Ollie Robinson and Ollie Pope lifted England into a useful position in the third Test after an extraordinary, wicket-laden third day laced with poignancy at the Oval.
After stirring tributes before play to commemorate the Queen, Robinson exploited just enough movement to scoop a Test-best five for 49 which left South Africa all out for a meagre 118 in just 36.2 overs.
Wickets also tumbled in England’s response as they pushed the accelerator, although Pope’s sparky 67 from 77 balls, including 13 fours, ushered the hosts to 154 for seven before bad light ended the day early.
Marco Jansen top-scored in South Africa’s innings with 30 – one of only two touring players to reach 20 – before his four for 34 pegged England back, and with the Proteas trailing by just 36, they remain firmly in the hunt.
This series decider has been reduced to a three-day affair following Thursday’s washout and Friday being called off as a mark of respect to the Queen, with South Africa refusing to budge from their original itinerary of returning home on Tuesday, ending any possibility of an extension.
But they were obliging guests when play began, having been asked to bat 48 hours earlier, which improves England’s hopes of a sixth Test summer win at home for the first time in 18 years.
Before then was a carefully orchestrated tribute to the Queen, including the players entering the field through a military guard of honour, a minute’s silence and the national anthems of both teams, with the crowd joining in a rendition of God Save the King before a spontaneous and prolonged ovation broke out.
England captain Ben Stokes said he was “honoured” to play in the Queen’s memory but added “the show must go on” ahead of play on Saturday, and Robinson in particular seemed to take that message to heart.
Continuing to open the bowling alongside James Anderson, Robinson, in his second Test back after an injury-plagued summer, operated on a consistently nagging length in a sensational first spell that yielded figures of 8-3-21-4, getting in the wickets column in his first over.
Dean Elgar offered an uncertain push at one that came back into him and was beaten through the gate as his off-stump was sent cartwheeling, while both South Africa’s openers were dismissed within 14 balls as Anderson drew the edge of Sarel Erwee and a diving Ben Foakes completed the first of four catches.
South Africa’s hesitation against Robinson was encapsulated by Keegan Petersen, who shouldered arms to one that came back and clipped off-stump, and the England seamer then drew the edges of Kyle Verreynne and Wiaan Mulder to leave South Africa reeling on 36 for six in a frenzied opening session.
While Khaya Zondo (23) and Jansen (30) offered some resistance, the former was surprised by a rising Stuart Broad delivery which clipped the bat shoulder and looped to backward point, ending a 36-run union in the over after lunch.
There were a couple of eye-catching drives from Jansen but he nicked into the cordon to give Robinson his third Test five-for in 11 games, in the process sending his England bowling average into the teens.
Broad claimed the last couple of wickets to finish with four for 41 before Alex Lees took 13 runs from his first five balls at the outset of England’s reply, exemplifying their batting approach this summer.
However, he was beaten between bat and pad by Jansen, who then pinned Zak Crawley in front with a fuller delivery, with the batter burning a review. While there remain question marks about both out-of-form England openers, they were temporarily brushed aside as Pope continued the adventurous approach.
There were wrist flicks and handsome pulls in-between moments of fortune, evidenced by a top-edged pull for four which took him to a half-century – his 15th 50-plus score in 31 first-class innings at his home ground.
Joe Root and the debuting Harry Brook briefly sparkled either side of a 30-minute rain delay after tea but both perished going at Jansen, whose four for 34 underlined South Africa’s folly in leaving out the left-armer at Emirates Old Trafford.
Pope helped England into the lead but then fiddled at Kagiso Rabada and was caught behind, moments after the end of a curious nine-ball innings from Stokes, who was dropped in the deep before a flat-footed waft off Anrich Nortje sailed into the slips.
Rabada snared Broad with a lifter, the 17th and last wicket in a helter-skelter day, just before the players came off for the final time in the evening gloom at 6.28pm, half an hour before the scheduled close.