South Africa were 136-4 in pursuit of 416 at stumps on day four at Kingsmead.
Three years ago, the Proteas fought back to deny Australia victory in Adelaide. Two years ago, they staged another great escape, this time against India in Johannesburg.
Flash forward to the present, where the Proteas are hanging on by their fingernails in Durban. They’ve already lost both openers as well as their skipper, Hashim Amla. Late in the day, Steven Finn removed the stubborn form of Faf du Plessis with a ripper of a delivery that caught the edge and flew to slip.
The odds are against South Africa saving the Test at Kingsmead. England, who have played the better cricket over the past four days, are favourites to take a 1-0 lead in the series.
South Africa will resume their second innings on day five with AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn at the crease. These two will look to channel the spirit of Adelaide and Johannesburg. They may believe that another miracle is possible.
Realistically, it doesn’t look good.
England have been more consistent, and deserve to be in this position. South Africa have played well in patches. There have been moments when they have excelled in this Test, but those successes must be seen in context.
Dane Piedt took three wickets in the first session on day four and finished the innings with his first five-for in Test cricket. Incredibly, Piedt’s effort marked the first five-wicket haul by a South African Test spinner at Kingsmead since Hugh Tayfield claimed 8-69 against England in 1957.
While Piedt deserves credit, it has to be said that England were chancing their arm at that stage of the game. Ben Stokes perished playing an outrageous reverse sweep. James Taylor charged down the wicket and was stumped. Even Jonny Bairstow, who timed the ball sweetly during his innings of 79 off 76 balls, gave his wicket away in the end as he attempted to clear the rope and boost his side’s lead.
England have played this game better from both a physical and a tactical perspective. Alastair Cook decided not to declare early on day four, and the decision paid off on two fronts.
Firstly, it allowed England to extend their lead and ultimately the pressure on the opposition batsmen tasked with chasing a mammoth target. Secondly, it kept the exhausted South African players in the field. De Villiers, the Proteas’ key batsman, was forced to spend more time in his wicketkeeper role. De Villiers, who has an existing back condition, may feel the effects of that responsibility on day five.
By contrast, Amla made some poor calls. England lost Taylor in the 80th over. They were 224-6 at that stage. Why did Amla refuse to take the new ball thereafter? Why didn’t he throw the new ball to Morné Morkel and Kyle Abbott and ask them to finish England off?
Amla persisted with the old ball for the remainder of England’s innings, which lasted 22.1 overs. Bairstow and Moeen Ali put on 48 in 10 overs before the latter was dismissed by Piedt. That stand provided the England tail with a platform from which to launch. In total, England scored 102 runs during that period.
After a 53-run opening stand, South Africa lost Van Zyl, Amla, and Elgar. De Villiers enjoyed some luck when Bairstow missed a stumping late in the day. Du Plessis wasn’t so fortunate, as the ball found his edge and ended up in the safe hands of Cook.
De Villiers and Steyn will be under fire on the morning of day five. Bowlers have enjoyed success during the first session throughout this Test. Six wickets fell during the first session on day two, six on day three, and four on day four.
If South Africa survive that first session on day five without losing a wicket, they may begin to hope. But even then, England will have ample time to bowl at a Proteas middle and lower order that is short on confidence and form.
England 303 (1st Innings) – Nick Compton 85, James Taylor 70, Dale Steyn 4-70, Morné Morkel 4-76
SA 214 (1st innings) – Dean Elgar 118 not out, AB de Villiers 49, Stuart Broad 4-25, Moeen Ali 4-69
England 326 (2nd Innings) – Jonny Bairstow 79, Joe Root 73, Dane Piedt 5-153, Stiaan van Zyl 3-20
South Africa 136–4 (2nd innings) – Dean Elgar 40, AB de Villiers 37 not out, Steven Finn 3-27, Ben Stokes 1-26
South Africa need 280 runs to win