By no stretch of the imagination could this Test be called a classic, for one thing England have been edging ever further ahead in it over the course of the game, but to go into the final day with all results (just about) possible is indicative of a match that has been fascinating throughout. The most likely outcome remains that England will go 1-0 up some time tomorrow afternoon, but South Africa showed admirable grit in their second innings; had they done so in the first innings, it could be argued they wouldn’t have been in such trouble. Yet ironically enough, they finished the day with a near identical score to that they had at the close on day two. Perception is a funny thing.
England appeared relatively untroubled by the loss of wickets in the morning, a lead already approaching 300 tends to limit any sense of panic after all, and it was Bairstow who was the undoubted star of the show. On a surface that started slow and is edging towards the turgid as we approach the conclusion, fluent run scoring has proved difficult, yet Bairstow merrily thrashed his way to 79 at better than a run a ball. England do have an abundance of strokemakers, but they also require the latitude to play that way, both in terms of the match situation and the allowance from the captain and management above. The signs are positive that coach Trevor Bayliss is keen to allow the players to express themselves, a welcome change from the years of rigid game management, but it still requires the groundwork done by others – Compton’s 85 and 49 are not going to win any awards for entertainment, but a team requires different kinds of batsmen who play in their own way to to bring out the best in the others; he did exceptionally well, and while no judgements can be made going forward on the basis of a single game, it can be said he played the role of the perfect number three here.
England’s long batting order also demonstrated its value, as first Moeen Ali and then Chris Woakes provided competent support, with South Africa merely looking to limit the damage.
Indeed the approach from the hosts was quite instructive. The new ball was already available when Taylor was dismissed to leave England 224-6, 313 ahead. It wasn’t taken. What this betrayed was that South Africa didn’t truly believe they could win the game; for a side that did would surely have wanted to grab the new nut, knock over the tail and set off in pursuit of 330, with a belief it was possible. Sure, England would have been strong favourites to win still, but it would have by no means been out of the question. Equally of course, the new ball could have gone around the park, but not to take it was extraordinarily defensive given from there South Africa could still have won. It is hard to credit that the view of Amla and/or the coaching staff was that their best chance of doing so was to retain the old ball, it seemed purely about being content to stay in the field as long as possible to avoid batting, and that is fair enough if the opposition are already 450 ahead, but not when they are only 300 and a bit on, with six wickets down. A few things about this South Africa outfit seem rather muddled.
The debate then turned to the timing of any declaration. Once again though, there was so much time left in the game. As it happened, England were dismissed before it became an issue, but with a target of 416 and the best part of 150 overs remaining, it was by no means a pressing matter. Put simply, if South Africa batted the remainder of the match – and no rain was or is forecast – they wouldn’t be too far away from that target. Therefore England weren’t going to be losing potential overs that might be needed to take a last wicket or two. Had they gone on much longer, then yes, it would have become a topic of debate, but it didn’t arise.
In the customary manner, South Africa batted much better second time around initially. Van Zyl in particular started off exceptionally positively, to the point one or two who had been questioning England for not setting about 350 actually queried whether they should have (if they could) gone on longer to make the game safe. Sometimes there is a desire to have it all ways. For let’s put it simply, if South Africa were to achieve the second highest run chase in Test history, then you simply doff your caps to them and say they deserve it. If they instead manage to bat out the game for a draw, then you may wonder why they didn’t get close enough to win in the time available, but you still doff that cap. The target was exceptionally challenging, the time remaining extensive. England and Cook did nothing wrong, however it turns out tomorrow.
After that strong start by the Proteas, and with a ball that resolutely refused to swing or seam to any great extent, it was Stokes and then Finn who made the difference. Firstly, patience is always needed in these situations, for the wickets will usually come, and secondly you need to have a strike bowler who takes those wickets. Earlier in his career Finn was criticised – and then dropped – for leaking runs, but he takes wickets. His strike rate is the best of any England bowler with 100 Test victims, at an outstanding 47 balls per wicket. This is a serious weapon. Who cares if he goes for a few runs when he can do that? So does Dale Steyn for that matter, and while his economy rate is a little better than Finn’s, it’s hardly impressive either. Trying to force the square peg of potent strike bowler into the round hole of line and length operator consistently missed the point about the attacking wealth offered by him. When he comes on to bowl it’s quite clear he will drop the odd one short and get hit to the boundary. It’s also equally clear there is a decent prospect of sending one or two opponents back to the shed. Leave him be, let him do what he’s excellent at – England have other bowlers to tie an end up.
And on that particular matter, Broad is becoming nigh on unhittable in Test cricket these days. Indeed an economy rate in this innings of 2.27 probably represents something of a disappointment to him. Add to that that he takes wickets, as his record over this calendar year shows only too well, and it is time that it was more widely acknowledged that he’s a fantastic bowler, one of the best England have had in a long time. Appreciation of his skills (if not his DRS expertise) is overdue.
Standing in the way of England emerging victorious is one AB De Villiers. England did have a chance to get him, Moeen Ali’s beautifully flighted delivery turning sharply through the gate with De Villiers out of his ground, only for Bairstow to miss the stumping. England are choosing wicketkeepers who are primarily batsmen, and the reality is that while they do so, stumpings like this are going to be missed. The same applies when it’s Jos Buttler doing the job. In both cases they tend to miss the stumpings when the ball goes between bat and pad. The eyes follow the bat rather than ball, expecting it to make contact, and by the time the ball has passed the bat, it’s far too late to adjust. This certainly isn’t to excuse an error that Bairstow himself was in despair over, but it is to explain how it happens and why. The very best wicketkeepers don’t make that kind of mistake because they always follow the line of the ball instinctively. It’s a much much harder skill than might be supposed.
With Du Plessis and De Villiers at the crease, memories of their monumental match saving rearguard against Australia were well to the fore, but Finn returned just before the end to produce one that lifted just enough to take the shoulder of Du Plessis’ bat, Cook taking an excellent catch, and England will breathe much easier tonight.
There was still time for two items of note – firstly that Dale Steyn came out to bat as nightwatchman. There are two ways of looking at that, either surprise at taking such a risk with a key player with the Cape Town Test only days away, or that he’s already ruled out and therefore there is little to be lost. A slight puzzle though. Secondly, immediately after Du Plessis was out the ball was changed. It had been looked at earlier in the over, and the change itself was routine, and nothing need be inferred from the decision. Just as nothing needed to be inferred from the decision to change the ball when South Africa were bowling. It is unlikely that those who cast aspersions through innuendo and suggestion in that case will do so here – and that says it all.
A further 280 is required from 90 overs tomorrow. More realistically, England need six more wickets. It probably won’t be easy, but it probably will happen. On the basis of the first four days, England deserve it.