It is when a Test reaches this kind of stage that the thoughts of England supporters turn to the Test Which Must Not Be Mentioned. As we go into the final day, only South Africa can win the game, a scenario that seemed unlikely to say the least as Stokes and Bairstow flogged the hosts’ bowling around Newlands a couple of days ago.
This was always going to be a possibility, given a surface that has shown no signs whatever of deterioration and has proved something of a batting paradise, and unlike one or two, for this particular blog it isn’t being wise after the event. Of course, in reality the draw is by far the likeliest outcome, and for England to lose would represent an even worse calamity than The One That Didn’t Happen given both surface and the much more limited potency of the South African attack. It is an amusing temptation to draw parallels, but they almost certainly aren’t going to be there.
And thus England should be able to comfortably bat out the final day, making the most of the batting practice. Ideally, they will be able to take the same from it that South Africa have, the opportunity to play a couple of the batting line up into form, not least the captain.
The regrets will be there, England were astoundingly profligate in the field, dropping anything up to ten catches (depending who is counting) in the duration of the innings; some were tough, some were anything but. One of the more peculiar truths of playing cricket is that dropping catches is…well, catching. At the start of South Africa’s innings the question was whether England would create enough opportunities to take twenty wickets, to not be too far off that after the first innings, and without bowling South Africa out is quite something. A quick (and of course simplistic) totting up of what those drops cost comes to around 350 runs. Amusing then that Stuart Broad ended the day charged with a Level One offence by the ICC for dissent, one wonders if it was directed at umpires or fielders.
If England had a slightly better day than yesterday – four wickets! Four! – it still belonged to South Africa. Hashim Amla duly completed his double century and Faf Du Plessis continued to provide sterling support. What followed came completely out of the blue, as three wickets fell for ten runs including both set batsmen. De Kock was skittish and won’t look back fondly on the shot that led to his dismissal, and with a deficit of still nearly 200, the England bowlers suddenly had a spring in their collective step.
Temba Bavuma has had a pretty terrible press this series, dismissed as being a quota player, derided for not being remotely good enough. Of course, for English eyes it is the first time most will have seen him play, and given his travails in the first game, questions about that were reasonable enough. Yet one game never has been sufficient to judge a player, particularly one unknown to the observer. He didn’t look great, but a few keen watchers said he had talent. Eleven years ago, similar aspersions were laid at the door of another South African batsman starting out, one who looked out of his depth at the highest level. Perhaps people have heard of him – his name is Hashim Amla.
The one thing not to be is holier than thou over this; given the political element of the composition of the South African team the suspicion that better players are not going to be picked is always there, and Bavuma had hardly taken the world by storm in his first six Tests. For British observers though, he is nothing but a new player, and one who may or may not succeed – we rarely have the in depth knowledge to make assumptions about the ability of a particular player, and perhaps staying silent is the wiser course until the evidence is in place. Plenty of people have been made to look stupid by Amla proving himself a wonderful cricketer, to risk it a second time is careless at best.
One innings doesn’t make a career, but the while the symbolism of Bavuma’s hundred is obvious, it was in itself a delightful innings, full of wonderful strokeplay. Given the stick the England team gave him on his arrival at the crease and a slightly (but not dramatically) uncertain start, symbolism wasn’t required to take pleasure in seeing a young player ram the taunts back down English throats.
If nothing else, Bavuma’s innings lit up a day’s play of a Test that was limping towards a terminally dull conclusion. Made off only 148 balls, it may not have had quite the brutality of Stokes, but it had style, dash and elegance. It was, quite simply, a joy to watch.
Chris Morris deserves a word of praise as well; he had a difficult time of it with the ball, taking the brunt of Ben Stokes’ murderous assault, and for a young player on debut, it will have been a chastening experience. Today was his day too, showing no little batting ability in making a fine 69.
England’s bowlers again didn’t do anything especially wrong, beaten by the pitch and the Kookaburra ball. Indeed, the pitch has of course received the most criticism for being too batsman friendly, but a Duke ball might well have given the bowlers just enough for one side or the other to be able to force a result. The pitch is only one element of the equation – although even then it would require England to have held their catches.
As far as the over-rate watch is concerned, once again the day finished with the 90 incomplete. This time it was a solitary over short, and doubtless some will say that doesn’t matter, but the half hour additional has been invoked every day, and still the overs aren’t being completed. In times past, this would not have mattered, as play would have continued until they were. It was the TV broadcasters who objected to that, as late finishes played havoc with schedules. The half hour leeway was intended to ensure all overs were bowled while still offering a definitive finishing time. The match referee’s decision on over rates and any punishment following is not determined until the end of the match, but after four consecutive days of failing to meet their obligations, there is no excuse whatever for failing to take action.
Elsewhere today, news broke about a school match in India, where 15 year old Pranav Dhanawade shattered a century old record for the highest score in a competitive match, making a scarcely credible 1,009 in a game that redefines the term “one sided”. It’s been interesting to follow the response to this, initially astonishment and no little awe, turning quite swiftly to criticism of the teachers for allowing it.
One final thing for now, although it is a subject which given the wider ramifications we will return to over the coming weeks and months. The Lodha report in India on cricket governance in that country has taken something of an axe to the current BCCI structure. What follows, whether that is court challenges or acceptance is something that will impact on cricket across the world. What can be said, is that for the first time in a while, there is cause for a small degree of hope. There’s a good summary on Cricinfo for those who wish to read a little more:
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