The 100th Test match at The Oval concluded with a wonderful piece of theatre when Moeen Ali completed England’s victory in the third Test against South Africa with a hat-trick. It was the first hat-trick in a Test at The Oval and, even more remarkably, the first by an England spinner for 79 years. Quite a way to complete a 239-run win.
England might not have the most illustrious list of spin bowlers in the history of Test cricket, but they have had a number of highly regarded operators since Tom Goddard briefly brought a bore draw in Johannesburg to life on Boxing Day 1938, less than nine months before the outbreak of World War 2.
Moeen, whose talents are often underplayed, even by himself, achieved that accolade in the 12th over of the afternoon session, having Dean Elgar and Kagiso Rabada caught at slip and then, with the first ball of his next over, Morne Morkel lbw – this, to add to the drama, after an England review. There are a few nitpickers who claim, of course, that hat-tricks split over two overs are somehow not pure: they should be waved aside peremptorily.
Elgar was battered, bruised and not quite unbowed. Long before he departed, that England would take a 2-1 lead to Old Trafford for the final Test, which begins on Friday, looked inevitable. He had put up the doughtiest of resistance, eighth out, for 136 from 228 balls, driving at a delivery from Moeen that turned out of the rough and giving Ben Stokes a simple catch at slip. This was single-handed defiance. Only Temba Bavuma, with 32, offered lasting support as South Africa succumbed for 252 as mid-afternoon approached.
Rabada obligingly fell at slip, first ball, catching practice for Stokes as Moeen tossed one up and invited him to do his worst. Remarkably, Moeen was the third England bowler on a hat-trick in the innings, following Toby Roland-Jones and Stokes, the latter then bowling an over in a failed attempt to take the final wicket.
Moeen’s next ball thudded into the shins of Morkel from around the wicket, umpire Joel Wilson stood impassively, not even the hint of an eyebrow flicker. Wilson does impassive as impressively as any umpire on the circuit. England reviewed and replays predicted that the ball would have smashed into leg stump to bring hugs of delight and cheers from a modest fifth-day crowd. Even Moeen, who favours a somewhat melancholy look, was animated.
Four down overnight, South Africa lost Bavuma and Vernon Philander midway through the first session in successive balls to Roland-Jones, whose productive Test debut brought 8 for 129 in the match and enhanced his reputation as an England support seamer. He could yet tour Australia this winter and he might as well because with a run that long he is already halfway there.
The addition of Chris Morris from the last ball before lunch completed a satisfying morning for England. Moeen’s return to the attack looked like tokenism, a quick six balls to ensure the pasta didn’t go cold, but he found slight turn out of the rough and Stokes held a comfortable catch at first slip. Elgar’s agonised look to the skies spoke volumes. As for Moeen, it was his first wicket of the match and he would have had no great ambitions for many more.
Elgar, 72 not out overnight, had withstood some blows on his bottom hand on the fourth evening – he would settle for a diagnosis that his finger was merely bruised once the Test is over – and he was battered again in the fifth over of the day as Stokes worked up a good head of steam.
His response could not have been more defiant. Stokes followed up with two successive bouncers in the same over and Elgar pirouetted to strike both through square leg for four. It was as graceful as he gets, if unlikely to win him an audition at the Royal Ballet.
Bavuma played with poise and restraint in reaching 32 before Roland-Jones rapped his front pad as he pushed forward. Umpire Aleem Dar rejected the appeal, but Roland-Jones was adamant it was pad first, persuaded Root to opt for a review and was rewarded as Hawk-Eye came down in his favour.
Dar’s decision on Philander was more straightforward as he left a length ball, the third dismissal for a South African batsman because of a leave-alone in this match, after the skipper Faf du Plessis having contrived to do it twice.
Roland-Jones came mightily close to achieving the first Oval hat-trick that Moeen was to claim a couple of hours later. The delivery was the best of the three, rising and leaving Morris from a good line, Keaton Jennings and Stokes converged in voracious dives from third slip and gully respectively, but the ball fell a foot short of gully.
Elgar reached his century in the next over by coming down the pitch and battering Moeen over mid-off, although his satisfaction was tempered by the knowledge that South Africa had just tumbled closer to defeat.
So South Africa fell, only Elgar taking a respectable series average with the bat into the Manchester Test. Du Plessis had so far managed to avoid defeat in a red-ball Test as South Africa’s captain.
He was absent at Lord’s in the first Test to be at the birth of his first child and South Africa’s defeat in Adelaide last year was a day-night affair with pink balls in use. But this defeat was emphatic and for England, who went into the match with the reputation of a side overly wedded to attack, it had been a victory immensely rewarding in its discipline.