One could not have asked for a more dramatic manner of conclusion for the 100th Test at The Oval.
The ball from Moeen Ali came in with the arm, beat the lunging bat of the giraffe like Morne Morkel. The pad was struck and even as Joel Wilson said not out the review was called for. It would have been cruel to deny Moeen a review on hat-trick ball. And as he meticulously went through the replays, Kumar Dhramasena had no doubt in his mind .
Thus Moeen became the first England off-spinner to achieve a hat-trick in Test cricket since Tom Goddard in Johannesburg, 1938. He can stay rather inconspicuous in his role of the deglamourised utility man in the team — the glamorous counterpart being Ben Stokes. But, he keeps coming up with these incredible feats. 87 runs in the first innings and 10 wickets at Lord’s. A hat-trick to end the match here at The Oval.
But, other than this bit of excitement towards the fag end of the game, the fifth day at The Oval was a protracted tale of waiting for the inevitable.
True, Dean Elgar put on a resolute fight, underlining the merits of a dogged approach. His century was a case study of flair and flourish taking the backseat and fortitude reaping the rewards. South Africa did need a couple of their other batsmen to essay similar knocks. And they had at least two in their midst who enjoy such situations, in the likes of Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis. Unfortunately, by the time the fifth day of the match got underway, only Elgar had survived from the top 5.
The tragedy of this was underlined especially after there had been yet another magical moment for the debutant Toby Roland-Jones.
The real-time fairy-tale of this persevering Middlesex seamer carried on to the final morning. He dismissed the restrained Temba Bavuma and Vernon Philander off successive balls, and almost achieved a hat-trick of his own when Chris Morris edged the brilliant first delivery and it fell just short of the men in the slips.
The first dismissal saw the rare, rare occurrence of a decision of Aleem Dar being overturned by the television umpire. The second was yet another moment of brain fade of the Proteans, with Philander, like skipper du Plessis on the previous afternoon, padding up to a straight delivery.
However, as already mentioned, it was the session of play after these two dismissals that underlined the tragedy of Amla and du Plessis getting out the previous day. The pitch at The Oval was appreciably easier, the sun was out. As Chris Morris connected a number of well-timed drives, and later even Keshav Maharaj batted with considerable ease, one was left wondering what might have been if Amla and du Plessis, or even one of them, had survived the last session of the fourth day.
We have pointed out in these pages that the situation had called for a relook at the batting order. Quentin de Kock is not really the man to walk in at No 4 when a match is to be saved by playing out overs. Du Plessis, on the other hand, is perhaps the ideal man in such circumstances. Perhaps if the captain had come ahead in the order and settled down into a rhythm by stumps, there could have been many more twists and turns in the game, and some genuine contest down the line.
Alas, what we got to see was a cat and mouse game ending in the eventual rout.
As they go into the fourth and final Test at Old Trafford, South Africa will need to take a good, long look at the strategies.
The batting really seems brittle. Elgar has been consistent, but de Kock, Amla, Bavuma and du Plessis have blown hot and cold throughout the series. A synchronised show, as in Trent Bridge, can go a long way in ensuring competitiveness and that is what is required at Manchester. And for that, it seems some shuffling of the batting order is a must. After all, maintaining stability and balance in spite of the absence of AB de Villiers is a tough task.
Finally, Heino Kuhn has met with six failures and perhaps the time has come to think of young Aiden Markham as a possible replacement. Perhaps Kuhn and Keaton Jennings can form a club of their own.
The bowling is heavily dependent on Philander, understandably so given that top gun, Dale Steyn is absent from the action. Philander, in fact, was a major player in the triumph at Trent Bridge. But as this match indicated, if Philander is rendered ineffective because of any reason, a stomach bug, in this case, there is precious little to fall back on. Morkel and Rabada have bowled well on occasions, and Keshav Maharaj has been impressive in patches, but Philander is the only one who seems potent enough to force mistakes out of batsmen instead of waiting for them to make some.
On the other hand, it has been a fantastic Test for England. They have started to operate as a well-oiled machinery. The already fancied bowling attack has been boosted by the dream-debutant in the form of Roland-Jones. The spinner among them considered a weak link by many, has picked up a ten-wicket haul and a hat-trick, and leads the bowling averages in the series with 18 wickets at 14.72. There have been batting successes in the match, in the form of Cook, Root, Stokes, Johnny Bairstow and the other successful debutant Tom Westley.
Yet, there are rather yawning gaps in the English line-up as well. They were rendered inconsequential due to the less than adequate show put on by the South Africans, but it would be foolhardy to deny that they exist.
Even if we waive the inexperience of Westley based on his two innings here, there are two batting slots which continue to be problematic. Jennings has failed too many times to merit another opportunity. And Dawid Malan has had a nightmarish debut.
On the first day at The Oval, this inexperienced line up did have to dive for cover behind the august blade of Alistair Cook. And the sooner this vulnerability is dealt with the better it will be for the team.
This has been a topsy-turvy series, with rather one sided contests in the three Tests, the upper hand switching from match to match. And as the sides head to Manchester for the final showdown, both the teams will do well to do put in some deep thinking about their respective combinations.