There is a temptation to get bored with repeatedly pointing out to the ECB that if this was a four day Test, England would have had to pull out much earlier to try to force a win, and that we would probably be talking about a drawn game right now. It is a temptation that should be resisted, for the fact that this match is going to go deep into the fifth day, or even finish as a draw is something they don’t want to hear, and will swiftly ignore in favour of their ludicrous plans to hamstring Test cricket once memories of this game have started to fade. Technically, all results remain possible, and while a South African win appears to be the wildest of fantasies, that is hardly the point – this match is going to go more or less the distance, with the result uncertain.
There is not a single person currently uninterested in this game who would be more interested had there been one day fewer, and a hell of a lot of people who are interested who would be deeply frustrated this evening had this been the bastardised version of Test cricket the governing bodies, the guardians of the game, wish to see. Never let them forget it, never stop reminding them how their plans have absolutely nothing to do with the health of the sport and everything to do with the health of their bank balances. Banging on about the same subject is tiresome, but they are hoping for that ennui, that fatigue to be the predominant response.
Going into the fifth day tomorrow, England require 8 more wickets after a dominant first half of the play, and a fine rearguard from South Africa in the second. If the abiding individual curiosity at the start of play was whether Dominic Sibley would reach his maiden Test century, no one told Ben Stokes, who launched a furious assault from the start, largely but not exclusively against Keshav Maharaj. Three sixes, including one quite glorious punch back over Dwaine Pretorius’ head took all the pressure off Sibley, who was able to cruise fairly serenely to his century as Stokes smashed his way to 72 off 47 balls. If his dismissal was a disappointment, the rest of the middle order attempted to maintain the impetus. Buttler made only 23, but in the circumstances his score was less important than the rate of scoring, and Sibley himself began to up the ante as England closed in on a declaration.
One hundred doesn’t a Test player make, but nor should it be overlooked in a side where centuries have been somewhat rare in recent times. Sibley might look awkward in his stance, but he played with discipline and to his strengths. There have been enough players over the years with slightly awkward approaches who have been successful to not discount what he is trying to do, and if he maximises his returns through batting this way, then along with Rory Burns (this could be the crabbiest opening pair England have had in years) England might just have an opening partnership worthy of the name. Certainly his innings of 133 in 313 balls represents one of the longest innings by anyone not called Cook in several years, and in a side crying out for permanence at the crease, this is welcome in itself.
England’s batting was placed slightly into context by the relative ease with which South Africa batted in their long haul to try and save the game. While not totally discounting a freak outcome , a world record target of 438 is implausible to say the least, barring Stokes/Perrera levels of ridiculousness tomorrow. It’s a world record for a reason. The pitch didn’t remotely misbehave, with debate surrounding whether the ball did more in the sunshine than when cloudy, suggesting that general levels of utter cluelessness amongst absolutely everyone as to why the ball behaves as it does is just as strong in 2020 as all previous years. Maybe there’s something in it, and if so, England will be pleased as the forecast for tomorrow is to be hot and sunny.
In trying to save a match, every team has at least one player felt to be the one needed to bat long in order to have a chance, and it’s not being too presumptuous to assume that South Africans would have felt that Dean Elgar was that man. He looked entirely at ease against everyone except, surprisingly, Joe Denly, whose part-time legspin extracted some often vicious turn and bounce from outside the left hander’s off stump. His dismissal was mildly controversial, England’s appeal for a catch behind being upheld, and on review the tiniest, less than conclusive squiggle appearing on snicko. If Elgar had been given not out, you’d imagine there was insufficient grounds to overturn him, but he was and so the same principle applied, and realistically there was no other decision the third umpire could have made – which isn’t to say conclusively that he hit it.
It was Pieter Malan who instead became the wall England spent their day trying to breach, without success. On debut, he batted beautifully, defensively, and rarely appeared troubled at all. Only the late wicket of Zubayr Hamza gave England cause for celebration, and with 56 overs gone, but the ball just starting to reverse, they were fairly slim pickings in 56 overs.
England will have a second new ball to come, they certainly haven’t bowled poorly, and they continue to have a great chance of squaring the series. But it hasn’t been easy, and as the man said, we will have to see who will pound longest.