There is a long standing tendency in some quarters to never give England any credit for their successes – it’s always that the opposition have been poor, or missing players, or some other conspiracy causing the freak outcome of England winning a game, or God help everyone, a tournament. It’s not just a cricket thing either, it can be any sport at all, where any achievement can only be explained by a confluence of freak events to change the right and proper outcome that any team but England should win. Naturally, the idea of England winning anything is an unpopular one around the world from their rivals, so it’s unsurprising enough, but no less tiresome in its repetitiveness.
Weather permitting, England will win this match and go into a 2-1 series lead with one to play. Indeed, no-one should ever refrain from reminding those who wish to shorten the Test game that the rain over the last two days would have likely caused this match to end in a draw. England have been much the superior side from the start, and have shown promising signs of understanding how to build a Test total and exploit that subsequently. They have had the advantage of winning the toss (again), and the best of the conditions, but they have made use of their advantage well, both with bat and ball.
With that said, and paying all due respect to England’s display, it cannot be denied that South Africa have been poor all game, and utterly woeful today. The truncated morning session saw the last 4 first innings wickets fall for a single run, with a succession of dreadful shots that re-defined the description “loose”, and a lack of application that in the circumstances astounded. The pitch surface has remained slow, the bounce continues to be fairly even with relatively little sideways movement, and while South Africa have been outplayed, a draw was far from out of the question, particularly so given the poor weather forecast, which might still come to the hosts rescue despite a day as abject as even the worst South African pessimist might have feared.
The principal members of the England attack bowled well enough to be rewarded with wickets, that it was Joe Root who proved to be the nemesis for the South African order with his Test best bowling figures is a serious indictment on their own performance. One or two batsmen can feel they were got out – the look of complete confusion on Dean Elgar’s face as his off stump cartwheeled out of the ground was a picture – but most dismissals were either soft or reckless, Quinton De Kock falling very much into the latter camp twice in the day.
It remains a curious truth that being out to a defensive shot is often forgiven more than when dismissed to an attacking one, but so many of the attempted defensive strokes were sufficiently poor in thinking and execution that in themselves they will have infuriated the supporters and coaching staff alike. Which is unfortunate on two counts, firstly that it does take away somewhat from the praise England are due, but also that having adopted a thoroughly defensive approach to their second innings, to fail to manage the basics is extremely poor. The collapse in the morning session ensured that any realistic prospect of batting long enough to overhaul England’s first innings and take time out of the game that way, but it remained a strange approach to saving the game all round, making De Kock’s dismissals in particular look even worse.
Saving the match isn’t out of the question if it rains heavily, but in truth South Africa just don’t deserve the kind of luck that would involve. Had England played in the same way (and they have done on many occasions in recent years), the fury would have been palpable and justified. England do deserve the credit coming their way and don’t always receive it when they should do. But today was a dreadful, appalling performance from the home team, one that deserves the opprobrium they will locally receive. To that extent, it’s a pity, because England have (whisper it) shown one or two signs of learning this series. Yet it can’t be denied that today in particular was more about one side giving up than the other exerting its superiority. One sided cricket is rarely engaging, and if England exhilarated in their catching at times – Pope in particular – all too often they merely had to wait for the error that invariably came. Faf Du Plessis made no excuses afterwards for their performance, which is to his credit, and the wider problems of South African cricket are well known. But it was a batting performance that fundamentally lacked pride, and for any observer, that is the one thing they won’t forgive.