As this hilariously high-octane Test summer neared its conclusion in fading south London light, there appeared to be time for one final punchline.
Never mind the ludicrous bad-light regulations that cut short England’s victory charge with 33 runs to go.
No: Alex Lees and Zak Crawley, whose positions have owed more than anything to a lack of alternatives, were giving South Africa’s classy attack the runaround. Who knows, they were probably guaranteeing themselves a winter tour of Pakistan.
This summer there has been a clean sweep of world champions New Zealand, a record chase against India and a succession of quick Tests against South Africa for a new-look England side
Then again, perhaps we should have learned in this season of all seasons that nothing counts as a surprise any more.
There has been a clean sweep of the world champions New Zealand, a record chase against India and a succession of fast-forward Tests against South Africa.
The batting of Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root, at least until this series, has been magnificent. The seam bowling has not been far behind. Even Jack Leach, England’s lone spinner, took 10 wickets in a Test at Headingley.
And assuming they complete the formalities on Monday, it will be their sixth win out of seven under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum — their best home haul since Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher teamed up to win all seven against New Zealand and West Indies in 2004.
All six have come batting second, and five have required a fourth-innings chase, of which four have been 277 or more. After one win out of 17 under Joe Root, it has all been not so much a breath of fresh air as a tornado.
As ever with English sport, the temptation has been to seek explanations that diminish the success. New Zealand’s bowlers were over the hill. India threw it away. South Africa have one of the weakest batting line-ups ever to visit these shores. And so on.
It has all been not so much a breath of fresh air as a tornado for England, whose openers Alex Lees (left) and Zak Crawley (right) took them to the brink of victory vs South Africa on Sunday
Others have wondered whether games that amount to two-day shootouts in terms of overs bowled — as both Lord’s and The Oval will have done — are final proof that Test cricket has gone to the dogs, and become a white-ball game in red-ball clothing.
How, the critics ask, will England deal with the slow surfaces of Rawalpindi, Multan and Karachi in December? If and when they implode, there will be plenty to say ‘I told you so’. Forget all that, and let us instead give Stokes and McCullum credit for changing a narrative that had become stuck in delusion and defeat.
Crucially, they have refused to call their new style ‘Bazball’, a decision reflecting their own insistence that being positive means more than simply throwing the bat.
England, we have consistently heard, want to absorb pressure as much as apply it. And never was this approach better borne out than when Stokes and Ben Foakes scored well-considered centuries to take control of the second Test in Manchester.
And yet, having apparently added nuance to their style, England almost blew it here at the Oval. At 84 for two at tea on the third day, they were closing in on South Africa’s first-innings 118, and on the brink of sealing a rare come-from-behind series win.
But they batted as if forgetting how much time was left in the game — seven sessions, even after the loss of the first day to rain and the second to national mourning.
England’s rejuvenation under new captain Ben Stokes (right) and new coach Brendon McCullum (left) has been impressive – their rejuvenation is one of the stories of the summer
England seamers Stuart Broad (left) and James Anderson (right) were once again to the fore
A quarter of an hour into the fourth, they were all out for 158. Shortly before lunch, South Africa had advanced to 58 without loss. Against a better side, this summer could have ended differently.
Thanks, however, to a combination of superb swing and seam bowling, plus Dean Elgar’s failure to review his lbw decision when technology had the ball missing leg stump, England dragged back control.
Lees, dropped first ball by Marco Jansen in the cordon, and especially Crawley then batted with a freedom not seen since they got the chase of 378 under way at Edgbaston.
In both cases, for different reasons, they had nothing to lose — and that, more than anything, is the mindset Stokes and McCullum have tried to encourage.
It won’t always work, but then what system does? England have not invented a philosophy that ensures against defeat.
But they have staunched the bleeding in spectacular style and got people talking about Test cricket again. It is certainly one of the sporting stories of the summer.