England were 52-3 in pursuit of 382 at stumps on day four at Centurion.
The odds are against England winning the fourth and final Test. No side has ever scored 300-plus in the fourth innings of a Test at Centurion.
The official record for the highest successful run-chase at this ground is 251. If one is to discount that innings, as many might considering it was achieved in a contest tainted by match-fixing back in 2000, then one has to accept that the next best effort, 226, is the standard of measurement.
And in accepting that, one can only conclude that England stand little to no chance of reaching a target of 382 on day five.
England are unlikely to win this Test, and their chances of saving it are fading fast. They will go into day five with seven second-innings wickets in hand. They may receive some assistance from the inclement weather, which has already led to significant losses in playing time over the course of the game.
The Proteas will be desperate to force a result. They’re yet to win a game in this series. In fact, they haven’t won a Test since January 2015. They shouldn’t want for motivation on day five.
That said, there were times on day four when South Africa lacked urgency. Hashim Amla and Temba Bavuma clubbed together for a 117-run partnership, scoring 102 of those runs in the period between lunch and tea.
Normally, a run-rate of 3.40 would not come in for criticism. On this occasion, however, one wondered why the Proteas didn’t take more risks with the aim of reaching their desired target sooner. This would also have afforded them more time to bowl at England and claim 10 wickets.
Captain AB de Villiers got this wrong. He also had a rotten day as a player, scoring his second 0 of the match.
The failure marked De Villiers’s third consecutive duck, and saw him joining an exclusive club of South African captains who have bagged a pair. The only other member is Louis Tancred, who scored two zeroes against England back in 1912.
It was a dismissal that would have been especially satisfying for England’s premier bowler, James Anderson. In the buildup to this Test, De Villiers criticised the England bowling attack and Anderson in particular for a lack of pace. Anderson must have taken these comments to heart. The ball that got De Villiers in the second innings was clocked at 140 km/h.
De Villiers then opted to delay the declaration. South Africa extended their lead to 350. Amla fell just four runs short of richly deserved century. And yet, De Villiers showed no sign of calling the players in.
In the end, the weather made the decision for him. When play resumed after the rain delay, South Africa confirmed the declaration. It left the hosts with 90 minutes to bowl at England.
Fortunately for De Villiers, the Proteas bowlers made that time count. Kagiso Rabada trapped Alex Hales in front, and then found the edge of Nick Compton’s bat to extend his wicket tally for the match to nine. Morné Morkel made the most significant breakthrough, however, taking a sharp caught-and-bowled chance to dismiss England skipper Alastair Cook.
While it was a terrific and important spell, the job is far from complete. Rabada and Morkel will look to make further inroads during the first session of day five. Kyle Abbott managed to bowl one over late on day four, but his troublesome hamstring may limit his contributions on day five.
If England come through the first session unscathed, they will start to believe that a draw is within their reach. However, as it stands, South Africa are the favourites to win this match.
SA 1st innings 475 – Quinton de Kock 129 not out, Stephen Cook 115, Hashim Amla 109, Ben Stokes 4-86
England 1st innings 342 – Alastair Cook 76, Joe Root 76, Moeen Ali 61, Kagiso Rabada 7-112
SA 2nd innings 248-5 declared– Hashim Amla 96, Temba Bavuma 78 not out, JP Duminy 29, James Anderson 3-47
England 2nd innings 52-3 – James Taylor 19 not out, Joe Root 19 not out, Kagiso Rabada 2-15, Morné Morkel 1-12
England need 330 runs to win