South Africa applied the slow poison on day three at Trent Bridge to leave themselves 10 wickets away from winning the second Test and 180 overs in which to do it.
With two days left on a pitch that will aid the left-arm spin of Keshav Maharaj, and reward a four-pronged seam attack, England have no chance of surviving and it might well turn into another four-day Test as was the case at Lord’s, when the roles were reversed.
They finished the day on 1-0 after somehow negotiating four challenging maiden overs from Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, and are still 473 runs away from winning. When the TV producers put the scores on screen on Monday, they don’t have to say ‘England need 473 runs to win,’ but rather ‘South Africa need 10 wickets to win’. And then nine, eight, seven and so on.
The pitch is no minefield, but early overhead conditions will aid the quick bowlers, while Maharaj is going to be able to produce grip and turn, especially against a team containing seven left-handers, who will be defending in the line of the Proteas bowler’s footmarks.
Proteas team management might spend much of the morning booking tee-off times for the golfers in the squad because England will find it tough dragging things into a final day.
Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla continued their partnership from day two, riding their luck at times in the first session, before captain Faf du Plessis continued the slow torture.
He made 63 in 198 minutes off 128 balls (Elgar’s 80 came in 196 minutes off 136 balls, which made the opener’s contribution seem frenetic by comparison), but Du Plessis’ role was vital in setting up what should be a series-equalling win.
Occupation of the crease and keeping the scoreboard ticking at over three runs to the over was always the main priority for the Proteas batsmen, with the third day of a Test match traditionally being the best for batting.
Much credit goes to Elgar and Amla (80 off 180 balls) for setting up the foundation and ensuring there would be no panic early on in the South African camp. And with England captain Joe Root having a tough time getting his reviews right, Amla also benefited when he suffered a let-off after nicking a Stuart Broad delivery through to the keeper when on 25 and umpire Paul Reiffel gave him not out.
‘Hashim Amla always “walks”,’ South African fans are fond of saying. Well, he didn’t this time, Root didn’t use the review and Amla got away with it.
Just so that we can put to bed the notion of ‘walking’: It will always depend on the match situation. Some batsmen ‘walk’ when their wicket is not going to affect the game, and in this instance had Amla ‘walked’ it would have brought England back into things. He’s a lovely guy, but even he won’t walk every time.
Elgar, Amla and Du Plessis were the glue in this second innings, but perhaps what will have made the South African captain’s eyes light up the most, was seeing Moeen Ali picking up four wickets late in the day.
Following his heroics at Lord’s, Ali claimed a flattering 4-74 and after the early barrage from Morkel, Philander, Chris Morris and Duane Olivier, Maharaj will be handed the ball. Du Plessis is certain to have fielders close to the bat, waiting for the bat-pad to pop into waiting hands and England are going to have to take their medicine.
With the ball keeping low at times, the seam bowlers can bowl at the wickets and the delivery that misbehaves has every chance of resulting in an lbw or knocking over the stumps. And Du Plessis can afford to spend the whole day without anyone at third man, as he packs the slips and gully region and even employing a short square leg for extended periods.
This is why it’s called Test cricket and a week after failing so dismally at Lord’s, South Africa are on the brink of passing with flying colours at Trent Bridge.
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