Barring the kind of sporting miracle that a few always cling to, England will lose this match, probably tomorrow, and it’s all down to their batting performance on the second day. Today certainly wasn’t the worst England have played – they bowled reasonably enough – but the gap between the sides after the first innings meant that to have even the slightest chance they would have needed something exceptional, indeed to skittle a South African side entirely content to accumulate runs.
There are things England could have done better; certainly the delayed introduction of spin was highlighted by the way Dawson and in particular Moeen took wickets once they were finally used, but any suggestion that this was the difference between winning and losing would be rather extreme. England toiled hard and bowled well enough in the morning session, but they were always going to be in a situation of trying to limit the damage as much as they could after the initial burst failed to bring results. South Africa played it exactly right – not for them the abandon of attacking batting, they played as though it was a Test match, taking minimal risks and continuing to build on their already overwhelming advantage. It was curious to hear the commentators criticising them for this fairly early on. Despite at the time the best part of three days to go, the desire to see them throw the bat was present on both television and radio. Perhaps it was a subconscious wish for England to get back into the game, for it is hard to comprehend why with so much time left to play it was remotely in the tourists’ interests to take risks with their position. Perhaps the influence of T20 has become so pervasive that even observers can’t cope with a team playing decent Test cricket any more, for South Africa were hardly particularly slow – they were simply using the time honoured tactic of grinding England into the dirt.
Elgar and Amla did the damage early on, looking in little trouble as they made a strong position completely dominant. By the time both were dismissed their team already had enough on the board to be strong favourites even if they’d stopped there, and neither dismissal was expected at the time given their level of comfort. England did miss one opportunity, failing to spot a thin edge from Amla when on 25, but of their DRS problems this series, that was the least damning – players have missed hearing edges from the dawn of time. They did get one right when Amla had reached 87, Dawson’s introduction bringing the overturning of a not out decision that was entirely understandable as he advanced down the pitch.
By this stage the surface was showing signs of some wear, if a long way from being unplayable. The lbw of Faf Du Plessis will have sent tremors of uncertainty through England ranks given how low it kept from short of a length, but for the seamers at least, it was unusual to see the ball misbehave that much. There was some spin to be had, as should be expected in the second half of a Test match. Dawson had the advantage of bowling into the footholes to the left handers, but it was Moeen Ali who extracted more life, and looked the more threatening. Part time offspinner England may consider him, but in the absence of Adil Rashid, he looks by far the more potent of the two spinners on show. Dawson has done little to suggest he is the future, albeit from three Tests, and there are already whispers that his place might be under threat. This is unfair because he hasn’t had anything like long enough to get used to Test cricket, or to learn, and should he not be retained then questions should be asked about his initial selection more than his performance, for if he isn’t deemed good enough, why was he thought good enough so recently?
Towards the back end of the innings, Philander and Morkel decided to attack, with Moeen bearing the brunt of their assault as he also took wickets. In microcosm, this was a good sample of Moeen’s bowling career – expensive but taking wickets at frequent intervals. His 4-78 represented unusually good figures for a spinner at Trent Bridge, albeit three of the wickets came from attempts to hit him out of the ground. By that stage though, the target had exceeded world record levels, and with Philander’s departure, that was sufficient to invite the declaration and ask England to bat for a tricky 20 minute spell.
One thing is abundantly clear, short of an unexpected monsoon, this match is never going to be a draw. England would have to bat 184 overs and if they did that they’d probably reach the target anyway. Either they reach 474 (they won’t) or they will lose, and to that end to have even the slightest possibility (virtually nil) of winning then a good start was essential. It so nearly got off to the worst possible start, Cook given out lbw first ball to Morne Morkel before successfully reviewing it. In truth, it wasn’t a great decision, it always looked high and so it proved on Hawkeye. But it must also be said it really wasn’t a great shot either – Cook was attempting to clip a good length straight ball through square leg. He got away with it because Morkel is so tall, but it was a reminder that those who berated Moeen Ali for being caught at point tend to go much quieter when poor semi-defensive or defensive shots are played instead.
For the remainder of the four overs the two openers were under huge pressure. Cook had another close lbw call against him when he again played across a pretty straight ball, while Jennings just about managed to control an outside edge and push it down in to the slip cordon. Both these players could do with some runs. Cook hasn’t been in the greatest of touch in Tests recently, but hardly disastrously so, while Jennings is suffering the murmurs of the press despite a more recent century of the two of them, and is only in his fourth match. Cook quite clearly has a long fine record, but that observation is about him, it is about the seeming lack of patience with new players and the immediate pressure placed on them to succeed. Cook had faith placed in him at various stages of his career, and perhaps dividends would be reaped if others received half that faith. England are becoming very careless with opening batsmen.
They got through it, one way or another, and England can at least begin day four with all ten wickets intact. It is hard to see anything other than a South Africa win, and a convincing one. If England bat as they did in the first innings, it could be over in short order, but at least with Cook still there they have someone who could bat long and keep the game alive. He’s not alone in that for the inexperienced Jennings has the temperament to do so, and so could Gary Ballance. In the last case he really needs it. Ballance does suffer in terms of perception from being anything but elegant, and this series he’s batted reasonably and not looked out of his depth, but without ever going on to make a score.
England could do themselves a big favour, even in defeat, by making a decent fist of their run chase. There are question marks over their defensive techniques as a collective, and their ability to bat for long periods. Falling over in a heap would make those criticisms louder and highlight to the opposition what they must already suspect – keep England subdued and they’ll get themselves out. For England to come out of this match with their heads held high, they really need Alastair Cook to lead the way.
The trouble is, it’s all too easy to see England being all out by tea.