Providing the weather holds, South Africa ought to win the final Test of the series some point tomorrow afternoon. For the match has been thoroughly one sided throughout and unless England somehow escape through their own endeavours, which is possible but unlikely, a draw seems most possible only with the help of a thunderstorm or two.
If that were to happen, then perhaps the finger could be pointed firmly at the home team’s captain and coaching staff, for the lack of urgency in building the lead in the second session and after tea was unusual to say the least. It’s not exactly a matter of batting on too long, more that with a more positive mindset they would have been able to declare somewhat earlier. Still, with three early wickets already taken South Africa would be disappointed if they failed to finish England off, so the point will probably be a moot one, but just occasionally, this conservatism comes back to haunt teams, as England found on a number of occasions, most notably in managing to lose a series in the Caribbean they dominated, but where sheer timidity cost them two Tests and one collapse ultimately the series.
Certainly South Africa’s reluctance to take risks was justified early on, for with Anderson taking two wickets in an over early on, there would have been some concern even though at 182 ahead for three wickets down, it was hardly disastrous; given the collapse in the last Test, perhaps it was forgivable. But the lack of acceleration after lunch was less so, as by that point they were 254 runs ahead with four wickets down. England probably weren’t too upset. Between lunch and tea they only scored 102 runs in 30 overs, and after tea 65 runs in 15.2 overs – a small acceleration, but hardly putting their collective foot down.
By that point, and with England going through the motions to an even greater extent than they have in the Test is a whole – bowling wide of the off stump and wide of the leg stump in an effort to restrain the scoring and keep them out there, the Test really wasn’t going anywhere, except for a debate as to whether they were intending to let Bavuma score a century. It was a touch peculiar, and suggested a side seriously lacking confidence, for there was no sign of an imminent declaration.
The rain break forced their hand and with a pretty nominal 382 required in 109 overs, England were left with just a draw to play for. They didn’t exactly start very well. Alex Hales did get one that kept a touch low, but that he hasn’t had a great series is plain. As ever, it needs to be qualified that he’s hardly alone in not having a great series. The radio report from Jonathan Agnew this evening highlighted that he’s averaged 17 across the Tests, and that is indeed not great. Yet it is as striking as it always is that this point was followed with saying that Cook was the next to be dismissed, with no mention of him only averaging 23 in the series.
It is tiresome to have to keep writing this, but it does Cook no favours to be treated as the prodigal son all the time. Yes, he has a very strong record behind him, and yes anyone can have a bad series. But to specifically, repeatedly and consistently overlook when the chosen one doesn’t do well as though it is of no consequence is failing to properly scrutinise matters. That does not mean for a second that Cook is or should be in any kind of danger of his place, for he had a decent 2015 after a disastrous 2013 and 2014 and has the fine career as evidence of his skill and ability. But what it does mean is that he has had a bad series. It happens. It’s worth noting. It’s worth mentioning. It is something that when totally ignored draws attention to the disparity in treatment. Sky have managed to skilfully ignore his poor series but still mention that he’s closing in on 10,000 Test runs. That will be a fine achievement, and worthy of comment as the first England player to reach that mark – though another would probably have done so sooner had his career not been curtailed. It is also true that he’s not had a great tour. It is quite astounding how the media will go out of their way to ever mention these things. Once again, it is not a case of criticising him heavily, querying his position, calling for his removal or any such thing, but it unquestionably is about highlighting how TMS can entirely ignore it, yet tweet a question as to whether Compton has convinced in this series with an average of 30.
For tomorrow, England do have a long batting line up, but assuming a full day’s play of 98 overs, pulling off a draw here would be an outstanding achievement. Indeed, nigh on impossible though the target might be, with a middle order as attacking as England’s is, it would probably be more likely that England win rather than bat out a draw, and that’s very unlikely indeed. And if South Africa do win the Test, then Scyld Berry’s point that it would have set up a fifth Test perfectly is ever more apposite. It was meant to happen, for the ECB promised it would a few years ago. It didn’t. And while the home team have to approve the scheduling, there has been a remarkable silence on the part of the ECB that their desire for five has been flouted. Four Tests is at least an improvement on the dreadful three match series in 2012 that was blamed on the Olympics, but five is the best Test format for big series for very good reason – as previous England – South Africa encounters have demonstrated amply. It’s not being wise after the event, plenty of people who love cricket were disappointed it wasn’t five before the series started. Apparently, only India and Australia are deserving of this. The Big Three who have accrued all the power and money to themselves, allowing five match series between themselves. Try to contain your shock.
England’s repeated defeats in the final Test of a series, dead rubber or otherwise, is beginning to look careless. Curiously, it isn’t so long ago that they suffered from losing the first Test of a tour consistently. The series win is a fine achievement, and whether South Africa are quite the side they were doesn’t change that. But if they do want to be the best side in the world, there’s plenty of work ahead of them yet.
Day Five discussion below.