South Africa toured England in 2022 for three Test matches, a series England won 2-1. The reports by Neil Manthorp, Lawrence Booth, Kit Harris, and Hugh Chevalier originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

Review: Neil Manthorp

South Africa arrived in England after 18 months spent repairing their Test reputation. Four unbeaten series included a hard-earned draw in New Zealand and a home win against India, the two contestants in the first final of the World Test Championship in 2021. The South Africans were well placed to reach the next final – indeed, victory on this tour would have almost guaranteed it.

A rejuvenated England team awaited them, having won the previous four Tests of the summer, against New Zealand and India, and played some dynamic cricket. Their fearless approach had been styled “Bazball” by the media, a reference to the nickname of the new head coach, Brendon McCullum. But if England themselves were peeved by the term, South Africa were contemptuous: their hard-nosed captain, Dean Elgar, would not even acknowledge it. “Let’s see if they can do it against our bowlers,” he snarled.

Only two of the eventual Test attack featured in the solitary red-ball practice match, against England Lions at Canterbury – and one, left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj, had eye-watering figures of 1-169 from 22 overs as the Lions piled up 672 in 117, to win by an innings. The tourists had not endeared themselves to their hosts by insisting the game feature 13 of their players, thereby denying it first-class status. Even so, Elgar’s confidence appeared well merited after England were thrashed inside three days – and the equivalent of two – in the First Test at Lord’s. While he remained the right side of smug, McCullum and Ben Stokes, far from being chastened, asked whether their team “could have gone harder”. It was difficult to think of two sides with more different philosophies.

South Africa’s outstanding performers early on were Kagiso Rabada and Marco Jansen, the 6ft 8in left-arm fast bowler who started his junior career as a batter, and who many believe could emerge as a top all-rounder. At Lord’s, Rabada led the attack superbly, and joined his boyhood hero, Makhaya Ntini, on the honours board. But while he took wickets throughout, he paid the price for trying too hard with insufficient runs to defend, and many of the glory deliveries he was seeking became four-balls. He conceded more per over – 4.41 – than in any previous series.

Meanwhile, the South Africans’ celebrations were diluted by the release of the ICC’s Future Tours Programme, which confirmed they would play just 28 Tests in the next four-year cycle, 22 in two-match series. One major reason was of Cricket South Africa’s own making: the financial black hole into which the game back home had fallen. The only way to fill it was by launching a new domestic T20 league – the SA20 – which would take place in January, the prime of its summer, when Test cricket usually flourishes. “In my view, and the view of most of the players, we should be playing more Test cricket,” said Elgar, grimly. “A lot more.”

Throughout the previous year and a half, his team had been short of runs, relying on a high-class bowling attack and on the idea that, if you can’t score many, score enough. But they made a hash of their (premeditated) team selection at Old Trafford, even if that was not the reason they, in turn, were thrashed on the third day. The inclusion of a second spinner on a dry pitch, especially one as prolific in English conditions as Simon Harmer, seemed sensible, but the omission of Jansen, supposedly because he was the least experienced of the pace quartet, was illogical. His match haul of 4-43 at Lord’s, plus an innings of 48, were sufficient reason to retain him; in fact, the vicious inswinger which trapped Joe Root was sufficient in itself. The extra spinner obliged Elgar to bat when he won the toss in Manchester.

But against an England attack bolstered by the return of a slimline Ollie Robinson, and under leaden grey skies, the decision was loaded with risk. The hosts took full advantage, then seized control with hundreds from Stokes and Ben Foakes, compiled in skilful, sensible and – dare one suggest – old-fashioned style. Not only was Robinson recalled, he shared the new ball with James Anderson, relegating Broad to first change. Stokes later revealed he had chosen his moment to break this news, telling Broad after a relaxing round of golf a few days before the Test. His response was outstanding, in both body language and results, while Robinson comfortably justified his promotion. All four of England’s main seamers, Stokes included – despite constant concerns over the state of his left knee – took at least 10 wickets at under 17.

Having already declined the offer of a two-day match to fill the scheduled nine-day gap before the final Test at The Oval, South Africa now found themselves with 11 off instead. They chose to spend the time “getting away from the game”, and enjoyed a three-day break go-karting and playing golf at The Belfry, near Birmingham.

They might have been exposed anyway when the third Test began but, once play finally got going, the power of the occasion and the emotional energy from the crowd overwhelmed them: soon after the first day had been abandoned as a washout, the death of Queen Elizabeth was announced, cancelling play on the second. On the morning of the third, an hour or so after spectators had sung “God Save the King”, South Africa were 36-6, the series all but over. In the midst of it all, they did themselves no favours by refusing to contemplate a request to add an extra day to facilitate a positive result.

It made no difference. The game lasted just 909 balls, and reached the final morning only because the umpires had taken the players from the field for bad light the previous evening, with England 33 short of victory. It was the briefest Test in England since 1912 – also between these teams at The Oval – while the hosts’ sixth success of the summer was their most since Michael Vaughan’s team won all seven in 2004 against New Zealand and West Indies. It also meant they retained the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy, which had now been with them since their victory in South Africa in 2015/16. The century opening stand between Zak Crawley and Alex Lees in that Oval chase belied earlier struggles, with Crawley’s place, in particular, under intense scrutiny. That had led to McCullum saying England were not looking for consistency from him, “because he’s the sort of guy that can win games for us”. English cricket’s eyebrows were raised to new heights, at which point Crawley caressed 69 delightful, unbeaten runs from 57 balls. And when England named their winter touring party for Pakistan, it was he – not Lees – who was retained.

The tour had started rather differently, with South Africa easing to a comprehensive victory in the first one-day international, on Britain’s hottest ever day. They then collapsed in a rain-shortened second game, before setting up a dominant position in the decider, only for the weather to have the final say. With no ICC Super League points available, there were only bragging rights, and South Africa had the better claim. The tone was set for the tour, in which nine international matches across all three formats produced not a single close game. England posted a record home total in the first T20 and won easily, before crashing to dismal defeats in the second and third, as a schedule of 12 limited-overs matches – including six against India – in 25 days took its toll. Opener Reeza Hendricks became just the third player from a major nation to score four successive T20 international fifties. He did so in all three games against England, and in the first of two against Ireland (staged in Bristol as Cricket Ireland sought to establish logistical ties with venues in England).

But, as always, it was the Test series which lingered in the memory. Each match ended with spectacular speed, because two fine bowling attacks were pitted against two modest batting line-ups. South Africa did not have one player with a career average over 40, and the only world-class batsman on either side, Root, endured a rare poor series, without even a fifty. In the event, the tourists managed a lone half-century – opener Sarel Erwee’s 73 at Lord’s. And although Stokes and Foakes took the plaudits for England, Ollie Pope continued to look comfortable at No.3: his two half-centuries came at important times in difficult conditions, and with counter-attacking verve.

South Africa’s tour ended not just in defeat, but in the unexpected resignation of their coach, Mark Boucher, whose contract was to have finished after the 50-over World Cup in 2023. He had conducted a press conference after The Oval in which he pulled no punches about his team’s batting frailty and technical shortcomings against the Dukes ball in English conditions, but made no mention of his future. Three hours later, CSA issued a statement confirming he would leave his post after the T20 World Cup in November. Four days after that, Mumbai Indians confirmed he was their new head coach in the IPL.

South Africa touring party: D Elgar (T), GW Coetzee (20), Q de Kock (50/20), SJ Erwee (T), SR Harmer (T), RR Hendricks (50/20), M Jansen (T/50), H Klaasen (50/20), KA Maharaj (T/50/20), JN Malan (50), AK Markram (T/50/20), DA Miller (50/20), PWA Mulder (T), LT Ngidi (T/50/20), AA Nortje (T/50/20), D Olivier (T), WD Parnell (20), KD Petersen (T), AL Phehlukwayo (50/20), D Pretorius (50/20), K Rabada (T/20), RD Rickelton (T), RR Rossouw (20), T Shamsi (50/20), LL Sipamla (T), T Stubbs (20), GA Stuurman (T), HE van der Dussen (T/50/20), K Verreynne (T/50), LB Williams (50), K Zondo (T/50). Head coach: MV Boucher. Team manager: KV Masubelele. Batting coach: J Sammons. Bowling coach: CK Langeveldt. Fielding coach: JL Ontong. Strength and conditioning coach: T Masekela. Doctor: H Ramjee. Physiotherapist: C Govender. Massage therapist: KMA Botha. Analyst: R Gobind. Media manager: L Davey. Security manager: MZ Wadee.

Maharaj captained in the one-day internationals, Miller in the Twenty20 internationals. Olivier returned home after sustaining a hip injury against England Lions.

At Canterbury, August 9–12 (not first-class). England Lions won by an innings and 56 runs. South Africans 433 (124.3 overs) (SJ Erwee 42, D Elgar 39, HE van der Dussen 75, K Zondo 86, K Verreynne 62, M Jansen 54*; C Overton 5-74) and 183 (64.4 overs) (AK Markram 88*; OE Robinson 3-29, S Conners 4-25); England Lions 672 (117 overs) (DP Sibley 48, DW Lawrence 97, HC Brook 140, BM Duckett 145, SW Billings 92, WG Jacks 34, C Overton 42*; AK Markram 6-91). Invited to give the Lions’ pre-match team talk, Craig Overton exhorted his team-mates to “do what the England boys are doing”, before sticking to his task for five wickets as South Africa batted well into the second day. The Lions batters did as instructed, ransacking the tourists for 672 at 5.74 an over: Harry Brook’s century, which included six sixes, edged him closer to a Test call-up, while Dan Lawrence, Ben Duckett and captain Sam Billings all filled their boots. Keshav Maharaj (22–0–169–1) was outbowled by part-time off-spinner Aiden Markram. Facing a deficit of 239, South Africa showed little fight: only Markram passed 15 as Ollie Robinson found rhythm; Sam Conners, the Derbyshire medium-pacer, mopped up the tail.

First Test at Lord’s, August 17-19, 2022: South Africa won by an innings and 12 runs

South Africa 12pts. Toss: South Africa.

Report: Lawrence Booth

Two explanations were doing the rounds after England’s heaviest home defeat in seven years. The first, put forward by those who had been waiting for them to trip up after four heady wins, pointed out that Test cricket had generally resisted reinvention, and here was proof. The second, put forward by those who had been expecting the other lot to say “I told you so”, pointed out that South Africa had won by the old-fashioned virtue of playing better cricket. Either way, this was a hammering, at the hands of a team whose captain, Elgar, wanted to hear as little of Bazball as an actor might of Macbeth.

For Stokes and McCullum, the result actually confirmed their philosophy: England lost, they argued, because they hadn’t gone hard enough, which was one way of looking at it. For the South Africans, there was the little matter of an existential crisis. On the first morning, the ICC had released international cricket’s new Future Tours Programme, the four-year fixture list from early 2023. It was unsurprising, and still shocking: while England would gorge themselves – playing 20 Tests against Australia and India alone – South Africa would survive mainly on a diet of two-match series, making room in their home schedule for a new, IPL-related T20 shindig. Victory at Lord’s felt like the beginning of the end of an era, not least because the FTP did not contain a single Test in England.

Undeterred, the South Africans set about confirming why they had started this series on top of the World Test Championship. The main reason was immediately obvious: when Elgar won the toss on an overcast morning, he set loose a quartet of quicks who had taken a few days off from the Apocalypse. Rabada was mean and fast, Nortje mean and faster; the giant Jansen offered left-arm swing and bounce; even Ngidi, the quietest of the horsemen, removed Root cheaply on the third afternoon, hastening annihilation. England had no answer, losing 20 wickets in 82.4 overs, the equivalent of less than a day. Had a thunderstorm not ended play – and a nationwide drought – on the first  afternoon at 2.10, the match might have finished in two.

From the moment Lees edged Rabada in the third over, driving at a ball too short for the stroke, England were overwhelmed. It didn’t help that many of them were feeling their way back into red-ball cricket after a six-week gap, though the bowling might have been irresistible anyway. Crawley somehow reached nine before snicking Rabada low to second slip, and it was 42-3 when Jansen curved one into Root’s pads; he reviewed, but DRS had it clipping the leg bail. When Bairstow’s middle stump was flattened by a 93mph delivery from Nortje, England’s two in-form batters – with 11 Test centuries between them in 2022 – had made eight and nought. That was not all: Nortje had Stokes fending the session’s final delivery to third slip and, in the six post-lunch overs before the deluge, he bowled Foakes off the inside edge. The skies darkened over a scoreboard reading 116-6, and the outfield quickly became a lake.

Still, England had recently escaped more perilous positions than this. And Pope, cutting with panache now that he was no longer cramped by an off-stump guard, was playing beautifully. No matter that England would not have their new comfort blanket – a fourth-innings chase – for the first time all summer. They had wriggled free before, and would wriggle free again.

Even positive thinking must sometimes yield to reality, however, and when play resumed in sunshine next morning – with Lord’s turning red for the Ruth Strauss Foundation – the pragmatic view was that 230 might be useful. England were relieved when Erwee – toppling backwards, grasping repeatedly at the ball – dropped Pope at first slip on 67, then deflated when Rabada bowled him off the edge for 73. It was arguably his best innings yet at No.3, but the arrival of Broad only five places lower meant the start of a long tail. Rabada removed him and Anderson to finish with 5-52 from 19 memorable overs – the sixth Lord’s five-for by a South African since readmission, after Allan Donald (1994 and 1998), Makhaya Ntini (2003, twice), and Vernon Philander (2012). All out for 165, England needed rescuing once more.

Instead, they ran into Elgar, grumpily old-school, and Erwee, keen to take his chance after nearly giving up the game three years earlier. England, by contrast, lacked intensity, and the openers had added 85 largely untroubled runs before Elgar was bowled via thigh and elbow by Anderson, the ball trickling on to the stumps with just enough force to dislodge the bails. Already England’s first fortysomething specialist seamer since Les Jackson in 1961, he was now the first fortysomething seamer of any nationality to take a Test wicket since Graham Gooch in 1994.

South Africa, though, were cruising, and England kept attacking – four slips, sometimes five, plus a full length, designed to entice drives. But the gaps were inviting, and easily found. Potts was expensive and, when he had Petersen held by Bairstow at third slip via a crooked drive, it felt like a blip: at tea, South Africa were 158-2 in 44 overs (England had been dismissed in 45, having scored at roughly the same rate).

After the break, England enjoyed their best spell of the match, which wasn’t saying much. Leach’s introduction had been strangely delayed, but he had Markram caught behind with his first ball of the session, at which point Stokes embarked on one of his bone-jarring spells of bouncers. Erwee, anonymously solid while making 73, was unable to avoid a brute; van der Dussen, expecting a short one, was pinned on the crease.

Verreynne came in a place lower than usual, at No. 7, because his grandfather, at the ground with Verreynne’s mother, had gone to hospital after choking on food. When he was caught behind to give Broad his 100th Test wicket at Lord’s – a feat previously achieved only by Anderson – South Africa were 210-6, and in danger of blowing it.

England, though, were as unlikely to shut up shop with the ball as they were with the bat. Stokes continued their season-long policy of bombarding the lower order, allowing Jansen and Maharaj – clean strikers both, with a good eye – to add a vivacious 72. The fun ended when Maharaj pulled Stokes to mid-wicket, but England’s approach spilled over into the third morning, which began with a six-three leg-side field. Broad soon held a stunning one-handed catch at wide mid-on to remove Rabada; encouraged, Stokes bounced away, depriving Anderson of the second new ball. “Pitch it up!” shouted a spectator; in the commentary box, Philander, once a master of nibbling it around off a length, decried the tactics. Broad, daring to aim fuller, finally coaxed nicks out of Jansen and Ngidi, but the lead was 161. Ominously for England, the South African attack had no weak link – unlike New Zealand and India in June and July.

Lees was on four when Petersen dived across from third slip, stole a sitter fromMarkram at second – and dropped it. Crawley scored mainly off the leading edge, then missed a sweep off Maharaj’s third ball of the game. Moments before lunch, Maharaj also trapped Pope, who had played back: at 38-2, England were up against it.

Early in the afternoon session, their fate was more or less confirmed: Ngidi found Root’s edge and, to South Africa’s delight, Markram held on, diving forward at second slip. Every time England tried to come up for air, South Africa forced them back down. Nortje was relentless. In ten deliveries, without conceding a run, he had Bairstow feathering behind, Lees fending at one from round the wicket, and Foakes lamely carving to Verreynne. Like Dale Steyn before him, he celebrated with little regard for his blood vessels.

Some frolics from Broad, who outscored Stokes in a slog-heavy stand of 55 before falling to Rabada’s slower ball for the second time in the game, delayed the inevitable. Potts had a hack at Jansen, Stokes heaved Rabada to deep mid-wicket, and Anderson was bowled by Jansen as he gave himself so much room he could barely have reached the ball.

South Africa were thrilled, but not smug: their latest win had simply confirmed their fast-bowling riches. England were chastened, but not downcast: the first defeat of the Stokes-McCullum era had been a car crash made worse, they reckoned, for being stuck in second gear. The teams headed for Manchester, eyeing each other warily across the ideological divide.

Player of the Match: K Rabada. Attendance: 87,385.

Second Test at Old Trafford, August 25-27, 2022: England won by an innings and 85 runs

England 12pts. Toss: South Africa.

Report: Kit Harris

For all their differences in talk and tactics – McCullum suggested England had not been aggressive enough in the First Test, while Elgar stuck to his advocacy of a style labelled “not sexy, but solid” by a South African correspondent – one thing seemed clear. England had not lost at Lord’s by playing Bazball. And for all McCullum’s brio and bravado, they did not win at Manchester by playing it, either. Instead, they out-Elgared Elgar.

It was no sort of pitch for Bazball, in any case: darkish, mottled with green, and bare at the ends. England recalled Robinson in place of Matt Potts. South Africa, convinced the surface would wear, replaced Marco Jansen with Simon Harmer, a second spinner with a tidy record for Essex at Old Trafford. Elgar – perhaps reassured that no team, in ten attempts, had ever won a Test at Manchester having elected to field – committed to a bat-first plan, come what may.

What came was a mild, humid first morning under a sky of gun-metal grey: perfect for swing. England felt it was a good toss to have lost. Bowling with nous and variety – save for a silly spell on the first afternoon – and batting with tenacity until South Africa’s bowlers tired, then with merry abandon, they ensured they had neither to tackle tricky turn on days four and five, nor even to chase a target at all. And they were lucky: two dropped catches, two wickets from no-balls, and a catch behind for which they didn’t appeal cost England the princely sum of 31 runs.

South Africa had few answers to time-honoured swing and seam. Robinson was given the new ball, the first time Broad had been demoted in a home Test since 2013. Erwee, Elgar and Petersen all edged moving deliveries. Stokes was rusty in his first over, but Markram obligingly spooned a long hop to the keeper; emboldened and loosened, Stokes got one to jag back and pin van der Dussen. At lunch, it was 77-5. Now the shortcomings of the tourists’ selection became manifest. Harmer, with a Test average of 19 and a top score of 38, was two places too high. Anderson – the first to play 100 home Tests – struck him in front, then did the same to Maharaj next ball, only to shove the hat-trick delivery down the leg side. When Verreynne, who had overturned umpire Gaffaney’s verdict that he had edged Robinson, managed to feather a Broad leg-cutter, South Africa were 108-8, and desperate for mercy.

They were given it when England placed five on the leg side for Rabada, and bowled short with a solitary slip, who was moved to square leg when he reached the dizzying heights of 24. England bowled as though he had a double-hundred and they were out of ideas. It was the tactic employed against Steve Smith during the 2019 Ashes – and yet here was a man ranked 142nd in the world. As long as the batters were willing to work it around, there were runs anywhere they wanted. Rabada and Nortje added 35, the highest stand of the innings.

England’s delusion evaporated immediately after tea, when Robinson and Leach were brought on to bowl line and length. Nortje departed to the first ball of the session, lbw to Robinson, and Rabada was held at slip going for a big hit off Leach. In between, Ngidi drilled his second ball straight back past Robinson. It was the shot of the day, which reflected as well on Ngidi as it damned the rest.

Crawley could not produce anything to match it. Hopelessly out of form, he received sarcastic applause for his first run. Lees touched a snorter from Ngidi, before Nortje responded to Pope’s three fours in his opening over by castling him with a 90mph thunderbolt. Rabada coaxed a nick from Root, which Erwee, at first slip, held after comically juggling it three times. England were 43-3, but Nortje got carried away, conceding five wides (twice) and four byes from overexuberant bouncers. Bairstow found his groove, and had reached 38 off 45 by the close. Crawley, clinging on, had 17 off 77. Not since 1909 – when both Australia and England were bowled out – had more wickets fallen on the first day of a Manchester Test.

On the second day, the pitch had lightened and the weather was set fair. The main threat to England was the pace of Nortje. Bairstow was hurried into an edge to first slip; Crawley, seeming more comfortable, had just hit successive fours off Rabada, then also edged Nortje. Though 38 was his 15th Test innings without a fifty, it felt more than enough under the current regime to guarantee his place at The Oval.

Nortje tired and, from 147-5, England gained the ascendancy against the spinners. Stokes hit them for three sixes, though there was anxious moment when, after jogging an easy single, his knee gave way. It looked serious, but he fought on. Maharaj persuaded Illingworth to give Foakes out lbw, but the review showed it had pitched outside leg. Harmer was no-balled for a high full toss, which Foakes smacked through mid-wicket. Both batters kept pace until they had 41 apiece, then Stokes roared ahead. His half-century, the 100 partnership and a three-figure lead came in quick succession.

Everything went England’s way. Stokes overturned another lbw decision from Illingworth, the replay showing a big deflection on Ngidi’s yorker, and had 86 when Foakes brought up his own fifty. On 92, Stokes smoked the ball to cover, where Markram – leaping to his right – nearly held a screamer. When his hundred came, there was no jubilant jump, nor jig in the outfield; Stokes looked relieved, and weary. Finally, he skyed to mid-off, where Elgar took it, tumbling. The partnership had yielded 173 in 53.4 overs – England’s sixth-wicket record at Old Trafford, beating 169 between Ian Botham and Geoff Miller against India in 1982.

As the tail went after the spinners, Foakes accelerated to his century. Broad hit Harmer for six, then was stumped. Foakes imperiously pulled successive fours off Rabada. Robinson lifted Nortje over the slips. Then, with a cut behind square, Foakes reached his second Test hundred, from 206 balls – not as spectacular as Stokes, but no less a match-winning contribution. Leach reverse-swept Maharaj to the cover boundary, and England declared, 264 ahead, with nine overs left in the day. South Africa survived them comfortably, but survival was really their only option.

Their hopes were futile: the third day was almost entirely England’s. Root bowled the first over, a tactic more about surprise than strategy, before Anderson set Elgar up brilliantly: an outswinger past the bat, then an inswinger that sent off stump flying. The ball was now going through the top, bouncing unpredictably, and reverse-swinging. Erwee edged Robinson, then Gaffaney wrongly gave Petersen out caught behind; for the fourth time in the match, DRS overturned a howler. Broad bowled Markram, but the third umpire spotted a no-ball; when he did get his man, caught at slip, he declined to celebrate until a legal delivery was confirmed.

Bairstow and Broad egged on the crowd in the Foster’s Party Stand, where they needed no second invitation. Spectators had spent most of the previous day assembling beer snakes, which the stewards spent most of the day dissecting, earning ceaseless abuse. Now, with the game nearly over and the cups not yet drained, the carousers focused on the cricket. Petersen and van der Dussen – who batted with a fractured index finger that would rule him out of The Oval, and got away with the edge England didn’t notice – painstakingly added 87 in 42.5 overs, and England went wicketless between lunch and tea. They tried bowling spin in tandem but, where Leach built up pressure, Root released it.

Stokes, again, made the difference. In a spell of 14 overs that had begun before tea, he prised out van der Dussen, who chased a reversing outswinger, and Petersen, who got an unplayable lifter. The new batsmen arrived just before the new ball: South Africa were 172-5 when it came, and the end was swift. Anderson’s second delivery tore through Harmer’s gate, giving him his 950th wicket in all international cricket, a record for a seamer.

Robinson – leaner, fitter – had proved a new man. He bowled with juice (his three fastest spells in Tests all came in the first innings) and produced the occasional jaffa, but his efforts had borne little fruit. His reward came in the end. Maharaj and Nortje were undone by back-of-a-length balls, between which Anderson snared Rabada. When Robinson trimmed Ngidi’s off stump at quarter to six, South Africa had lost 5-7 in five overs.

England had denied any South African as much as a half-century, and allowed them an aggregate of just 330. It was a mirror image of Lord’s. Elgar copped flak for his decisions but, given how the pitch deteriorated by the third day, his spinners might have had fun subsequently. The trouble was, his batters couldn’t make it last that long. “Everything’s been a bit of a blur,” he admitted. “I guess now I’ll have two days to process it.”

Player of the Match: BA Stokes. Attendance: 48,398.

Third Test at the Kia Oval, September 8-12, 2022: England won by nine wickets

England 12pts. Toss: England. Test debut: HC Brook.

Report: Hugh Chevalier

At lunchtime on the first day, Buckingham Palace announced that doctors were “concerned for Her Majesty’s health and have recommended she remain under medical supervision”. There was no more hard information, though someone claimed to have seen BBC newsreader Huw Edwards wearing a black tie. Speculation deepened a gloom that had already settled over the ground: the sun, barely behind a cloud since early June, had gone, and showers played havoc with what should have been the start of the deciding Test. At 4.45, hopes of cricket were abandoned for the day – the only complete washout in the brightest of international summers.

Then, at 6.30, came the news. “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon,” ran a short statement from the Palace. The longest reign in British history was over.

Although this eventuality was hardly unforeseeable, sport struggled to pitch its response. Football scrapped every professional match over the next four days, Friday to Monday – and was roundly criticised for overreacting – while horse-racing stopped on Friday and Saturday. For cricket, matters were complicated: the Duchy of Cornwall own The Oval, and neither the ECB nor Surrey wished to tread on royal toes. Within an hour of the news, the second day was called off, and the idea of abandoning the Test evaporated once it became clear that neither King Charles nor the public thought it necessary. Would South Africa delay their flight home and play on Tuesday? No, they wouldn’t – and so the Third Test became, de facto, a three-day game, with each theoretically extended to 98 overs.

When the teams reconvened, the country was a different place. Saturday began with a minute’s silence of ineffable solemnity, a profound and utterly noiseless echo of the national mood. Stillness had never been more eloquent. After the haunting beauty of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” came the first public rendition of “God Save the King” at a game of cricket for more than 70 years, sung with gusto, and followed by long, loud applause.

There were other marks of respect. Players and officials wore black armbands; fancy dress was banned, the Tannoy barely used, and sobriety encouraged, which partially explained the near-total absence of Barmy Army chants and the complete absence of Mexican waves. Where possible, advertising vanished, and so the boundary rope was liberated from beneath its foam cushion. To those in middle age or beyond, it all looked familiar.

Even they might have forgotten the vexillological protocol following the death of a monarch. The flags of the two national boards were removed, leaving only the Union Jack, at half-mast above the pavilion. On the Saturday – the day of the Accession Council at which Charles was formally proclaimed king – it returned to full mast, where it stayed until 1pm on the Sunday, when it was lowered. Only after the state funeral, nine days later, would it flutter from the top again.

Back on Thursday, there had been one cricket-related moment. With an iffy forecast, a greenish surface and the knowledge that the summer’s Tests had all been won by the team bowling first, Stokes asked South Africa to bat. In came Harry Brook, busy pulling up trees for Yorkshire, after Jonny Bairstow broke his leg during a round of golf. For the tourists, Rassie van der Dussen and Lungi Ngidi were injured, while Simon Harmer and Aiden Markram (whose departure left Elgar the only South African with 1,000 Test runs) were omitted. In came the 32-year old Khaya Zondo – whose one previous Test appearance had been as a final-day Covid substitute in April – as well as Jansen, Rickelton and Mulder.

It took nine balls for Stokes’s decision to bear fruit – and the crowd to return to their feet. A sublime inseamer from Robinson nipped through the gate, making Elgar’s off stump cartwheel with more abandon than seemed tasteful. Erwee nicked Anderson in the third over, before Petersen – fed a diet of outswingers – misread one that moved the other way, and was castled shouldering arms. Broad joined in with his sixth ball, inveigling Rickelton into a nibble. Verreyne also edged behind, before Mulder – eyes lighting up at a wider delivery better ignored – slashed hard, and was sixth out.

Robinson had four wickets, Foakes four catches, and South Africa – 36-6 – trouble on their hands. Beginning in Manchester a fortnight earlier, they had lost 11-43. In that time, Robinson had seven for 18, nudging his Test average below 20. Not since Australia lost their sixth wicket at 30 in 1882 – the match that spawned the Ashes – had an Oval Test seen a more calamitous start. The England of 140 years later had deftly exploited helpful conditions, but the score was as indicative of a brittle batting line-up low on self-belief.

South Africa then put air in their tyres, and for a while they trundled cheerily along. When Leach had an exploratory couple of overs before lunch, Zondo despatched him for a straight six and a cut four. Still, it had emphatically been England’s session. As was the next. From the afternoon’s sixth delivery, Broad caught the shoulder of Zondo’s bat, and the ball looped to backward point. He and Jansen, the least cowed of the South Africans, had doubled the score, though that merely took it to 72-7.

Badly dropped by Foakes, Jansen soon became Robinson’s fifth, edging into the slips. There was no need for a lengthy spell, but Robinson’s fitness did not seem an issue. Maharaj, after joining Elgar in the 1,000-runs club, and Nortje both fell to Broad, who finished with four. At 36.2 overs, it was the shortest opening innings of an Oval Test, while South Africa’s 118 was the lowest such innings here since 1948, when England capitulated for 52 in Don Bradman’s farewell; the tourists made their lowest score since readmission.

For the sixth Test in a row, England lost a wicket within four overs, and they lost another in the tenth, both openers falling to Jansen’s bristling left-arm inswingers. Pope, though, was defiant, and by tea he and Root had reduced the deficit to 34. The usually reliable Rabada’s radar had gone awry, and his first six toothless overs cost 49. The game was galloping along – and about to gallop faster still.

Five deliveries into the evening session, movement behind Jansen’s arm prompted Root to withdraw; when the ball was bowled, he flashed with such vigour it was a wonder Petersen in the slips could see it – let alone catch it. The offender in the pavilion, it transpired, was Jeffrey Archer, whose latest novel, Next in Line, was about to be published. Next in line for England was Brook, who briefly looked as good as his reputation. His focus, however, may have been disrupted by a half-hour hold-up for the weather, and he became the day’s fifth batter to depart within nine balls of a resumption. Stokes, in frenetic mode, edged to the cordon (populated by four or five slips almost throughout), and Pope soon followed, caught behind for a boundary-studded 67, a pugnacious effort whose value grew as the innings wilted.

The fifth match of the 2019 Ashes had been the only Test in England to start later in the season than this, so the aim of making up lost time in the evening was fanciful. Despite floodlights, the umpires deemed it too dark by 6.30 – especially galling since the ground was bathed in autumnal sunshine moments later. The contrast between the stillness before play and the frenzy of play could not have been clearer: 70 overs, 272 runs, 17 wickets. England were 36 ahead.

Before the game resumed on Sunday, Robinson said his job was to stick around with Foakes and take the lead to three figures. The sun was out, and day two at The Oval is usually a time for batting. But, from the second ball, Robinson departed to Rabada – a different proposition from the Vauxhall End. In less than ten overs, England plummeted from 129-4 to 158, with Jansen claiming a five-for. For only the eighth time, both first innings had the same duration – though England bowled three fewer no-balls. South Africa trailed by 40, but had the momentum.

Elgar’s batting might have been crabby, but he did stick around. Other than Erwee departing to Stokes’s third delivery, the morning was all South Africa – and at lunch, they led by 30, a sniff of victory in their nostrils. Then, his side 43 to the good, Elgar threw it away. For the third time in four balls, he was rapped on the pads by Broad, and at last umpire Menon was convinced. So was Elgar, who walked, not bothering to consult Petersen. It was missing leg.

Two more wickets suggested the tide, at 95-4, had turned, only for Zondo and Mulder to stem the flow, prompting Stokes to call on experience. The dismissal of Elgar had taken Broad fifth on the all-time list with 564, clear of Glenn McGrath, while Anderson now had 666. They were at their majestic best, the pressure never dropping. Runs dried up, and the cricket was as traditional as the bare boundary rope. But if Elgar had been too reluctant to use DRS, Stokes was too gung-ho. By the 41st over, when replays showed Zondo had not feathered through to Foakes, England had burned their three reviews. In 17 attempts all summer, they had not overturned a single decision from the field.

Not that it mattered. The game, after briefly pulling into the slow lane, was busy overtaking all and sundry once again. Robinson reaped the rewards of the earlier squeeze and plucked out two, including his 50th. Then Stokes – having had the dangerous Jansen caught off a no-ball – produced an inswinger of intense beauty to properly see him off. It wasn’t long before England knew the size of their chase, and on this capricious pitch there was a chance – if small – that 130 could be a banana skin.

The slip, though, came from the slips. Lees swung hard at the first ball, and Rabada watched aghast as Jansen fumbled a holdable chance. Perhaps the die was already cast: the new England had gobbled more daunting targets as voraciously as Desperate Dan scoffs a cow pie. And the openers were steaming along. Lees convinced few, but Crawley was at last resembling a man with a Test-best 267. He was still a little static, but his timing – off front foot and back – was exquisite, and confidence coursed back. Daylight was short, but at this rate the Test might be completed in a weekend, which would have been unprecedented.

Crawley belted to his fifty from 36 balls, the joint-fastest (with Stokes) by an England opener, and the score was 97 when the umpires led the players from the field to a chorus of boos. Having taken a light reading the evening before, though, they were obliged to come off once such conditions returned. Next morning, it needed just two balls for Lees and Crawley to improve their record for England’s fastest century opening partnership. A smattering of spectators, admitted free, saw Lees weather another chance – South Africa arguably dropped four in a 19-ball sequence starting late on the Sunday evening – only to fall with 22 to get. Crawley, with Pope for company, clonked his 12th four to win the match at 11.25. There was delight that England had come from behind to retain the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy, but not champagne.

On Wednesday, February 6, 1952, England were playing the first day of the Madras Test, when news of the death of King George VI reached India. The rest day was brought forward, and the match did not resume until Friday, when England lost their way – and India went on to their first Test win. Seventy years on, under a buoyant leadership team, England seemed galvanised. Before the first ball, Stokes had told his side to “take a huge amount of inspiration” from the Queen, and from what she “did in her reign, to commit her life to the country”.

Player of the Match: OE Robinson. Attendance: 46,742.
Player of the Series: BA Stokes (England), K Rabada (South Africa).
Test Player of the Summer: JM Bairstow.