When South Africa declined the offer to push back their flight home and extend this third Test by a day, there were concerns – however trifling in the grand scheme of things – that an enticing series decider could well end up a case of what might have been.
Instead, only biblical rain or an unthinkable clatter of wickets on the final day will prevent England from completing their sixth Test victory of the summer and thus their best home season in 18 years. They will resume on 97 for no loss needing 33 more runs to reach a target of 130 before a celebration delayed by bad light can finally begin.
It follows the second evening in a row where the players were forced off early and this time, at 6.37pm, boos rang around the Oval. Ben Stokes, whose three wickets had earlier helped roll South Africa for 169 in their second innings, clearly felt the same up on the balcony, the England captain visibly miffed by the decision from the umpires.
Though forced to wait, Stokes could still reflect overnight on a dominant display from his players on a lively fourth day that was in effect just the second. His own thundering efforts were just one part of a ruthless collective show of seam bowling, with Stuart Broad claiming three for 45 and Jimmy Anderson and Ollie Robinson two apiece.
Perhaps most satisfying for Stokes was the sight of Alex Lees and Zak Crawley reaching unbeaten scores of 32 and 57 respectively after a 17-over assault on the target. South African shoulders had dropped, not least after Marco Jansen grassed Lees at slip off the first ball of the chase, but this was still a huge boon for both openers.
Crawley in particular looked unshackled by the task at hand, compiling a 36-ball half-century and slotting 10 fours. Admittedly one flew at catchable height between wicketkeeper and slip before the close but at the end of a season in which the right-hander has struggled to repay the faith shown in him, this innings goes down as a plus.
Six hours earlier England’s mood was not nearly so buoyant and in a summer where the quality of Dukes ball has been a running theme, they were chuntering about the latest one at their disposal. The hosts had let their first innings evaporate – just four runs were added to their overnight 154 for seven as the impressive Jansen completed a maiden Test five-wicket haul – and South Africa had started their second innings well.
England’s 40-run lead was wiped off, two reviews were burned and conditions appeared to have eased for batters. But once Stokes had winkled out Sarel Erwee for 26 with his third delivery of the match – a low catch pouched by Joe Root at slip – to see the tourists resume on 70 for one after lunch, suddenly the ball started to swing lavishly and their attempts to have it changed not so mysteriously died down.
Anderson and Broad were in their element, the oldest swingers in town putting on one last show of the summer for their public. Batting was a trial once more, even if Dean Elgar decided to plead guilty when, rapped on the pad by Broad for the third time in the 22nd over, he trudged off without reviewing. Given a batting line-up otherwise green by way of experience, Elgar should probably have taken one regardless; instead he was back in the sheds when the replay showed it was missing.
Broad meanwhile was soaking up some additional applause, Elgar’s removal having taken him to 564 wickets and thus into the top five of the all-time list in Test cricket. And then the only seamer above him, Anderson, soon compounded the strike, setting up Keegan Petersen with an over of inswingers before hooping one away from the right-hander and seeing an edge fly to slip. When Broad pinned Ryan Rickleton for a simple lbw on five, South Africa were suddenly 95 for four, a mere 55 ahead after an encouraging start.
Something of a stalemate then followed, one that underlined the contrasting approaches of the two teams as Kaya Zondo and Wiaan Mulder dug deep for an hour, saw off the old guard but added just 25 runs to their pile. As such, when Robinson continued his barnstorming Test match by removing both set men in the space of five balls with inswingers that nipped in further, the tourists had gone nowhere.
At the other end Stokes was back pounding away, mindful of not releasing the pressure in a match where his spinner, Jack Leach, had been relegated to the role of second gravedigger. And though he took South Africa’s lead past 100 when he had Jansen caught at slip off a no-ball, his 10-over burst either side of tea shut down the lower order, uprooting his fellow all-rounder’s leg stump on the stroke of tea with another ball that hooped in and having Kagiso Rabada caught at slip soon after.
Though Keshav Maharaj chiselled out 18 precious runs, Anderson and Broad returned to buff up their figures further and confirm the target. Robinson may have disrupted their new-ball alliance of late but the pair now have 997 wickets from 132 Test matches played together in what is testament to their skill, fitness and hunger.
And so while the Oval is known for its farewells – even more so now after this historic week – there is every chance the pair will fulfil the pre-match prediction of Stokes and plough on for one last crack at Australia next summer; if the much-maligned Dukes ball moves like it did on this fourth-cum-second day, just try and stop them.