For a time during the afternoon, it looked as though at long last there might be a genuinely competitive Test match on the cards. Sure, England had played well in the morning session, thanks to Jonny Bairstow’s masterclass in farming the strike with the tail, but with the tourists 141-3, and looking in reasonable shape to challenge the England total, the prospect of not knowing where the match was going after two days was a definite possibility.
That it didn’t happen was partly down to some excellent bowling – from James Anderson and Moeen Ali in particular – but also some woeful batting. England received plenty of (justified) criticism for the way they rolled over at Trent Bridge, but with the series now likely to finish 3-1, South Africa have clearly demonstrated that however fragile England might wish to be, they can exceed it.
Both teams had faltered in the top order, and the difference in position wasn’t especially marked, but whereas England’s middle order had rescued the situation, first through Stokes, then through Bairstow, South Africa’s fell apart. It doesn’t tell us that much about England, for the trio of Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen have rescued the team from calamity on a few occasions, but in this series at least, the same can’t be said about their opposite numbers.
Although England had lost a couple of early wickets, 312-9 in the context of the batting line ups didn’t look a bad score. A rollicking last wicket stand with Bairstow turning a useful fifty into what appeared certain to be a remarkable century moved England into a position of likely dominance. In itself that says a fair bit about these two sides. There is some movement off the pitch and in the air, but this is a decent Test match wicket. 400, once the minimum expectation for the side batting first appears to be right at the top of the aspirations of these batting line ups.
Bairstow of course fell for 99, joining a substantial group who have managed to get themselves out in often peculiar circumstances in pursuit of that single extra run. If ever there was an illustration needed that batting is done in the head, it is right there. He was perhaps a trifle unlucky of course – not in the sense that it wasn’t out, but because it was a marginal call. In the world of DRS such calls are automatically considered “good” decisions as they are backed up by the technology, and perhaps the game is better for that. But he may feel some chagrin for not getting that nebulous unwritten rule concerning the benefit of the doubt. It’s the same for all.
If Bairstow had left England content at the change of innings, Anderson ensured that lunch was to be a happy place in the England dressing room, removing the obdurate Dean Elgar third ball to christen his newly named bowling end with a classical Anderson delivery, swinging into the left hander’s pads.
For the next couple of hours it was good Test cricket. The loss of Amla to Toby Roland-Jones for the third time in succession cut short an innings where he looked in decent touch, an all too rare occurrence recently. If he was fluent, Heino Kuhn was anything but. Battling dreadful form and injury, he was eventually put out of his misery by Moeen Ali, but it should be said that if his team mates had batted with the same tenacity and determination as the under pressure opener, they might not be in the mess they are this evening.
Bavuma and Du Plessis then took over, not without alarms, but the match was fairly even. And then it all fell apart. Anderson removed both within three balls, and while they were decent enough deliveries, Bavuma’s decision to join his team mates this series in regarding the bat as an optional extra, and Du Plessis’ dreadful defensive shot that dragged the ball on to the stumps through the widest of gates was symptomatic of the difference between the teams – namely that brittle as England might be, they are tempered by comparison with their opponents.
With the exception of Elgar, every South African batsman this innings has got into double figures, yet none has made a fifty. The tail did well, Maharaj, Rabada and Morkel being responsible for ensuring the 142 run deficit (with one wicket remaining) wasn’t even higher. Yet De Kock was subdued, seemingly unsure how to play the deteriorating situation, and the procession of batsmen coming in and going out was of no surprise at all.
All of which means this match is following an identical pattern to the third Test (and similar to all the others this series). England will have a huge lead, and with no rain to date the luxury of no time pressure whatever in setting a vast target – though doubtless some will be calling for them to push on and declare tomorrow night.
It’s not entirely clear why it is that matches, in England at the very least, have become so one sided in recent years, and the old truth that correlation doesn’t equal causation should make anyone wary of the easy blaming of T20 cricket. But it doesn’t make for good viewing and it isn’t healthy for Test cricket. The very concept of a battle unfolding over five days is undermined when the outcome is pretty much clear after two, every time. This has happened in Tests since they began, but it is now sufficiently consistently the case as to cause even more worry about the health of the game than was already the case. All sport thrives on uncertainty, for without it there is little point watching. The up and down results England have had in the last couple of years is indeed quite uncertain, that is true, but the matches themselves are anything but.
Barring something preposterous, England will win this match, and with it the series. But the feeling that the next two (probably not three) days are merely playing out the inevitable (yet again) is both frustrating and fundamentally lowers interest. It’s to be hoped it is a phase, as can happen in sport, for if not the problems are even greater than has been supposed up to now.