Alastair Cook’s battling 82 not out dragged England to 171 for 4 against South Africa as rain shortened the first day of the third Test to just 59 overs.
Cook dug in to move in sight of his 31st Test century, striking 10 fours off 178 balls, as the Proteas – led by Vernon Philander (2-17) – threatened to run through the hosts.
South Africa’s seamers relished the chance to bowl on a seam-friendly pitch – Philander and Kagiso Rabada producing superb deliveries in particular to dismiss Joe Root (29) and Dawid Malan (one off 17 balls) respectively.
Malan was one of three debutants in England’s line-up on the occasion of the 100th Test at the Oval – Tom Westley (25) and Toby Roland-Jones also warning their first caps – but this was a day where Cook’s experience and unflappable nature proved invaluable.
The former skipper wasted little time knocking off the four runs he needed to rise above Allan Border to ninth spot on the all-time run-scoring list but his latest opening partner, Keaton Jennings, has now scored just three runs in his last three innings after edging Philander low to Dean Elgar at third slip, to fall for a nine-ball duck.
Westley whipped his fifth ball in Test cricket to the rope and proceeded to look composed on debut as he hit four further boundaries in a second-wicket stand of 52 with Cook, which was briefly interrupted 10 minutes before lunch by rain.
The right-hander fell straight after the resumption, though, as he hit slightly across a full, swinging delivery from Chris Morris to be caught at slip.
Root, typically busy at the crease, opened up with three boundaries only to be pegged back by a hostile, probing spell from Morkel.
The seamer found regular movement off the pitch to beat Root before Philander removed the skipper – back in the attack after a stomach upset – produced a superb delivery that nipped away off the pitch to take the edge.
Cook was stuck on 49 not out while play was interrupted again by rain, this time for 21 minutes, his focus unwavering as he completed his 55th Test fifty off 128 balls – the milestone taking him up to eighth spot, above Mahela Jayawardene, in the list of players with the most Test half-centuries.
At the other end of the spectrum Malan battled gamely but vainly underneath leaden skies to keep South Africa at bay – his innings ended by a magnificently devastating Rabada yorker that left the Middlesex batsman on his knees.
At 120 for 4, England had little margin for error and Stokes was forced to dive for his ground to avoid being run out attempting a third while still in double figures.
The all-rounder at times gave the impression of living a charmed life, hanging his head in mock defeat after being beaten by a couple of cracking deliveries from Philander once play had resumed after a rain break of 75 minutes after tea.
Hopes of an extended evening spell were thwarted after just a further half-an-hour’s play – Cook moving into the eighties with a brace of boundaries off Morkel before rain interrupted for the final time.