• Pantomime at the Bull Ring

    Vernon Philander left the field in almost complete anonymity. At least to those of us sitting in the yawning Unity Stand at the Corlette Drive end of the Wanderers on Sunday afternoon, writes DANIEL GALLAN.

    He had bowled just the 1.3 overs before he was seen clutching his right hamstring. A media release feared a strain. Coach Mark Boucher later confirmed it was a grade-two tear.

    He left the ground with a small escort to receive a scan.

    That is how the story of one of the game’s modern greats will likely end. He could make a miraculous recovery and return for one last charge to the wicket, but what would be the point?

    He’s done more than enough in his 63 Tests to merit his place among the titans of cricket. His numbers are staggering but he will be remembered for so much more than what the scorebooks tell us. Philander wasn’t quick but he held our attention as much as any tearaway.

    Cricket has never had much time for time for sentiment. Instead of a bewitching five-for in a series win alongside champions, Philander signs off with a busted leg next to this lot.

    They’re quality cricketers. Every one of them. Even Dane Paterson and Beuran Hendricks who were made to look like medium-paced trundlers at times. Even the top order who can’t buy a run at present. Even Faf du Plessis who effectively handed in his resignation with eight fielders on the boundary when Mark Wood and Stuart Broad were taking the piss on Friday.

    This is a team in transition. How long this teething period lasts and how much dead wood needs to be cast aside remain to be seen. This cannot be an acceptable state of South African cricket. This has to be viewed as rock bottom.

    Perhaps this is why so few watched as England took another stride towards victory in this fourth and final match of a series they’ve dominated. All sports fans want to support a winning team. January is a tough month for Joburgers and a day out at the cricket can be a costly affair.

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    Had South Africa been ahead or level in this series, or even if the previous days had panned out differently and the home side was on top, more would have peeled themselves away from their home comforts.

    As it was, 11,896 souls spread out in a stadium with room for three times as many. A casual stroll around this great stadium gave the impression that the majority were South African. Unlike at Cape Town or Port Elizabeth, it seemed that locals outnumbered their guests at the Bull Ring.

    Were these fans disappointed? That depends. If cricket, especially Test cricket, is viewed exclusively through a nationalistic lens, then not all of it is revealed. Of course jingoism plays a role. Those 11 Proteas are wearing the South African flag on their chests. They represent, or at least claim to represent, close to 60-million people.

    This is why it is recommended to occasionally see cricket, especially Test cricket, as theatre. It’s a drama playing out in real time where even the actors don’t know the script.

    Sometimes your favourite character steals the show, like Quinton de Kock threatened to do on Sunday morning before Wood uprooted his off-stump for 76. South Africa’s new 50-over captain batted as if playing a different sport to his mates. We used to say the same of AB de Villiers at times.

    There are other occasions, more frequent and with greater hilarity of late, when the watching of cricket can feel like a horror show, or a dark comedy or a pantomime. The good guys are vanquished as pandemonium rules.

    This Test series will be told with a narrative that begins with hope. Of the return of Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis. Of Du Plessis beaming a broad smile in the Centurion sun thinking that Christmas had come early with renewed optimism imbibing his camp.

    He won the first Test. Thanks to Philander’s brilliance and De Kock’s gumption and a debilitating virus that had engulfed the England camp. That 107-run victory felt like a turning point. It was merely a blip that lulled us into thinking things had changed.

    Now 28 days have since passed and the bottom has fallen out. England are 2-1 up in the series and have closed day three of the finale with a lead of 465 and 180 overs to bowl out a side that has averaged 87 per innings this series.

    The outlook is grim for South African supporters. It has been for while. But there was a show on for those who knew where to look.

    Wood’s five wickets for 45 runs was just reward for a player who has had to rebuild his broken body to be here. He bowls every ball with the ferocity of a cornered tiger, hurling himself into danger for the greater good. His ball to De Kock will live in the memory, another offering to this monument of pace in Johannesburg.

    Then Ben Stokes’ wrists, making his already destructive arsenal even more explosive. Then Nortje’s fight, busting a gut to hurl another thunderbolt. Then Paterson forgetting himself and the scoreboard and giving Joe Root an earful. Then Hendricks claiming his first five-wicket haul, topped with a stunning one-handed catch by Du Plessis in the slips, that broad smile back again.

    Hendricks celebrated like the score had no meaning. For a moment it didn’t. It didn’t matter that South Africa had to once more crane their necks at a world-record target. It’s all just circus, a game, a narrative unfurling into impossible outcomes.

    South Africa should lose this match by a considerable margin. But the Wanderers has a fondness for miracles. Dean Elgar and Pieter Malan’s names could one day be the start of a story about a fourth innings worth speaking about.

    Photo: Gallo Images

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    Daniel Gallan