The weather forecast last Saturday promised 100 per cent likelihood of rain. I like that formulation: it doesn’t leave much wiggle room. And so it turned out as I pitched up at the Oval just as the players trooped off in the wet. Even so, at the halfway stage, there was still a 100 per cent likelihood of an England victory; 250 odd runs ahead, nine wickets remaining, and a fragile South African batting side.
This has been an odd series: three intensely uncompetitive matches but some thrilling Test cricket. England may have stumbled upon the best side for the Ashes and that tricky first morning in Brisbane. Of the three England newcomers at the Oval I like the look of Tom Westley most. Could England have found a proper no. 3 at last? He hit a half-century on his Test debut at no. 3, and only a handful of others have done that: one was the great P.B.H. May of blessed memory. Big shoes to fill.
It was a sensational arrival for Middlesex’s Toby Roland-Jones: he has spent years doing the hard yards on the county circuit and deserved his eight wickets. He seems likely to go to Australia but I am not sure he is anything more than an English conditions bowler. He bowls in the low to mid 80s, but does that give him enough zip to trouble batsmen on flat unresponsive pitches? My guess is Steve Smith and co would fancy batting all day against him in Brisbane. Ben Stokes, of course, has become a superstar, Bothamesque in his all-round magnificence. As with Woods or Federer or Jonny Wilkinson, we’re lucky to be around in the era of B. Stokes. Also lucky he didn’t decide to go off and play for New Zealand.
The great thrill of the second Test was that the final wicket, and Moeen Ali’s hat-trick, was decided on review. It gave the game a real climax, when it could have just petered out into a dull old battering for South Africa. The joys of technology. The greatest footballer of his time, though not such a great advert for drug abuse, Diego Maradona, has come out in favour of video technology and admitted that the ‘Hand of God’ goal would never have been allowed. Well, that would have been a pity: after all, the Hand of God legend has added greatly to the gaiety of nations over the past few decades.
Everyone else has been chipping in on the 60th birthday of Test Match Special, so here’s my pennyworth. Do not on any account miss Jonathan Agnew’s brilliant wind-up this week of Geoffrey Boycott, claiming that his famous 100th hundred at Headingley in 1977 was actually just the great man’s 99th as an earlier ton had just been downgraded by faceless ICC bureaucrats. Boycott was appalled and very cross, and Agnew baffled but helpful, before revealing the whole thing was a joke.
Boycott took it all very well; Agnew, with just one Test to his name, showed once again what a broadcasting star he is, a good egg and very funny. And do listen to the Prime Minister’s tribute to TMS: ‘Hello, I’m Theresa…’ Charming, witty and hugely well informed, it shows the very best of Mrs May: if she could have channelled just a fraction of this in the weeks running up to June 8, the country wouldn’t be in the mess it is.
A final thought on the great Adam Peaty: a choirboy’s head on the Incredible Hulk’s body. It takes a lot to get the British excited about swimming, but Peaty is managing it with his charm, brilliance and patriotism. I liked his remark when demonstrating his extraordinary strength exercises — ferocious press-ups and pull-ups, usually with someone else attached to him. ‘Don’t try it without guns like these,’ he grinned, flexing biceps the size of beer barrels. We need more people like Adam Peaty.