Proteas spinner Keshav Maharaj bowled 22 consecutive overs on a day of cricket that moved slower than Table Mountain. In total, he trundled to the crease and twirled the ball for 27 overs, conceding 79 runs and accounted for exactly zero Englishmen, writes DANIEL GALLAN.
Mostly he bowled over the wicket. With footmarks deepening outside the leg stump of England’s right-handers, his hope rested on a miracle ball spitting and jagging from the dust.
Sometimes there was a catcher stationed and a leg slip looking for a mistimed tickle off the hips. Sometimes there was a man at forward short leg for one that pops before looping off a bat pad. Sometimes it seemed as if skipper Faf du Plessis didn’t know where the catcher should stand, looking like a man with no direction home.
On occasion, Maharaj bowled round the wicket. Gifted with natural drift from his long-fingered left hand, hope rested on a miracle ball that would drag the batter forward to play away from his body or venture beyond his crease.
Sometimes there was a catcher stationed at extra cover looking for a hard push on the drive. Sometimes there was a man at short-midwicket for one of Dominic Sibley’s flicks. Sometimes it seemed as if Du Plessis had no clue how to prise an English wicket, hoping the devil himself would come down from his peak to charge in for one fiery spell.
Du Plessis has rightly been lauded as one of South Africa’s best captains. He’s never had the collective brilliance that was at Graeme Smith’s disposal but his robust man-management skills have galvanised the side since he was given the armband in 2016.
But today, he looked as commanding as the lone hadeda that pecked for worms around the outfield. It’s not that Du Plessis wasn’t busy. He was constantly geeing up his troops with encouraging words, occupying himself in private discourse with his bowlers or tinkering with positions.
Du Plessis’ problem was not inaction but a lack of a coherent strategy. Too often he changed his field in direct response to a poor ball being hit to the boundary, dropping his cover or point or square leg to the fence.
South Africa’s general was made to look like a child playing a game of whack-a-mole. Even if he were permitted the use of the drinks carriers and coaching staff, it seemed there would still be acres of green Newlands grass for the English batters to steal a single.
Credit must go to the visitors. They batted as if wielding the entire trunk of an English willow rather than just a curated piece. Sibley has the frame of a lumbering rugby player with more muscle than guile and he bats like one, too. With broad shoulders and an unattractive gait at the crease, he blunted South Africa’s attack to reach his maiden Test fifty and close the day unbeaten on 85.
England will begin day four with a 264-run advantage and six wickets remaining. Three of their batters – Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Sam Curran – will no doubt look to accelerate the situation. England likely have enough of a lead already, a sentiment echoed by Mark Boucher. Another 100 runs, at least, will be the target before asking South Africa to dig in on a fragmenting wicket in order to maintain their hold on the series.
At various stages throughout a difficult day, Boucher and Du Plessis pored over a computer screen with furrowed brows. The Proteas coach later explained that the pair were in search of a lightning bulb moment, an ‘Aha’ revelation that would change the destiny of the game with wickets from the blue.
Clarity is required as we rumble on towards this game’s climax. The situation looks dire, but dire situations often have a way of providing clarity to clouded minds.