If there’s one thing the cricket media never seem to learn, it’s that writing off a team after one Test is always dangerous. South Africa today fought back splendidly and for the first time this series were the unequivocal winners of a day’s play. More than that, they showed why such dismissal was misguided in the first place, as the two big guns of the home team’s batting line up both made runs, which augurs well for the remainder of their series.
With only 212 runs scored in the day, it was clearly far more sedate than yesterday, indeed the day total barely exceeded what England scored in the morning session yesterday but that is hardly surprising given a match situation where South Africa can only play for the draw. And they did so with grit, determination and no little skill, losing only De Villiers over the course of the day, and leaving themselves in a position where they really ought to save the match.
England had their chances, two further catches going down to add to the one last night, and had those been taken then the situation could have been very different. The pitch is flat, to the point the groundsman has expressed his dissatisfaction with it. It shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone, for while Stokes’ innings was certainly special, teams don’t score over 600 on a surface that is offering assistance to the bowlers. That can happen first innings, what is more of an issue for this Test is that there are no signs of deterioration, meaning it was and is only scoreboard pressure that creates the peril, and it is to that South Africa have stood up well.
Could England have done much more? Well, apart from holding their catches, they perhaps could have attacked more than they did, especially early on. There were a couple of occasions where an outside edge flew through a vacant gap, but it couldn’t be said they got it entirely wrong without nit-picking a touch.
South Africa aren’t out of the woods yet, for England have controlled the run rate to an extent that a bad session in the morning could yet leave the hosts in difficulties, but all things being equal, this appears most likely a bore draw with exceptional levels of ennui for the last two days.
If that is the case, then although England are a long way ahead here, South Africa will be by far the happier. The return to form of Hashim Amla shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, he is what he has been for a decade, a quality batsman who happened to be having a poor run. Having come out the other side of his rough spell, he is a serious danger to England for the last two Tests.
Likewise Faf du Plessis, a player almost born to play the rearguard knock, will benefit hugely from time in the middle, and all of a sudden the South African batting order doesn’t appear remotely as fragile as portrayed after Durban. For England certainly didn’t bowl badly, they maintained their discipline throughout – Alex Hales’ startling appearance as a bowler was matched onky by the shock of seeing him only go for two runs in his three overs; presumably abject terror on the part of the batsmen at the idea of getting out to him played a role there. The dropped catches cost them dear, but it would have been hard labour anyway.
In such circumstances, the pattern is that when the team batting second reaches the point they have saved the game, the pressure then transfers to the other side, for they are then the only ones who can lose – the third innings problem. But given the slow scoring rate, it is unlikely that South Africa would reach parity before the end of tomorrow, should they bat that long. The prospects of them being able to put England under much pressure appear slim, meaning that by mid way through tomorrow, the sides could well be going through the motions.
There were some interesting asides during the day; De Villiers rarely looked comfortable against Steven Finn for example. The placid pitch meant it could never quite be said Finn roughed him up, but he was undoubtedly less certain in his play than he was against anyone else. On the high veldt this may become more of an issue, though with the proviso that England may well have to face Steyn and possibly Philander in those conditions too.
Lest that sound overly pessimistic, it shouldn’t, for England could and perhaps should be in an even better position than they are, but dropped catches are a fact of cricketing life, and the old aphorism has it right. But if South Africa do get away with a draw as seems most likely, then the sides will go into the third Test much more evenly matched than some anticipated.
For the third day running the sides were short of their supposedly compulsory 90 overs. Day one saw 87 overs bowled, day two was 82 – but 84 in reality given the change of innings – and day three was again 87. Thus far in the match 12 overs have been lost due to nothing other than the sides failing to bowl their overs quick enough. Given there has also been an extra 90 minutes to allow them to catch up, and however boring it is to keep repeating the point, this is entirely unacceptable and treating the paying spectator with contempt. To date there has been no sign of the match referee taking any kind of action. 90 overs in a day has become nothing more than aspiration rather than a requirement.
Day Four comments can be made below