If Keaton Jennings ends up opening the batting in Australia this winter, he may look back on the third day at The Oval and conclude that good fortune comes in many guises.
When rain swept in from the south-west around 2.45pm, Jennings had moved to 34 not out in England’s second innings, with Joe Root’s team in complete control of the third Test against South Africa, but it was the subtext which told the story. It was no exaggeration to say he could have been out five times.
Few innings come without their slices of luck, especially when you’re an opener in England. Seven years ago at this ground, Alastair Cook saved his career with a century against Pakistan more scratchy than a 1960s LP. A few months later, he was hitting it to all parts of Australia.
Rain stopped play at The Oval on day three of England’s third Test against South Africa
Heavy rain hit The Oval around 2.45pm before play was eventually abandoned at 5.15pm
Keaton Jennings moved to 34 not out during England’s second innings
Jennings is some way from both scenarios, but he will know that he tested the gods’ whims to the full. The contrast with Tom Westley, who for the second time in his debut Test batted with assurance and poise, was hard to ignore.
The bottom line, of course, was that by the time play was finally abandoned at 5.15, Jennings was still there and England, bolstered by a five-for from Toby Roland-Jones, led by 252 with nine wickets and two days to go.
With the forecast set fair, it will be a surprise if they don’t go to Manchester armed with a 2-1 lead and eyeing up victory in Root’s first series in charge. Now that Jennings has reacquainted himself with the feel of bat on ball, it will be only slightly less surprising if he isn’t there, too.
Temba Bavuma became Toby Roland-Jones’s fifth wicket when he went for 52 runs
With just three Tests against West Indies standing between the end of this series and the start of the Ashes on November 23, it’s hard to shake off the worry that days such as this are merely delaying the inevitable.
As England set about their second innings with a lead of 178, having taken an hour and a quarter to pick up the last two South Africa wickets, he faced up to Vernon Philander, back from a night on a hospital drip because of a viral infection to assume the role of nemesis.
During the first two Tests, Philander had removed him three times at a cost of two runs, and how close he came now to tightening his stranglehold.
Jennings moved from two to six with a Chinese cut, from six to 10 with an edge through the hands of Dean Elgar at third slip, and from 10 to 14 with another Chinese cut, all off the luckless Philander. If anything was designed to send him back to his sickbed, this was surely it.
Alastair Cook meets representatives from the Cricket United charity on Saturday
On 18, Jennings was all but bowled by Morne Morkel, who had already knocked back Cook’s off-stump for seven, leaving the former captain one short of 1,000 Test runs at The Oval. On 33, Jennings was given out caught behind off Kagiso Rabada, only to be reprieved by technology.
In between, he produced fleeting reminders of why he was picked in the first place. Rabada was spanked twice in three balls through the off-side, and Morkel tucked through square leg. Here, finally, was the poise that had brought Jennings a century on debut in Mumbai in December.
He also did his best to smother the swing and seam, standing outside his crease to meet the ball before it could do its worst, but nothing could deal convincingly with the suspicion that England need Haseeb Hameed to regain the touch he showed in India. Mark Stoneman, meanwhile, lies in wait.
For Westley, the early signs are rather more promising. Having signalled his love of the leg side during his first-innings 25, he got going with a drive through extra cover off Philander, and timed the ball sweetly down the ground.
His 53 Test runs have included 11 fours, all of them pleasing on the eye. The selectors will feel cautiously optimistic.
Morne Morkel celebrates after bowling Cook out during day three of the third Test
Earlier, Roland-Jones provided them with further solace by completing the first five-wicket haul by an England bowler in his first innings since Graham Onions against West Indies at Lord’s in 2009.
Tellingly, Root had opened with Stuart Broad at one end and Roland-Jones – not Jimmy Anderson – at the other, reward for his memorable four-wicket burst in the gloom of Friday evening.
In the event, Temba Bavuma and Morkel extended their ninth-wicket stand to 47 before Anderson had Morkel caught at first slip by Cook in his second over.
When Roland-Jones was brought back to have Bavuma caught behind for a classy 52, South Africa were all out for 175: feeble, but more than they looked like getting when they tumbled to 61 for seven.
Roland-Jones’s success comes with the kind of caveat that has exercised many an England selection panel down the years. In conditions designed for the yeoman seamer, he was impeccable. Whether his obvious talents apply just as well to the harder surfaces of Australia remains to be seen.
Even in a game England have dominated, playing their best Test cricket in a year, questions filled the air about the battles to come.
Umbrellas go up as rain begins to fall in south London with England at the crease