England should wrap this match up at some point on the fifth day barring something special – and something special is always possible in sport, that’s the point of it – so strong is England’s position.
At the end of day two there was a feeling that England were the side in the ascendancy but that was on the basis of how the game appeared rather than the raw figures of the score, and from there the game could have gone in any direction. But South Africa couldn’t have had a much worse day that they did, from the collapse in the morning which left them 89 behind to the injury to Steyn and dropped catches as England built a lead.
It could have been worse. Dean Elgar carrying his bat through the innings was the only thing that kept South Africa in the game. The deficit was substantial enough but not insurmountable. What lent a feeling of inevitability to proceedings was the injury to Dale Steyn early in England’s second innings. And here we need to be wary of straying into wise-after-the-event territory. For South Africa lack an all rounder in this post Kallis/Pollock era, and like most teams in such a position, selected a four man attack to try to balance the side. For injury to take out the spearhead is desperately bad luck, provided of course that there wasn’t that risk going into the game, and that’s the question for the South African selectors rather than the four man attack in itself. To put it another way, England had a four man attack for a number of years and it was rare that they lost a bowler, the same applies to the great Australian team of the first part of this century; in and of itself it’s not flawed selection, but it appears to be when injury strikes. Certainly Morkel did all he could to make up for the shortfall.
And of course balancing a side with only four bowlers becomes difficult, but you do need a keeper who can bat, hence asking De Villiers to do the job. He’s quite clearly a superb player, the question is how sustainable it is to ask your best batsman to do two jobs and whether that impacts on the primary role. It’s exacerbated when said batsman has to come in at four rather than later, limiting the amount of rest. De Villiers does have a worse record as batsman when he has kept wicket, but it’s hardly a disastrous one to say the least. Yet it’s a huge ask of him, and perhaps his keeping in the second innings is an indication of that. For while every keeper can and does drop catches, to come in to a Test match having not done it in a while, and to still have to do the primary role, is going to be exhausting, mentally more than physically, though that plays a part as well. And then we have to consider the first two Tests are back to back.
For England Stuart Broad has been exceptional, but what has impressed has been the back up. Moeen Ali was excellent, while Woakes was consistently unlucky and Finn cleaned up the tail expertly.
England’s batting too was purposeful. The third innings can so often be one where the side nominally in front can panic and throw away the advantage. After the loss of Cook, Compton set about building the platform, and he did that extremely well. By the time he was out, those following were able to start to increase the pressure on the reduced attack, circumstances that the likes of Root are ideal at exploiting.
England will doubtless look to accelerate in the morning, and wear the pitch a little more. It may not be the worst thing in the world for England to be bowled out, forcing South Africa to go for the win with time left in the game. The danger of batting on too long is an ever present with England in recent times. Tomorrow is not the time to do it again, for here is a chance to pick up an opening Test win away from home, and that’s not a common experience.